The world is once again in the throes of its epic love affair with independent watchmaking. I mean Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights, Tony and Maria in West Side Story’s all-or-nothing, ride-or-die kind of love. Sure, part of this is the staggering escalation in values for the output of watchmakers like Philippe Dufour. In just a few short years, Dufour’s Simplicity has gone from a mid-fifty-thousand-dollar watch to a million-dollar grail on the auction scene. Similarly, François-Paul Journe’s Souscription watches, the timepieces he used to raise the funds to start his brand, have charted a meteoric rise to become million-dollar-plus unicorns.
Why has this suddenly happened? To me, one of the extraordinary by-products of 2020, with us all stuck at home and sitting in front of our computer screens, is that we had time to re-examine independent watchmaking. What we found was a blissfully seductive oasis of intensely personal and deeply authentic visions of true watchmaking creativity. Even more, because of the collective alienation we felt, it was almost as if appreciating a watch that was the repository of so much inchoate emotion and immutable expression fulfilled that need to connect with something and someone real. Personally I feel that this change will be permanent. From Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei of URWERK, the Grönefeld brothers and Max Büsser to Laurent Ferrier, Richard and Maria Habring, and Stefan and Ev Kudoke, some of my favourite independent watchmakers and brands have never experienced a greater demand for their timepieces. With millennials and Generation Z’s sincere interest in authenticity, I don’t see this changing for the foreseeable future.
I am often asked who I most admire of all the independent brands, and whom I think is on the precipice of becoming the next big thing. My answer to that is unequivocal. It is De Bethune. It makes me happy to say this because the people behind this brand also happen to be some of the nicest, most humble and most gifted human beings in watchmaking today, in particular the brand’s technical director and co-founder, Denis Flageollet.
In its 19-year history, no independent brand has been more extraordinarily creative, genuinely horological in its innovation, and defined a more unique and ravishing aesthetic sensibility than De Bethune. So why is it there are still so many people out there who haven’t heard of De Bethune? Or, even if they have, they still can’t wrap their heads around the brand.
Says Mo Coppoletta, De Bethune collector and renowned tattoo artist, “I would say this is because of two things. Firstly, De Bethune has created almost too much innovation. Can you imagine that this is a brand that has created nine different balance wheels in 19 years — from a propeller-shaped oscillator with titanium arms and platinum weights to a solid disc of silicon surrounded by a white gold rim? It’s all a bit overwhelming. The second reason is that while they are incredibly good at making beautiful watches, they are almost painfully humble about what they do. There are other brands that have achieved far less, but are more astute marketeers and have a far greater reach.” To me, now is the time to change all this.
Says Jörg Hysek Jr., son of the legendary watch designer and head of sales for De Bethune, “OK, I’m going to agree with Mo on the first reason. When I first joined De Bethune, I looked at everything we did, from mobile lugs and a three-dimensional moon phase indicator to a 5Hz chronograph with three different clutches and five centrally mounted hands, and our 5Hz 30-second tourbillon with the world’s lightest cage. My head sort of exploded.”
Says De Bethune CEO Pierre Jacques with a laugh, “Yes, it’s true our technical director Denis Flageollet has worked at an extraordinary and relentless pace for the last two decades, and he created some of the most incredible horological breakthroughs.If you are just starting to learn about De Bethune, I would say to stay focused on two models that encapsulate much of what we’ve done in the past 19 years. These are the DB28, which expresses the avant-garde futurist dimension of the brand; and the DB25, which expresses the more classic side of the brand.”
“That’s good advice,” laughs Austen Chu, also known as @horoloupe on Instagram, a watch influencer and ambassador for Audemars Piguet and the founder of a new pre-owned watch platform called WristCheck.com. “But even within the DB28 model, there are still a lot of variations, so you really have to do your research to understand what you want.”
