June 2022 19 Min Read

A Brief History of De Bethune

By Raj Aditya Chaudhuri

We spend a lot of time here talking about independent watches. Whether it be interviewing the craftspeople behind them, examining the watches’ intricate details or discovering some of the lesser-known names in this space, we have dedicated a lot of words and time to this niche of the watch world. In some ways, De Bethune occupies an even smaller niche inside the compact space of independent watchmaking.

However, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the brand, often considered one of the early movers from the crop of independents that sprung up around the turn of the century. Helmed by master watchmaker Denis Flageollet, De Bethune is primarily known for its flamboyant aesthetics that often depart from the design language of classical watchmaking we are all so used to. However, the award-winning manufacture’s deep library of technical innovations in balance architecture and its well-laid reputation for innovation in material sciences are discussed less often. Less still is known about the man behind these advances.

The De Bethune DB25 with a rose-gold case and a classically beautiful guilloché dial.

By using some of the brand’s key releases as a spine, here we tell the story of the manufacture as it celebrates two decades of operating. We will consider the avant-garde watchmaker’s surprisingly classical origins as well as the reasons for its founding as an independent. Through its milestone technical achievements, we hope to understand the minds and craft of the people behind the brand.

This is by no means an exhaustive list – that would be the subject of a whole volume of works, given how frenetically De Bethune has exercised its independence to pursue whichever horological direction it sees fit. The article aims to give those new to De Bethune a taste of its philosophy and seasoned enthusiasts a deeper appreciation of its particular brand of watchmaking.

The Origins: a Desire for Total Independence

Perched in the Jura Mountains, hugging the border with France, is the small hamlet of L’Auberson, home of De Bethune. This is where the brand was born in 2002 when David Zanetta, an Italian collector and dealer of art and vintage watches, joined forces with Denis Flageollet, a fourth-generation watchmaker from France.

Flageollet and Zanetta had first crossed paths during their time working at Techniques Horlogères Appliquées (THA), a manufacture that François‐Paul Journe founded along with Pascal Courteault in the late 1980s. They would build a dream team of complication makers early in their career that would include Flageollet and Vianney Halter. Together, this impressive bench of watchmakers specialised in creating complicated and high-end movements for brands including Breguet, Cartier, Franck Muller, and Bucherer (which would eventually acquire and absorb THA). In fact, their only rival in this space of elevated watchmaking was the Audemars Piguet-backed studio helmed by Dominique Renaud and Giulio Papi.

Maybe it was a desire to start afresh in the new millennium or the fact that both Journe and Halter had already left THA to start their eponymous brands, but Zanetta decided to strike it out on his own too. In Flageollet, he sensed a growing impatience at anonymously designing movements for someone else – the talented watchmaker’s hunger for technical innovation curtailed by another brand’s specifications. “There was this absolute necessity to no longer work with the big brands that had become incapable of working honestly with their suppliers,” Flageollet told us. So it didn’t take a lot for Zanetta to convince him to join in the new venture they decided to name De Bethune.

The escapement designed and created by Chevalier De Bethune, the man the brand is named after, courtesy of Euro-Clock.

Right from the very first day, 22 April 2002, they made their intentions for the manufacture known. Instead of putting their own names on the dial, as so many of their contemporaries at the time were doing, the duo looked to the past for inspiration. They named it after Chevalier De Bethune, the 18th-century French nobleman and revolutionary escapement designer. It was fitting – it indicated the importance the duo placed on the history of classical watchmaking and the kind of inventiveness that had driven the brand’s namesake. Both Zanetta and Flageollet were convinced right from the start that what they were trying to do could not amount to just another watch brand; it had to be a manufacture in the truest sense of the word.

“The idea at the beginning of the project was to start with a blank page. What I really wanted was to enjoy complete independence. The idea behind the project that David Zanetta and I initiated was to create watches that would allow people to discover the great history of watchmaking.”

