Collector Guide – LIP, the French Watch Brand That Started an Aesthetic Revolution

In the winter of 1999 I was twenty, and I was alone in Carcassonne. A warm wind blew through the Cité that winter, blew until it seemed that June would arrive at any moment and force all the tourists to remove their heavy woolen coats and tie the sleeves in clumsy knots around their waists. There was not much to do in Carcassonne, even in that forgiving winter, but there was the Cité: On the summit of a hill on the right bank of the River Aude, this medieval stone citadel still stood, in the same spot first occupied by the Iberians in the 5th century BCE. The Cité interested me a great deal, but I could not spend another day touring through it, so I walked down the hill to wander around the village below. 

I decided I would buy a sandwich and a bottle of wine and find somewhere to sit outside and enjoy the unseasonably warm weather, and I was practically giddy at the thought of having found a new purpose to my day.

I returned to the same convenience store where I had purchased a disposable camera that morning, and I immediately began filling a wire basket with items: a brie-and-apple sandwich wrapped in foil, a bottle of Bordeaux, a bottle of water, a razor, gum. At the counter was the same balding middle-aged man wearing a dark gray turtleneck and several days’ beard. He was reading a newspaper that was spread out on the counter’s surface like a map of enemy targets.

The man looked up and gave me a smile that contained equal parts warmth and pity. He could tell I was young and American: a student or a backpacker, intentionally adrift, stumbling through his country. He swept aside the newspaper and cracked open a paper bag, smiling that smile at me. 

Image credit: tourism-carcassonne.co.uk

“Bonjour,” he said warmly as he rolled up his sleeves, revealing a pair of hairy wrists, and began carefully loading the bag with my items.

It was then, at that moment on that winter day of 1999 while the warm wind blew outside, that I first saw a Lip watch.

The watch resembled my grandfather’s Hamilton, a retirement gift for thirty years of distinguished service: stainless-steel case, silver dial, svelte in profile. Simple, sturdy, straight. But this watch bore a decidedly different aspect. The lugs jutted out of the case like insect claws, curling out and back in toward the wrist. The numerals, black with gold surrounds, read like a strange combination of art deco and the Hebrew alphabet—the “2s” looked like “Zs,” the “6” like a “G,” and the “9” like a hangman’s cross. The hands looked like black toothpicks, resplendent against the silver of the dial. And just under 12 o’clock, the one-word logo called out to me: Lip. Though my tastes and aesthetic sensibilities were still evolving at this point in my life, I knew this watch was special (and still do); I had never before seen a simple, three-hand everyman’s watch executed with such personality and fearlessness. Most watches of this era were meant to be staid and unobtrusive. Not this one. For a watch intended to be worn by a European middle-class man in 1950s and 60s, this Lip was bold, audacious, and—I can say this confidently even today without fear of abusing the term—avant-garde.

I stared fixedly at the watch as if it were the last object capable of attesting to and reassuring me of beauty in the world. It called to my mind a time of creation and experimentation so remote that I could barely relate it to that present. I said something banal (“nice watch,” maybe), but the man hadn’t heard me. He kept filling the bag stiffly, his eyes vacant.

De quel genre de montre s’agit-il?” I said, asking what kind of watch he was wearing, in my tortured French. 

The man seemed surprised by the question. He made a gesture as if to check the time. “Lip,” he said, but to my ears the word sounded like “Leap.” 

Image credit: lip.fr

 “Very popular in France,” he said. “Many people have.” He knitted his brow and folded his lips together, and I was made to understand that I had been arrested not by an object of beauty but by a tool of the bourgeois. But then he seemed to have a change of heart. He shook his wrist as if to rouse the watch’s sleeping rotor and looked carefully at the timepiece as if for the first time in years. Grinning widely now, he said, “Wedding present. From my wife. Very nice.”

I knew then that I had fallen in love with Lip, and I committed myself to pursuing her utterly. There was just one problem: Hardly anyone was collecting vintage Lip watches, even in France. In North America, I would soon learn, the name Lip was virtually unknown even to astute collectors and antique dealers. 

