People associate France with many things pleasant. The cuisine and the wines for example. Honestly, I do as well.
I love a good dry red or rose from Touraine or the banks of the Rhone. The same goes for magret de canard in almost every way they serve it, and a good Perigord salad.
But France also has a lot to offer to vintage watch aficionados. Let’s put wines, ducks, and salads aside, and focus on the watches.
Impressions and background
The Good and The Bad (and some Ugly)
The first contact with French watches can go both ways. You’re either impressed with something like a LIP (more on this later) or disappointed with a Mortima.
LIP was known for its brilliant movements, and their watches scream quality. Mortima, however, is the brand under which watches with Cattin pin-lever movements were sold. You don’t want to associate the watch industry of an entire country with Cattin movements.
Let’s focus on the good stuff, then.
The ebaucheries and their movements
France has a very long history of producing quality generic movements. In the 18th century, Japy Freres was founded as the first company specializing in the mass production of “raw” generic movements.
To give an idea of how big the scale of the enterprise was, only in 1861, the French generic movement suppliers have made a total of circa 800,000 movements. Of these 800,000 movements, 640,000 were made by Japy Freres alone. In comparison, the Swiss industry manufactured circa 285,000 movements the same year. Effectively, it was Japy Freres’ massive output that prompted the Swiss industry to get a move on.
The 20th-century French ebaucheries carried on with the tradition of their predecessors.
Movements by Cupillard, Lorsa, and Hippolyte Parrenin may seem basic and industrial in finishing, but they were well made and kept accurate time. For example, the Cupillard 233, a movement as common in French watches as the AS 984 in Swiss ones, can be finetuned to run well within +10 seconds per day.
French movements in foreign brands
French ebauches were mostly used by French brands catering to the domestic market. However, they were also used by international brands. They either assembled the watches in their countries of origin, or they had their production facilities in France.
Visconte was an Austrian brand based in Vienna. The trademark is listed as registered in 1956, but the brand could have existed before that.
They used mostly – if not exclusively – movements by Hippolyte Parrenin (HP).
Benrus was an American manufacturer that mostly used Swiss generic movements, but they also had a lot of watches made entirely in France. It’s likely that they were intended to be sold in Europe only. Among other French suppliers, Benrus bought some of the movements from LIP, for example, the electric LIP R148.
French watch brands
Now, let’s move on to some of the French brands, in watches by which you can find these great movements.
LOV was a family-owned manufacturer. It was based in Villers-le-Lac, a town located only a few kilometers from the Swiss border and one of the main hubs of Swiss watchmaking – Le Locle. Its name is an acronym for Lac Ou Villers – the old name of the town of Villers-le-Lac.
The heyday of the brand spanned from the end of World War II until the early 1970s. During the beginning of the Quartz Crisis, the brand was integrated into the Framelec holding. In turn, it was “swallowed” by an even larger holding, Matra. By the 1980s, and the continuing downfall of Matra, what little was left of LOV disappeared completely.
LOV mostly used the Cupillard 233 and its derivatives, and later on, the next versions of this movement were produced by FE. LOV watches were primarily made in chrome-plated and gold-plated cases. However, it’s not uncommon to find specimens in stainless steel cases.
They’re usually in excellent condition – it’s hard to say why. It could be due to the fact, that mainstream collectors have completely ignored it. However, while LOV was an affordable brand, they did offer excellent case and dial quality. Perhaps both reasons are valid.
If you ask any watch collector about French watch manufacturers that they know, many will reply “none.” But at least as many will say “LIP.” LIP is pretty much as good as French-made watches of the 20th century get.
LIP, founded by Emmanuel Lipmann and his sons in the 1860s, shifted from basic clockwork mechanisms to pocket watches in the late 1890s. Soon, they became one of the most – if not the most – reputable French watch manufacturer. They’ve mostly used in-house movements such as the R16 in this LIP Dauphine.
Two notable exceptions are their Swiss branch (LIP Geneve) using Valjoux movements for their chronograph wristwatches in the 1960s, and the Valjoux 5 KVM in LIP pocket chronographs in the 1920s. LIP supplied in-house movements to numerous brands. They were mostly small businesses, but also larger brands like Benrus, which I mentioned earlier.
LIP was also the company behind the foundation of the watch industry in the USSR. In the late 1930s, Soviet authorities struck a deal with LIP to develop the newly created watch industry in the country. After the revolution of 1917, watchmakers like Pavel Bure (Paul Buhre) were forced to leave Russia, and the small watchmaking industry had effectively been dismantled.
The first watches they made in cooperation with LIP used the imported LIP calibre T18. However, Soviet authorities bought the necessary equipment to produce the T18, and the new factory produced the T18 as the “Zvezda” (Star). It became the cornerstone of the Soviet watch industry.
In the 1950s, the Petrodvorets Watch Factory started making its own versions of other LIP designs.
The company has gone bankrupt in 1973, due to poor management by its major shareholder (Ebauches SA). In its heyday, the company produced a wide selection of wristwatches, from simple dress watches to chronographs and electric divers (Nautic-Ski).
Founded in 1948 in Besancon, the central hub of the French watch industry, Yema was yet another company known for its high-quality watches.
Vintage Yemas are gaining more and more recognition among collectors. This concerns mostly their chronographs, like the iconic Yachtingraf regatta watch, and dive watches like the Yema Superman, as well as the Sous-Marine sports models with waterproof cases.
The chronographs used Swiss generic movements. Basic time-only watches, however, use movements from French suppliers.
Maty was founded in 1951. Concerning their range of watches, they’re like Yema. They offered everything from time-only dress watches to chronographs and dive watches. And, like Yema, they’ve used Swiss chronograph ebauches.
The company still exists and remains under the ownership of the family of the company’s founder, Gerard Mantion. These days, while the watches are assembled in France, they’re equipped with Asian quartz movements.
The charm of obscure brands
A lot of French watch brands have been wiped out by the quartz crisis and never achieved the necessary popularity to leave any significant footprint. However, it’s not fair to attribute this obscurity to the quality of the watches. Even among the forgotten brands, you can find some stunning pieces, equipped with reliable and accurate movements.
So, are French watches good?
In short, yes, they are. It’s hard to tell why, but they’re usually in excellent condition. As mentioned before, this could have been due to the quality of the cases. France had its own case manufacturers. However, since cases were mostly unmarked, it’s hard to say which cases were made in France, and which have been sourced from elsewhere.
Perhaps the excellent condition of vintage French watches has to do with the fact that most collectors aren’t aware of the scale of the 20th-century French watch industry.
Sure, military watch collectors and vintage chronograph aficionados talk for hours about the Type 20 and 21 chronographs for the French air force. However, most of them have never heard of brands like LOV or Maty. French watches were more likely to change hands from generation to generation rather than from seller to seller. So, it’s more likely that they were carefully handled and serviced on time.
Ever since I started collecting watches, I’ve never heard a bad opinion about a French watch. Maybe except for certain pin-levers, but this has more to do with the bad reputation of pin-lever movements in general.
I believe that French watches are an excellent way for a beginner to start the watch collecting hobby.
Do you have any experience with French watches, or own one? Let me know in the comments.