The French clock and watch industry _ follow up article

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The French clock and watch industry _ follow up article

Post by koimaster » April 7th 2010, 7:02am

France is home to 120 watch companies, 55 of which manufacture components, nearly all located in Franche-Comté. The French clock and watch industry employs 5,000 people. In 2003 it produced revenues of 375 million euros (573 million francs). Sales of components to Swiss watchmakers accounted for revenues of 164 million euros. For its part, Switzerland delivered components worth 77 million euros and finished watches worth 344 million to France.

When Besançon became the French watchmaking capital city
In the late 18th century, the Swiss clock and watch industry was struck by unemployment and its watchmakers crossed the still porous border to settle at Besançon. France encouraged and ratified this wave of immigration by a decree which, in 1793, established the French Watch Manufactury at Besançon.

It was almost a century before the Swiss colony took root. It was not until around 1860 that this transplant could be considered a success: The Besançon watch industry finally earned a name for itself at the Universal Exhibitions at the end of the century; the Watchmaking School was founded in 1860.

Founded in 1882, the primary aim of the Besançon Observatory was to tell the time accurately: the time was displayed at the Town Hall and the region's watchmakers would come in the morning to note it down. And so Besançon became the French watchmaking capital.

In the late 19th century, university researchers went in search of watch technicians. Besançon's scientific and technical endeavours to measure time were solidly founded on its watchmaking roots.

Today, Besançon is the European centre for microtechnologies.

In the 1970s, the development of watchmaking centres in the Far East and fierce competition from Switzerland put Besançon in a difficult position. Its prowess in precision mechanics, however, led to the development of future-oriented sectors: optics, electronics, acoustics, thermal sciences, pneumatics, automation, industrial automation and biomedical engineering.

Watchmaking in the Arve Valley

The early development of the industry around Cluses at the start of the 18th century sprang from the conjunction of two complementary human factors. On the one hand, the exceptional dynamism of the Genevan metropolis: the entrepreneurship of the bourgeoisie was fuelled by the Protestant faith of Calvin's city and by two immigration waves of co-religionists, first in the 16th century and then after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685). On the other hand, the demographic overcrowding of the Faucigny mountains forced their inhabitants to search for a way of supplementing the meagre income from farming. Craftsmanship developed as an alternative to the pain of emigration which had been rife for centuries. It is symptomatic that an immigrant from a mountain village was the first to come up with this solution. In 1720, Claude Ballaloup, a watchmaker who had trained at Nuremberg, set up a workshop in his native village of Saint Sigismond, above Cluses.

To begin with, these outsourced watch components were delivered to Besançon, Neuchâtel and even Germany, as well as Geneva. Exclusive relations were soon established however with the capital of the Lake Geneva region which organised work through établisseurs responsible for distributing raw materials and collecting the manufactured products, pieces and cases. Geneva saw to their assembly, finish and sale. This arrangement was very similar to that of the Lyon silk trade, for example. This proto-industry retained an artisanal character; the equipment was rudimentary and the work was more often than not seasonal with winter peaks. However, with a 1,100-strong workforce on the eve of the French Revolution, the Arve Valley was the leading manufacturing centre of the French Alps.

Until the mid-19th century, its development was thwarted first by revolutionary unrest (the whole of Savoy was annexed to France in 1792) and then, following the return of the province to the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia (1815), by the highly protectionist policy of the Turin government. Nevertheless, it was during this period that a future institution was founded: the Cluses School of Watchmaking (1848).

At the time of the permanent annexation of Savoy to France (1860), Geneva secured, with the consent of the local population, the creation of a free zone known as the "Grande Zone", encompassing the whole of Faucigny and Chablais. In short, the customs border, which was distinct from the political border, separated this Grande Zone from the interior, in other words from the whole of France. "Watchmaking prospered as a sector largely outside the French economy". A special agreement of 1881 boosted the effectiveness of the system and for decades afterwards people spoke of the Free Zone Paradise. Cluses and the neighbouring communes were reportedly home to 5,000 watchmakers in 1898, characterised by an essentially artisanal structure. Negative aspects do however emerge from an assessment of this entire period: "The zone and the continuation, under Genevan influence, of work based on home workshops, almost all of it rural, delayed the rise of Faucigny which, in its absence, would have grown into a modern and self-sufficient industry, just as capable as the Jura watch industry of positioning itself on the French market". Moreover, cut off from the French market, the different industries (textiles, tanning, edge-tool making, etc.) that sustained small centres such as Sallanches or La Roche-sur-Foron all collapsed, thus accentuating the mono-industrial character of the Arve Valley. The fact remains nonetheless that, thanks to its watchmaking phase, the Arve Valley retained its demographic potential and the valuable skills of its labour force would facilitate its conversion to screw cutting.