Denis Flageollet

Classical Music Before Rock’n’roll

De Bethune of today is known for its designs marked by a distinctive futuristic boldness and its constant experimentation with materials and the science of timekeeping, so those familiar with the brand are often in disbelief at its rather conventional start.

The DB1 Chronograph, De Bethune’s very first offering, was a restrained and traditionally beautiful piece. The only unusual decision was the ogival, or bullet-shaped, lugs that would become part of the house’s aesthetic DNA. The caseback on the DB1, like many of De Bethune’s early pieces, was a closed affair so you couldn’t see the calibres that powered these watches. They weren’t developed strictly in-house; for the DB1 (it would later reappear in the DB8), Flageollet had gone with something as close as he could get to that – a manually wound chronograph calibre that he had jointly developed with Journe at THA for the reissue of the elegant Cartier Tortue Monopoussoir.

For the DB1, Flageollet and Zanetta went with a tried-and-tested formula of classical watchmaking – a solid-gold case, two-register chronograph with beautiful guilloché and Breguet hands, credit Hodinkee.

When talking about this period in De Bethune’s history, Flageollet often draws on the analogy of mastering the rules of classical music before being able to bend and adapt them to his will to play rock’n’roll. However, working on the DB1 was hardly his first exposure to classical watchmaking. At this point, it is perhaps worthwhile delving into the education he received, since it is essential to the story of the watchmaker he is today.

Flageollet moved across the border to Switzerland from his native France as a young man to pursue an education in watchmaking and micromechanical engineering. He would spend years with his feet beneath the watchmakers’ bench, servicing antique timepieces at the Musée d’Horlogerie du Locle. Here he encountered first-hand the remarkable innovations of pioneers such as Frères Rochat and Pierre Jaquet-Droz.

He followed this with a stint at Michel Parmigiani’s restoration shop, working at which had become something of a rite of passage for promising watchmakers of his generation. There Charles Meylan, the chief watchmaker and a legendary character with a wealth of watchmaking knowledge (he had by then retired after serving as technical director of Favre-Leuba and Audemars Piguet), took Flageollet under his wing. Under Meylan’s tutelage, he learnt to service some of the rarest and most unusual antique clocks – acquiring, among other skills, the ability to machine parts of a timepiece.

Later, while collaborating at THA, Zanetta found in Flageollet an ally with a similar respect for classical watchmaking, something that is plainly evident from much of De Bethune’s early catalogue. Whether it is the time-only DB2, the DB3 dual-time or the DB8 (sometimes colloquially referred to as the ‘football timer’ because of its single-register, 45-minute chronograph), it reflected their collective vision of what modern watchmaking, informed by the past, ought to look like.

The Search for In-House Capabilities

Within the first couple of years, the brand had already put out about a dozen references, but De Bethune still didn’t have a true in-house calibre. “The idea has always been to make the best chronometry at the same time as making watches that reflect the best of the great history of watchmaking, while using both traditional techniques and new technologies,” says Flageollet. “For me, as for the great watchmakers of the time, [Ferdinand] Berthoud, [Jean-Antoine] L’Épine [and Abraham-Louis] Breguet, to name but a few, watchmaking tradition is innovation.”

Behind the scenes, Flageollet worked feverishly to remedy this. His research led him to conclude that there had essentially been no innovation when it came to escapement architecture since the late 19th century. So this is where he focused his energy.

The goal was clear to him – the perfect balance wheel had to have maximum inertia on the periphery and minimum friction in the middle. This would not only help achieve accurate and consistent chronometry, but the balance would be unaffected by the kind of small shocks it constantly suffers during normal wear. His solution was a ‘wheel’ with four independent arms, each ending in a crescent of inertia weight. The weights were made from a heavy precious metal – platinum, in this case. The centre of the balance wheel, made from feather-light titanium, would be essentially weightless. This, coupled with a hairspring sheltered from shocks by De Bethune’s proprietary flattened terminal curve, represented the kind of 21st-century innovation that Flageollet and Zanetta sought to achieve. The new escapement was incorporated into De Bethune’s first in-house calibre, the DB2004, simply named after the year it was introduced.

