Inside the Hogwarts for horologists
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Just over 5km from the Swiss border, in the little town of Morteau, sits Lycée Edgar Faure, one of the most highly regarded clock- and watch-making schools in France. A number of its recent alumni are already winning awards for their work as independent horologers – including the prestigious FP Journe’s Young Talent Competition and Best Apprentice in France gold medals. They are also finding their pieces in demand from serious collectors.
A horology school was originally founded here in 1836 to train young unemployed French people the skills of watch- and clockmaking in an effort to compete with the Swiss. It closed after 14 years due to lack of funds, but reopened as Lycée Edgar Faure in 1947. When the “quartz crisis” devastated the Swiss watch industry in the ’70s, most schools closed down, leaving Lycée Edgar Faure the only one to represent France in the Franco-Swiss watchmaking region.
At the horology school, students learn the craft of watch- and clock-servicing and maintenance (alongside standard school subjects). Most students go into its seven-year programme at 14 years old. Many come from the region and have family members who are also in the business, but the school takes boarders from all over the country too. In their final year, each student must make their own watch with a complication – from a tourbillon to a chiming mode to having a date display. “In my opinion,” says Florent Lecomte, who has taught here since 2009 and recently started making his own watches, “these are what make the school’s reputation”.
Most graduates go into working as restorers or manufacturing for the plenitude of firms on both sides of the border. But, in the past few years, a number have gone solo and started their own maisons. Even more controversially, some have chosen to open businesses and workshops situated in France.
Rémy Cools and Théo Auffret were both winners of the FP Journe Young Talent Competition in 2018. Cools, who grew up near Morteau, decided to go into watchmaking after visiting a factory (now owned by Blancpain) when he was 11. “When I finished my studies, I had the idea to create my own workshop,” he says, but he decided instead to work for a Swiss manufacturer to learn about commercial production. He stayed for only three months before feeling confident enough to go it alone, aged 22. In 2019, he sold his first watch (each costs around €85,000) using a subscription model, with collectors paying part of the price up front to help underwrite the production. His Tourbillon Souscription (€85,000) – an improved version of the one he made at school – features a 15.5mm tourbillon visible through a domed sapphire glass, and has its winding and setting mechanisms on the caseback instead of the standard crown on the watch’s side.
Cools is currently based in a workshop in Annecy with one employee, and production has increased from nine pieces a year to 12. He doesn’t intend to grow as large as an independent like FP Journe (which makes around 900 watches a year), instead capping it between 40 and 50.
Auffret came to watchmaking a little later, having finished high school and getting his baccalaureate before going to Lycée Edgar Faure; he chose the school because it was the only one to offer apprenticeships. After graduating he left the Swiss border area, setting himself up an hour west of Paris as he found Switzerland too far from places he regards as “dynamic”. Paris is convenient for clients and has a large horology industry (mainly in the restoration of pendulum clocks that have been passed through Parisian families), but, says Auffret, “there aren’t an enormous number of possibilities if you want to work in France. The solution was to found my own.” His latest watch, the Tourbillon Grand Sport (€128,000), saw Auffret shortlisted for the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève last year as one of only a handful of independent watchmakers. It features a second hand affixed to the tourbillon and a torque reserve indicator that, like a petrol-tank indicator, shows how much power is left before the watch needs rewinding.
It’s no coincidence that this new generation of independent watchmakers are all around the same age (late 20s and early 30s). “It’s the result of a snowball effect,” says Lecomte, who taught them all. Their friendships have helped spur their businesses and offer a support network, from figuring out how to run them (such as the prevalence of subscription models) to which suppliers to use and other geekery.
This isn’t the first time there has been a new wave of independent French watchmakers; back in the ’90s the same thing happened. That generation, now in their 50s and 60s, count distinguished names such as François-Paul Journe, Vianney Halter and Denis Flageollet among their number. However, they had to base their brands in Switzerland as that’s where all the machinery was. These days, not only is there more available second-hand, but expert colleagues all over the world can be reached for help. The ability to communicate via social media and the internet, as well as not having to be tethered to Switzerland, has also spread the bug again.
John-Mikaël Flaux is mentoring this year’s final-year class at Lycée Edgar Faure. He argues that the need for the “Swiss-made” label isn’t crucial any more. “I’m French,” he says (he’s from Brittany). “Why do I have to start a business elsewhere?” With his own workshop, Flaux has found new freedoms – in addition to making watches, he has been able to create automaton clocks (including one in the shape of a car, priced at €30,000 before it sold). Last year, he collaborated with the house Ben & Brothers on a watch called the Homage to Al-Jazari (SFr49,000, about £43,590), which shows all 24 hours without a hand but with 13 holes that change from black to white and back again (like moons).
This freedom has also been seized by Cyril Brivet-Naudot, who makes only one watch a year (it used to be two, but now he adds and changes things between each piece). Originally from Ardèche, he chose Lycée Edgar Faure because it was the only school where he could board over the weekend. He went on to intern at Swiss companies but didn’t like how sectorised everything was – “The watchmakers, in the end, don’t do anything much,” he says. More processes are becoming automated, reducing the number of tasks that watchmakers need to do themselves. Brivet-Naudot prefers to continue traditional practices, which is why, after running a workshop with his friend for a few years in Lozère, he moved to a farm in Brittany. He likens what he’s doing to the 18th-century horologists in the Jura mountains, who originally farmed, making clocks and watches as a second job during the long winter months – they were taught by horologists fleeing first from Calvinist persecution, and then the Prussian king.
The reason he can live so far from Switzerland is because he makes practically all the 300 parts of every watch by hand, instead of having them cut by a machine (the only pieces he doesn’t make are the jewels, the mainspring and the balance spring). While Brivet-Naudot doesn’t intend to take on employees, he has interns for four-week stints to pass on the skills. He sees no need to be in Switzerland: “We have a lot of talent in France. We have a lot of savoir-faire.”
While these horologists are all working independently, they are collectively providing a model that doesn’t involve being absorbed into the machinery of the Swiss giants. None expresses the desire to reach the size of FP Journe, let alone Patek Philippe or Rolex: their grand ambition is to make the best watches and clocks they can, from start to finish, under their own name. In so doing, they are preserving the traditional methods of horology in the modern world.