Royal watch manufactory of Ferney-Voltaire

Voltaire (1694-1778) is known these days mainly as the grand philosophe and writer of the Age of Enlightenment. The fact that he ran a watch manufactury, on the other hand, is somewhat less known. As incongruous as it might appear at first glance, this activity is not as irreconcilable with Voltaire's work as one might suppose. Moreover, it is fully in keeping with the ideas and trends of the age, as characterised by the discovery of machines and mechanical arts as well as by an increasing esteem for commerce and the rise of manufacturies following the rediscovery of the ideas of Colbert.

A study of the literary works of Voltaire also reveals a close relationship between the career of the philosophe and that of the businessman. Voltaire had understood very early on that to succeed as a burgher and to be able to write freely, one needed to be wealthy. For this reason, he set out from the start to do business alongside his philosophical and literary work and, according to his contemporary, Bern-born librarian Johann Rudolph Sinner, Voltaire was able to reconcile in an exemplary fashion "... a mind for calculation and finance with the gifts of Apollo, a very rare combination in men".

Voltaire was interested in his lifetime in widely diverse activities. He was proud of this and proclaimed: ... I am interested in all the arts and in matters of commerce. My soul is inhabited at once by every taste".

This versatility grew still stronger with age and earned him the nickname "Le Multiformes" by d'Alembert. During his years spent in Ferney, at the age of nearly 80, Voltaire, who had always been a relentless worker, busied himself alongside his literary work as a "farmer", "winegrower", "gardener", "labourer", "architect", "librarian", and from 1770 proudly referred to himself as "watch entrepreneur of Ferney" (Best, 120, D16488) and "watchmaker".

But how did he come to devote himself to this unusual activity? Voltaire was familiar with the fashions of his age and especially the fashion for automata. In his "Sixth Discourse on Man" (1737), he had already expressed his admiration for the flute player created two years earlier by Vaucanson, the great precursor of Jacquet-Droz. He was also interested in horology, the mechanical art par excellence of the 18th century, as evidenced by the praise bestowed by d'Alembert on the perfection of contemporary watches in the "Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopaedia" (1751). Watches were very much in vogue at the time as accessories, especially the new flat and light models worn on châtelaine pins. People would even wear two watches together - one gold and one silver. Watches were often given as gifts at weddings. We know that Marie Antoinette found 51 watches in her Wedding Basket in 1770.

It is possible that Voltaire discovered his interest in horology during his stay at the Court of Frederick of Prussia (1750-1753), a great watch lover who had a large collection of Neuchâtel pendulum clocks. We also know, though, that Voltaire was particularly fond of the watches of Julien Leroy, the famous Parisian watchmaker (1686-1751). Voltaire is reported to have told his son, Pierre Leroy, that his father and the Marshal of Saxony had conquered England. In the 15th century, England had been a leading centre of horology and France's fiercest rival in the development of new feats of technical prowess.

Before establishing his own watch manufactory, Voltaire had already purchased several watches in the 1760s, as his accounting book shows. The inventory of his Chateau at Ferney tells us that there were six pendulum clocks, two of them in Voltaire's bedroom, in particular a "pendulum clock embellished in gold-plated copper with varnished feet and a repeater clock embellished in gold-plated copper".

By establishing a watch manufactory, the self-styled "King of Ferney" was therefore following a fashion of his day and was in distinguished company. At the time, Louis XV, Louis XVI, Frederick II, Catherine II and Joseph II were all striving to establish watch manufactories in their kingdoms, yet none of these projects met with much success. Voltaire, on the other hand, was relatively successful thanks to his relentlessness and his large sums of capital amassed through speculations, supplies to the army and annuities. In addition, his many contacts through his literary activity provided him with a large pool of potential customers.