Still, I forged on. While my pursuit of knowledge and collectible examples over the years would be frustrating, even maddening, this obscure French watch brand would serve as a continuous source of intellectual curiosity for me, an endless fascination with a company and its designers who, unbeknownst to me at that moment in the winter of 1999, had started an aesthetic revolution in the watch world that still reverberates today. 

Un symbole de la France

There is only one published account of Lip’s history in book form: Des heures a conter, by Marie-Pia Auschitzky Coustans, which has never been translated into English. (In 2002, a watch enthusiast named Nick Downes read the book and wrote a summary in English for Time Zone). Much of what I have learned about Lip comes from Des heures a conter, Downes’ helpful distillation, French watch forums, European watch dealers, Lip collectors, French watch-focused blogs, and news articles.    

Image credit: lip.fr

One conclusion I’ve drawn from my research is this: from its origins as a Besançon watchmaking workshop in 1867 until its demise in 1976, Lip reflected the country’s turbulent history and avant-garde spirit better than perhaps any other French company. Through the prism of this one watchmaker, France witnessed world-beating technological innovations, the merging of artistry and industry, revolution and social upheaval, and historic economic growth and decline.

Through it all, Lip was tenacity personified. 

Lip was France’s largest watchmaker and one of the only French watch brands with a presence outside the country. The company produced 10 million watches before finally going bust, trading on a hard-earned reputation for producing accurate, reliable, high-quality timepieces that also challenged the conventions of watch design (challenged, in fact, what constituted watch design) and stretched the boundaries of the watch-buying public’s aesthetic sensibilities. Lip was believed to be the first non-Swiss company permitted to create a watch company in Geneva, Switzerland (Lip Geneve, Lip’s popular high-end line of watches, marked the first time that the word Geneve appeared legally on the dial of a watch made by a non-Swiss watchmaker). Meanwhile, in France, Lip was also the first company to market and distribute Swiss brands like Breitling and Universal Geneve. As a technological innovator, Lip produced Europe’s first electric movement and was the first watchmaker in France to develop quartz technology. In its heyday, Lip had some of the most sophisticated production facilities in all of Europe; if you were a foreign dignitary visiting France in the first half of the 20th Century, chances are you received a guided tour of Lip’s factories. 

Les jeunes années

In 1900, Lip produced its first movement—the 20-mm-diameter “caliber 20.” Four years later, the company marked what was arguably the first important milestone in its history: Founder Emmanuel Lipmann developed the first phosphorescent watch dial in collaboration with Pierre and Marie Curie, just one year after the Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for their investigations into radioactivity. (This innovation would yield a sad chapter in watchmaking history, as thousands of factory workers, many of them women, would experience grisly side effects from painting watch dials with luminous radium paint.)

On the heels of introducing the first watch with a radium dial, Lip built its first factory in 1907. In 1908, Lip did something no other watchmaker did before: Advertise. The company launched nationwide, targeted, aggressive marketing campaigns, with the goal of establishing Lip as a household name in the minds of France’s growing middle class. The effort paid off. By 1910, Lip was producing 10,000 watches a year.

Image credit: lip.fr

Over the coming decades, the company grew at an exponential pace. During the Great War, Lip made chronometers for the military. During the Great Depression, the company survived by focusing on quality, reliability, and accuracy as selling points, and kept innovating. Lip’s most successful movement of this era was the T18, introduced in 1933, which was later made famous as the engine powering the tonneau-shaped Lip watch Charles De Galle gave to Winston Churchill as a gift after World War II.

Vive la résistance!

By the mid 1930s, Lip was producing 40,000 watches a year, firmly in place as the largest watch manufacturer in France. Then the war came, and the Occupation. Under a brand called Saprolip, Lip began making armaments, cockpit clocks, chronographs, chronometers, timers, and fuses at a factory in Issoudun. But soon the Nazi forces took over the Lip factories at Besançon and la Mouilliere to make clocks and watches for the German military. 