The DB28 Series
What is the DB28? “When I took over as CEO of the brand in 2011, I wanted to make the DB28 the flagship model because it had many of our unique innovations in one watch,” says Pierre Jacques. “First, it had the movement as the dial, which is something we started with watches such as DBS and Dream Watch One. Second, you could see our in-house balance wheel — in the first watches this was what we called the annular balance made of a disc of silicon with a white gold rim. Because it reflected light so perfectly, it almost looked like it wasn’t moving but kind of shimmering. You could also see our De Bethune balance spring with its unique terminal curve to ensure concentric breathing. Then you have the triple pare-chute, which means there are shock absorbers on the staff of the balance but also on each side of the balance bridge. Then you have our three-dimensional moon phase indicator made from palladium and flame-blued steel. You have our mobile lugs. Finally, it was also a showcase for how perfectly we could polish titanium, which was used for the case but also the delta bridge of the movement that faces the front. IWC has a watch called Il Destriero Scafusia, which means ‘The Warhorse of Schaffhausen’. The DB28 is a bit like our warhorse as it is a perfect symbol of all we are.”
Says Coppoletta, who owns a pièce unique pink gold and black zirconium DB28, “That’s the magic of the DB28. You first look at it and think what is this amazing-looking science fiction-like watch? But you start to examine it, and you realise every single element has a real horological purpose and meaning. The crown is at 12 o’clock not because it looks good, but because Denis wanted to optimise comfort. The mobile lugs are beautiful, but they also conform to the wrist perfectly. Because the morphology of each wrist is different, he wanted to create lugs that adapt to you and not compel you to adapt to the watch.”
Watch collector, journalist and founder of the Singapore Watch Club Tom Chng adds, “Honestly, after wearing my DB28 Steel Wheels for a few days, it is hard to put anything else on afterwards because of how comfortable the mobile lugs are. To me, the DB28 is the ultimate emblem of the De Bethune, and the version I own, which features a complete skeletonisation of the barrel covers, delta bridge as well as sapphire crystal hands, is simply stunning.”
The DB28 range spans across several different models including the DB28 Tourbillon, which features the brand’s 5Hz 30-second tourbillon (meaning that it completes two full rotations per minute). This watch boasts an in-house balance, initially a model with four pierced silicon arms and rim made from white gold, then a flame-blued skeletonised titanium ring with six opposable weights as well as the brand’s in-house balance spring. Its tourbillon cage is the lightest in the world, weighing just 0.18g and is made from titanium and silicon. The latest version of this watch is the breathtaking DB28 Steel Wheels Sapphire Tourbillon, which features skeletonised barrel covers and wheels, a sapphire crystal delta bridge and, of course, De Bethune’s market-leading tourbillon. Then there is the Grand Sport Grand Bleu and Yellow Submarine versions, which are diving watches made on the same platform. What is incredible about these watches is that they have mechanically driven LED lights to help with the reading of elapsed dive time even in pitch dark conditions. These lights are powered by a separate mechanical barrel.
There is also the family launched last year to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the DB28, named “XP” for Extra Plat or extra thin. These watches are considerably thinner at 7.3mm versus 9.2mm, and are even more elegant on the wrist. These watches which include a staggeringly beautiful meteorite dial version launched in March this year have brought an all-new audience to De Bethune. Says Chu, “I was really impressed by De Bethune for quite a few years. I had always thought that my first De Bethune would be a DB28 as I like the way the movement is on the front of the watch and always connected with this model’s highly contemporary design. But when I saw the XP version, I was just blown away. To me, it has this dynamic tension between a really bold presence, but balanced by being very thin and elegant. I knew this had to be my first De Bethune.”
Says Pierre Jacques, “In order to make the watch close to 2mm thinner, we had to completely redesign the movement, the case, everything. But we like to set ourselves these challenges. This is the way Denis Flageollet approaches watchmaking — everything without compromise.”
The DB25 Series
Says Coppoletta, “Then you have the DB25, which represents the classic side of De Bethune but is entirely original and a great showcase for Denis Flageollet’s technical abilities.”