The establishment of a watch manufactury at Ferney in 1770 was perfectly in keeping with Voltaire's scheme to transform Ferney, a hamlet left dilapidated and festering following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, into a flourishing village, and was true to his dictum of the Ferney years: "Do good". After busying himself with the development of farming at Ferney, Voltaire subsequently founded a pottery, an earthenware factory, a tilery, a tannery, a silk stocking manufactory, a watch manufactory and a lace manufactory.

The Ferney Watch manufactory and its watchmakers

Voltaire founded a watch manufactory because the opportunity presented itself to him. His renown as a fierce defender of victims of injustice following the Calas affair and the proximity of his retreat at Ferney with Geneva were his main strengths. The "natives", descendants of French Huguenot emigrants who had sought refuge in Geneva after the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre (1572) and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) and who had introduced watchmaking and enamel painting to Geneva, were increasingly experiencing political, social and economic discrimination there in the early 17th century, no doubt because from 1740 onwards they made up the majority of the Genevan population and the "old" Genevans were fearful of losing their hegemony over the "natives".

In 1770, Voltaire was able to take advantage of the opportunity afforded by hundreds of "natives", most of whom were involved in watchmaking and ancillary industries and disgruntled with Geneva, who chose to seek exile in Ferney after the Geneva authorities had banished their eight leaders accused of instigating the riots which, on 15 February 1770, had broken out in the city. These riots had taken place following the arrest of a "native" by the name of Resseguerre on false charges. According to Voltaire's account of events, fighting took place in the street, three "natives" were killed and 60 were arrested.

The "natives" came to settle at Ferney where Voltaire gave them asylum as he had promised. It should be known that in 1765 the "natives" had called on Voltaire to help them in their struggle for equal rights with the "old stock" of Genevans and Voltaire, feeling vindictive towards Geneva following the uproar over the "Geneva" article of the Encyclopaedia in 1757, seized the opportunity to take revenge on Geneva.

He wrote repeatedly in his correspondence that the purpose of his enterprise was to ruin Genevan commerce by establishing a rival watch manufactury on the borders of Geneva on French territory. It should be said that the Besançon manufactory did not yet exist at the time and that the one at Bourg-en-Bresse was already in a state of collapse.

Voltaire displayed a boundless commitment: he gave these watchmakers not only asylum but also the opportunity to practise their trade, first in a barn converted into a makeshift workshop, and then in small watchmaking workshops. He lent them money, procured gold, allowed them to build houses and above all set about promoting their watches. Thanks to his determination, he pulled off the amazing feat of delivering the first watches 6 weeks after the émigrés arrived in March/April 1770. This was made possible by the Ferney farmers who had long carried out minor works such as making watch ébauches for the Genevan watch industry, a more lucrative activity for them than farming a clayey soil. Voltaire had initially tried to ban this clandestine activity in Ferney but now he encouraged it because the farmers were working for the Ferney watch industry and not for foreigners. What's more, some watchmakers from the Pays de Gex had come together in 1748 to form a corporation with the aim of "raising watchmaking in the Pays de Gex to the pinnacle of perfection". We also know that two of these eight "native" leaders began working straight away for Voltaire: the case-maker Georges Auzière and the watchmaker Guillaume-Henri Valentin, grandfather of the famous Count Zeppelin. They were joined by two other "native" watchmakers, Pierre Dufour and Louis Céret, and together they crafted the first watches sent to Versailles and Choiseul.

With indigenous Catholics and immigrant Protestants working together in this watch manufactury under the aegis of the "Patriarch of Ferney", the project also allowed him to create a model of tolerance and ecumenical brotherhood in his retreat. Voltaire, like other contemporaries, had realised that the emigration of Protestants following the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes had greatly damaged French industry and commerce, and advocated, in 1763, in his "Treatise on Tolerance" the return of Protestants to France.

Thus the philosophe and the businessman came together to embark on this new venture.

