Anne de Pontonx suggested we meet at the Jardin d’Hiver, the secluded cafe at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris.
Not only does she love its pastries, but she also sees similarities between them and watches. “During the Covid lockdowns I became interested in pastry, for the aesthetic side and the know-how,” she said. “In jewelry and watchmaking, you also find the combination of these two things. It’s also part of the French universe.”
That French essence is also very much part of Françoise, the online resale watch shop she introduced in spring 2022 with her collaborators, the watch collectors and brothers Charles and Louis Westphalen. (They declined to be interviewed for this story, saying that it is a common project, but that Ms. de Pontonx really embodies the brand.)
On an unusually hot August afternoon we sat on the hotel terrasse overlooking the ornate fountains and milling tourists of the Place de la Concorde, savoring the raspberry mille-feuilles that are the signature pastry of the cafe’s chef, Matthieu Carlin. The scene could not be more Parisian.
And Ms. de Pontonx had brought along a selection of watches sold on Françoise, including a Chanel Première Platinum, priced at 4,900 euros ($5,310), on a shiny black leather strap; a Cartier Tank Louis Cartier from the ’70s or ‘80s with a dial adorned with diamonds and rubies, €19,000; and an all-gold Boucheron piece from the ’90s with a braided band, €6,800.
What sets Françoise apart is not only its flair — it includes watches, Ms. de Pontonx noted, associated with Parisiennes such as Françoise Hardy, known to wear a Cartier Tortue, and Catherine Deneuve, who wears a Cartier Baignoire — but the fact that the selection and aesthetic is aimed at women.
“It’s something that’s been missing for a long time,” Ms. de Pontonx (pronounced Pon-tonsse) said. “There are a huge number of pieces available for men, and the women’s watch sector is very scattered in the middle of this masculine universe. So I wanted to refocus all that and create a universe in which women’s watchmaking would have its rightful place, while lending it back its cachet.”
For Brynn Wallner, the New York-based founder of Dimepiece, a website that describes itself as “a woman’s comprehensive resource for high-end watches,” the manner in which watches are sold is essential to reaching a female audience.
“In the era of the smartphone, when watches are no longer necessary utility items, women must feel a certain connection with these luxury items in order to make a purchase,” Ms. Wallner wrote in an email. “I’m speaking generally, of course — some women are established collectors or deep in the industry — but the new wave of female consumers and enthusiasts seeks out brands/voices/dealers that they can relate to.” (Ms. Wallner recently started selling vintage women’s and men’s watches herself on Dimepiece, in partnership with Foundwell, a vintage and crafted goods dealer.)
She wrote that the average online watch dealer includes “a lot of overt masculine messaging,” while Ms. de Pontonx’s “selection is in line with the current trends dominating the female market (smaller, Cartier, jewelry-forward) and her imagery has the femme touch that is surprisingly rare on the secondary market.”
Ms. de Pontonx, 26, said there are plenty of online sites offering both masculine and feminine watches. “It’s easy to get a bit lost, so I wanted to create a sort of reference site,” she said, featuring models she would wear herself.
But who is Françoise? “She’s a woman who speaks to other women,” Ms. de Pontonx said. “We wanted a first name that was French. We also drew inspiration from celebrities from the ’70s, like Françoise Hardy, Françoise Sagan, Françoise Dorléac, who are Parisiennes with their own style.
“Quite classic, but with a daring touch, with that little something extra that changes an attitude and a look.”
And the typical Françoise customer, she said, is a 30-year-old woman buying for herself. “For her 30th birthday, that’s what we get the most. She’s looking for an object that will mark this precise moment, and a timepiece is quite symbolic.”
Vintage watches can enhance that emotional tie, Ms. de Pontonx said, describing them as “something more unique, more personal.”
On her own wrist, she wore a Tank Louis Cartier, a Cartier model dating from the late ’80s to early ’90s. “I purchased it for myself when I started the company, to mark the occasion,” she said, noting the dial is equipped with a moon phase, a display of the waxing and waning of the moon. “I chose it with a little something extra, because I like to have things that are a little out of the ordinary.”
Ms. de Pontonx, who grew up in Paris, said she has always been attracted to beautiful objects and craftsmanship. She studied art history at Paris Nanterre University and initially wanted to go into automotive design, but then changed her mind and completed internships at luxury houses such as Van Cleef & Arpels, Chaumet and Mellerio, as well as in the jewelry and watch departments of two auction houses.
“Knowing how to look at a watch, look at a piece of jewelry, observe it, date it, see the differences,” she said. “There are a lot of things you learn on your own in this field simply by reading, looking at sales catalogs, handling the pieces. It’s an education of the eye rather than an apprenticeship you might get in a school.” Françoise is her first professional job.
Ms. de Pontonx and the Westphalens find watches mostly at auctions, private sales and through suppliers who scour trade shows, and have them serviced by one of the several specialists around Paris that the business uses. “Then we take care of the aesthetic part, such as change of strap,” she said. (The site’s very first sale, she added, was a ’70s Piaget model with a jade dial.)
Sales, which include a one-year warranty, are conducted both on the brand’s website and through Instagram; international shipping is available. Right now, she said, the site sells about 10 watches a month, generating €50,000-€60,000.
Ms. de Pontonx is the company’s only full-time employee, handling everything from requests to shipping, but the trio is planning to hire another staff member in the fall.
And she wants to add some jewelry to the offerings. “I think it makes sense, as jewelry and watches go hand-in-hand,” she said.
While opening a brick-and-mortar boutique is not part of the plan, Ms. de Pontonx would like to have a showroom, and already meets customers in Paris to show watches in person “because entertaining is something I really enjoy, to make people feel welcome.”