I can say with absolute certainty that we are amid the renaissance for independent watchmaking. Part of this has to do with some very clever market makers pushing the secondary market prices of Philippe Dufour and early François-Paul Journe watches into the stratosphere. But more importantly, I feel that one of the major results of 2020 and the social, spatial and existential isolation it has brought is the longing for human connections.
Nowhere do you feel these more strongly in horology than in the realm of independent watchmaking. That’s why when I checked with many of my favourite independent watchmakers, ranging from Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei of URWERK, to the Grönefeld brothers to Richard and Maria Habring, and even Stefan Kudoke, all of them were facing the happy challenge of trying to supply adequate watches for the surging global demand. I feel that this will remain one of the prevailing collecting themes as in a world over inundated with marketing messages, we seek out those timepieces crafted with the greatest authenticity and genuineness.
Independent, Unsung Hero
When it comes to embodying these two characteristics I cannot think of a better brand than De Bethune. Which is funny to me because De Bethune has, for almost two decades, been independent watch collecting’s unsung hero. Its horological brain Denis Flageollet, considered by horological luminaries such as Journe and Michael Tay of Singapore’s Hour Glass as one of history’s most gifted watchmakers and technical innovators, has been toiling just beneath the radar. Throughout the 19-year history of De Bethune, Flageollet has created not one but a family of in-house oscillators, an in-house hairspring with a patented terminal curve, a triple pare-chute shock absorber that places the balance bridge on anti-shock devices, a 5Hz 30-second tourbillon with the world’s lightest cage weighing 0.18g, the first diving watch with a mechanically powered LED light, a complete new chronograph coupling system, a variable-gear ratio for automatic-winding systems, a system for floating skeletonised lugs, and so much more.
Of course, all of this would be irrelevant if De Bethune watches were not beautifully designed. But the fact is that they are absolutely ravishing. They express a design identity that is wholly unique and that manages to be part science-fiction futurism, part 19th-century marine chronometer, with a refinement in finish that is singular. De Bethune single-handedly elevated the titanium case from something related to a functional tool watch into a canvas for what can only be described as ethereal beauty. So incredible is the mirror polishing of the brand’s titanium cases and dials that their seemingly fathomless reflection of light reminds me of Anish Kapoor’s seminal works. De Bethune also introduced us to all-new aesthetic concepts such as the vivid flame Kind of Blue watches, of which I am honoured to own one of the limited edition tourbillons.
Show a De Bethune to a hard-core watch collector and watch him grow weak at the knees, seduced by this unique combination of beauty, originality and technical innovation. So why is it that De Bethune remains something of an undiscovered gem from mainstream watch collecting? I believe that has to do with an almost painful unwillingness to market themselves in a more forthright and, for lack of a better term, commercial way. They have not gone into the secondary market as many of the smarter brands do to push up their prices; they do not have a messianic cult-like leader travelling the world and converting souls as many of the most successful independents do. They do not evangelise about how amazing their contribution to the horological canon is.
Rather, for all their beauty and credibility, they are a bit reserved, understated and overly modest in their communication. Why? To me, this has to do with the personality of the brand’s founder, Denis Flageollet, whom I’ve consistently said is one of watchmaking’s greatest geniuses. However, his innate character is one of extreme modesty and shyness. Indeed, in direct contrast to several of the more successful independent watchmakers whose message to the world basically implies that they are geniuses, the very fact that I’ve called Flageollet a genius has now made him painfully uncomfortable. But I have resolved to promote De Bethune unabashedly throughout this year, because at a time when many of our eyes have turned back to independent watchmaking, it is important to understand how profoundly rich and emotively poetic every De Bethune watch is in terms of its vast authenticity and beauty.
Double Identity and Purpose
Kind-of-Two, a pun on the name Kind of Blue (De Bethune’s highly successful collection of flame-blued titanium watches), refers to the double-sided configuration of Flageollet’s latest offer. In contemporary watchmaking, when we think of double-sided watches, timepieces like the Reverso Duoface come to mind or, in the realm of grand complications, watches such as Patek Philippe’s Sky Moon Tourbillon and Grandmaster Chime. In their best executions, double-sided watches are able to express two distinct identities, depending on which face you decide to display. This was certainly the impetus behind Kind of Two, a watch with two distinct personalities, each linked to one of the faces of the watch.
One side of the watch features Flageollet’s patented tourbillon, which beats at 36,000 vibrations per hour, and which completes a full rotation twice a minute. Flageollet explains, “For me, the faster rate and rotation speed elevates the performance of the tourbillon complication.” A balance beating at a fast rate has greater autonomy from the micro-shocks that a wristwatch is subjected to on an almost constant basis. In addition, high speed translates into greater accuracy, which is why the brands such as Girard-Perregaux, Omega and even Grand Seiko that won the majority of the famous Neuchâtel Chronometer Trials in the 1960s invariably used 5Hz movements. But faster movements also consume more power. To help overcome this, Flageollet has used one of his in-house oscillators crafted from titanium with platinum weights.
He explains, “This allows us to keep the balance as light as possible but also have a very good moment of inertia where the weight of the oscillator is placed toward its perimeter.” It should be pointed out that this balance wheel is also free sprung, which means its rate is adjusted using only the platinum masses integrated into its arms. In addition, the entire titanium balance is flame-blued and the tiny platinum masses are polished to perfection.
