French Watchmakers Struggle With Their Image

The French countryside doesn’t get more picturesque than the Doubs region. On the eastern side of the region are the Jura Mountains, a popular location for skiing and other outdoor sports. About 40% of the area is covered with forest, making it a prime breeding ground for the morel mushroom, which figures prominently in the local cuisine.

Beyond the mountains lies Switzerland, which can easily be seen from many vantage points in the Doubs. In this part of Europe it’s difficult to tell where France ends and Switzerland begins, which explains why the Doubs region shares more than a border with Switzerland: It also shares a craft that predates the countries’ modern boundaries—watchmaking.

Since the 19th century, Doubs has been the watchmaking capital of France. More than 70% of clock- and watchmaking revenues in France originate from this region. Of the more than 6,700 jobs generated each year by the watchmaking industry in France, more than two-thirds are in the Doubs.

The area’s proximity to Switzerland means that the French employ the same techniques as the Swiss. In fact, French companies often employ workers who learned watchmaking in Switzerland and then moved or returned to Doubs to ply their trade and make a home in the family-friendly area. But to the average American consumer, the two countries might as well be on different continents. That’s because in the United States—and just about every other place on the planet—Switzerland is considered the watchmaking capital of the world. This perception gives Swiss watches a much greater share of the world market and allows Swiss watchmakers to command higher prices for their products.

This is a perception the French are trying to change, particularly in the brand-conscious United States.

The French Watch, Clock, Jewelry and Silverware Center (CFHBJO) brings together all of the French manufacturers in these four sectors. The goal of the group is to promote French goods in foreign markets as well as to support member companies in a variety of ways. Activities may include organizing participation at international trade shows, creating advertising campaigns, and organizing special exhibitions in countries throughout the world.

But among watchmakers, recruitment is an ongoing struggle. The family-owned French watchmaking companies seem to resist the concept of banding together and promoting the industry as a whole. As one company official told JCK, “I’m interested in promoting our company and only our company.” However, it’s financially and logistically difficult for individual companies to properly promote their brands in the United States.

Recently, JCK visited watchmaking companies in the Doubs to discuss French watchmaking, their products, and—most importantly—the challenge of convincing others that their watches are as good as those made by the Swiss.

Michele Herbelin. Just a few miles from the Swiss border, in the tiny hill town of Charquemont, stands the modern watch-assembling facility of Michele Herbelin, one of four watchmaking companies in the town of 2,250 people. The family-owned business, founded by its namesake in 1947, employs 106 people and is one of the better-known French brands throughout the world. Two-thirds of the 140,000 watches (200 brands) the company produces each year are shipped to 50 countries. Germany, the company’s largest export market, accounts for 16% of all exports, followed by South Africa (15%), Austria (13%), Great Britain (10%), and Singapore (5%).

But the U.S. market is another matter—here, the company sells few of its products. To get a foot in the door of the United States, the company has hired a U.S.-based salesperson (in Atlanta) to promote the company’s product line to individual retailers.

“The U.S. is a big market. If you want to sustain the business, you have to be in the U.S. market,” says Hervé Kercret, export manager for Michele Herbelin. “We are targeting in the United States watch brands that retail below $1,000. That is where we want to be. That is where we are in France.”

As an independent company, Kercret says, Michele Herbelin does not have the resources to market its brands in the United States as well as other companies do. Instead, he explains, the company is focusing on service, quality, and an overall respect for the company’s watchmaking skills and will market only a limited number of brands in the United States.

“We don’t have modern marketing facilities,” Kercret says. “I don’t think the company can stay in business without providing quality service.”

The one men’s watch that the company feels will be a good fit for the U.S. market—even though it retails at more than $1,000—is the Newport line, which has been around for 12 years and is one of the company’s most popular brands in France. The latest in the line is the Newport Trophy, a round, solid-steel sports watch that takes its name and style from the sea. Among its features are a stainless-steel case and bracelet, Swiss quartz movement, an extremely accurate stopwatch, water resistance to 50 meters, and scratchproof glass.

