France once was a major player in the world of horology, alongside the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany, before Switzerland and then Japan became the centers of it all. When one first gets into the world of watches, it may seem that most watches are produced in one of the two countries we just mentioned, although reality is quite different. While there has been an influx of manufacturers in China and Hong Kong—amongst others—the past decade or so has seen a resurgence of the traditions of watchmaking in key European countries: France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. (I know, the latter is no longer part of the EU.)
This article tells the story of Charlie Paris, a watch brand founded in 2014 that has slowly solidified his presence in France’s capital thanks to its catalog that is getting more and more into the adventure/tool watch end of things, and to its deeply-rooted connection to athletes and explorers. Before we get into the history and philosophy of Charlie, however, let’s take a look at the current state of French watchmaking.
Co-founders Adrien and Ambroise
The State of French Watchmaking
There are plenty of articles that will tell you the story of how France used to be a historic center for watchmaking in the world. This article is not about that, nevertheless we will take a look at the current state of watchmaking in the country. Some of my favorite watch brands are French and I inadvertently gravitated toward them four years ago when I seriously got into watches. I say inadvertently because I didn’t know that France was already back on the watchmaking scene, but with hindsight I understand why I have been attracted to them. Without trying to generalize too much, French watches (as in French companies, not that they are manufactured in France) have a knack for making well-proportioned, vintage-inspired timepieces. There is a certain sense of respect for traditions that is typically French and that is clearly visible in a lot of the French watch catalogs.
When I look at my favorite American brands, I realize that they appeal to a certain side of me that is geared towards the outdoors and adventure, rugged tools, and independence. (American brands make a lot of tough tool watches that can be taken on solo adventures in the desert, mountains, or used by people who work with their hands or with a computer.) French brands make smaller watches that look more refined than rugged, with proportions better suited for smaller European wrists, and that tend to keep history at the center of their designs. What this means is that the watches that French brands make are adapted to their culture, or should I say, match the cultures of the brands they emanate from.
It’s that side of watchmaking that makes us click with certain brands and not others, although we may not realize it at first. Of course, you might be surprised by what comes out of the minds of some French watchmakers, which is the case of Bell & Ross. (By the way, I didn’t know the latter was French until I spoke to Adrian Sanglé-Ferrière, co-founder of Charlie Paris.) Bell & Ross might be the outlier here though. The French brands I alluded to earlier tend to keep a foot in the past when designing their watches, which is the case of Charlie Paris, while Bell & Ross seems to veer more towards avant-garde pilot watches. Charlie, then, is unlike other French brands you might be familiar with as they have started small and are slowly making their way toward more unique timepieces which are tied to French heritage.
So, at the time of writing this article, there are several French watch brands that have become very popular overseas. Brands like Baltic, Serica, and Le Forban, that have carved a little niche for themselves within the enormous world of independent (micro) brands. All of them offer watches that are well-made, utilizing Japanese or Swiss movements, with some (if not many) of their parts made in Hong Kong or China and assembled in France. Their watches range slightly above, but mostly below the $1,000 mark. One brand you may have not heard about yet is Charlie, as it seems the brand has been focusing on the French market only.
So, let’s talk about Charlie now.
Creating Charlie Paris
Adrian, who we mentioned above, is one of the two people behind the Paris-based brand along with Ambroise. The two are childhood friends and attended the French Scouts together as kids. A long-lasting friendship that bought them back together in college where their passion for watchmaking gave them the idea of creating their own watch brand. They wanted to make it possible for people with humble budgets to get excited about horology, just like they have been about certain Swiss luxury brands that, unfortunately, they always found to be too expensive. That’s the context within which they created their very first collection, a gender-neutral quartz three hander that they funded through Kickstarter. Charlie was the first French brand funding their initial collection by way of crowdfunding, and it took them one and a half years to go from the idea of a brand to the launching of the campaign.
That is a long time to dedicate to making a dream project come true. Neither Adrian nor Ambroise had a background in watchmaking—they graduated with business degrees—so they had to figure out everything. While they were putting the crowdfunding campaign together, they did what any new brand owner with zero experience in the watch world would do: they researched factories and met with several of them to determine which one would be a good fit to bring their vision to life. At the beginning, Charlie wanted to work with watchmakers local to Paris, however the quality was not there. They turned to the current center of French watchmaking, Besançon, where brands like Baltic get their watches assembled and tested. After a few more developments, they decided to create a watchmaking studio above their retail store in Paris.