As a shrewd businessman, Voltaire had set himself the serious ambition of rivalling the leading watchmaking centres of his day: Paris, London and above all Geneva, with beautiful, good quality and cheap watches dispatched from his newly founded manufactory. Voltaire was well aware that Genevan watches in particular were regarded as overly expensive. It is true that the Ferney watches were less expensive than those manufactured in the leading watchmaking centres, but Voltaire was careful not to reveal to potential clients that inexpensive watches were also being produced in the Jura and especially in the Neuchâtel region. Voltaire was able to offer cheaper watches because he benefited from a postal privilege for his watches (they were delivered duty-free) but not for his books! In addition, the Ferney watchmakers would more often than not use imitations of precious stones to decorate the cases.

The Ferney watch manufactory comprised five small companies consisting mostly of two watchmakers, assisted by workers in ancillary industries: case-makers, finishers, jewellers, enamel painters, and so forth. These small enterprises were named after their bosses: Dufour & Céret, Valentin & Dalleizette, Servant & Boursault (all Genevan "natives") as well as the two Frenchmen Panrier & Mauzié, who had already arrived in Ferney prior to 1770.

Thanks to Voltaire's fame, he managed to attract the celebrated Parisian watchmaker Jean-Antoine Lépine (1720-1814), born in the Pays de Gex and brother-in-law from Beaumarchais, to work with him. In October 1773, Voltaire mentioned him for the first time in his correspondence, pointing out that he was very useful to the Ferney watch manufactories. He probably sold Ferney watches in his Parisian trading outlet at Place Dauphine, but a gold and enamel watch from the period 1772-1773, signed jointly by J-A Lépine and Panrier, also exists today in a private collection. From 1774 until 1792, Lépine, so it seems, also had watch movements made at Ferney, and Voltaire wrote proudly: "I am well acquainted with L'Epine, watchmaker to the King, who has an establishment at Ferney, under my dependency indeed...“

In October 1777 Voltaire even lent money to the famous watchmaker: 500 Livres. No one knows however to what extent Lépine was actually present in flesh and blood at Ferney. We know that his brother-in-law Pierre Delphin looked after his Ferney establishment.

It appears that other Parisian watchmakers would later send their sons to Ferney as apprentices.

Within the context of the Ferney watch manufactory, Voltaire's role was that of an établisseur - a watch merchant based on the Genevan model - supplying capital and raw materials and arranging the sale of the watches. As in Geneva, everything was still made by hand at Ferney. The animosity of the Genevan "cabinotiers" towards industrialisation is a well-known fact. Thus Voltaire speaks of 50 pairs of hands working to produce a single watch.

The models

Like most watchmakers who came from Geneva, they often imitated standard Genevan models, enamel-painted watches. Watches were made at Ferney with enamel portraits of Louis XV, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and her sister, Choiseul, D'Aranda, Catherine II and Voltaire - this model is unfortunately lost. Watches were produced in gold - different coloured golds were also used - and in silver, along with simple watches, watches with a verge escapement or repeater watches. Volta boasted that one of the best workers in Europe for repeater watches was working for him at Ferney. However, his identity has remained hidden. It seems that the most successful model was the gold repeater watch with marcasites. It could even be produced in large quantities. This special model sold for 18 Louis instead of 30/40 Louis for the same model in Paris. It is worth pointing out that Voltaire repeatedly accused Parisian watchmakers of selling his watches under their name and profiting from them by one third or even one half.

Voltaire produced publicity for these watches: "The repeater watches for 18 gold Louis have a hammer, a button and hands with a very rare type of marcasite, which has the sparkle of brilliants; these marcasites however are not diamonds.

The Lépine calibre, crafted around 1775, was also used at Ferney. According to Voltaire's accounts, watches with "Turkish dials" were also made there from the early days for the Turkish market. It is worth pointing out that the Genevans set up a colony of watchmakers in Constantinople in the 17th century and it is therefore highly likely that one of the Genevan watchmakers who had emigrated to Ferney had contacts with the Bosporus metropolis.

Voltaire wrote in August 1770: “... I have established from the remnants of Geneva a small company which has strong links with Constantinople”.

