Yema: The French Connection

For a time, French watchmaking was the height of horological technology. Encouraged by the French throne, watchmakers in France were highly influential the world over. Names like Breguet, Moser, Philippe, (yes, that Philippe) are still known throughout our hobby even today. As fate would have it, though, they were doomed by the very same throne that drove them to their heights. With the Edict of Fontainebleau revoking the Edict of Nantes, many protestant French watchmakers were driven from the country into the neighboring Cantons of the Swiss Confederacy. With the Calvinistic religions frowning on jewelry, Swiss watchmaking took off and left the French behind.

French watchmaking never truly disappeared from the face of the Earth, but there are very few French manufactures currently in existence. Most are either French brands making Swiss watches, or French assemblers of watches using foreign parts. One of these actually French manufactures is Yema, founded in 1948 by Henry Louis Belmont.

Out of the gate, Yema produced robust, difficult to destroy timepieces. Along the lines of Rolex, they were made to be worn, used, and abused. This is a testament to the fact that these watches were used by French pilots, sailors, astronauts, and even the first expedition to cross the North Pole. The Navygraf was no exception. The original was released in the 1960s, and while the Superman was the famous Yema diver of the time, the Navygraf was a timeless design, decidedly French, and exceptionally useful. The dial was easy to read with exclamation point indices and bright yellow hands designed to be legible in every condition encountered on Navy missions. The Navygraf II is arguably the most well-loved Navygraf, and the design of the original was so good it became the basis of a new release in the Navygraf line.

With durable and reasonably priced watches, Yema had plenty of partnerships with the French military. With an enduring partnership alongside the French Air Force, combined with French Navy personnel seeking Yema to design watches for official use, Yema became the second watch company to obtain a license with the Marine Nationale, which also allows them to sell the watches publicly. As a result, we have a stunning blue watch based on the Navygraf Heritage. Here is the Navygraf Marine Nationale.

Military inspired watches are gaining popularity with some iconic models coming out of Switzerland and Japan, but only this one is French and has the support of the Marine Nationale. One thing is for certain, French know style. If you read reviews, you will hear stories of quality control issues and poor customer service. Is it warranted? Search for yourself. Look at the most iconic French cars. They were unique, they were stylish, and they were tanks. There may have been issues here and there, but even Toyota hasn't been spared from manufacturing defects. Arguably, the same thing can be said about Yema. There is every sign that the timepieces are robust, and well built.

Speaking of style, this Navygraf Marine Nationale drips with it. The navy blue is accented by bright white indices and hands which looks sharp and makes for a useful display. The gold script offers stunning contrast and is the perfect choice for this piece. The Marine Nationale logo is placed perfectly at six o’clock, while the rest of the dial simply states "990 feet Automatic." It is simple, clean, and will not be mistaken for any other diver on the market. The dimensions couldn’t be better either; in the world where 43mm+ divers have become popular, the Yema Navygraf Marine Nationale clocks in at 39mm with a thickness of only 12.5mm. This size is much more useful and less bulky than some of the Swiss divers currently on the market. It’s an easy wear and if you don’t like the bracelet, Yema supplies you with a free parachute strap. In terms of design, the French company completely captivates. In all honesty, this absolutely could be that under-$1000 grail you’ve been looking for.

One thing that is important with dive watches, especially ones to be utilized by the sailors of the second largest navy in the world, is toughness. Yema made sure this timepiece could handle all the rigors of a day in the life a sailor. Naturally, the eye is drawn the face of the watch and here, Yema went with the tried-and-true sapphire crystal and sapphire bezel protector. If we do have one complaint, it's the AR coating. It is nowhere near as good as the premium Swiss brands, but it does the job adequately nonetheless. It is highly scratch resistant, as is every sapphire glass and the case is made of the standard 316L stainless steel, which has proven itself on the most abused timepieces. One may notice Yema's choice of using a brushed finish on all the metallic surfaces, and we think this actually works quite well, as a high polish would give away even the slightest marks. With this setup, only the deepest scars would show up and, in these cases, the battle scars can be a source of pride. The parachute strap offers all the security of a NATO while only having a single pass with a lower profile. It is smart decision after smart decision that makes this a hard to beat daily wearer for even the most discerning of sailors (or desk divers).

Lastly, we'll talk briefly about the movement, the YEMA2000. Yema’s first-generation in-house movement was the MBP1000 and this was actually produced by the current Yema parent company Montres Ambre. Even knowing that, there are some issues with what is being called an in-house movement. Experts suspect that it was designed by Montres Ambre while parts were manufactured in China before being shipped to France for final assembly. Is this truly in house? Well, you'll have to decide if that common method of manufacture is close enough for you and your wallet. One of the quirky features of the MBP1000 is the ghost date. This is a date complication movement, but it was equipped in models with no date display. This has created a useless crown position where one could adjust a non-existent date. The Yema Navygraf Heritage, and of course, the Marine Nationale, have the updated YEMA2000 calibre and this is an evolution of the original which eliminates the ghost date. There are no indications anything has changed as far as manufacture goes, but this movement is designed to perform better than other major standard grade calibres. It includes legitimate updates that increase the power reserve and is able to be regulated to stricter standards than the ETA 2824 and Miyota 9015, two titans of the watch world. In-house is an overused term, and many will feel that Yema and Montres Ambre took major shortcuts in this, however the YEMA2000 calibre is a quality piece considering you can buy a timepiece so equipped for less than $800. In that regard, it is a hard-to-beat value proposition.

In conclusion, any major watch fan should be looking at the Navygraf as an affordable daily wear timepiece. It is rugged, stylish, and modest all at the same time. If you are a fan of affordable pieces, this could very well be a new grail for you. It is not for everyone, but it is a watch I will definitely be adding to the collection.

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