Top French watch brands you should know in 2023
Daniel Louwrens7 July 2023 | 17 min read
Some of the most loved watch brands hail from France, like Cartier, Breguet, Yema and Bell & Ross. These companies have slowly been catching up to the Swiss market, with number one on the list, Cartier, taking second place in luxury watch sales in 2022, right behind the Crown.
We’ll be looking at the top 25 French watch brands that should be on your radar in 2023.
The History of French Watchmaking
Pierre Le Roy was a French clockmaker who invented quite a few technologies that were instrumental in clock development, like the detent Escapement, temperature-compensated balance, and isochronous balance spring.
He started the construction of his first chronometers by 1756 and finished his first few in 1766, and it included all of the aforementioned technological features. His chronometer underwent testing on the Corvette Aurore and received a double prize from Académie française for his technological advancements, creating the best tool to track time on the open ocean.
Emmanuel Lipman was born in 1844 and started his own watchmaking workshop in 1867. However, it was his grandson, Frederic Samuel Lipmann, who joined the family business, and eventually created the Lip Sa watch brand. Lip Sa was the first watchmaker in France and, at one point, was making 300,000 watches a year. Lip made some rather special watches, like the T18 that was gifted to Winston Churchill by the French as a token recognition of the aid Brittain provided to France during WWII.
Other than these, there are numerous stories, legends, and brands to discuss. We surely won’t be able to cover all of ’em in one single article, but we have the best 25 French brands to take not of in 2023.
25 Best French Watch Brands in 2023
Perhaps the most famous French watch brand on the list is Cartier. From creating the first pilot’s watch with the Santos in 1904 to designing one of the most-loved dress watches with the Tank. As you may know, Cartier isn’t strictly a watchmaker but also a jewel maker. Louis-François Cartier founded his namesake brand in 1847. While in the beginning, the brand was limited to the upper elite, today, the brand has expanded to encapsulate a few affordable pieces as well.
The model that immediately springs to mind is the Tank, modelled after the dimensions of the French Renault FT-17 WWI tank. Offered in almost every single design and complication style you can imagine, the Tank has found home on the wrists of people like Princess Diana, Mick Jagger, and even Muhammad Ali. The brand is also known for driving innovation and unique design, like the newly introduced Cartier Révélation d’Une Panthère, which is adorned with a collection of 650 small diamonds within a patented liquid suspended between the dial and the crystal.
A Cartier is simply elegant without even trying.
2. L. Leroy
L. Leroy is perhaps not known for its rugged dive watches, but it is known for some of the most beautifully finished traditional timepieces. L. Leroy is known as a beneficiary of an extraordinary inheritance, which has been passed down through the generations since 1747, which is the year Basile Le Roy started his apprenticeship with Sr. Quentin, a master watchmaker in Paris. Browsing through their catalogue makes you realize just how much attention the detail is expressed with every single piece of their wristwatches.
Over the 220 years since its humble beginning, L. Leroy has had a keen focus on expressing the finest designs matched with unparalleled technology. The chances of you finding a simple three-hander here are slim, and that’s not a bad thing. This allows the Maison to express all their attention into breathtaking pieces like the ref. LL108/1 or ‘Tourbillon Régulateur Squelette Or Rose’. Limited to merely seven pieces, it features a pink gold case with the skeletonized calibre L512, a regulator movement with the addition of a small seconds indicated by an arrow on the tourbillon carriage.
Michel Herbelin is perhaps not the first watch company you think about when considering luxury timepieces, but still reigns as one of the leading French brands. The brand was founded in Charquemont in 1947, when Michel broke from the family business to pursue a career in watchmaking instead. At the tender age of 26, it all began.
Herbelin bases its watch designs on combining traditional ‘bone work’ with youthful elements. Their watch collection is thus not something you see too often but still similar to others. The clear focus of their contemporary line is fashion rather than utility, like the Newport Yacht Club and Ambassede. Another breakaway from most of their competition across the Swiss border is the low price point of entry, meaning that many of their offerings are not limited or unobtainable to most.