“This shape is the most appropriate for the United States market,” Kercret says.

Like nearly all watchmaking facilities, Michele Herbelin is an assembling operation, receiving spec parts from other manufacturers. The movements for the timepieces come from Switzerland. All assemblers receive in-house training, and workers carry out 50 different controls at each stage during the assembly process. According to Kercret, this guarantees quality.

“We control what we receive from the various suppliers,” he says. “We set the standards and control the process.” And that’s the message the company wants to send to U.S. retailers and consumers.

Yema. Located in the Doubs’ most important city, Besançon, Yema is one of the better-known French watch companies outside France. The company specializes in sports, creating watches for particular activities such as auto racing, scuba diving, and aviation. Yema watches have accompanied astronauts into space, sailors who navigated the world, and military expeditions to arctic territories.

The brand was founded in 1948, died in the early 1980s, and was revived again in 1995, says managing director Jean-Luc Biansan. The company began selling its watches in France and by 1998 began to develop an export market. Europe is its largest market, followed by the Middle East and Asia, both of which “like French designs and French products,” Biansan says.

The United States, again, is another story.

Last year, the company began selling its watches in the U.S. market through individual retailers, Biansan says, and it’s trying to convince some retail chains to carry its products. But the company understands the challenges associated with getting U.S. consumers to buy their products.

“It’s a price market. They like brands. It takes time,” Biansan says. “We want to focus on concept, good quality, good price, and our two-year guarantee.”

The company produces 100,000 to 150,000 watches per year and creates 150 new models each year based on six lines of watches (four sports watches and two women’s fashion watches). Most are priced in the $200 range.

Like Michele Herbelin, Yema operates under strict quality control and insists that the quality of the parts being used is as good as the quality of Swiss watches—at a much lower price point.

Through statistical sampling, the company is able to pinpoint and correct defects. Less than 1% of watches are returned for repairs. The company has more than 650,000 parts in storage and can easily repair watches up to 10 years old. They even repair some 25-year-old watches. A centralized computer system keeps track of inventory, defects, and all repairs.

It’s this type of quality and service, Biansan says, that Yema is using to promote its watches in the United States.

Saint-Honoré Paris. One company that has had a good deal of success in the U.S. market is Saint-Honoré Paris.

With headquarters in Charquemont and a production facility on the Swiss side of the Jura Mountains, the company can market its unique combination of French style and Swiss technology. In the United States—and in much of the rest of the world—the strategy is working. This high-end watchmaker produces 120,000 pieces per year and sells them through 1,200 retail outlets worldwide. About 55% of total sales come from outside France. The product line also includes perfumes, pens, and ties, which are sold along with the watches in department stores as well as in the company’s own boutiques.

The company began selling in the United States in 1993, says Saint-Honoré president Thierry Fresard. The U.S. market is the company’s third largest: It currently has 100 outlets in the United States but plans to double that number by the end of this year. Most Saint-Honoré watches retail in the United States for just under $1,000. The company’s products also are popular in the Middle East, the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Japan.

Fresard says the only way a brand such as Saint Honoré can have a competitive advantage in the U.S. market is to sell high-end products emphasizing French design and—in the case of Saint Honoré—Swiss technology. “Brand development must be in the middle to high end,” he says. “If you’re in the lower end, you will disappear.”

Fresard notes, however, that there is difficulty in selling even high-end product to U.S. consumers. “The U.S. market is very important, but it is very conservative,” he says. “It’s very difficult to sell fashion watches.”

The Manhattan watch, available in both men’s and women’s styles, is one example of designing for American consumer tastes. The rectangular-shaped stainless-steel watch features either a stainless-steel or leather bracelet, and the women’s version offers a greater choice of colors. It’s more conservative than many of Saint Honoré’s watch lines, which feature a variety of style and color choices and are more trendy than classical in design.

French watchmakers in the Doubs believe their watches are as well made, technically accurate, and stylish as those created by their Swiss neighbors. But selling that concept in the United States without an organized, concerted effort will continue to be an uphill battle.