Famed collector Ahmed “Shary” Rahman concurs, “The first time I saw Mo’s De Bethune DB25, I have to say I was blown away. There was something about this watch that really spoke to me. Eventually I made my way to Geneva to meet Pierre Jacques and decided to commission my own De Bethune DB25 Starry Sky. While I was there, a very interesting watch caught my eye. It was a DB25 that had been made for a female client, and it was gem set. What I found intriguing was that it was in a 40mm case; the regular version of this watch is 44mm. So I asked Pierre Jacques if it might be possible to make my watch in a 40mm platinum case. He amazingly said he would have to research it and a few days later, he contacted me to tell me it would be possible. This is one of the things about De Bethune that is amazing. That they are capable of making a significantly different sized complicated watch as a pièce unique for me without a crazy premium.”
Says Tom Chng, “I had the pleasure of visiting the De Bethune manufacture and the level of verticalisation is incredible. They literally make everything themselves, and they are also receptive to customisation.”
Adds Coppoletta, “You will hear from other brands that they don’t make pièce unique watches. What they actually mean is that they can’t make them because they outsource everything and have to make all components in quantity. At De Bethune, they can make anything because they MAKE everything themselves. I mean cases, dials, hands, baseplates, gear wheels, hairsprings, balance wheels. That’s the difference.”
While I was initially very much drawn to the science fiction aesthetics of the DB28 watches — I own a pièce unique DB28 and one of the first DB28 Kind of Blue Tourbillons — in recent years, I find the DB25 family to be tremendously alluring. The collection starts off with the DB25 Starry Varius, a time-only watch where you can customise the constellation on the centre of the dial displayed on flame-blued titanium with hand-fixed gold stars. Then there is the DB25 Starry Varius Chronomètre Tourbillon, which features its tourbillon at the back of the watch beating at 5Hz and making a full rotation every 30 seconds, combined with a centrally mounted dead seconds hand on the front of the watch.
The DB25 Moon Phase has a guilloché dial with the brand’s famous three-dimensional moon phase indicator, whereas the Moon Phase Starry Sky is a perfect combination of moon phase together with the constellation of your choice rendered in flame-blued titanium and gold stars. The Perpetual Calendar model features the spherical moon phase as well, while the Tourbillon Milky Way presents the constellations and tourbillon, but adds a power reserve indicator on the dial at 12 o’clock. Finally, the DB25 World Traveller is an amazing world-time watch. Of these watches, the salmon dial perpetual calendar with a platinum case was beckoning to me, and it was made all the more seductive when my friends Shary and Mo came up with an idea.
A Customised and Limited Edition
Says Rahman, “Basically we proposed to Pierre Jacques to create a 40mm version of this watch instead of the regular 44mm size. Bear in mind, proposing this to most brands, be they large or small independent ones, would have probably resulted in uncomfortable laughter followed by a stern ‘no’. But such is the technical wizardry of De Bethune and Denis Flageollet that within a few days Pierre Jacques had a design completed. Particularly wonderful was the delicacy with which the apertures for the day and month and the subdial depicting the date had been integrated into the elevated rehaut that bears the watch’s distinct Roman indexes.”
Says Coppoletta, “As a designer and an artist, this was done with so much finesse and such incredible elegance you would almost imagine the 40mm version had always existed. Imagine now that De Bethune will have to create new dials, new cases and so much more just to accommodate the requests of two clients, but they are willing to do it because they love what they do.”
In conclusion, this is why I love De Bethune — they love to dream the same way we as watch collectors do. You don’t have the same arrogance of other watchmakers where they tell you, “I am a rock star, come and worship me and take what I give you.” Quite the opposite, they love dialogue, they love kindness and, in the end, wouldn’t you prefer to buy a watch from genuinely wonderful people who also make some of the very coolest watches on the planet?
To be fair, De Bethune will be able to amortise the cost of developing the 40mm DB25 Perpetual Calendar over eight watches as I will join my friends in ordering one of these stunners, and we will make five more as a small limited edition with steel cases.