Dodane Manufactory was founded in 1857. Alongside Breguet, these are the only two remaining watch producers of the original six contracted suppliers of pilot watches to the French Ministry of Defense during World War II. Dodane might be a name you haven’t heard, even if you are one of the many watch enthusiasts that love French watches. They only produce a few tool watches at a time and are often referred to as an indie brand.
The field watch is certainly what they are most famous for, like the TYPES 211, 21, and 23. Take a look at their limited catalogue, and you’ll be met with chronographs and instrument-inspired watches that resemble those used by the French Military. Most of these have a vintage look, but they have begun experimenting with other designs, like the analogue and digital display of the Type 23 BNL Fighter Pilot.
Yema is another utilitarian brand with a keen focus on building a good value watch inspired by the French Military Association they have or even the Alpine Endurance Team they are affiliated with. Currently, Yema is the official partner of the French Armed Forces as well as the French Space Agency. Still, they do offer some everyday pieces as well, like the Urban Collection, which is presented with a variety of different dial colours.
Another well-known fact is that Yema offers affordable prices for those looking for a vintage-inspired timepiece. In recent years they’ve also brought some of their movements in-house with the release of the YEMA2000 and YEMA3000. The former is a reliable three-hander, while the latter is a GMT which you may find in some models like the Superman GMT and the limited edition Flygraf French Air & Space Force GMT.
Overall, an excellent brand that has good reason to be loved for its ability to innovate and combine a vintage element with newer styles – all at a great price!
The big one. In case you don’t know, Breguet is perhaps one of the most important watchmakers to exist and is typically spoken of in the same sentences as Patek Philippe, despite what Instagram influencers would have you believe. Abraham-Louis Breguet was one of the first watch designers and even created his namesake’s Breguet Numerals we associate with classy timepieces today. He designed the first self-winding mechanism used in a pocket watch, a minute repeater that wasn’t overbearing, and a shock-absorption system so that watches could survive a little rough ‘n tumble.
Safe to say, Breguet is simply one of the best watch brands – period.
Today, their catalogue is an amalgamation of gloriously finished dress pieces, most made from precious metals with techniques that’ll make your eyes water with loving tears. Perhaps the most famous being the Classique Complications, featuring tourbillons, handmade movements, cases, and unique watches that would make Abraham Louis Breguet proud.
If you don’t know the brand by its name, don’t fret, most don’t. However, you might recognize some of their most famous designs, which is unlike something we’ve seen up until this point. Modern and extravagant designs might not be everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, one watch reviewer stated these ‘may make you think these were designed by/for Ronald McDonald’.
While the designs are unique, other brands haven’t shied away from collaborating with Alain Silberstein. The most interesting is the polar opposite Bell & Ross company, which produced 300 pieces of the “Grail Watch 4: Bell & Ross x Alain Silberstein Black Ceramic Trilogy” (100 of each piece). These watches feature the typical utilitarian case construction and square case we’re used to seeing with Bell & Ross. Alain’s personality shines through with the dial, as it is presented with funky colours and odd hand shapes.
Cool? I think so. Who doesn’t love a little madness to the method?
8. Bell & Ross
Or, if you think the aforementioned collaboration was silly, perhaps a pure Bell & Ross would pique your interest. Quite a young brand, as it saw daylight in 1992. Based in Paris with manufacturing in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, the company is known for producing military-inspired, with three main collections dominating the brand currently, the Vintage, Marine, and Aviation families.
As the names might suggest, these are designed with old icons, maritime exploration, and flying as inspiration. Perhaps their most famous models include the R 01, BR 03, and BR05 series. Or, if you’re looking for something new with a modern style, the newly introduced BR 05 GMT with the “Sky Blue” colour scheme. A brushed square case matched with a metallic blue dial and blue rubber strap. Far from what Bell & Ross normally brings to the table, but a welcome addition nonetheless.
