French watchmaking is making a comeback, and one of the brands leading the way is Yema. Fun and affordable tool watches based on the brand's own vintage models have catapulted the company from relative obscurity to an enthusiast favorite in recent years, and the man at the helm of the company is Christopher Bôle.
Yema is based in the small French town of Morteau, which is actually a shorter drive from Le Locle or La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland than it is from Besançon, the center of France's watchmaking region. Bôle grew up here and, as is the case for many locals, the watch industry is in his blood.
Under his leadership, Yema introduced a modern reinterpretation of its Superman dive watch from the 1960s that thrust its name into the consciousness of many watch fans. But, as a mid-sized company and with roots going back to 1948, this is much more than a vintage-inspired independent brand. Notably, Yema just announced the next generation of its own automatic movements, along with dive and GMT watches that house them, on Kickstarter.
Though normally behind the scenes, Bôle took the time to talk to Gear Patrol and shed some light on what makes Yema unique. He discusses growing up steeped in watchmaking, the extent to which Yema movements qualify for the contentious term "in-house" and more.
The following interview has been translated from French and edited for length and clarity.
Q. How did your interest in watches begin? Was there a specific watch or experience that started it?
A. I've been immersed in the watchmaking world since I was born. It was my father that introduced me to watchmaking at a young age. When other kids were fascinated by cars, I was by watches. I was intrigued by this complex object and wanted to figure out how the hands could move around the dial.
My first internship took place at Yema. At the time, the company was a bit left behind and I helped implement a new strategy. I read hundreds of forums, put all my pocket money into buying vintage watches. I also did an internship as a salesman in a shop in Paris to figure out how customers interact with the product and what their needs are.
Of course, there is a specific watch that completely converted me to watchmaking: it was a Superman vintage 530016 that I found on Ebay.
Q. Tell me about the watch you are wearing today.
A. Today, I’m of course wearing one of the prototypes of our models that we're launching on Kickstarter. It’s the Steel Bronze Green, a very unique watch with an audacious and original mix of materials coupled with an uncommon dial color. In my opinion, the color is a great complement to the warmth of the bronze bezel, a nice sensation since it’s getting quite chilly here in Morteau! Don’t miss out our Kickstarter campaign which is live now!
Q. How would you describe Yema to someone unfamiliar with the brand?
A. Yema has a rich history that is not well-known outside of France. Founded in 1948, Yema is run by the third-generation of a watchmaker family from Morteau. Most employees averaging 30 years of service have been trained in France's most prestigious horology schools located in our region.
Over the years, Yema has specialized in designing high-precision tool watches made in collaboration with the military, professional sportsmen, and scientists. Remarkable sportsmen and explorers have achieved the extraordinary under the most extreme conditions, with a Yema watch on their wrists.
Some examples: Yema was the first French watch sent into space and worn by a Western-European astronaut in partnership with the National Center for Space Studies (CNES – the French NASA); the first French diving watch going under 300m; the first French watch on a North Pole trek, worn by French explorer Jean-Louis Etienne on his 800km expedition; the official watch of France's Air Force pilots and renowned transatlantic sailing champions; and the iconic chronograph worn by Formula 1 driver Mario Andretti during his historic win at Indianapolis 1969.
Q. What is your role at Yema? What's your typical work day like?
A. In the capacity of Managing Director and due to the company's size and family-business approach, I spend most of the day close to my team. Everything is about being approachable and understanding everyone's day-to-day challenges. As such, my desk is in an open space surrounded by most of my team.
My typical day starts at 7:30am: first I go through my emails and then I spend time with the watchmakers and the shipping team to supervise production and after-sales. This is what I enjoy the most, being at the core of our workshops where everything happens.
As a young kid, I remember spending the afternoon after school hours in the workshops with the watchmakers while my dad was busy running the company. Just for laughs, Jean-Paul Boillot, our Watchmaker Master who has over 40 years of service, still refers to me as "Kid."
In the afternoon, I work mostly with Design, R&D and Commercial teams. During evening time I take the opportunity to work with key partners based in different time zones.
Q. How does your background and previous experience apply to your position at Yema?
I am the third generation in a watchmaking family, and as such, I was immersed in the watchmaking business since I was a child. Well before completing college in Paris, I had the chance to work informally at our Morteau workshops in order to accumulate professional experience in the watchmaking industry.
Q. Can you describe the size and structure of the company in terms of employees and facilities?
A. We have a four-floor building located in Morteau where the watchmakers' workshop, logistics, financial and administration and commercial departments are based. Our multi-cultural (10 languages spoken) marketing team is based in Mauritius. Morteau is a small-sized town fully focused on the watchmaking business, so it’s hard to recruit multi-lingual resources with high-end digital marketing skills locally.
