In a time before pocket-sized supercomputers and super sturdy G-Shock watches, the precise timekeeping required for military operations was accomplished with complex yet robust timepieces powered by a compressed spring and a series of gears, wheels, and levers. Today, while the advent of wearable computers has made this technology obsolete, watch enthusiasts and military buffs alike can celebrate the fact that the official watch of the French Air Force has been made available for purchase by the general public for the first time.
Founded in 1948 by Henry Louis Belmont, Yema went on to become one of the premiere French watchmakers of the 20th century. Those that aren’t familiar with the history of watchmaking may be surprised to learn that English and French watchmakers were the premiere artisans of the industry before the Swiss. In fact, the Swiss rose to the horological prominence that they hold today because farmers would manufacture copied parts of English and French timepieces during the cold Swiss winters. Even Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf, a massive anglophile himself, started his watchmaking career in London before high taxes, the outbreak of WWI, and anti-German sentiment in Britain forced him to relocate to Switzerland.
A vintage advert for the Superman (Yema)
Despite the transition of watchmaking prominence to the Swiss during the 20th century, Yema found great success through their partnerships. Their racing chronograph, the aptly named Rallygraph, was worn by Formula 1 icon Mario Andretti. The year 1982 saw a Yema become the first French watch worn in space when French Spaceman Jean-Loup Chrétien wore a Yema Spationaute 1 on a 10-day space trip. However, Yema’s most famous collaboration was with the French Air Force.
A French fighter pilot carries his flight helmet while wearing the Yema Superman FAF Black edition (Yema)
In 1963, Yema introduced the Superman dive watch. Developed for diving professionals, the watch possessed a water-resistance rating of 300m. In comparison, the 1963 Rolex Submariner 5513 was rated for 200m. The Superman was also equipped with a patented bezel-locking mechanism that prevented the timing bezel from being adjusted accidentally once it was set for a dive. These features, coupled with the watch’s toughness, durability, and French origin, made the Superman the natural choice for the French Air Force to equip both its pilots and rescue divers.
Although Yema survived the Quartz Crisis of the 1970s, an industry culling that killed off numerous traditional watchmakers, they were purchased by the Seiko Corporation in 1988. The company was sold back into French hands in 2004 and embarked on a mission to revive the tradition of French watchmaking. Although Yema does utilize off-the-shelf movements from Switzerland, the company spent four years developing a completely in-house caliber. The MPB1000 is the first proprietary automatic movement to be engineered and built by Yema, and the obvious choice to power their top-of-the-line models.
With the release of their very own French-made movement, Yema continued to rebuild their reputation using their strong heritage. In 2020, Yema again became the official timekeeping partner of the French Air Force and released the Superman French Air Force edition watch. Based on the standard Superman design, the FAF edition was designed in collaboration with French airmen including pilots and ground personnel. The watches are available in a variety of configurations to fit the preferences of any buyer. Case diameter can be had in 39mm or 41mm, finish can be had in either brushed stainless steel or with a black PVD coating, and the movement can be either a quartz-powered Swiss Ronda 515 or Yema’s automatic MPB1000 mentioned earlier. While all models bear the French Air Force red, white, and blue roundel on the case at 6 o’clock and on the crown as well as the French Air Force logo on the caseback, the automatic MPB1000-equipped models are limited to 1,948 pieces each for the steel and black models and are engraved with their series number.
(Left to right) Yema’s President Frank Minost, General Manger Christopher Bôle, French Air Force Chief of Staff General Lavigne, and Yema’s Brand Manager William Germain (Yema)
As a result of COVID-19, the initial release of the Superman FAF edition was delayed. However, Yema persisted and on June 26, Yema delivered the Superman FAF Black Limited Edition #0001/1948 to the French Air Force Chief of Staff, General Phillipe Lavigne. Priority delivery continued to French Air Force personnel until, eventually, orders by the general public were shipped. Additionally, Yema is donating up to 12.5% of FAF edition sales to the official French Veterans Foundation, FOSA. Today, limited edition models are still available and ready to ship internationally from Yema’s workshop in Morteau.
Before you go writing off the French Air Force, keep in mind that they are one of, if not the oldest military air service. They can trace their roots back to the French Army Air Service which predates even the Royal Flying Corps, the predecessor to the RAF. Today, the French Air Force has seen extensive combat action in the War on Terror flying combat missions in Mali, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. French pilots of the 21st century carry on their branch’s long legacy of warfighting and their watches are ready to accompany them into the skies.