rance Ebauches came about in 1967 through a merger of rival manufacturers of ébauches or blanks (unassembled movements without the escapement and sprung balance). Having benefitted from multiple technology transfers from its Swiss partners (including Ebauches SA, the future ETA, which held 30% of the capital until 1987), in 1980 France Ebauches turned to Seiko and concentrated production on quartz movements under Japanese license. A joint venture in 1985 with India’s Tata Industry led to the opening of a factory in Bangalore that produced up to five million quartz movements and watches a year under the Titan brand name.
France Ebauches also operated a large factory in Zhuhai, China. Both ventures failed. While Titan thrived, France Ebauches was unable to penetrate the Indian market. In China it found itself in the midst of a ruthless price war between Japanese makers. From 20 million movements in 1991, production plummeted to barely 10 million in 1993.
- View of the France Ebauches manufacture in Maîche
A new entity – Technotime – rose from the ashes of France Ebauches in 2001. Its ambition was nothing less than to become “a complete manufacture of mechanical movements on an industrial scale”. After more than five years’ development, in 2007 Technotime announced the launch of an initial family of 13¼’’’ movements – a manual-wind, an automatic and… a tourbillon. All three were on the same base, with twin barrels (120 hours of power reserve), running at 28,800 vph.
The company planned to produce several tens of thousands of movements a year at prices ranging from CHF 400 to CHF 800 for the manual and automatic versions, rising to between CHF 12,000 and CHF 18,000 for the hand-made tourbillon – a considerable gap! All the strategic components were produced in-house, balance wheels and balance springs included (in the 1980s, France Ebauches owned Spiraux Français which manufactured up to 40 million balance springs a year prior to liquidation).
French expectations and French values
Since this takeover, France Ebauches, whose factory is still located in Maîche in the Doubs region, has been manufacturing components for sister brands in the Festina Group. In a statement released in April this year, the group announced that “thanks to the recently relaunched production of French movements, the France Ebauches factory is in the process of relocating, re-industrialising and developing the production of quality French mechanical movements. The Festina group intends to meet to the expectations of brands, consumers and politicians who are calling for the development of French movements incorporating French values.”
These new movements are in fact derived from the France Ebauches calibres 4600-5600 for which Festina Group owns the intellectual property.
- Both the FE 5601 and FE 5611 movements were produced in the last quarter of the twentieth century and are part of a family in which each is offered in two versions: manual or automatic, with or without date, date and day, date and month, as well as thinner versions.
On this base, the new movements have been redesigned and optimised for enhanced precision and reliability. The architecture and finishing have also been upgraded. Both have automatic winding, beat at 4 Hz (28,800 vph) and show hours, minutes and seconds, one with a date function and the other with no date. Power reserve is 44 hours.
Robustness is ensured by a tried and tested Incabloc double-cone shock absorber, while a cross-through balance bridge provides strength and durability, with the bonus of a direct view of the regulating organ thanks to the bridge’s cut-out shape.
As for finishing and decoration, traditional Côtes de Genève have been replaced by a rhodium-plated honeycomb motif, a typically French design, including on the baseplate which is visible through the exhibition caseback, along with the sunburst blued steel rotor. The balance wheel is visible on the dial side.
A major industrial effort
Baseplates, bridges and rotors are produced at the factory in Maîche (and are still stamped Soprod, the main movement-maker of Festina Group, which sells five million watches a year across its eight brands). The remaining components, including balance wheels and springs, pallet levers and escape wheels, are sourced from sister companies in the neighbouring Swiss Jura – we are emphatically told that “none of the components are from Asia”.
- Two different executions of the France Ebauches new self-winding movement. Top: special execution for the Festina 120th anniversary watch. Bottom: three hands + date version featuring three hands, semi-instantaneous date, 28,800 vph, 44-hour power reserve. 25.60mm diameter x 4.60mm deep.
The objective in the short to medium term is to use 70% French-made components in value terms. The group has injected significant amounts into production, including new machinery, and the launch of new lines. Total investment has not been confirmed but is said to run into millions.
“As industrialists, we are putting in the resources but politicians, distributors and consumers have their part to play too,” says a source close to the situation. Driving the point home, in its press release Festina Group insists on the national, not to say political, reasons behind this relaunch.
The return of France Ebauches is part of what must be a broader, shared effort to reinstate and revitalise French industry and recreate a denser industrial fabric. Efforts to bring manufacturing back to Morteau, Maîche and the Haut-Doubs are plain to see, with French brands beginning to come onboard and break free from the sacrosanct Swiss movement.
Newly up and running, France Ebauche’s first customers are Festina, of course, Pierre Lannier in Alsace (for its new 1977 Collection to be launched in 2024), as well as younger French brands such as Akrone and Apose.
Starting at €155 for a standard finish, this well-executed automatic movement has price on its side. For the same quality, why bother with a Swiss calibre? Make or break? The consumer will decide.