Their philosophy is to make attractive and well-made watches at affordable prices which are infused with French history and tradition. Take the name Charlie Paris for example. They choose “Charlie” because it is gender neutral and can easily be pronounced in many languages. “Paris” because they wanted to reclaim the French touch of watchmaking, and unlike Bell & Ross that has never marketed the fact that they are French, Charlie is proud of being a French brand. They wanted to align themselves with LIP (a French watchmaker with a history that goes back to the early 1800s) and Michel Herbelin, an independent brand founded in 1947. Although their watchmakers are trained in Switzerland, their watches are designed, assembled, and tested in their Parisian studio.
Things Are Only Getting Better
As we saw, Charlie started with an inexpensive quartz collection for both men and women. Taking a first look at their website, it seemed that Charlie Paris was not only a watch brand but also a fashion brand. I’ve got to be honest here and admit that I was skeptical at first; I saw a few models that looked like something I’ve seen before and for the same price, but the deeper I looked, the more interested I became. What became apparent is that the longer Charlie Paris has been in existence, the more they developed their collections and improved the quality of their watches. There are many brands that begin with a three-hander quartz dressy watch which seems to be a safe bet. I could name many brands that have gone through this initial development stage and that then succeeded in creating and selling more original timepieces later on.
Honestly, Charlie is not so different.
Although their first collections were on the lower end of the price spectrum and made with quartz movements, they have been steadily evolving to introduce mechanical movements and to become more creative with their designs. Now most of their watches have automatic movements and they are currently working on a collection that will house a new Swiss caliber. Their first collection was reinvented to now feature solar-powered quartz movements which shows their dedication to making better watches that will require fewer service intervals. In their mind, a watch should be reliable and practical, hence these changes.
As we will see below, Charlie Paris has gone the direction of making sportier watches for both him and her. The current line up includes the Aurore waterproof watch for women, that features 100 meters of water resistance, a high-grade Miyota 9029 movement, and a sapphire crystal. It’s a watch that looks elegant and that is rugged enough to be taken to the pool and for hikes. The men’s catalog features more rugged watches, like the Concordia diver and the GR field watch, in addition to more dressy options. The more adventure-inclined watches seem to be the most recent additions to the brand’s catalog, marking a stark contrast with their first collections. I like that.
With that said, there is one element of the brand’s recent history and marketing mix that I find particularly interesting: their collaborations.
A Philosophy of the Greats
What sets Charlie Paris apart from many other independent brands is the fact that they have brand Ambassadors in the way only the giant Swiss and Japanese horology houses have. Before we get to my favorite part of this article, however, let’s talk about their GR line of watches. GR stands for “Grande Randonnée'' which translates more or less to “Grand Hike.” Charlie partnered with the official French hiking organization that maintains the country’s hiking trails. They made a 100-meter water resistant field-type watch that has more elegance than a typical watch of this genre, which comes with either a quartz movement of an automatic Miyota 9000 series (see picture below.) It was built to specs for the outdoors and I think it’s pretty neat that a brand that has been around for less than a decade enters such partnerships.
After releasing the GR line, Charlie was ready for a bigger challenge. Through a connection they met Matthieu Tordeur, a French world traveler and the first French explorer to walk the South Pole alone, and the youngest explorer ever to have accomplished such a feat. The team at Charlie Paris met him while he was preparing for the expedition and decided to design a watch for him, which came in the form of the Concordia (see picture below.) This watch is a diver-style watch with 300 meters of water resistance and a SOPROD P024 caliber. As you can see, Charlie keeps upping the ante with each new release, and their collections are more and more leaning toward hardcore adventure.
Amongst its ambassadors, Charlie also counts the world-renowned wind surfer Thomas Traversa, for whom they designed the Concordia Nazaré (see picture below) and French freestyle soccer player Paloma Gomez. It seems that Charlie is not going to stop here doing collaborations and supporting French athletes and explorers. The fact that they are doing all of the work is quite astonishing to me and is not something that I’ve seen done by many, if any, young/independent brands elsewhere and thus far. It’s as if the team at Charlie is not afraid of crossing new barriers and pushing their own limits by creating new models for their various ambassadors and by supporting French athletes and explorers.
What I love about what I do is getting to know brands and the people behind them, and to try as best as possible to relate their story to you. Not two stories are the same. I am drawn to each brand I write about for a specific reason, although this reason may not be evident at first. In the case of Charlie, I’m amazed by the brand’s evolution from making $100 quartz dress watches of which design may seem familiar, to designing watches for the athletes and explorers they collaborate with. What’s more is that these watches are available to the general public for a reasonable price, unlike Swiss giants that make limited editions that are almost impossible to acquire. Which brings us back to the brand’s philosophy: to make watches that make people dream, that they can own, and to proudly say are designed and assembled in France.
Check out www.charlie-paris.com for more information about the brand.
Thanks for reading.