Sunday, August 13, 2006
The weather is not improving in East France but is still very relaxing with that fresh and humid weather. After my visit a week ago to the "Mekka of watch lovers" in the Vallée de Joux, Switzerland, I decided to pay a visit to Besançon, the French capital of horology, in Franche-Comté, a region next to the Swiss border and Neuchatel canton.
The French horology apparently suffered more from the quartz wave than the Swiss conterpart in the 70's likely because French watch companies were less attached to the high-end watches market. However, a closer inspection shows that some rests nicely survived under the cover of larger companies. The two main French brands with international reputation as Lip and Yema have still a large collection of signed quartz watches at reasonable prices and have some interresting remakes. Not yet again mechanical, however, and regretfully .
To my knowledge the last French mechanical movements were done by Lip and France Ebauches (FE, that was a merge between Parrenin and LORSA) in the 70's and the French production then exclusivement turned to quartz ébauches (FE, ISA).
LIP was a real watch "manufacture", producing full home made watches of high quality standart on an industrial scale (ca 300,000 the years) with research labs, designers, watchmakers, mecanicians, etc. More than 1300 employees worked for LIP in Besançon in the early 70's, a sort of "Michelin" of watches ... The company faced to very severe financial and complicated social troubles in 1973 for a complete year and became restarted in 1974 for some years with the help of heavy public subventions. FE bought the brand and the stocks in the 80's before stopping its activities in 1990. Cartier tried to buy the brand name but J.-C. Sensemat, the new LIP owner, decided to reimplant the headquarter near Toulouse South to France. Seiko France, Breitling and other small and medium companies remplaced progressively that industrial disaster and Besançon is now competiting in the field of different micromechanical research and development. Something very bitter remains probably in the memory of the city.
The City of Besançon has a "Museum of Time" located in Palais Granvelle, one of the most beautifull building of Besançon constructed by Granvelle, a minister of the Emperor Charles Quint between 1534 and 1542 ...
A special exhibition is related to clocks ordered by Napoleon (the 1st) as national decoration elements of official residences...I liked in particular the "snake clock" one...
Their round movements are a standart size called "mouvement de Paris" that were manufactured in the same configuration and technology over 250 years....
The other main rooms are devoted to the measure of time since Besançon was the official French time observatory since 1882 (and still there) at a time where no world-wild time broadcast was of course existing from satellites and atomic clocks...Four main functions were required for the observatory :
1. "Elaborate" time from stellar observation at night
2. Keep that time using the most reliable and precise clocks
3. Broadcast the time to different places in the city
4. Certify the chronometer grade of certain clocks and watches
Telescope used to catch the time to the stars (the sideral time)
Obervatory time keepers, electromechanically connected to beep generators. The loup is for observation of the balance amplitude.
Clock were insulated from external pertubations under vacum and in deep wells of the observatory...
time broadcast panel ...
There are no large collections of watch on display n the museum. Only representative objects were selected as the "most complicated watch" ever constructed (24 complications) manufactured in the Leroy workshops in around 1900. More than 950 parts (who wish to service it??:-D)
A nice explanation of the quartz piezo-electrical phenomenon (discovered by Pierre and Marie Curie) and early quartz and atomic timing instruments, as this one from a research laboratory of Besançon university (60's)
and a old HP cesium clock :
The only display related to LIP with the first "electronic" watch (R27 movement in the 50's):
The last roon of the museum is under the building roof and its amazing frame (century 16!...). It relates general historal and geographical features of the city.
Outside, the city reveals its pronounced character with that old houses and building made of regularly spaced grey and beige stones :
On the front of the city hall, the city armories
that are also on the case back of LIP watches with 2 hands indicating 11:05 :
Before leaving, I would like to see the former and last industrial site of LIP manufactures in Palente, North-East suburban of the city. Not easy to locate it indeed. Not a single sign or indication. Documents found from the net indicated that LIP manufactures where initially Mouillière street, downtown. The info of the construction date of the Palente site is fluctuating between 1967 and 1970. Finally I reached "2-4 Chemin de Palente" in front of Seiko France. It should be a least the main unit now renconverted in SMI hosting and in good conditions :
Impossible to say that is an "happy end" , but a big chapter of French horology was historically closed here 30 years ago, very painfully for sure....but the wheel is still rolling!