The Turkish dials had the following features: white enamel dial with Turkish numerals in black enamel. The watches had between three and four cases to prevent damage from the sabres worn by the Turks at their waists. They were richly decorated with enamel paintings, mostly depicting verdant landscapes with streams, fortresses and towers in the Turkish taste. The edges were decorated in red and black garlands.

To promote the sale of watches in Turkey, Voltaire had no hesitation in urging Catherine II to stop the war with the Turks. Regardless of this even, the Levant was one of the main markets for Ferney's watches, according to Voltaire's great nephew D'Hornoy in 1775.

Pendulum clocks were not made at Ferney; these was a Neuchâtel or Parisian speciality instead. Catherine II of Russia made several requests for a pendulum clock but Voltaire - for want of resources - was unable to satisfy this desire.

Voltaire boasted instead that the only artist who made ring watches worked in his colony. He seemed particularly fond of "these little wonders" and promoted them to the Count of Aranda in Spain and to the Tsarina.

The Ferney watch manufactory also received commissions for work, and it was even possible to acquire watch chains separately or to arrange to have them made and mounted on the watch case.

It should be said however that none of Voltaire's watchmakers came up with any special invention. We know, though, that Genevan watches were renowned for their fine enamel paintings rather than for any technical innovations. The quality of the Ferney watches also varied. It appears that complaints were sometimes made regarding the engineering, forcing Voltaire to give instructions on use, such as for example,

"The person complaining that the watch is slow when the chain is extended only has to advance the spring hand a little" or It may take a few days to adjust them but they are good and inexpensive”.

Some enamel portraits were also very poorly executed. It was claimed in Versailles that Marie Antoinette was unrecognisable from her portrait. Also, despite Voltaire's best efforts to procure gold for them from Spain or even, when hard pressed, to melt down gold coins given to him as gifts, the watchmakers were sometimes forced to produce watches with a lower gold content than usual. Voltaire made several vain requests for permission to produce French watches with a lower content than usual in France: 20 carats for gold and 12 deniers for silver. He wanted to make his watches with the lower legal content in Geneva than in France of 18 carats for gold and 10 deniers for silver.

At Ferney marcasites were also often used instead of real diamonds. Voltaire, the sly old fox, was however able to promote these gems to, among others, Madame du Barry. Admittedly, as fake and imitation stones became widespread after the discovery of strass stone and as the price of jewels fell sharply at a time when the nobility was often highly indebted, Voltaire did think that they needed to make savings.

The Ferney watches were never signed by Voltaire - as he did not make the watches but only sold them - but by the watchmakers who had manufactured them, namely Dufour Céret, Valentin & Dalleizette, Panrier & Mauzié, Servand & Boursault, and Lépine, and bore the name of the place of production, Ferney (with widely differing spellings: Fernaix/Fernex) or Ferney-Voltaire. It is possible therefore that anonymous customers did not make contact with Voltaire and purchased watches above all on account of the good quality/price ratio.

Some fifteen or so watches from the Ferney manufactory are scattered throughout various museums today. The finest belongs to the Vacheron & Constantin Collection in Geneva. It is a repeater watch signed "Les Dufour et Ceret A FERNEY" during the period in which the establishment was claimed to be a "royal" manufactory. The royal privilege was not awarded despite Voltaire's entreaties and this title was swiftly abandoned. The watch was embellished with diamonds and decorated with the enamel portrait of the Duc de Choiseul. It is worth remembering that the Minister for foreign affairs acted as protector of Voltaire's enterprise until the time of his disgrace in December 1770. Voltaire had the watch made in homage to his illustrious protector and refers to him in a letter to the Marquis d'Ossun, the ambassador of France to Spain, on 16 July 1770: "A very fine repeater watch is currently being made in this factory, .... with the portrait of Monsieur le Duc de Choiseul".

The enamel portrait is said to be copied from a painting by Van Loo and was executed by the Genevan "native" Pierre-François Marcinhes (1739-1778). Voltaire mentions this artist in his "Mémoire sur Versoix" of 6 March 1770, referring to him as "one of the best enamel painters in Europe". We know however that Marcinhes, a unanimously acclaimed artist, was in Ferney for only a brief spell before leaving for Paris. Other watches, most notably those of watchmakers Dufour & Céret and Valentin & Dalleizette, are on display at the Brou Museum in Bourg-en-Bresse, the Louvre in Paris, the Museum of Horology and the Voltaire Institute and Museum, both in Geneva.

