Franck Muller. It’s a name in watchmaking we haven’t heard mentioned with passion for a while now. Then in December 2020, the Maison debuted a new heretofore unseen watch: the Franck Muller Vanguard Line Cut. It was a sports luxury timepiece with integrated bracelet and in a genre filled with “me too” facsimiles inspired by the Royal Oak or Nautilus, the Vanguard Line Cut was a breath of refreshing air.  Suffice it to say, Franck Muller might be onto something, in fact, I think they might be on the crux of making an epic comeback.

The Cultural Phenomenon that was Franck Muller

It was the late 1990s, early 2000s when Franck Muller was at the apex of cultural and social zeitgeist. Everyone who was anyone had a Franck Muller and so, as a young undergraduate, these were the obvious kinds of status symbols that telegraphed luxury but more importantly, it was a brand that competently straddled that line between pomposity and subtlety. Franck Muller had some outrageously avant garde designs that screamed for attention and also more understated pieces that kept quiet until a jacket sleeve was pulled back to reveal an unusual tonneau or cushion shaped watch. While not pioneers or inventors of the tonneau, Franck Muller catapulted this once archival case form into modern watchmaking lexicon. I dare say brands like Richard Mille owe Franck Muller a debt of gratitude for forging a path dominated by round watches.

In fact, one sign of consumer relevance and cultural ascendency is how a brand eventually makes its way into hip-hop. Puffy wore a Franck Muller watch in the “Hate Me Now” music video with Nas. Following that, rappers ranging from Jay-Z to Kanye West to Lil Uzi Vert have all proudly worn his watches and mentioned them in their raps. In “Gotta Have It” with Kanye West, Jay-Z raps: “Bueller had a Muller, but I switched it for a Mille,” (Say thanks Mr. Mille) and on “Patek” with Future, Lil Uzi Vert states: “Frank Muller made me proud of my wrist.”

Then, they sort of disappeared.

Over the last two decades, brands like Hublot and Richard Mille have kind of usurped Franck Muller’s dominion as the “go-to” tonneau shaped watch. For a long time, Vartan Sirmakes has been trying to reinvent the brand to recapture some of that lost magic. It is tragedy that today, mention “tonneau” and watch lovers tend to think Richard Mille or Spirit of Big Bang, that said, it is essential that having popularised the tonneau that hadn’t been seen since the early days of 1900s watchmaking, Franck Muller is right not to let go of their most iconic form factor. Over the years, the Vanguard had become bigger and thicker but the new Line Cut returns the brand to its roots, the foundations that made Franck Muller such a mega-hit in the 90s: watches that  stood out from the crowd while remaining elegant.

The Franck Muller Vanguard Line Cut is a portent for things to come

In a departure from the brand’s early 21st century more is more aesthetic, Franck Muller’s latest creation is unbelievably thin (it slips under a shirt cuff now), minimalist and outright monochromatic. The Vanguard Line Cut is a slim (a Line as its namesake suggests), time-only watch finished entirely in sandblasted titanium giving it a clean, sophisticated look that recalls Franck Muller at its peak. When I first discovered the Franck Muller Vanguard Line Cut online, I was saddened to see that it was a France exclusive. Today, Augustman is pleased to report, following the success of the brand’s biggest Haute Horlogerie exhibition in Singapore, that the Vanguard Line Cut is now available in Singapore and priced at S$15,600, it is pretty darned affordable, if not an outright bargain.

What made Franck Muller so compelling and what other brands have discovered and co-opted in their wake, is that the combination of a curved Tonneau case and a bold face culminates into an aesthetic that cannot be mistaken for anything else: this makes a watch distinctive at 100 paces. For the Line Cut, Franck Muller has gone Zen-minimalist through the extensive use of Titanium throughout the case, the bracelet, the dial, and the crown.

The use of sandblasted titanium adds visual interest while making the watch extremely lightweight and resistant to corrosion and erosion but more importantly, with all the aesthetic elements that used “shock and awe” customers into paying attention removed, connoisseurs can once again rediscover their passion for the sensuous curves and undulating lines that made watches like the Curvex and Vanguard such beautiful timepieces in the first place.