Pequignet is an independent brand name that first started producing watches in 1973, so compared to some other French or Swiss brands, it’s a youngling. Regardless, they have positioned themselves as a brand that makes luxurious timepieces for a reasonable price. Pequignet is best known for the “Caliber Royal” it introduced in 2011. This in-house movement is something special and is equipped with a single large barrel and an 88-hour power reserve.
While the overarching theme of the brand might be luxury, there are quite a few utilitarian options as well, like the Royale 300 Black, which is powered by the aforementioned Caliber Royale. The watches that the brand is more well known for include the Paris Royale, which features a unique dial displaying the day, big date, moonphase, and power reserve indicator.
Fugue is at the forefront of ‘modularity’, the idea of making a watch somewhat customizable, with the idea of making the watch even more so your own. For a long time, this usually meant using a different strap or maybe a different bracelet. Fugue steps up to the table and allows you to exchange the entire case in less than 60 seconds.
This extremely young brand was only founded in 2017 but has been making waves for this exact reason. The Chronostase Automatic is their forerunner and is a quirky and retro three-hander that has a steel case within the steel outer case. The use of ballbearings allows you to simply slide in your ‘dial’ or exchange it for another. Different designs for different times of the day – I like that. The company doesn’t make in-house movements (yet) but makes use of the trusted SW-200 movement. Nothing wrong with that at all, seeing as you are paying for the design and case technology after all.
11. Yonger & Bresson
If you Google ‘Yonger & Bresson’, the first thing you see is ‘Affordable Luxury Watches since 1975′. And when you scroll down, you actually see prices far below $500. The brand was started by the Louzon brothers in Paris. The idea was to break away from stereotypical designs and evoke that French artistic creativity we’ve seen with other brands on this list.
As mentioned, their offerings are quite a lot cheaper than what we’re used to when we think about ‘luxury’. That said, their designs are high quality and come from a Franck Muller design team led by Gabriele Guidi, a leading Swiss watch designer. Despite the idea of trying to break away from the long history of traditional designs, their designs are certainly not otherworldly.
12. Pierre Lannier
Another affordable brand that offers something unique and different. You’ll see some typical marketing tricks used by up-and-coming brands like a “50% off”,; which is remarkable when considering the fact the price range is already incredibly low.
Most of their offerings are elegant and focused on aesthetics, which is reflected by the quartz movements within. There are a few that have automatic movements, like the limited edition 1977, which is powered by the automatic PL1977 movement. Overall, an easy entry point to the French watch brand that offers something classic.
13. Saint Honoré
Saint Honoré is one of the leading entry-level brands in the French Watch Industry, with price points to match. They might be lumped with other luxury brands. However, they do have something unique. For instance, a recent release was inspired by the Eiffel Tower.
Whether you are looking at the tonneau-shaped Monceau for some sportiness or the classy Matignon, there are good deals. Some complaints online do state the quality isn’t as advertised, but that remains to be seen.
If you really want something unique, then the BRM Chronographes brand would be one of the better options for you. First, the design. BRM offers some of the most unique designs on this list, with high-quality materials being used combined with methods that are certainly not for mass production. Take the DDF6-46 from the racing series, a titanium case machined from a block with a ‘four-piston calliper’ made in steel as a crown guard. Some options even come with a partly skeletonized dial!
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the brand is the ability to “Design your BRM”.You simply select a base model, after which you are met with a customization screen, and you have all the freedom you have ever wanted. You’re placed in the driving seat of your own racing chrono, being able to change everything from the perforated strap colour to the colour of the flange. You aren’t able to change the bones, but you can change the flesh.
This might not be a brand you come across every day, and to be honest, you’d be lucky to see one once a year. But they offer something special, and with the ability to create your own watch, it creates the sense that the watch is actually yours.