Customers and main markets

A distinction should be drawn between those customers whom Voltaire contacted personally by correspondence - comprising numerous relations forged as a result of his literary ventures and prestigious customers such as members of the court at Versailles and the Tsarina - and anonymous customers from different markets: Paris and the province, Spain, Turkey, Italy, Holland and Germany.

In his wealth of correspondence, Voltaire advertised his watches among his numerous acquaintances and sent them price lists from July 1770 onwards. In June 1770, he even sent a circular to the French ambassadors abroad, in which he sang the praises of his watchmakers: "They are the best artists from Geneva. They work in every genre at a more moderate price than in any other factory. They work with great speed to produce in enamel any portrait that one might wish to embellish the watch cases”.

In April 1770, the first watches were sent to the Duc and Duchesse de Choiseul, Voltaire's protectors, and to the King and Dauphin. Voltaire tried to set his relations with Versailles on a less compromising footing than usual and knew well how to take advantage of auspicious occasions: he offered his watches as gifts for the royal weddings in 1770, 1771 and 1773. His efforts, however, were not crowned with success since most of the watches delivered to Versailles remained unpaid. This was probably due also to the fact that Voltaire adopted what might be described as a hard sales policy with prestigious customers. The philosophe summarised this situation laconically in the following phrase: "I have such illustrious debtors that it's a secret from which I might starve to death".

Voltaire had better luck with Catherine II. She became the best customer of the Ferney watch manufactory and, what's more, she paid for the watches delivered. She probably wanted to show that she was richer than the kings of France. In any event, she wrote to Voltaire: "Please do not judge my finances by those of Europe's crumbling States, you would be doing me wrong, ...”.

Equally worthy of mention is the fact that by trading his watches with the Tsarina, Voltaire circumvented the censure levelled against his books by simply sending works and watches to her together in the one box.

Voltaire also tried to sell his watches in China with the help of Catherine II. It is worth recalling that Sino-Russian trade had resumed in 1771 after a 10-year interruption. Voltaire wanted to compete on this market against the Genevans, who had set up a trading post at Canton. Catherine II even took steps to foster Voltaire's trade: in early-June 1771 she wrote to the philosophe: "I am arranging a review of the tariff set by China's Customs Authority with the intention of promoting exports and imports through its alleviation; the prices charged by you are so modest that these wares will surely sell well”.

Ultimately, however, this progressive project failed to materialise, despite Voltaire's exhortations, since the Russo-Turkish war flared up again in 1772.

Voltaire, who was selling his watches to the infidels (the Turks), also tried to sell his products to the Holy See in May 1770. With this goal in mind, he turned to his old acquaintance, Cardinal de Bernis, asking him to procure an honest correspondent for him in Rome. First he skilfully outlined his humanitarian commitment and the tolerance achieved at Ferney, before exclaiming: "If Catherine II takes Constantinople we can well expect to supply watches to the Greek Church, but we wholeheartedly prefer your own Church which is incomparably the best since you are its cardinal”.

Despite Voltaire's best and repeated efforts, Bernis would not be coaxed and held the initial position proffered by him in December 1770: "This country does not trade”.

It is also interesting to note that Condorcet, the great philosophe, Voltaire's heir apparent as regards ideas on tolerance, had specially ordered a Ferney watch in 1775.

Watches were mostly delivered in "boxes" or in "crates" by the Lyon Post Office. Joseph Vasselier, postal clerk and later the Controller General of the Lyon Postal Services, aspiring poet and a member of the Lyon and Dijon Academies, served there as "post-man of the Ferney colony". These arrangements had been established in the postal privilege which had been awarded to Ferney watches by the Duc de Choiseul and subsequently continued by his successor, the Baron d'Ogny. It appears that Spain was the biggest market thanks to the favourable intervention of the Baron d'Ossun, the Ambassador of France to Spain; the country was in any event a major importer of Genevan watches.

In France, Voltaire sold watches to Parisian watchmakers and, on a more private basis, the Compte and Comptesse d'Argental placed aggregate orders for watches and redistributed them to their entourage in their salon.