The first De Bethune calibre featuring its patented balance architecture and the first watch it was fitted to, the DB15 perpetual calendar, courtesy of Watchfinder.

It was a twin-barrel, manual-wind movement with six days’ power reserve and a delta-shaped balance bridge – visually interesting and technically capable. For its first outing, the DB2004 was put into the classically inspired DB15. The perpetual calendar showcased another innovation on the dial-side – De Bethune’s three-dimensional take on the phase de lune, or moonphase, complication. Set into a ‘sub register’ in the top half of the dial, it featured a rich, purple-blue sky created by heat-bluing titanium, a delicate treatment of the metal the brand has championed. The disc was studded with stars made of gold leaf and had a small window with a disc that turned fully golden every time the perpetual calendar encountered a leap year.

However, it was the moonphase display that drew the eye. While in most watches it is a two-dimensional affair, this was another place for Flageollet to showcase the kind of mastery of materials his manufacture was capable of just two years into its story. The ‘moon’ was created by fusing two metals – steel and palladium – to create an orb. When treated with heat, the steel half turned a rich blue while the palladium remained unaffected. The orb rotated about its axis, displaying the phase of the moon with an accuracy of one lunar day every 122 years.

Kiran Shekar, a well-known collector of watches by independents and an academy member of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG), is working on a reference book about De Bethune. While he thinks the brand’s unique and sometimes unusual designs “distract” from its technological innovations, he says they have always followed function: “It’s never purely design for the sake of design – it always has a point to it.”

The ogival lugs, a De Bethune signature, are the perfect example of this, adds Shekar. “Their point was: we have a lot of engineering to put into this watch, that tends to make a bigger watch, but we want it to be wearable,” he says. “So how do you make a 42mm case wearable? You make the lugs smaller. To add visual weight to the lugs, you move them outwards.” And this, he says, is how the unique lugs came to be.

The Constant Search for Innovation

The arrival of the manufacture’s first in-house calibre did not slow things down at Flageollet’s workshop. He was constantly updating and patenting his balance-wheel architecture (there would be nine variations, the most recent one coming in 2016). His constant search for materials that would quantifiably improve chronometry led De Bethune to pioneer the use of silicon in everything from escapement architecture to the brand’s ultra-light tourbillon.

Aside from the science, Flageollet kept adding to the brand’s capabilities, from dial decoration to case finishing, adapting the traditional skills he had learnt from Meylan to the times by embracing computer-aided design (CAD) and modern manufacturing. The result was that within two years De Bethune achieved that most elusive of feats in horology – near-complete vertical integration.

“This is very rare for an independent brand,” says Flageollet. “Moreover, it masters all the fields of chronometry, craftsmanship, and fine jewellery. De Bethune is not dependent on technology and we are able to make all the watches we make using traditional methods, but [without technology] they would just become so expensive that they would no longer be saleable.”

A technician at the manufacture working on the DB28 on computer-aided design (CAD) software.

With this capability came an increased willingness to show off the hard work. Zanetta, who had always guided the brand’s aesthetics, got more daring with them, and the DBS was the first example of this new-found confidence. Released in 2005, it featured a horseshoe-shaped case with a bullhead crown, placed there instead of on the sides of the case for the sake of better visual symmetry. The in-house movement was confidently put on display through the open watch face, its delta-shaped balance bridge finished with a proprietary technique the brand refers to as Côtes De Bethune. The movement had been flipped so the balance wheel, Flageollet’s pride and joy, would be visible through the open dial. It also featured a new shock-protection system – the balance wheel was safeguarded by three shock-absorbent springs in a setup De Bethune calls ‘triple pare-chute’.

Zanetta took this horseshoe design to its limits with the first and third Dream Watches. Separate from the standard collection, De Bethune’s Dream Watches are made in even smaller numbers, often with the view to test and showcase early innovations before they make their way into the serially produced lines.

This was very much the case with the DW1, released in 2009. It was the first time the brand experimented with an annular balance wheel made from silicon with a rim of platinum (a design it would patent a couple of years later). The DW1 featured cushioned lugs that flexed to provide a comfortable wearing experience. Zanetta, particularly keen on the aesthetic of Ancient Egypt, had designed them inspired by the silhouette of the Sphinx. Another first was a movement regulator system: using two pushers on the caseback, the wearer could either slow down or speed up the rate at which the movement beat to complement their active or sedentary lifestyle. It was an innovative technology developed by De Bethune alongside fellow independent, Urwerk.

The DW1’s cushioned lugs that flexed to provide a more comfortable fit, courtesy of De Bethune.

Visually similar to the DW1, but instead of the open layout, the dial of the Dream Watch 3 wore a decoration of tightly packed, shallow concentric rings that looked like a miniature Japanese zen garden, first seen in the DB22. De Bethune calls this ‘microlight’. Where in the DW1’s case the spherical moonphase had been, the DW3 had De Bethune’s lightweight take on the tourbillon.

The De Bethune tourbillon, seen here on the DB28, also integrates a 30 seconds counter, the speed at which the tourbillon completed a revolution.

Rotating on its axis every 30 seconds – twice the speed of a normal tourbillon – it beat at an incredible 36,000 vibrations per hour (5 Hz), qualities that Flageollet was confident would bring Abraham-Louis Breguet’s invention into the 21st century. The high-speed tourbillon would negate the effect of gravity twice as often as a regular one, improving timekeeping accuracy, while its high-beat rate would make it almost impervious to the kind of shocks that result from everyday wear on the wrist. The tourbillon carriage was also the lightest ever, with its 63 constituent parts (made from titanium and silicon) weighing in at about 0.18g.

The Middle Years: Building the Collection

Owing perhaps to the prevailing aesthetics of the mid-2000s, De Bethune felt the need to add a sports watch to the lineup. It started with the DB20 GMT, followed by the DB22 the year after, and the DB24 after that, introducing a new case shape. They were big 48mm watches with screw-down crowns and 200m water resistance.

buy & sell rara De Bethune preowned watch at A Collected Man London

Flageollet and his DB22. Much like the DB20 GMT and DB24, the DB22 was made from grade-five titanium to make the large-cased watches light and wearable. The 2024 self-winding calibre powering these pieces let the wearer adjust the rotor winding speed to suit their lifestyle.

Powering the watches was De Bethune’s first self-winding calibre, the 2024. It had six days’ reserve and sported yet another new balance-wheel architecture. Inside was a hairspring using a beryllium and copper combination, to aid both accuracy as well as making the arrangement even more shock tolerant. Winding the movement was another bi-metal arrangement, the titanium arms of the winding rotor giving way to a platinum mass. On top of the bearing, protecting the wide-armed winding rotor from shocks, was a coronet of four clusters of industrial rubies, another De Bethune design.

At its production peak between 2011 and 2015, De Bethune had a staff of 60 watchmakers, designers, engineers, and skilled polishers and decorators. However, for much of its history the brand has done with just about half that number. “Twelve watchmakers and mechanics, two prototype watchmakers, eight machinists, two pre-assemblers, seven decorators, [and] three builders, on last count,” says Flageollet. This nimbleness, coupled with its in-house capabilities, has given it the ability to consistently bring a surprising number of innovations, movements, and watches to market for much of its 20-year history.

The DB21 Maxichrono was one such innovative piece. First revealed in 2006, it reimagined what chronograph architecture could look like. Instead of going with the traditional layout featuring sub-dials, the Maxichrono sported a co-axially mounted arrangement – all five hands (three for the chronograph and two to tell time) originated from a single central point on the dial. The chronograph time scales were set in concentric circles – the outermost one tracked seconds; the one in from that, minutes; while the innermost one registered up to 24 elapsed hours. Operated by a monopusher at 6 o’clock, it was arguably a cleaner setup on the dial side, but underpinned by an incredibly complex movement architecture.

The popularity of the DB21 Maxichrono meant that in 2019 De Bethune reissued the watch – albeit for a very limited 10-piece run – with an upgraded movement. The co-axially mounted chronograph function was now governed by the new De Bethune ‘absolute clutch’, in which three different clutches operated independent systems that each controlled one elapsed time counter. It was as complicated as the rest of the movement was accurate, and would go on to feature in several De Bethune lines (DB28 and DB29) over the years.

The 2018 DB25 Starry Varius (left) featured a refreshed 42mm case with new lug positioning. On the heat-blued titanium dials of the DB25 and the DB28 XP Starry Sky (right) is a representation of the Milky Way in gold leaf with hand-placed gold cabochons for added XP sparkle – this can be customised to create the cosmos as seen from any location and date. Flageollet picked the name, Starry Varius, to sound like the Stradivarius string instruments. The watch won the Chronometry prize at the 2018 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. On the right is the DB28 XP Starry Sky with a similarly adorned dial.

In 2007, De Bethune added another pillar to its collection – the DB25. A surprisingly pared-back design, it is devoid of many of the design flourishes that had, even at this early point in the brand’s history, come to mark it apart. It was originally available with the self-winding calibre in 40mm and with a manually wound one in 44m, with cases made in a host of precious metals as well as in titanium. It even featured fixed (albeit hollowed) lugs, suggesting Zanetta had aimed the line at enthusiasts with more traditional predilections.

The process of placing gold cabochons on the dial is done entirely by hand.

The Narrowing Gap Between Function and Art

For many, the ultimate iteration of the DB25 line is the Zodiac Tourbillon. It says a lot about the 20-piece limited edition from 2015 that the tourbillon isn’t the main dish. Turning over to see the calibre 2019 through the exhibition caseback revealed an additional solid-gold escape wheel mounted on to the bridge. A set of pallets ‘locked’ and ‘unlocked’ it, giving the movement its signature seconde morte, or deadbeat seconds, complications.

Things were expectedly rich on the dial side. Aside from the attractive guilloché and solid-gold hands, it was the ring made of heat-blued titanium with the 12 zodiac symbols inlaid, one for every hour of the day, that drew the eye. Every one of the solid-gold medallions for each of those 20 watches was hand-carved in-house by master engraver Michèle Rothen.

The solid-gold deadbeat second wheel features prominently on the balance bridge, courtesy of WatchBox.

Over the years, Rothen’s steady hands have etched and carved much of De Bethune’s other-worldly Maestri’Art collection as well as unique commissions. From a faithful representation of the entrance to a patron’s alma mater carved on to the calibre, to a bas-relief depiction of an imperial Chinese garden made on to a solid-gold dial, the level of customisation possible with the Maestri’Art line, much like Rothen’s work, knows no bounds.

Rothan etched Armilia, a fictional submerged underground city in Francois Schuiten’s Les Cités Obscures series of comic books. Flageollet, who is a big fan of the comics, commissioned the work on the already retro-futuristic design of the Dream Watch 5, courtesy of De Bethune.

De Bethune’s Time in the Sun

In 2011, the DB28, a watch that had been released just a year before, won the top prize – the prestigious Aiguille d’Or – at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. Not only was it packed with many of the manufacture’s signature innovations, but it was visually fresh. The open dial showed off the manual-wind calibre 2115 that featured the annular balance previously seen on the DW1. The chapter ring featured hand-placed cabochons, with the spherical moonphase at 6 o’clock. While seen before in the DB21 Maxichrono (and the DW2 even before that), coupled with the DB28's radical design, it would be this line that would make floating lugs a De Bethune calling card.

The illuminated dial of the DB28 JPS, in which the case is forged from black zirconium and features microlight, and the balance bridge is made from blackened titanium. The gold-coloured piping accents, inserts in the hands and hollowed-out lugs, triple pare-chute protection system and crown, are all the result of treating titanium to heat.

The DB28 has since been a vehicle for many of De Bethune’s experiments. As the Kind of Blue, it sported an entirely heat-blued titanium case – a first in watchmaking. With the same titanium case treated to short, precise bursts of heat, it became the very unusual and warm Yellow Tones. The DB28 has featured De Bethune’s tourbillon, Maxichrono and jump-hour display complications. However, the brand’s inspired solution to solving the problem of dial legibility in its second pass at a sport watch demands closer examination.

Within the cases of the DB28 GS Grand Bleu and the DB28 GS Yellow Submarine (another insight into Flageollet’s tastes in music) were four LED lights that did not rely on a battery. The arrangement works in a way not dissimilar to a grande sonnerie complication – on demand, at the push of a button, energy is drawn from the mainspring barrel to wind up a dynamo that then powers the four lights, illuminating the dial. In the first half of 2022, De Bethune introduced the DB28 John Player Special, the name an obvious reference to the Lotus F1 cars of the 1970s.

The DB28 XP Météorite, a piece released in 2021, features a dial made from a sliver of the Muonionalusta meteorite that fell on to earth about a million years ago. It was heat-treated to turn it a rich blue and then dotted with gold cabochons to represent stars in the cosmos. The DB28 Digitale, on the other hand, is an altogether more minimal expression of the line, courtesy of De Bethune.

De Bethune repeated its success at the GPHG in 2014 and again in 2018. The second time around it won the Chronograph Prize and the winning watch was the DB29 Tourbillion Maxichrono. It featured the Absolute Clutch set up, housed in rose gold with a hunter caseback that showed off the complex calibre architecture and the tourbillon. Four years later, it was DB25 Starry Varius Chronomètre Tourbillon that won the Chronometry Prize at the competition. The movement, with De Bethune’s tourbillon and deadbeat seconds complication, had a maximum variance of +1 second a day.

The Business End of De Bethune’s Story

Between these most recent two wins at the GPHG, big changes had taken place at the manufacture. Since 2011, it had been helmed by a triumvirate that included Zanetta, Flageollet, and chief executive officer Pierre Jacques. Following his departure in 2015, Jacques came back a couple of years later, this time heading a consortium of private-equity investors and buying up a majority stake of De Bethune. Zanetta, who had by this point all but retired, sold his share of the company and officially stepped down.

Despite having made just over 3,000 watches in its 20-year history, the De Bethune catalogue is diverse with pieces such as Dream Watch 6, created in partnership with artist and watch designer Jörg Hysek, courtesy of De Bethune.

Jacques has often talked about how De Bethune’s capital-intensive model of constant research and small annual output of watches (self-restricted to 150 pieces in the last few years) put strain on the manufacture’s accounts. The infusion of fresh capital from this arrangement would give Flageollet the freedom of direction that led him to found De Bethune in the first place, Jacques had said at the time. “I think De Bethune has always remained true to itself, never trying to be like any other watch brand or going in a direction that wasn’t part of its identity,” he told us. “Denis Flageollet is a genius and a hidden gem in the watch industry. I trust him and everything he does for De Bethune.”

Then, in a surprising development, in August of 2021 the manufacture got a new investor – luxury used watch retailer WatchBox acquired a majority stake of the brand.

The new arrangement already seems to be reflected in a ramping up of production numbers. De Bethune plans to increase output to 230 watches, says Flageollet, with a further increase in the offing. “[We are] indeed [planning] to increase [production] but only if we are able to keep the authenticity and quality of De Bethune,” he says.

The arrangement will definitely give De Bethune’s operations a kind of depth that is rare in the watch world, says Jacques: “WatchBox, with its media channels, video-based education, general market expertise, and a strong financial backbone, will be able to support Denis Flageollet and the whole team to strengthen its creative production of exemplary timepieces.”

For Only Watch 2021, Flageollet and Kari Voutilainen – both former students of Charles Meylan – adapted De Bethune’s Kind of Two Tourbillon (left), its first take on a dual-faced watch. One of the two faces of the watch is immediately recognisable as Voutilainen’s. Rotating the face on the floating lugs reveals another face with a design that is distinctly De Bethune. It is called De Bethune X Voutilainen Kind of Magic, courtesy Christie's.

De Bethune has always represented a form of undiscovered secret on the secondary market. Part of the reason might be a lack of visibility of the brand’s past and present achievements. “The overlap between praiseworthy watch companies and celebrated watch companies is actually low,” says Kiran Shekar. ”I think it comes down to difficulty in finding reliable information. My consulting clients talk to me about how they have a sincere desire to learn more, because for them it’s not just a pursuit of particular pieces, but more a pursuit of the deep understanding that will make them informed collectors … I know the years of intensive research and travel that I undertook to gain the knowledge I currently have, and I understand how that is just not feasible for most collectors.”

De Bethune has pioneered the precise heating of materials like titanium to produce a rainbow of colours.

The pandemic seems to have remedied this to an extent, says Mathieu Ruffat, associate watch specialist at Christie’s in Geneva. “Suddenly people had the time to study, to fully appreciate what some of these independent watchmakers were doing,” he adds. “With that knowledge came a renewed appreciation that is visible in the prices some of these pieces by independent brands, De Bethune included, are trading at now.”

According to Pierre Jacques, this is already showing in an uptick in orders. “Looking at the trajectory of the business over the last 24 months, there’s been a great rise in interest in independents and unique and collectible timepieces,” he says. “Our lead times have gone from four months to almost two years in just a few months. For us, the increase is primarily due to an increase in demand for exclusive products.”

Shekar thinks that as awareness of the brand’s story increases, prices are bound to rise. This is simply because “the production quantities of DB’s early pieces [DB1 through to DB10] are microscopic compared to, say, F.P. Journe's early pieces”, he says.

Before Ruffat spoke to us, he had chatted to a long-time De Bethune collector to try to get a sense of what it is that draws a typical customer to the brand. Of course, there are practical things such as improved wearability thanks to the floating lugs, attractive dial-side presentation, constant innovation in movement architecture and virtually endless opportunities for customisation. However, it was the intangible warmth that comes from having the chance to interact with one of the most accomplished living watchmakers that was particularly attractive, Ruffat says.

“You get to meet with the watchmaker [and] feel connected to them – and by being a patron to such a Maison, you feel like you are contributing in a way to helping move horological innovation forward.”

Mathieu Ruffat

De Bethune is in many ways unique, even in the world of independents. Its technical operation is headed by Flageollet, a watchmaker who prefers to let the science speak for itself, opts for the most minimal branding on the dials of his pieces, and famously spends a lot of his free time he in a Mongolian yurt in the middle of the woods on the Jura Plateau. The manufacture in L’Auberson, that we recently visited, with its CNC machines and CAD work, feels more like a laboratory than a traditional workshop, a true reflection of the kind of watchmaking Flageollet has championed.

Watchmakers at work at De Bethune’s manufacture in L’Auberson.

With the manufacture putting out just 150 watches every year, its pieces’ rarity – indubitably a quality valued by the lucky few who manage to get their hands on one – also precludes the brand from wider popularity. This has in the past impacted residuals on the used market. However, with the more recent scrutiny of the independent space, enthusiasts are looking deeper, past De Bethune’s very particular aesthetic, to appreciate the horological craft at play in the watches.

A selection of De Bethune calibres over the last 20 years.

After all, now in its 20th year, the brand is sitting on a library of almost 30 calibres and more patented balance wheels than brands several times its vintage. In an industry often held back by tradition, Flageollet has taken a scientific approach, pursuing all avenues, from the hairspring to the tourbillon, in his pursuit of improved chronometry. That is before getting into the kind of results Flageollet achieved with the precise application of heat to materials such as titanium. The watches are individually impressive, but seeing these innovations in the context of the brand’s achievements and the watchmaker’s history only deepens the appreciation for De Bethune.

We would like to thank Denis Flageollet, Pierre Jacques, Kiran Shekar and Mathieu Ruffat for their time and insight into the idea behind De Bethune, and the brand’s past as well as its future.