or a solid decade, the so-called quartz crisis undermined the foundations of the Swiss watch industry, forcing it to adapt. In France, the same quartz crisis devastated the country’s watchmaking sector, reducing its industrial capacity to zero and wiping out much of the associated expertise. A single example: in its heyday, France Ebauches was one of Europe’s largest movement manufacturers, producing 14 million quartz calibres in 1990. In 1994 it filed for bankruptcy: the resurgence of Swiss mechanical movements and the shift towards high-end watches dealt the final blow.
Only in the past few years have initiatives to restore some of this manufacturing activity taken shape, after the Covid pandemic exposed the holes in France’s industrial fabric: the result of offshoring in the 2000s.
The French government has stepped up efforts to relaunch home-grown production across multiple sectors and, as part of a national recovery plan, identified five everyday items to be backshored: bicycles, toys, linen textiles, shoes and watches.
The beating heart of France’s watch industry is Doubs, a subdivision of the Franche-Comté region whose capital is Besançon. Some 60% of French workers employed in the watch sector (around 30,000 people) are based there. Significantly, 90% of these cross the border daily to jobs in neighbouring Switzerland.
- A symbol of past deindustrialisation, this fleet of dozens of Tornos machines has been relegated to the back of a hall in Haut-Doubs.
“Choose your battles”
A report has been commissioned on the reindustrialisation of France’s watch sector. Speaking to business daily Les Echos, one of the people in charge of the study is under no illusion. “We must choose our battles: watches are Swiss and always will be. However, there is a place for watches that are made in France. Already, we have identified opportunities in the €2,000 to €5,000 range.” Industry body France Horlogerie, whose 92 members employ 3,000 people, says it has “identified more than €100 million earmarked for investment by our members, particularly in smartwatches.”
Of course, a French watch needs a French movement and that’s a battle that is far from won. French watch brands source quartz movements worldwide, while mechanical movements come mainly from Japan and Switzerland.
For those brands that are bringing movement production (back) in-house – more about them below – a mechanical movement can currently only be three-quarters French. Two essential components, the balance spring and wheel, as well as other parts, have to be imported.
The demise of Aiôn Group – a death foretold – proved the hard way that there is no fast track to industrial integration. The group’s widely publicised plan to “position France as a major watch producer on the international market” and open a 10,000 square-metre factory in La Ciotat, near Marseilles on the Mediterranean coast (a long way from Doubs and its watchmaking traditions) soon collapsed. Watchmaking has and still has a home: a place where it was born and where it has developed thanks to a dense industrial network of complementary competencies.
Unsurprisingly then, the most promising initiatives to bring movement production back to France are based in and around Morteau, an area whose expertise and excellence have forged geographic, historic and economic ties to Swiss watchmaking. (Our 1/23 print issue features portraits of some of the most exciting young independents, almost all of whom studied at Lycée Edgar Faure in Morteau).
Read on for more about the companies that are reviving France’s mechanical movement industry.