Says Pierre Jacques, the brand’s CEO, “This oscillator is the perfect expression of who De Bethune is. From a technical perspective, it is a brilliant design because it creates an extremely light free-sprung balance but that is aerodynamically efficient and also has very good inertia. But then from an aesthetic perspective, crafted in flame-blued titanium and platinum, it is also a work of sculptural beauty. While for most brands the balance wheel is an afterthought, for us it is the focus of intense creativity.”
Thin, Light and Stealthy
Now let’s look at the cage of this incredible tourbillon. Made from titanium and weighing just 0.18g — for your reference this means it is lighter than a single raindrop — it is the lightest tourbillon cage in the world. In combination with the oscillator, it means that the entire tourbillon mechanism is ultra-light, which allows De Bethune to accelerate its rotational speed so that it completes a full rotation in just 30 seconds. What is the practical advantage of this? Says Flageollet, “By averaging the errors caused by gravity on the regulating organ twice as frequently, we are able to elevate the chronometric performance of our tourbillon.” One detail that I have always loved about De Bethune’s tourbillon is that for all its lightness, Flageollet has also integrated a seconds hand into the cage. Why? So that you can actually measure its chronometric performance. I’ve always considered any tourbillon without a seconds hand either on the dial or integrated into the cage a total cop-out. I mean, you have created a device meant to improve the accuracy of the watch but removed any means of easily measuring its timing performance.
The rest of the dial on the tourbillon side of the watch is wonderfully textured with a play on levels and volumes focused around De Bethune’s signature delta-shaped bridge that retains the jewels for the watch’s twin barrels. Another nice detail is how the watch uses the circular track for the hour indexes also as the bridge for the tourbillon. Already in the brand’s magnificent DB28 Steel Wheels Sapphire Tourbillon, you had a shift toward this integration, but in this watch, the tourbillon bridge was still a unique separate component.
De Bethune’s Kind of Two flips from one side to the other by riding on the brand’s patented spring-loaded floating lug system. This lug system goes all the way back to 2006 when Flageollet came out with a concept watch for his Maxichrono that has this system. The Kind of Two adds a special cam system to allow you to flip, align and lock your watch in place in one highly intuitive gesture. When you do flip the watch over with crown now positioned at six o’clock, you will see the second face of the dial, which brings to mind a marine chronometer in its total commitment to displaying accurate timekeeping information. If the first face where the tourbillon is on display speaks of De Bethune’s sense of artistry and design, here you have a somewhat rational face that serves two purposes. The first is that you now have a huge central seconds hand to better aid in timing events, and the second is that you have now hidden the tourbillon away, allowing the timepiece to become a model of discreet stealth appeal.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Kind of Two is its wearability. While the case measures about 43mm in diameter, it also measures a mere 9.5mm in thickness, which is rather remarkable for a double-sided watch. Says Pierre Jacques, “We really took a big step in making our tourbillon movement considerably thinner, thanks to our DB 28 XP project for the 10th anniversary of this model, and [we] applied those innovations here.”
The result is a watch which, as a symbol of everything I love about De Bethune, charms, seduces and impresses.
DB Kind of Two Tourbillon
Functions: Dual front and back display of hours and minutes, Seconds, Ultra-light De Bethune 30’’ tourbillon in titanium
Type: Mechanical hand-wound movement
Adjustment: Winding and setting the time by means of the crown (2 positions)
Technical features of calibre DB2579
Number of parts: 256
Jewelling: 32 rubis
Diameter: 30 mm
Power reserve: 5 days, ensured by a self-regulating twin barrel De Bethune Innovation (2004)
– Titanium balance wheel with white gold inserts, optimised for temperature differences and air penetration De Bethune Patent (2016)
-“De Bethune” balance-spring with flat terminal curve De Bethune Patent (2006)
– Silicon escape wheel
– Ultra-light De Bethune 30’’ tourbillon in titanium De Bethune Innovation (2008)
Frequency: 36,000 vibrations per hour
– Motion works bridge and concave cover plate in grade 5 titanium, mirror-polished
– Polished and chamfered barrel bridge, with shot-blasted stages
– Polished and chamfered titanium minute bridge with microlight decoration
– Hand snailed barrels
– Steel parts polished and chamfered by hand
Contemporary single-sided display
– Hand-polished and blued titanium hands for hours and minutes with polished inserts
– Ultra-light De Bethune 30’’ tourbillon in titanium De Bethune Innovation (2008)
– Hour ring and 30” polished titanium dial with shot-blasted stages
– Blued polished titanium hour-markers
– Silvered and relief minute dial
Classic reverse side display
– Hand-polished and blued titanium hands for hours, minutes and seconds
– Dial silvered and relief, with convex levels and guilloché central part
Case and strap
Case material: Polished grade 5 titanium
Case diameter: 42.8 mm
Case thickness: 9.5 mm
Crown: at noon on the front side, at 6 o’clock on the reverse side, and integrated into the case
– Polished grade 5 titanium floating lugs – De Bethune Patent (2006)
– With case turning mechanism that can be clearly positioned on the front or back side
Crystal doubles-sides: In sapphire crystal (1800 Vickers hardness) with double anti-reflective coating
Water resistance: 30m
Strap: Extra-supple alligator leather, alligator lining
Buckle: Pin buckle in polished grade 5 titanium
Price: 215,000 CHF