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The Charles Oudin Watch Brand Poises for a Comeback

The Place Vendôme in Paris is lined with jewelry and watch boutiques from globally known luxury brands, attracting a steady stream of shoppers and tourists, as well as clients interested in purchases.

While Charles Oudin has been a Vendôme tenant in a grand 18th century building for 25 years, its profile is decidedly more discreet. Its elegant retail space is upstairs, reached through an entryway off the building’s courtyard, and outfitted with midcentury sofas instead of sales counters, and it receives clients by appointment only.

“We are,” said Claire Berthet, a director of the company, “welcoming the guests as friends in a Parisian apartment.”

The choice of a secluded location is deliberate, and sets Charles Oudin (pronounced Sharl Ooh-dahn), founded in 1797, apart from its renowned neighbors.

“It’s the right way for Charles Oudin,” Ms. Berthet said in a telephone interview. “It’s such a competitive world. We cannot compete with all the leaders, trying to be like them. We have to stay different.”

The brand’s array of watches also is distinctive, uniformly delicate, dressy and feminine, with dials that often are just 24 millimeters and are surrounded by diamonds or other gems. Straps are usually made of silk satin, often in bright colors like sunshine yellow and cobalt blue.

“It’s more jewelry than a watch,” Ms. Berthet said.

That could explain the recent interest in the brand, especially from female clients, after production ceased for nearly 70 years in the 20th century.

Charles Oudin’s styles, like the rectangular Curvex collection, are traditional and classic. The aesthetic, Ms. Berthet said, is because “we wanted something more retro, something that talks about the past.”

Prices range from 15,500 euros ($16,730) for a 20-millimeter 18-karat gold watch set with 1.6 carats of diamonds to €140,000 for a one-of-a-kind 18-karat gold timepiece set with 26 carats of assorted precious stones on the case and bracelet. The average price of the company’s pieces is about €25,000. (The brand said it usually quotes prices without France’s 20 percent value-added, or sales, tax because the vast majority of its customers are foreign and will be taking their purchases home, making them exempt from the levy.)

The brand’s watches are powered by quartz movements from the Swiss brand ETA, although, on request, they can be made with automatic Frédéric Piguet movements, which also come from Switzerland.

The timepieces themselves feature mostly French parts and are made at the family’s watch manufacturing company in the Jura, an area along France’s eastern border with Switzerland that has been a hub of watchmaking for centuries.

“We are proud of making French horology,” Ms. Berthet said. “We could have become Swiss, but we decided to stick to the French roots of the brand and continue producing watches in France.”

That legacy can be traced to the 18th century French watchmaker Jean-Charles Oudin, known as Charles, who studied under the celebrated horologist Abraham-Louis Breguet. Oudin introduced his eponymous brand in Paris 226 years ago; its clientele included Napoleon and his first wife, Joséphine, as well as Queen Victoria. (By 1857, another watchmaker, Amédée Charpentier, owned the company, which was then known as Oudin-Charpentier.) The business closed entirely in the late 1920s.

Few people, other than watch historians and industry insiders, know the brand now.

“The name Charles Oudin doesn’t leap out because they served fashion, but they didn’t innovate,” said Rory McEvoy, executive director of the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors.

“They certainly didn’t have a strong house style that people could immediately look at a pocket watch of that era and say ‘Oh, that’s an Oudin’.”

In the 1990s, Camille Berthet, Ms. Berthet’s father, was an antique watch dealer specializing in timepieces from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. When a client purchased his entire collection, except for the Oudin pieces, he decided to buy the defunct brand’s name and has owned it since 1998.

Mr. Berthet is a fourth generation member of the watch industry: his family’s watch factory in the Jura makes cases for several watch companies as well as Charles Oudin.

He has made the revived Charles Oudin into a family affair: Ms. Berthet oversees the commercial side of the business and her younger sister, Carole Berthet, is in charge of production. Once a week, he accompanies Claire Berthet’s two young children to the Place Vendôme atelier for a visit.

Recently, the brand has been gradually expanding its distribution beyond France.

Last year Net-a-Porter began carrying some pieces.

In February, there was a monthlong pop-up at Bergdorf Goodman in New York City and, in May, at the VIA Riyadh mall in Saudi Arabia.

Over the next few months, it plans to participate in several trade shows in the Middle East, including the Jewelry Arabia show on Nov. 14-18 in Bahrain.

The company would not share its sales figures, but Ms. Berthet said its 2022 sales were double that of 2021. “It’s a niche brand,” she said. “Of course, we’re not LVMH or Richemont.”

Still, Charles Oudin, with its female-skewed watches and lack of complex movements, doesn’t appeal to some collectors. In the thriving resale market, it is not listed on Chrono24 or Hodinkee.

In 2020, Sotheby’s Hong Kong auctioned an 18-karat white gold, diamond and pink sapphire Oudin watch from about 2015 for 27,500 Hong Kong dollars ($3,505), dramatically lower than the price of a similar new model, which retails for more than 10 times as much.

“They’re beautifully designed, but there are no complications,” said Daryn Schnipper, chairman of Sotheby’s International Watch Division. “It’s basically all about the diamonds.”

Nonetheless, Charles Oudin has no plans to change direction.

“The current collection — and all through the history, even from the 18th century — is very classically designed, with a lot of decorative elements,” Ms. Berthet said, “and that’s what we are sticking to.”

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