Lip did not go quietly. The Lipmanns, it should be noted, were descended from a Jewish family of Alsatian watchmakers. Emmanuel Lipmann’s grandson, Frederic Samuel Lippman (he changed his legal surname to “Lip” in 1938), joined the French Resistance. Then in his mid-thirties and having just assumed the role of Lip’s technical director, Fred Lip and some employees spirited tooling and parts away to Lip’s Issoudun factory in unoccupied France and continued production of armaments for the French Free forces. They eventually relocated their operations to Valence, and with limited money and resources, a small group of Lip workers managed to produce a new wristwatch movement—the I24.

Following the war, Fred Lip took over his family’s company and reclaimed control of the Lip factories in newly liberated France. A postwar boom period began.

Fred Lip: Esprit renégat

To some, Fred Lip was a genius. To others, he was a madman. But no one had a more profound influence on the company’s renegade spirit, its innovations and its legacy, than Fred Lip. 

Fred Lip. Image credit: lip.fr

Fred Lip did things his own way, bucking both the Swiss tradition and the conventions of France’s often-conservative watchmaking industry. After studying the manufacturing methods of Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycle in the United States up close, he installed the first assembly line for watches in France. He signed a lucrative deal to supply Russia with movements, watch parts, and expertise, singlehandedly creating a watchmaking industry in the communist country when no one else would. He started the research work on electric watches when people doubted their future, and he dedicated himself to the task of perfecting quartz technology despite Japan’s and Switzerland’s formidable resource advantages. He was also a shrewd dealmaker: he forged industry-first exclusivity deals with the likes of Blancpain and Breitling, negotiating to get his company’s name on the dials of high-end Swiss watches for merely distributing units inside France and providing after-sales service. But perhaps Fred Lip’s greatest and most lasting contribution to the world of watchmaking came in the late 1960s, when he rewrote the rules of watch design.

With sales slowing and competition intensifying from Asian quartz watches and cheap mechanical watches made by multinational watchmakers like Timex, Fred Lip did something extraordinary: He hired an illustrator and package designer named of Prince Francois de Baschmakoff to design a watch. 

No watchmaker had ever worked with a freelance designer before. In hiring Prince Francois de Baschmakoff, Fred Lip, in effect, was violating an unwritten but universally accepted rule of Swiss watchmaking: No one is more famous than the brand, not even the designer. But Fred Lip wasn’t just exalting a designer above the brand; he was giving an artist and industrial designer with no prior watch-design experience carte blanche to conceive and design watch from the ground up. “Design-first” watchmaking was born. In France.

What Prince Francois de Baschmakoff came up with was, as one would expect, a far cry from the Swiss tradition or even the Lip I spotted that winter day in Carcassonne. 

One of de Baschmakoff’s designs for Lip. Image credit: lip.fr

“He was Lip’s first freelance designer and arguably brought a bold new direction to the brand’s aesthetic as a consequence of not being a specialist in watch design,” write Josh Sims and Mitch Greenblatt in their book Retro Watches: The Modern Collector’s Guide

The cost of development and manufacture for de Baschmakoff’s was immense, but paved the way for other pioneering independent watch designers of the era, some of whom would work for Lip. 

Unfortunately for Fred Lip, the decision to partner with Prince Francois de Baschmakoff proved to be his last strategic one as head of the company. With revenue plummeting and margin pressure increasing, the board of directors, now controlled by Lip’s largest shareholder, the Swiss company Ebauches SA, forced Fred to step down as president, ending more than 100 years of control by the Lippman family.

‘C’est possible: on fabrique, on vend, on se paie!’