Ferney watches were also sold in the province, predominantly in Lyon, Aix-en-Provence, Besançon, Bourg-en-Bresse, Marseille, Chalon-sur-Saône, Dijon, Grenoble, Mâcon, Montpellier, Nancy, Narbonne, Saint-Marcellin, Toulon, Toulouse, Riom en Auvergne and Vienne in the Dauphiné.


During the eight years of its existence (1770-1778), Voltaire's watch manufactory produced approximately 4,000 watches each year, with a turnover of 400,000 pounds. By way of comparison, Geneva was manufacturing 33,000 watches each year during the same period. This figure makes sense considering that an average of 400 watchmakers were working at Ferney compared with 5,000 in Geneva. Lépine for his part, who made prestigious luxury watches, produced only 300 watches each year.


The Ferney watch manufactury existed only so long as Voltaire was actively involved in it. After his death in 1778, the manufactury, already in a state of collapse since Voltaire's departure for Paris, dissolved. The "natives" returned to Geneva where they were promised the moon. Voltaire had wished that after his death either Madame Denis, his companion, or d'Hornoy, his great nephew, would take the firm in hand. They, however, were royally uninterested in this legacy.

The fact, though, that Jean-Antoine Lépine (1784) and, later, his famous colleague Abraham-Louis Bréguet (1793) had briefly intended to re-establish a watch manufactory at Ferney shows that Voltaire's project had been progressive. Compared with other similar enterprises established by the sovereigns of the age, Voltaire's enterprise had enjoyed a fairly long life and undeniable relative success. The watch manufactory epitomised Voltaire's genius and versatility. His success in such a venture was due to his good fortune, his commitment and his ability to turn his numerous acquaintances to good account.

I would like to close this article with an attempt to explain the relationship between philosophy and watchmaking by Claude-Daniel Proellochs, the CEO of Vacheron & Constantin, who sees a common strand between philosophy and watchmaking in the fact that both reflect on the march of time.

Isabelle Frank M.A. Luxembourg, in "Horlogerie Ancienne", 1997


In 1759, fleeing the bustle and intrigues of the capital, Voltaire retired to Ferney where he had recently purchased a property.

Whilst remaining "a sovereign of the mind", Voltaire, by receiving or corresponding with Europe's elite, set out to turn Ferney into a new town where industry and commerce would bring happiness and prosperity. With this aim in mind, he established several manufacturies: the small-scale manufacture of silk, a tilery, a tawery ... but the most important one, the object of all his attention, was a watch manufactory.

Taking advantage of the political turmoil in Geneva which led to the expulsion of a large number of the town's watchmakers, Voltaire welcomed them to Ferney, allowed them to build homes and lent capital to them.

Ferney, close to the Swiss border of the Canton of Geneva, owes its fame to the writer François Marie Arouet (1694-1778) who, at the age of 24, changed his name to VOLTAIRE. He practically founded the village and lived there regularly from 1758 until his death. He established a watch manufactory there in the early 1770s, employing refugee watchmakers fleeing Geneva and loyal to the King of France.

From 1773 onwards, nearly six hundred people worked at Ferney, producing four thousand watches each year for dispatch throughout Europe, thus rivalling Geneva's lucrative trade. Voltaire set his heart on this activity and used his numerous society contacts to sell his output. Foremost among the watchmakers who pursued their craft there were Jean-Antoine Lépine, Dufour and Ceret, entrepreneurs of the Royal Watch Manufactory of Ferney.

(The following spellings are sometimes found: Fernay, Fernaix or Fernex).

Excerpts from letters written by Voltaire

To M. de La Borde, Banker to the Court, 16 April 1770, 'I did not displease the Duc de Choiseul by welcoming to my home several inhabitants of Geneva. Within a space of six weeks, they made watches, a crate of which has been sent by me to the Duc de Choiseul himself. I have established a considerable manufactory...'

To Cardinal de Bernis, 11 May 1770 'I have taken the liberty of sending their works to the King; he was very pleased with them and grants them his protection. The Duc de Choiseul has been kind enough to undertake to have their work forwarded to Rome. Our intention is to bring Genevan trade to saintly ruin, and to establish that of Ferney.'