At 41mm, this is one of Franck Muller’s smaller timepieces, and at just slightly over 9mm thick, it positions itself a sweet spot of proportions competitive to other luxury-sports models (it’s thinner than an AP15400) with integrated bracelets. Keeping in mind that this is still a curved case with curved glass, this shape, with these materials are complex to achieve and difficult to make thin, so what Franck Muller is doing with the Vanguard Line Cut is showcasing their prowess beyond visual design, they’re actually engineering it to a more accessible size. The Vanguard series has been a great success for the brand but they were big watches and not everyone has the wrist to wear something like that. Without its usual dependence on colours and mixed textures, the clean, matte, uniform “sandy” finish of the entirety titanium is remarkably sophisticated, avoiding the pitfalls that plague some other new entrants to the luxury sports genre where they execute multiple contrast finishing on multiple facets.

At 30 metres water resistance, it’s a mere fraction of what is typical for a “sports” watch but what’s interesting is probably the least talked about element of the timepiece: the FM 708 movement that beats within. Though scant information is provided on the FM 708 calibre, Franck Muller confirms that it was developed specially for the Vanguard Line Cut and yes, a cynical watch connoisseur would say other brands had made similar claims but were caught out at a later point, how can we be sure Franck Muller is telling the truth? We studied the dimensions of the FM 708 and it is 28.9mm in diameter by 3.8mm thick versus a typical 2892 or Sellita SW 300 equivilant measuring 25.6mm by 3.6mm; so this is a crucial indication that it is a different movement – exclusive to Franck Muller, if not in-house.

In-house vs. out-sourced: Addressing that debate of Vertical Integration

In order to attract investors during the late 1990s mechanical watch revival, someone sold [watch companies] the idea that “verticalisation” –  everything under one roof, was the sign of a respectable brand. Nevermind that right up till that point, the most prestigious names of the industry, chiefly Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Omega were still using Lemania chronograph blanks, or that Audemars Piguet were using Dubois Dépraz modules for Offshore chronographs.
For close to 200 years, the watch industry had operated on an etablisseur model where a handful of watchmakers revolved around a myriad of suppliers and independent component manufacturers and then assembled and refinished a timepiece in their image and likeness. In this system, comparing the quality of finishing and level of artistry between a Patek Philippe, Vacheron or Omega was still relatively straight forward since everyone had the same base canvas: a Patek Philippe chronograph was markedly different from the more utilitarian Omega Cal. 321 chronograph. Suddenly, if you wanted to be taken seriously, you had to verticalise and become a “manufacture”.
In economic terms, it’s quite foolhardy, and its quite likely why there are shortages in the industry and price increases half yearly. Every experienced manager knows that you compare quotations from at least three suppliers, and always have two potential suppliers as backups for your most critical components but since being a manufacture today is what gives you street-cred, everybody has hopped on the bandwagon, even the brands that have no business re-designing the wheel (count on the number of in-house but unreliable movements – I rest my case). The reality is that a lot of the verticalisation that brands boast about only exists on paper rather than practice. This exposition is not to burst the magic and mystery that is watchmaking but rather to address a fundamental cynicism of Franck Muller’s adoption of perfectly reliable workhorse movements from ETA: under these  arbitrary standards, it can look like Franck Muller is just making watches by simply casing pre-existing ETA movement and modifying them with platinum rotors but the reality is Franck Muller puts a lot of effort in adjusting and modifying their out-sourced calibres; the platinum rotor alone, with its heavier weight already improves on winding efficiency.

Final Thoughts

The Franck Muller Vanguard Line Cut is a sign of great things to come for The Watchland. This new design reveals an aesthetic that is both discreet and distinctive. The outline of the hand-applied numerals and the black “Line Cut” lines add depth to the dial, while the black insert in the midcase of the watch accents the delicate curve of the case. All the elements of the timepiece, including the case, dial, bracelet and crown are made of micro-blasted titanium for perfect unity. At its simplest, it is ironically Franck Muller’s most well considered timepiece to date. The delicacy and refinement of the new “Line Cut” is defined by its precision and high level technical specifications that have come to symbolise the best of Franck Muller Genève.

Franck Muller Vanguard Line Cut Price & Specs

Case 41 mm sandblasted titanium with 30 metres water resistance
Movement Automatic exclusive FM 708 calibre with 42 hours power reserve
Price S$15600

 

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