In 1973 Lip became an international symbol for social change. When word about secret layoffs got out, the Lip workforce responded by commandeering the factory, taking two administrators and a government labor inspector hostage before riot police intervened. Undeterred, the workers refused to leave for months, instituting their own system of employee-owned management and reportedly hiding 65,000 Lip watches to prevent the new parent company from going through with the restructuring plans. Their slogan was “C’est possible: on fabrique, on vend, on se paie!” (“It is possible: we make them, we sell them, we get paid!”).

The conflict lasted until January 1974. As part of a peace deal reached between the striking workers and management, Publicis ad man Claude Neuschwander assumed control of Lip and the company rehired all the workers that were laid off.

Image credit: lip.fr

Neuschwander went right to work, hiring not one, but seven high-profile, freelance industrial designers, few of whom had any prior experience designing watches: Roger Tallon, Rudolf Meyer, Marc Held, Michel Boyer, Isabelle Hebey, Michel Kinn and Jean Dinh Van. The result was a revolutionary collection of timepieces—what could best be described as the first-ever “design watches”—that influenced brands like Swatch and Bell & Ross and paved the way for the Braun AW10 and Porsche Design watches in the late 1970s. Perhaps most importantly, Lip’s ambitious project showed what was possible when an established watchmaker collaborates with a known industrial designer. (See: Seiko’s relationship with Italian automotive designer Giorgetto Giugiaro.)

The Valjoux 7734-powered chronograph designed by Roger Tallon. Image credit: lip.fr

Arguably the most famous watches from this 1975 collection were Roger Tallon’s Mach 2000. Using the manual-wind Valjoux 7734 movement as his engine, Tallon conceived a sports chronograph that was as unconventional as it was playful—and far ahead of its time. The Mach 2000’s use of a “blacked-out” case, primary colors, blunt-ended hour and minute hands, and overall modernist minimalism design language would become prevalent—but not for another decade. A spiritual ancestor of Giugiaro’s Ripley watch for Seiko, the Mach 2000 somehow has an 80s futuristic feel; the case even looks like a PAC-MAN ghost turned on its side.

Another standout from the collection was Rudi Meyer’s Galaxie watches. Meyer was a well-regarded design teacher and graphic designer of posters, logos, and corporate catalogs and annual reports. His designs for Lip were among the most influential.

Rudi Meyer’s Galaxie (Image credit: Des heures a conter)
Did Meyer’s Galaxie (particularly the model on the far right) influence Seiko’s original ‘Steve Jobs’ Chariot series wristwatch, or even the Braun AW10? (Image credit: Des heures a conter)
Did Meyer’s square-cased watch, using one of Lip’s electric movements, influence Bell & Ross? Image credit: lip.fr

But it was Michel Boyer’s designs that laid the groundwork for Swatch. Boyer was an architect, interior decorator, and designer renowned for his ability to incorporate decorative and design elements into preexisting architectural spaces. In the 1970s, his best-known works were the interiors of the Rothschild Bank in Paris and the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. 

Boyer’s designs were bright, colorful, and playful. Image credit: lip.fr
(Image courtesy: Cartellino.be)

The models garnered widespread praise and sold well, but Lip could not reverse the tide. In 1976, the company ceased production.  

Over the ensuing years, the Lip name and intellectual property were sold and resold until a Frenchman named Jean-Claude Sensemat bought them in 1990 and restarted the Lip company in France. The current incarnation of the brand is focused mainly on preserving the heritage of Lip, producing dependable watches powered by Miyota movements based on classic models.

Fin

These days, I often regret not having taken any photos of the man’s watch in Carcassonne. He wouldn’t have minded. If I’d asked, I’m sure he would have allowed me to take as many as I wanted. He might’ve even found the whole episode amusing and told his wife about it later.  

I regret not having taken any photograph of the man’s watch because I still haven’t found the exact model on auction sites or through deals. Perhaps if I was living in France, I would have found one by now, a flea market or secondhand shop.

But I am grateful for this circumstance, because the absence made my heart grow fonder for Lip, a brand that endeavored to be bolder and stronger; to do what was difficult rather than convenient; and to give the world beauty as well as utility.