To the Comtesse d'Argental, 7 December 1770 'I have ordered immediately from my smiths something more romantic than the girdle of Venus for Madame la Marquise of Chalvet...'

To Madame la Marquise de Deffand, 6 January 1771 'I have many contacts with Spain for the sale of watches from my colony, thus I am deeply interested in M. le Marquis d'Ossun, its strong protector ...'

Conquering lost skills

Companies able to construct mechanical watch movements died out in France in the 1980s. Indeed, the manufacture of the heart of the mechanism, the spring, ended with the liquidation of SPIRAUX FRANÇAIS. The restoration of a production range therefore required a reacquaintance with the technologies once used while at the same time improving them and incorporating up-to-date measurement and active control technologies.

• The adventure began with a meeting between TECHNOTIME HOLDING SA, a producer of quartz watch movements with a 200-strong workforce, and FEMTO-ST, in particular LMARC — R. Chaléat Applied Mechanics Laboratory — which had worked in the 1970s with the Franche-Comté watch industry. CTM, which has since become CTMN — Transfer Centre for Micro- and Nano-technologies — acted as an intermediary. Together, the partners decided to reinstate the manufacture of springs in a unit located at Valdahon (25). The aim was to become independent of Swiss manufacturers, all of which were integrated into large groups. The risk was worth taking in light of the growth in sales of luxury mechanical watches.

• Because the spring is the basis of time-keeping in a mechanical watch, to a degree of precision of a few seconds an day, it must be manufactured with meticulous care. From the raw material to its transformation into a regulating spring, every stage must be exceptionally precise and controlled. The spring is the shape of an Archimedean spiral; the wire from which it is made is 30 µm thick (it weighs 3 mg in all), the step between two "rings", constant whatever the temperature conditions, is 120 µm. The material used is an iron, nickel and chrome-based quinary alloy known as elinvar. It took some 20 years to perfect its composition. It was therefore not a case of reinventing the powder but rather of tracking down steelworks able to make it, in small quantities moreover. This point was particularly crucial because elinvar is an alloy with an adjustable thermoelastic coefficient. Now, it is this coefficient that determines the relative frequency variation according to the temperature. In the case of high-quality watches, this variation Δf/f must not exceed 10-6 per °C.

• Once the raw material was purchased, it was a matter of turning it into one perfectly uniform length of wire measuring 1 mm in diameter. Once again, the skills and instruments for working on small amounts of metal had almost disappeared. It was craftsmen in Lyon who agreed to do this job. All the treatments and facilities needed in its making began here. This cylindrical wire then has to be subjected to vacuum overhardening at 1,200°C, drawn, cleaned and then rolled between two cylinders to obtain a loop 30 µm thick by 120 µm wide (a circular section wire would cause problems of instability). This loop can tolerate variations in size of only 0.1 µm. An automatic control system was therefore connected to the mill to control the operation. Thickness is controlled by laser optics. The information obtained is then forwarded to the piezoelectric actuators responsible for repositioning the rolling cylinders. Mechanical and thermal transformations are then needed to make the springs proper (winding, then vacuum annealed to relieve the stress).

• A total of 12 machines were devised at LMARC. Although the manufacture of the machines' component parts were contracted out to regional industries, the laboratory designed the equipment and engineered the apparatus on site. In addition to Gérard Lallement, who was involved full-time in the project, four people were financed by TECHNOTIME over a period of 3 1/2 years: two students working towards a research diploma in technology and two mechanical and electrotechnical engineers.

• To achieve this, the people involved had to reconcile two seemingly paradoxical aspects: the appropriation of ancient skills (although dating back only 20 years!) and the integration of new technologies to improve the processes. The Business Development Department of the University of Franche-Comté, which liaised between the laboratories and companies, supported this project. It is our bet that the mechanical watch will continue to reach ever greater heights of perfection, whilst retaining all its charm.

28 February 2006

Gérard Lallement / Département LMARC Institut FEMTO-ST / Université de Franche-Comté /


“Your heart was warm and happy

With the lilt of Irish laughter

Every day and in every way

Now forever and ever after."
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