Globally, we are 60 staff. We also have a small team in Japan progressively expanding since there’s growing demand for the Yema brand in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Q. Why was it important for Yema to invest in developing its own movements? What are the benefits?
A. The fact that Swiss and Japanese watch movements have not been consistently available to third-party brands coupled with our client’s enthusiasm for our first-generation in-house Caliber MBP1000 (more than 250,000 calibers sold since 2011) has reinforced our desire to secure our full independence by means of developing our second-generation in-house calibers.
Q. Yema's movements are "designed, developed and assembled in France." Can you share any more detail about their production that enthusiasts would like to know?
A. With a modest yearly output of 30,000 in-house calibers, Yema does not produce sufficient volumes to become a full vertically integrated manufacture, nor does it aim to. Opting for full vertical integration would require five times as many employees to produce the millions of individual components required each year.
For some watch brands like Yema it makes more financial sense to partner with French, Swiss and Asian component suppliers while completing the final assembly in our workshops. The reality is that there's no market for a mid-range, in-house caliber at the price of a tourbillon. This is not our business: rather, we’re organized to deliver performance at the right price for proprietary mechanics designed and assembled by our own watchmakers. This makes our in-house calibers more cost-effective than Swiss movements.
All the initial stages of our in-house calibers production, including R&D, design and prototyping take place in our Morteau workshops.
The final assembly is performed by hand by our Morteau team, with batches of movements moving from bench to bench. We employ designers, engineers, watchmakers, as well as specialists performing quality control of the finished components. This allows us to assemble the final in-house calibers only with excellent characteristics, and avoid exposing defective or low-quality in-house calibers to our customers.
Q. Like many brands, Yema makes watches based on its own vintage models. How else does Yema's history and that of the city of Morteau influence the company and its products?
A. Morteau is France’s birthplace of watchmaking, so we naturally have the chance to recruit a very skilled team who, just like me, have grown up in watchmakers’ families. Likewise, Edgar Faure’s School (France’s most prestigious watchmaking training institution) is a good partner of ours. We welcome dozens of interns every year, they learn from our experience while we benefit from their fresh and innovative spirit. Their input is very important to us and they often bring forward compelling ideas.
Q. Morteau is very close to the border of Swiss watchmaking country, so there must be a lot of shared history and resources. Do Yema watches benefit from that proximity?
A. Historically, Switzerland has wielded great influence on France and vice versa. There is a genuine cultural exchange that includes processes, techniques and development between the two regions. At the end of the day the border is just an imaginary line — the French and Swiss watchmaking regions feed into each other in a synergetic way in terms of expertise and talent. 15,000 people from Morteau’s region work daily for neighboring Swiss manufacturers while another 3,000 are employed by private-label French watchmakers based between Morteau and Besançon.
Q. What does a French watch mean to you? What characteristics can customers appreciate in Yema watches that are specifically French?
A. It's quite enjoyable to develop a technical instrument while also thinking about its design by adding our "French touch": an elegant, high-end product with quality at its core, topped with refined details makes all the difference.
And when it comes to Yema watches? Well, simply put, it’s first and foremost a timepiece that will last and won’t become outdated. Even when we choose to give it a more funky style, our final result needs to be sober and timeless with stylistic lines. Every detail counts! Obviously, our famous bezel-lock, invented by Yema, is what makes our watches immediately recognizable.
Q. How has the global health crisis affected your business in 2020? How have you had to adapt?
A. Like every company, we had to restructure our current organization to guarantee the safety of all our colleagues. Especially when it came to our watchmakers. This in turn has slowed down the manufacturing of watches.
I had to switch some of my employees to partial employment, and we have taken measures to maintain their livelihoods. Personally, the people working for us are what matter the most for me. Without them, we are nothing. As already stated, we are a family-sized company and each individual is part of this family.
Like every industry, the physical point of sales were the most impacted by the health crisis. In one clean sweep, they were all closed. But thanks to our digital strategy, where the customer is received as he would have been in a physical location coupled with a user experience and customer service of the same quality, we have worked twice as hard to face this crisis. It wasn't easy, but we managed to get back on track.
Q. What can you share about Yema's future direction in terms of business, technical advancements, new models or other developments?
A. Our priority is to keep on with the development of our in-house movements. There is always some R&D to be done all year long. Of course, we are also working on new products. 2021 might be a year full of nice surprises and incredible partnerships.
Equally, considering our growth and increase in production, new talent will soon join our team. Consequently, we plan on making huge improvements to our workshops.