Inside Hogwarts for the horologists

Just over 5 km from the Swiss border, in the small town of Morteau, you can find the Lycée Edgar Faure, one of the most renowned watchmaking schools in France. Many of its recent alumni have already won awards for their work as independent horologists – including the prestigious FP Journe’s Young Talent Competition and the Gold Medal for Best Apprentice in France. They are also sought after by serious collectors.

A clock school was originally established here in 1836 to teach young unemployed Frenchmen the skills of clock and watchmaking to compete with the Swiss. It closed after 14 years due to lack of funds, but reopened in 1947 under the name Lycée Edgar Faure. When the “quartz crisis” devastated the Swiss watch industry in the 70s, most schools closed, leaving the Edgar Faure Lycée as the only representative. France in the Franco-Swiss watchmaking region.

One of the lesson-making classrooms at the Edgar Faure Lycée

A clock-making classroom at the Edgar Faure Lycée © Beat Schweizer

A student works on a lathe in one of the machining rooms

A student works on a lathe in one of the machining rooms © Beat Schweizer

In clock school, students learn the craft of clock and clock service and maintenance (in addition to general subjects). Most students enter the seven-year program at the age of 14. Many come from the region and their family members are also involved in the business, but the school accepts boarders from all over the country. In their final year, each student must create their own watch with a complication – from a tourbillon to a chiming mechanism to a date display. “In my opinion,” he says Florent Lecomtewho has taught here since 2009 and recently started making his own watches, “they make the school famous.”

Most graduates go on to work as restorers or in production at the plethora of companies operating on both sides of the border. But in the last few years, more people have started out on their own and started their own houses. Even more controversially, some chose to open businesses and workshops in France.

Lyceum graduates (from left) Rémy Cools and John-Mikaël Flaux with Florent Lecomte
Lyceum graduates (from left) Rémy Cools and John-Mikaël Flaux with Florent Lecomte © Beat Schweizer

Rémy Cools and Theo Auffret both were winners of the FP Journe Young Talent Competition 2018. Cools, who grew up near Morteau, decided to get into watchmaking after visiting a factory (which he now owns). Blancpain), when he was 11 years old. “When I finished my studies, I had the idea of ​​setting up my own workshop,” he says, but decided instead to work for a Swiss manufacturer to learn about commercial production. At 22, he stayed for just three months before feeling confident enough to do it on his own. In 2019, it sold its first watches (each priced at around €85,000) using a subscription model, with collectors paying a portion of the price up front to help with insurance. the production. His Tourbillon Souscription (€85,000) – an improved version of the school-made version – features a 15.5mm tourbillon visible through a domed sapphire crystal, with its winding and adjustment mechanisms located on the caseback instead of the standard crown on the side of the watch. .

John-Mikaël Flaux's tribute to Al-Jazari

John-Mikaël Flaux’s tribute to Al-Jazari © Beat Schweizer

A lyceum student works in a class

A high school student working on a watch © Beat Schweizer

Cools now operates a workshop in Annecy with one employee, and production has increased from nine to 12 per year. It does not intend to grow as big as an independent such as FP Journe (which means around 900 hours per year) instead limit it to between 40 and 50.

Auffret came to watchmaking a little later, after finishing high school and obtaining his baccalaureate before going to the Lycée Edgar Faure; he chose the school because it was the only one offering apprenticeships. After graduating, he left the Swiss border, an hour west of Paris, as he found Switzerland too far from what he considered “dynamic” places. Paris is convenient for clients and has a lot of hours (especially in restoring pendulum clocks passed down from Parisian families), but, says Auffret, “there aren’t too many opportunities if you want to work in France. . The solution was to find my own.” Its latest watch, the Tourbillon Grand Sport (€128,000), Auffret entered the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève last year as one of the few independent watchmakers. It features a tourbillon-mounted seconds hand and a torque reserve indicator that, like a gas tank indicator, shows how much energy is left before the watch needs to be wound back.

It is no coincidence that the new generation of independent watchmakers is roughly the same age (late 20s and early 30s). “It’s a snowball effect,” says Lecomte, who taught them all. From figuring out how to run them (such as the prevalence of subscription models) to which suppliers to use and other nitty-gritty, their friendships have helped to get their business off the ground and offer a support network.

This is not the first time that a new wave of independent French watchmakers has started; the same thing happened in the 90s. This generation, now in their 50s and 60s, includes distinguished names such as François-Paul Journe, Vianney Halter and Denis Flageollet. However, they had to base their brand in Switzerland as all the machinery was there. Today, not only are there more used cars, but also expert colleagues from all over the world. The ability to communicate via social media and the internet, and not having to be tied to Switzerland, also spread the bug.

John-Mikaël Flaux mentors this year’s final year at the Edgar Faure Lycée. He argues that the demand for the “Made in Switzerland” label is no longer decisive. “I’m French,” he says (he’s from Brittany). – Why should I start a business elsewhere? With his own workshop, Flaux found new freedoms – in addition to making watches, he could also make automatic watches (including one in the shape of a car, which was priced at €30,000 before it was sold). He collaborated with the house last year Ben & Brothers in a watch called Homage to Al-Jazari (SFr49,000, approx. £43,590), which shows all 24 hours without a hand, but with 13 holes that change from black to white and back again (like the moons).

Nicolas Margonari is a seventh year student

Year seven student Nicolas Margonari © Beat Schweizer

Three lathes of the lycée

The three lathes of the lycée © Beat Schweizer

He also took this liberty Cyril Brivet-Naudot, who only makes one watch a year (he used to have two, but now adds and changes between each piece). Originally from the Ardèche, he chose the Edgar Faure Lycée because it was the only school he could attend at the weekend. Later, he interned at Swiss companies, but he didn’t like how each sector was divided – “Watchmakers don’t do much, after all,” he says. Several processes can be automated, reducing the number of tasks that watchmakers have to perform themselves. Brivet-Naudot likes to continue traditional practices, so after running a workshop in Lozère for a few years with a friend, he moved to a farm in Brittany. He compares his work to 18th-century horologists in the Jura Mountains, who originally farmed and made clocks as a second job during the long winter months – taught first by horologists fleeing Reformed persecution and then by the King of Prussia. .

The reason he lives so far from Switzerland is because he makes virtually 300 parts of each watch by hand instead of cutting them by machine (only the jewels, mainspring and balance are not made). spring). Although Brivet-Naudot does not intend to hire employees, there are four-week trainees to impart skills. He doesn’t see the need to be in Switzerland: “We have a lot of talent in France. There are a bunch savoir-faire.”

While these horologists work independently, together they produce a model that does not involve fitting into the machinery of the Swiss giants. None of them express a desire to reach the scale of FP Journe, let alone Patek Philippe or Rolex: their great ambition is to create the best possible watches and clocks under their own name from start to finish. This preserves the traditional clockwork methods of the modern world.


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