01/29/2024
 9 minutes

Yema – A Brand That Unites the Past and Future of the French Watch Industry

By Tim Breining
Yema: A Brand with a Dynamic History

Yema: A Brand with a Dynamic History

The French brand Yema is part of the small group of manufacturers that have taken it upon themselves to help the French watch industry make a comeback. Comeback, you ask? After all, according to the association of French watch manufacturers, the industry employs 3,000 people across 92 companies. A much larger number live in France, near the Swiss border, and commute to work in Switzerland, where over 60,000 people are employed in the industry. There is no shortage of watch brands and suppliers based in France. But what’s lacking is the ability to produce entire mechanical movements in significant numbers, when it comes to both in-house movements and movement suppliers.

It wasn’t always so. Over the course of its 70 years, Yema has seen times when manufacturers such as France Ebauches, Lip, Lorsa, and Ultra produced the ticking hearts of French watches. That’s no longer the case, but Yema and a handful of other brands are working toward a French watch industry that can once again source movements from within the country.

It goes without saying that this involves a number of challenges and won’t happen overnight. Let’s take a look at some of the milestones Yema has already overcome, some significant events and watch models from their history, and the ways the brand is reaching for the stars – that is, for a movement made 100% in France.

A Vibrant 75-Year History

Yema’s history begins in 1948 in Besançon, the former capital of the French watchmaking industry. The brand was founded by Henry Louis Belmont, a watchmaker who was born and trained in Besançon and formerly served as technical director of the watch and movement factory Lip. His approach to finding a name for his brand was disarmingly pragmatic, and perhaps characteristic of a technician: he organized a school competition for finding a name that sounded as Greek as possible and wasn’t yet taken. This saved Belmont from hiring an advertising agency and saved him a few headaches as well. And so the name “Yema” was born.

Over the next two decades, Yema became the largest French watch exporter of its time. This rise brought with it a significant collection of independent timepieces. It’s thanks to this fact that Yema can fall back on genuine vintage models from the company’s history, no matter what turmoil might arise from its many changes of ownership. While other brands have to resort to design tricks from the retro toolbox and often fabricate questionable histories, Yema has the real thing. Considering the current popularity of vintage-style watches, that can be a tangible asset.

In the next section, we’ll take a closer look at some of Yema’s iconic models. But first, let’s return to the dynamic ownership of the brand. The first change in ownership came in 1982 with the sale to the industrial group Matra, which was active in the automotive and aeronautical industries and, for whatever reason, created a watch division called Matra Horlogerie. Matra’s watch division was headed by none other than Richard Mille, whose tenure also saw the introduction of the Yema Bipôle North Pole, a model that bears recognizable design features of Mille’s own brand.

In 1987, while Mille was still at Matra, the watch division was absorbed into the Seiko Group as CGH (Compagnie Générale Horlogère). What became of Richard Mille in the later years is widely known. Matra merged with Aérospatiale, one of the companies that developed the Concorde, which later merged with Airbus. Yema faced an uncertain future, as Seiko was primarily interested in the sales opportunities of the European acquisition, rather than maintaining business and manufacturing expertise in France. Many jobs in France were also lost due to the reduction in production capacity.

In 2004, the then CEO of CGH took over Yema from the Seiko Group, and Yema was once again a French brand that could be restored to its former glory. This was not the end of the story, however, as Yema changed ownership one last time in 2009, coming under the control of the Morteau-based Groupe Ambre. Morteau, along with Besançon, is one of the most important centers of French watchmaking and is just a stone’s throw from the Swiss border. The town, which like Besançon suffered from the decline of watchmaking, is working hard to make a comeback for French watchmaking. Manufacturers such as Pequignet, like Yema, are deepening their manufacturing expertise and moving ever closer to producing their own movements. At the same time, the renowned Lycée Edgar Faure watchmaking school is training the highly qualified staff that is urgently needed. Today, Yema is based in this rich environment.

Yemas Iconic Models: Authentic Reinterpretations

Now that we’ve sketched the history of Yema and the town of Besançon, it’s high time to turn to Yema’s collection. As mentioned above, Yema is in the comfortable position of being able to draw on a wealth of authentic historical models and carefully adapt them to modern tastes.

The Superman, Rallygraf, Yachtingraf, and Wristmaster are of particular interest, in part for historical reasons and in part due to current developments at Yema.

Superman

The Superman is probably Yema’s most iconic timepiece, and its modern remake is one of the brand’s bestsellers. The original Superman was introduced in 1963 and was a diving watch with water resistance of up to 300 m (984 ft). It had a unique design typical of its time, as seen in the typography of its indices, among other things. One striking technical feature is a construction at three o’clock, which you might mistake for a crown guard. In fact, it conceals a locking mechanism for the bidirectional bezel, which is connected to the screw-down crown and increases safety while diving. The unique steel bracelet with its fish scale aesthetic, also available with the original, is worth a mention as well. The original movements were made in France – something Yema is working towards restoring in the future and which has already been partially realized. I was able to find at least one early Superman on the Chrono24 marketplace, though without the fish scale bracelet.

The most striking features of the historic Superman can be found in Yema’s modern-day Superman collection. From the Superman 500 (or 500 Dato) with or without a date display, to the model with a bronze case and in-house movement to the GMT model – there’s something for every fan of authentically styled retro divers here. The watch’s modern functionality can be seen in its water resistance of 500 m (50 bar, 1,640 ft), or 30 m (3 bar, 98 ft) with an unscrewed crown. Most models are available in 41 mm or 39 mm, making them suitable for many different wrists. Different variants on the model contain different movements with varying proportions of domestic work – more on that in the last section of the article.

Rallygraf & Yachtingraf

In 1966, when Yema was responsible for 90% of French watch exports, two other iconic models were introduced, both of which still grace the brand’s collection today. The first is the Rallygraf, which unmistakably belongs in the realm of motorsport and whose design screams loudest of the 60s.

Ein moderner Rallygraf mit Meca-Quartz-Werk
A modern Rallygraf with a meca-quartz movement

Back then, the Rallygraf, which of course has a chronograph function, was powered by a Valjoux movement. Its modern iteration can be purchased with a contemporary Valjoux caliber 7753, but most of the timepieces in the Rallygraf collection are equipped with Seiko VK64 meca-quartz calibers. They combine a mechanical chronograph mechanism that’s pleasing to the touch with a quartz movement, making it possible to enjoy the benefits of a chronograph on a budget. There is also a three-hand version without a chronograph function, but with a Yema movement.

Die ursprüngliche Version des Yachtingraf mit modifiziertem Minutenzähler
The original version of the Yachtingraf with a modified minute counter

The Yachtingraf joined the Yema catalog the same year as the Rallygraf. This eye-catching maritime timepiece featured a modified minute counter that made it possible to track the ten-minute countdown before a regatta. Today’s version of the Yachtingraf has abandoned the original purpose of the watch in favor of a tourbillon movement with a tide complication, making it the brand’s clear flagship model.

Wristmaster

Last but not least, the Wristmaster is also worth mentioning, even if it didn’t enjoy the same initial success as the aforementioned models. This makes the collection all the more important to Yema today, as the Wristmaster of the 1960s serves as a template for the modern interpretation of the ubiquitous stainless steel sports watch with integrated bracelet.

The Long Road to a “Made in France” Movement

Let’s now turn to the beating hearts of Yema’s timepieces. When it comes to movements, Yema is driving a remarkable Made in France campaign, gradually moving towards a caliber that is manufactured and assembled entirely in France.

The project began with the introduction of the caliber MBP 1000 in 2011. This movement was based on the ETA 2824-2, but with a diameter of 28 mm rather than the 25.6 mm of the ETA. Some of the parts were manufactured in China, but the movement was assembled in France. The MBP 1000 has now been replaced by the MBP 2000, in which certain parts, such as the regulating mechanism and the variable gears of the automatic module, have been optimized. Again, the development and final assembly took place in France, but the parts still come from unspecified sources. The MBP 3000 is a variation with a GMT complication, which can be found in models such as the Superman 500 GMT.

The calibers mentioned so far are listed by Yema under the category “Standard Grade”. Things get really interesting with the calibers that Yema calls “Manufacture Grade”. Engineer Olivier Mory is the main person behind these movements, and his company OM Mechanics offers development services for watch movements. They also draw on the expertise of experienced developer Patrick Augereau, who secured several patents for his former employer, Audemars Piguet’s complication manufacturer, Renaud & Papi.

The collaboration with Mory has so far resulted in three calibers: the CMM.10, the CMM.20, and the CMM.30, with the initials standing for “Calibre Manufacture Morteau.”

Yema Wristmaster Micro-Rotor
Yema Wristmaster Micro-Rotor

It all began with the CMM.20, a micro-rotor caliber with a 70-hour power reserve, which Olivier Mory already had in his pocket and which gave Yema the opportunity to add a desirable, exclusive caliber to its collection. Unlike the MBP 1000, 2000 and 3000 calibers, the CMM calibers don’t contain any components from faraway places. All of their parts come from France and Switzerland, within 45 miles of the company’s headquarters. Yema manufactures its own plates and bridges at its own facility in Morteau. Like all CMM calibers, they’re matte coated, with no perlage or stripes, giving them a futuristic, minimalist look. The balance is supported on both sides by a solid bridge, like in many modern constructions, such as the Kenissi movements for Tudor.

The movement debuted in the Wristmaster Micro-Rotor, which was updated as a stainless steel sports watch in Genta style. The watch was offered on Kickstarter for a reduced price, a practice that’s become common for Yema and that gives spontaneous buyers the chance to purchase new models below later list prices.

Das Kaliber CMM.20 aus der Wristmaster Micro-Rotor
The caliber CMM.20 from the Wristmaster Micro-Rotor

The caliber CMM.20 is very flat, at a height of just 3.7 mm, thanks to its micro-rotor construction. That notwithstanding, it doesn’t look like there are plans for any future expansions. Instead, the CMM.10 will do the job.
A classic self-winding movement with a 70-hour power reserve and a conventional rotor, the CMM.10 is destined to become the brand’s new standard movement, with the possibility of gradually adding other functions.

The first models with this movement, the Superman CMM.10 in steel and in bronze, are awaiting distribution. The crowdfunding campaign ended in November 2023. Anyone interested can now pre-order models with the CMM.10 in Yema’s online shop.

The third and most exclusive movement in the CMM line is waiting to be packaged and delivered inside the Yachtingraf Maréographe. This limited series (75 pieces per case variant) features a tourbillon movement by Olivier Mory and a tidal complication, and just breaks the five-figure price barrier. In the past, Mory designed a tourbillon movement for Thomas Baillod’s BA111OD brand, which allowed the watch to be sold for around 5,000 Swiss francs (approx. $5,700). Yema also offers prices on the lower end for this type of movement.

That might also have to do with the fact that the CMM.30 does without elaborate hand decoration. Keep in mind the kind of prices that you’ll see elsewhere for tourbillons with finishing. The Yachtingraf Maréographe comes across as a modern watch suitable for everyday use, with its 105-hour power reserve and 10 bar water resistance – and that’s just how Yema advertises it, too.

Where is Yema now, and where is it going?

With the production of around 30,000 models per year, direct sales and the regular use of crowdfunding to bring new technologies to the market, Yema seems to have found its strategy and its corner of the market. In the future, the brand would like to use more in-house movements and replace the current investment-heavy growth with long-term profitability.

If you stumble upon Yema for the first time, you might mistake it for one of the many microbrands that use Kickstarter campaigns and retro designs to attract customers. In reality, Yema is a brand with an authentic, if tumultuous, history that is evolving into a serious, independent watchmaker under the leadership of its current owners.

Speaking of which: What about the goal of a movement made 100% in France? At the moment, Yema claims that 80% of the components of the CMM.20 are made in France, while 20% (certainly including the escapement and mainspring) come from Switzerland. The hurdle for sourcing these final components from domestic suppliers or producing them in-house would be much higher than for the plates and gears. However, given its current technical development, the brand is certainly capable of doing so.


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About the Author

Tim Breining

My interest in watches first emerged in 2014 while I was studying engineering in Karlsruhe, Germany. My initial curiosity quickly evolved into a full-blown passion. Since …

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