In contrast to BRM, Baltic is an extremely well-known brand amongst those that call themselves watch enthusiasts. This microbrand is simply focused on producing high-quality pieces for a reasonable price. No fancy sales tactics, just a few select watches that appeal to the watch enthusiast in you. Their slogan reads ‘Watches inspired from the past, made for today”, and this is completely true when you take a peek at their catalogue. There is certainly an underlying vintage tone to all the pieces.
Perhaps the most famous is the Aquascaphe Classic, a retro diver with a no-date dial but still available in various different forms. Or, if you’re looking for a Chrono that looks similar to the ones made in the 60s, there is always the Tricompax collection featuring the classic panda or reverse panda dial layout. This is purely a fun and exhilarating brand looking to become a serious brand making watches for those of us that truly love watches. Baltic watches are typically powered by third-party movements, but for the price you pay, this is still exceptional value.
Serica is another young, up-and-coming brand with a rather complex philosophy. This French company wants to produce mechanical watches that have a sporty undertone while remaining elegant and robust – all while also being unique. Currently, they only have three offerings in their lineup, the 5303 (DIVING CHRONOMETER), 8315 (GMT CHRONOMÈTRE), and 4512 (FIELD WATCH). With a simple design but still unique, the watches far exceed what you would get from fashion brands, and with third-party movements, the price can be kept down.
One of the eye-catching themes of this brand is the use of enamel dials. Most of their timepieces feature an enamel dial, creating that special look and setting it apart from the rest. Some of the designs are notable exceptions, and the idea of being different shines through immediately, like the mint blue 5303. A serious diver with a dark blue dial and mint blue bezel.
Van Cleef & Arpels isn’t strictly a watchmaker but also produces exquisite jewellery and accessories. Unlike some other brands on the list that have even the tiniest idea of producing a robust watch, Van Cleef & Arpels goes down a far different pathway. You probably won’t find a water resistance above 100m in the catalogue, but you will find diamonds and a lot of them. Besides the use of pressurized carbon in opulent ways, there is an abundance of precious metals used to set said carbon.
When looking at a timepiece, the movement is merely listed as a ‘hand-winding movement’, but the name is not listed. This is certainly a luxury watch brand with a focus on the case, finishing methods, and aesthetics. While this might appeal to the watch enthusiast, you do get into a routine of scrolling on their site just exclaiming “Wow…” at everything they’ve created.
In stark contrast, ZRC is only focused on creating robust divers that’ll look the absolute business. ZRC has a rich history of creating such divers and even produced divers for the French Navy. The Navy came back with a problem I’ve often had myself, which was that the crown at the 3 o’clock position gets in the way and is also unsafe. ZRC developed the 6 o’clock crown to answer their call, in the monoblock Grands Fonds 300 – which was the first watch to be produced in such a manner.
Today, the company produces four main lines of watches. The GF300 MN64 a time and date diver with a somewhat rectangular case matched with the typical round dial. The GF300 1964 Spirit, which comes in a similar case, but with rustic colour schemes. The Titanium GF300 line, which, as the name suggests, is made from Titanium, and even a DLC-coated one. Lastly, the 2022 GF38 Heritage line is a time-only model meant to evoke the distinctly sporty chic of the model produced in the 60s.
All of the watches are still produced with the 6 o’clock crown and offer a vintage look that you simply cannot replicate with most contemporary divers.
Whether you like old cars or not, there will always be those who are willing to pay for the experience. The same can be said for watches, and Le Forban Sécurité Mer is one of the (old) newcomers. After they lay dormant for 30 years following the quartz crisis, they came back to the market in 2019 with the release of the Malouine. A no-nonsense time and date diver on a rubber strap powered by the reliable Miyota 8215 mechanical movement. A few years later came the release of the Brestoise, which pays tribute to the first model released by the brand in 1969.
Overall, the brand offers a neo-retro character that appeals to those of us that do like the watches (or cars) of yesteryear. And it’s decently priced!
Dior is certainly not known for their watches, but the first Dior boutique was established in 1954. The Dior fashion house is focused on providing some of the best fashion pieces you might have ever seen. While the watches may not be the most famous of their offerings, they do offer some interesting timepieces. Since the company does not need to uphold vintage horology designs or stick to vintage-inspired pieces, they are free to use quirky designs.
