Ah, Paris. The city of light, love, croissants…and as it turns out, watches. Most capital cities have their own unique watch scene these days, but there’s one name that’s synonymous with Paris: Cartier.
Founded in 1847 in Paris by Louis-Francois Cartier, the firm is now owned by the Richemont Group, whose watch portfolio also includes manufacturers such as Langhe und Sohne, IWC, Jaeger LeCoultre, and Panerai – to name but three (and there are very many more).
Cartier’s flagship store is in Rue de la Paix, close to Place Vendome (which houses the Ritz as well). Spread out over six floors, it’s been there for more than 100 years, and was recently extensively revamped to form an architectural showcase. As Cartier’s CEO put it, the idea was to end up with a building that looks “typically Parisian, but a little bit theatrical too.”
I managed to poke my nose in only briefly before it was quickly established that I wasn’t fit to join the ranks of beautiful people invited to the inner sanctum. Nonetheless, it was a fascinating glimpse at a true French watchmaking icon and another box ticked on the list of global horological sights. When it comes to dress watches, few do it better than Cartier.
My next destination was somewhat more modest, but a definite highlight of my whistlestop tour of the French capital. On the Rue de Rennes, close to the trendy left bank, there’s a brilliant second-hand watch shop that’s called Art Watch (www.artwatch.fr). Unlike many of the Parisian watch shops (specifically Cartier…) it’s not too intimidating to visit and there are a number of intriguing watches in the window that were actually affordable (including a beautiful Breitling Navigator that only served to fuel my current obsession). Also for sale were a handful of Tudors and an IWC, with only a couple of the obligatory Rolexes.
Not that we have anything against Rolexes, but it’s nice to find a watch dealer who sees beyond the universal prestige and potential profit that lies in the best-known Swiss brand.
I’d meant just to drop in, but instead spent more than an hour chatting with the people in the shop and trying on different watches. As the name suggests, they take a funky approach to selling watches, specialising in pieces that are slightly offbeat and some which are very old: 1970 Autavia, anyone?
The area around the Rue de Rennes seems to be where most of the watch shops are found in Paris, so that’s definitely a place for collectors to head to. Nearby there’s an Oris boutique, not to mention a Breitling store and Rolex emporium. BM Second Hand on the Place Vendome (www.bmsecondhand.com) specialises in Rolex, while The Beautiful Watch (www.thebeautifulwatch.com) has an interesting selection too, with some lovely older Breguets and a nice selection of Zeniths as well.
And that brings us neatly to another French icon: the LVMH Group (which owns Hublot, TAG Heuer, and Zenith among others). Many of the big Swiss names are basically French, which is why Paris is one of the epicentres of the watchmaking world – even if you don’t quite realise it.
My favourite watch of my fleeting three-day visit was a little blue Beaume et Mercier from 1980, spotted in Art Watch. This dinky 28mm square watch with a blue leather strap, powered by a quartz movement, was like none of the other watches I looked at – which was probably key to its appeal. All fashions are cyclical, and this is precisely the sort of look that’s coming back now: just see the Nomos Tetra, for example. But this one really spoke to me: a genuine vintage Swiss watch, with a gold case, from a big name, at a price that was surprisingly affordable. To my mind, it had all the French watch vibes, but was classier and even more striking than a Cartier. I wish I’d bought it actually, because my dress watch collection is slightly lacking. Perhaps another visit to Paris is due imminently…