In the showcase of his boutique Fréret-Roy with the evocative subtitle of Watches & Wonders, nestled at the corner of the prestigious Place Vendôme in Paris, Michel Fréret-Roy opens the doors to his universe. It is here, in the heart of this capital world-renowned for its taste for luxury and elegance, that our founder Pierre-Antoine Tsady had the opportunity to meet this passionate watchmaker.
Together, they delve into a rich history, exceptional craftsmanship, and an incessant quest for authenticity and distinction. From the importance of his family history to the Swiss origin of his creations, through the specificity of his "skeleton" watches and the development of his new collection, Michel Fréret-Roy will reveal the secrets and reflections hidden behind each meticulously crafted piece.
Furthermore, we will also discover the spirit that animates the boutique, its process of selecting independent brands, and how it stands out in the Parisian watchmaking landscape. Get ready to embark on a fascinating journey through time and craftsmanship, where each tick-tock resonates like an echo of authenticity and watchmaking passion.
Pierre-Antoine Tsady: Could you please tell us about the importance of your family history in watchmaking and how it has influenced your career?
Michel Fréret-Roy: Of course. In reality, it is fundamental. I started my career in construction, which was my father’s field, a public works contractor. From a young age, I followed him to construction sites. I have always evolved in this entrepreneurial environment, alongside my father, a very active man involved in several employer federations. He held numerous responsibilities, including that of mayor, regional councilor, president of the Federation of Public Works in Normandy which he created, and vice-president of the National Federation of Public Works, president of the Federation of Roads in France, and also president of the social commission of the FNTP. He was a man of dialogue, very open.
After studying business, I worked in Germany as a cooperator, then spent two years in a bank – my purgatory. Then, I joined Spie Batignolles, a construction company, where I developed projects abroad. I traveled a lot, especially in English-speaking Africa and the Middle East, promoting major projects. I also lived abroad where I managed the Mexican subsidiary. I then worked in the Jean Lefebvre group, then at Vinci where as Director of Sales, Marketing, and Communication for the Industrial Works branch, I also managed a subsidiary in Spain and another in Morocco…
P.A.T.: Could you tell us how your experience in major French engineering and construction groups contributed to your success in the watchmaking industry?
M.F.R.: Well, I came into watchmaking through family atavism, on my mother’s side to be precise. My great-great-grandfather came from Couvet, in the canton of Neuchâtel, to Rouen in 1802, where he opened a shop and a watchmaking workshop. In 1818, he created a watchmaking factory that was developed by his son Henri Roy, my great-grandfather. At that time, we did not yet use the term "manufacture," but rather "factory". My great-grandfather developed patents, monumental clocks, and made floor clocks, two examples of which you can see here in the boutique, as well as pocket watches. Bracelet watches, on the other hand, only appeared at the beginning of the 20th century.
My great-grandfather took care of the manufacturing, then my grandfather, for family reasons, left watchmaking to create a transportation company. But I felt a deep interest in watchmaking within me, like a kind of "watch virus." In fact, I was passionate about watches.
And when the passion for watches took over and my desire to change professional horizons materialized, after discussing it with my wife Sophie, and with her agreement and unwavering support, I must emphasize, we took the plunge and created our company, the Compagnie Française de Montres SARL, in February 1997, whose activity was the importation and distribution of high-end Swiss watches in France. A story that began over 25 years ago!
P.A.T.: Could you tell us more about the philosophy behind the creation of the Fréret-Roy 1818 watch collection and the significance of the mention of the year 1818?
M.F.R.: Before creating our own brand, my wife and I decided to open a well-located boutique in Paris in 2005. It was in 2011 that we decided to create our own watch brand.
Why? To capitalize on our name and create an image that strengthens over time.
The mention of the year 1818 has a very specific meaning: it refers to the year of creation of my family’s first watchmaking factory. It is a true story that I perpetuate, that of a Swiss watchmaker who came to France to establish his own manufacture in 1818. This factory still exists today and is now called Biard-Roy, although it no longer produces watches but only monumental clocks. The mention of 1818 is therefore a tribute to the origin of our watchmaking heritage.
We created our brand under the name Fréret, after my father, and Roy, after my mother, which is also my maiden name. In watchmaking, all double names have legitimacy, they tell a story, often of two families or complementary individuals. Think of Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, Baume & Mercier, Vacheron Constantin – our immediate neighbors, for example. There is a real history, an authenticity behind these names.
We were also inspired by the number 1818 itself. For the bicentennial, we released a model priced at 1818 euros and another at 2018 euros. We also have limited editions of skeleton chronographs, limited to 18 pieces. But we don’t systematically adopt multiples of 18.
P.A.T.: Why did you decide to have your watches manufactured in Switzerland rather than in the historic Biard-Roy factory? What does this bring to your creations?
M.F.R.: The historic Biard-Roy factory specializes in the production of imposing timepieces, such as monumental clocks, and not wristwatches, which involve the use of very different machines and manufacturing processes.
As for Switzerland, we made this choice because in France, watch movements are no longer really manufactured. Even though there are French brands that have been able to design and develop movements, the majority of components, if not all, are not French. In general, Made in France is limited to design, and sometimes to conception, and mainly to assembly.
As for other countries, the Germans have developed a more advanced industrial strategy than France in this field, but it is a matter of groups. Especially the Richemont group with A.Lange & Söhne and the Swatch group with Glasshütte Original, but true German brands are very few.
The Italians have recently reintroduced an OISA movement, but it is still in its infancy. As for China, it has several manufacturers producing movements of improving quality.
And then there is Japan. The Japanese, especially Seiko, are very strong in the production of movements and watches. Whether one appreciates their design or not, technically, there is nothing to criticize about their creations. Grand Seiko, for example, is technically remarkable. The Japanese have a real watchmaking industry, let’s not forget Citizen, the owner of the Swiss movement manufacturer Lajoux-Perret.
In summary, we chose Switzerland for the production of our watches because Switzerland is still an essential country in the watchmaking industry, whether we like it or not, and the Swiss part of our watches remains the majority.
P.A.T.: Could you tell us about the importance of introducing your exclusive Fréret-Roy 1818 case in the development of your models?
M.F.R.: Certainly. Our first case was an existing model that we had customized. We started with aesthetic modifications, such as the finish of the case, which we had brushed and satin-finished by hand, completely changing the appearance of the watch. But our goal was to create a truly distinct product. So over time, we completely redesigned the case.
We notably introduced an extremely thin and elongated crown protector, which protects the crown from shocks while remaining almost invisible. On the skeleton chronograph, it integrates perfectly with the pushers.
If there is another aspect that we particularly cared about for this case, it is the lugs. The lugs are "straight" but their strong curvature makes them suitable for small wrists, even though the 42mm case diameter is quite imposing. It’s a detail that I appreciate, and it sets us apart from many other brands that, in my opinion, have lugs that are too horizontal or too long, making the case too imposing. It’s a matter of taste, of course, but I think our approach makes our watches easier to wear on all wrists.
In short, all these details have led to the creation of truly exclusive cases for our brand, which clearly distinguish our watches from those of our competitors.
P.A.T.: "Skeleton" watches have made the success of Fréret-Roy 1818. What makes them so special and why did you decide to make them your signature?
M.F.R. : Before 2005 or 2007, "skeleton" watches displayed flamboyant, intricate, or mannered decorations, "old-fashioned" as they say. Then came the trend of very modern cutouts, rather raw plates cut in straight lines or curves depending on the case. Faced with the popularity of this new trend, we made it our own and launched our own skeleton models with modern cutouts, always in curves as far as we are concerned. Only the Lady skeleton watches feature movements that are cut in a more classic or feminine manner, simply put.
Another specificity, all our skeleton watches bear the name Cœur Ouvert® which we first registered with the INPI in 1999 and have continuously used since. The names of our skeleton models are all derived from this registered name.
The skeleton has become our signature, not only because it was a trend, but also perhaps because there were similarities with public works, metal structures, and architecture. When creating skeleton watches, one feels the same sensation as when creating metal structures or bridges. There is a direct link with civil engineering.
When cutting a movement, it is architectural creation. I select from the movements available on the market those that interest me and that I wish to use, I choose a cutout or rather now draw or redraw it myself. As for the dials, they are all now designed by me.
This applies to all our models, from our highest-end piece, the Cœur Ouvert® Tourbillon, for which I designed the cutout of the manufactured caliber and also the dial – registered with the INPI – to our historical model, the Cœur Ouvert® Nouvelle Vague V2.3 – 3 for the third evolution – which features a redesigned movement and dial, the Cœur Ouvert® 120 H and its different versions, the Cœur Ouvert Chronograph, and of course our latest creation, the Sub Ocean Jumbo Chrono. This is what gives a strong style, a DNA to our brand, one can feel an imprint, a style that is ours.
My latest find concerns the original placement of our logo on the dial! Indeed, our logo Ξ [Greek capital xi, which looks like a horizontal three horizontal in Roman numerals] is now placed at 3 o’clock on the dial! Positioned in line with the crown, if your watch protrudes from your sleeve during a meeting for example, the logo will be immediately noticed… then the brand for connoisseurs or the curious.
P.A.T. : Can you tell us more about your new collection, especially the Cœur Ouvert® Tourbillon and the Fréret-Roy 1818 Sub Ocean Jumbo Chrono?
M.F.R. : With pleasure. The tourbillon is a new creation, the idea of which was inspired by our exchanges with a watch enthusiast client. One of our long-time American clients wanted a unique or rare tourbillon, but without exceeding the amount of 30,000 euros. That’s how the Cœur Ouvert® Tourbillon came to be. I worked in collaboration with him and other clients interested in such a piece to finalize the design details of this timepiece.
Speaking of design, the bridge of the tourbillon in this watch has a rhodium finish – silver – different from that of the dark anthracite movement, an idea suggested by one of my clients. This creates an interesting contrast and highlights the tourbillon.
As for the Fréret-Roy 1818 Sub Ocean Jumbo Chrono, it was born from the desire of a client who loves large watches. It is a completely different diving case with a solid steel back, without a transparent case back. With a diameter of 46.5 mm, this chronograph is indeed large, but thanks to the plunging shape of the lugs, it even suits slimmer wrists.
For the dial of this Jumbo Chrono, we took a different approach. Instead of cutting the movement as we usually do for our skeleton watches, we only cut the center of the dial, also with a "heart open" design, and placed very thin, open counter discs to reveal the central part of the movement. The center of the movement is reworked or brushed by hand depending on the movements, offering a beautiful contrast with the dial that alternates between grained and brushed finishes. And the price remains below 4,000 euros!
This watch also has an interesting feature. The gray of its dial is enhanced by a touch of gold, a color that we introduced seven years ago and has become one of our signatures. This hue adds a touch of distinction to the watch.
P.A.T. : Why did you decide to create another exclusive line of watches, the Petite Minute®, and what makes it unique?
M.F.R.: The originality of this line, whose case is the same as that of our Cœur Ouvert® Nouvelle Vague V2, lies in the contrast between the very small minute hand in the center and the large hour hand. This concept was born in response to single-hand watches [editor’s note: like Slow and MeisterSinger watches]. I was not attracted to the design of these single-hand watches, which I found to have an overloaded dial and random time reading. However, since they were successful, I thought about a different but competing concept. That’s how I created the Petite Minute® models, which are just as unconventional but more precise to read, especially if you have a train to catch!
I must also say that this idea came to me as a result of a joke: when someone asks someone else "Pouvez-vous attendre une petite minute ?" ["Can you wait a little minute?" is a French expression], it inspired me to create a watch that would respond to this expression. Thus, the Petite Minute® was born, quite literally, with a large hour hand and a small minute hand.
P.A.T.: What are your future plans for Fréret-Roy? Do you have specific models or innovations in mind?
M.F.R.: Indeed, I am currently working on a watch entirely made of steel. I find that the current design of these watches lacks personality or inspiration, except of course for the heavyweights of watchmaking that everyone identifies with their all-metal models that were innovative in their time. I’m talking about the Patek Philippe Nautilus, Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, and a few others. But I would like to bring my own vision to this type of model. I also intend to create a new watch for women, probably in 38 mm, which will be inspired by the previous one but will benefit from an improved horn design.
P.A.T.: If you had to give a watch to a woman you admire, which one would it be?
M.F.R.: I would choose the Cœur Ouvert® model in the 38 mm version, which my wife Sophie also wears, in a unique mechanical manual winding version.
P.A.T.: And for your children?
M.F.R.: Each of my sons received a Cœur Ouvert® Nouvelle Vague V2.3 for a birthday or special occasion.
P.A.T.: And for the President of the French Republic?
Well… If the President of the Republic wanted one of my watches, I would suggest that he contact me or visit me… or invite me to visit him. His Majesty Mohammed VI honored us with his visit several times and acquired several watches, including the Cœur Ouvert® Chronograph during its launch through subscription.
I want to clarify that I am firmly against the idea of giving watches to public figures or those who benefit from public funds. Heads of state, politicians, as well as overpaid athletes, actors, millionaires, and billionaires have the means to buy their own watches. Moreover, in my previous experiences with actors, they never wore the watches I gave them. So, in summary and for fairness, I prefer that everyone pays for their own watch, including heads of state.
P.A.T.: How do you select the independent watch brands that you offer in your store?
M.F.R.: My selection is mainly based on my intuition and affinity with the creators or representatives of the brands. Each brand presented here has been chosen because it sparked my interest. We are ideally located in close proximity to the boutiques of the most renowned brands, which attracts a wealthy clientele to whom we offer a different, intimate, and friendly concept. Despite our small size, our store offers an elegant and classic setting that charms our customers, in an "old-fashioned" way, a kind of "cabinet of curiosities". We maintain a delicate blend of antique furniture and works of art in a decor that remains stable despite changing fashion trends.
P.A.T.: What is the typical profile of your clients? Are there any nationalities more represented than others?
M.F.R.: Our clients are diverse and come from many countries. Many are French, from Paris or our regions. We also regularly welcome Americans, who are our first foreign customers, and Canadians. Australians have become rare since Covid, and we currently see few Chinese customers. Russians are also less present than before, to say the least. On the other hand, we have noticed an increase in the number of customers from the Middle East.
In terms of professional segmentation, lawyers, both French and foreign, represent a significant share of clientele, with two lawyers among the buyers of the tourbillon, for example. But bankers, senior executives, and entrepreneurs also represent an important segment of clientele. The age of our clients is also varied, ranging from their twenties for their first luxury watch to 80 years old. Some come alone, others with their family or partner. For example, one of our new American clients, a lawyer, came alone and jokingly exclaimed that his wife would "curse" him for the number of watches he had bought that day. So I took the opportunity to offer him a small gift for his wife… to make up for it.
P.A.T.: Do you have any interesting anecdotes about clients or special moments that have happened in your store?
M.F.R.: Several clients have left a mark on me over the years. First and foremost, a charming retired gentleman who, after selling his collection of Chinese art objects, started buying watches and jewelry for himself, his family, and his friends. He was very endearing, with simplicity and great culture, he came to all our cocktail events, unfortunately, he passed away 2 years ago, a few days after the last cocktail he attended.
Of course, I also think of His Majesty King Mohammed VI, who impressed me greatly with his extreme courtesy and charming personality.
Unfortunately, not all experiences are as pleasant… such as the three robberies I have experienced or the trick thefts that require constant vigilance!
And among my suppliers or partners, I have a special thought for a genius creator, Daniel Nebel, creator of the Nord Zeitmaschine watches, who suddenly passed away from illness in the fall of 2020.
P.A.T.: What sets your store apart from other watch stores in Paris?
M.F.R.: What sets our store apart is that we prioritize unique brands and products that clients cannot find or rarely find elsewhere. We offer distinctive watches, and as for jewelry, I create them myself. Each piece comes from my designs, I no longer rely on third parties, often for the sake of originality. In reality, it is me who chooses the stones, designs the settings, but if clients have specific desires or design ideas, we can also fulfill their wishes. However, we do not offer jewelry for men because I lack "inspiration", but in that case too, we can create on demand. Thus, I would say that our uniqueness lies in the personalization and singularity of our products.
P.A.T.: How do you interact with your clients to understand their needs and desires?
M.F.R.: First and foremost, I strive to listen. When a client enters our door and asks, "What do you have that’s better or more expensive?", I do not know nor can I answer that question. It is up to the client to define it based on their tastes, they must be seduced by a particular product. If a client asks me for the most expensive watch, I remind them that the important thing is that they like it. I always take into account the client’s style. However, when a client says, "I don’t know what I want," I feel uncomfortable because it is not logical. Finally, I always remain vigilant towards those who enter without showing a clear interest in watches, as a precaution due to my past experiences…
Interview conducted by Pierre-Antoine Tsady, on 2023-05-31.