Most of these timepieces are powered by quartz movements. While this might not be as interesting as the automatic movements offered in Cartier watches, they certainly offer something unique, which makes them a popular French watch brand.
This is probably the youngest brand on the name, as they only started producing timepieces in 2020. Currently, they only have one timepiece available, the Sept Mai, inspired by the golden age of commercial aviation and offers a manually wound movement for that added intrigue and connection to your watch. Easy-wearing ergonimics matched with a sector-like dial, which is not terribly unique but still special in its own right.
Not much information is available on the brand, but the reviews of the Sept Mai were pretty good, considering the price of entry was only around $1,000 for the white dial option. They have released several different options since, like the Paris edition, which has a red dial and leather strap – striking, and I love it.
22. Charlie Paris
Charlie Paris was only founded in 2014 by childhood friends Ambroise and Adrien. Both of these friends had an excellent passion for automatic watch innovation and aimed to create a brand that combines the best of both traditional and modern designs. Most of their timepieces seem to draw from Art Deco as inspiration, with a keen focus on dial finishing.
While most of the timepieces are focused on elegance, there are a few options that are focused on daily sporty wear, like the Concordia, which resembles the Black Bay and is offered in a quartz or automatic option. Prices are very reasonable, but the brand certainly has room to expand and develop, putting their own ‘stamp’ on their watches in the form of their own designs.
23. Louis Vuitton
In case you don’t know, Louis Vuitton is one of the leading French fashion houses and is perhaps one of the most famous. From dresses to sweatpants, there really isn’t anything that the brand hasn’t been able to produce, which brings us neatly to horology. Can you compare Louis Vuitton to anything Henry Loius Belmont has made? No. Should they even be in the same article as Breguet, the person who developed the awe-inspiring tourbillon? Debatable. The fact remains they are a French watch brand, and they do make watches that people buy.
Like some others, the brand doesn’t really have a heritage of watchmaking to fall back on, which means they get to experiment with designs. The Tambour Street Diver looks like your typical compressor diver and even comes as a Chrono! However, you then take note of the price, and you immediately realize there are better offerings if you are looking to buy a good watch. If you like the designs, go mad.
24. MW & Co.
Are you looking for a Seamaster if it was made in the year 4,000? Well, MW & Co. delivers neatly by providing a futuristic take on a dive watch. This avant-garde company takes a completely different approach to watchmaking. In fact, they proudly claim it to be watch manufacturing. And rightfully so, as it seems they have more insight into the technological aspect.
Their mainstay collection features a deconstructed case with a ‘unique system of lugs with adjustable jacks’. With extremely limited runs, you probably aren’t likely to get your hands on one of the “ASSETs”, which stands for Adjustable Super Structural Extensible Timepieces. Here’s the kicker – you can go to their showrooms and have a customized watch made, just in case being different from every other diver on the planet wasn’t special enough already.
You might ask yourself from time to time if any of your watch brands are actually innovative, and if you’re anything like me, you came to the horrific realization that none of them really are. Bummer. This leaves Hermès as something rather special amongst other brands, as this fashion house isn’t afraid to try new styles every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Perhaps the most famous is the H08, a square sports watch that’s nothing like the rest on the market and with a dial that’ll make you giddy just because it’s so fun and interesting.
Hermès isn’t afraid of trying something new and daring, and in a serious world like the watch world, they retain their status as something unique and quirky while still having decent quality.
There are a tremendous number of French watch brands (more than I realised), and they all bring something that is their own. Be it inspired by military or aviation themes, or if it is a company that is still around after being started in the late 18th century, there is something here for all of us. The French are surely not backing down from the ‘fight’ against the Swiss, and with some of these offerings, they make a rather compelling case.
If you have enjoyed this article, you might want to check out our other featured articles that explore other countries and their unique horological offerings: