Independent watchmaking is the standout trend for watch collectors in 2021. While not a new phenomenon, the popularity of brands driven by owner-operators, small-volume factories, and visionary craftsmen stands at an all-time peak.
Watchmaking is a centuries-old industry that moves in decades-long cycles. From the 1980s through the 2000s, the luxury watch industry indulged in three decades of consolidation. Luxury “groups” acquired as many historic watchmaking brands as possible in a race to own the most expansive portfolios of blue-chip names. Umbrella firms including Richemont, LVMH, Rolex, and Swatch today dominate luxury watch sales; a 2020 market summary by Morgan Stanley recently indicated these four groups control over three quarters of the global market share for luxury timepieces. The volume game was called long ago, and big business won.
While the 2000s marked the tail end of pell-mell consolidation, it spawned a fresh trend: independence. Whenever the term “independent” horology or watchmaking is invoked, it’s used to contrast a brand with those owned by the groups. At the same time, these brands tend to prefer the term “indies” in order to differentiate themselves from billion-dollar family-owned mass manufacturers such as Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet. The following watch brands have proved to be standouts in the growing “indie” horology scene.
Technically “Montres Journe SA,” this pioneering independent universally is known by the name of its rock star founder, Francois-Paul “F.P.” Journe. While Journe built his first pocket watch in 1983 and his first wristwatch in 1991, he didn’t begin selling series-built wristwatches under his own name until 1999.
Since that inaugural model, the Tourbillon Remontoir, Journe has established himself as the mindshare hegemon among the indies. Although neither the first nor the most exclusive brand in the space, Journe’s is the best-known name in independent horology. Search social media for independent brand watches, and F.P. Journe content will crash like an avalanche rivaled only by the celebrity-powered marketing juggernaut of Richard Mille. And it was hard earned through innovation. For a period during the 2000s, no watch brand was more decorated than Montres Journe at the annual Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, the “Oscars” of watchmaking.
From a collector’s standpoint, Journe is a name that’s approachable and palatable to collectors looking to make the jump from establishment haute horlogerie by the likes of Audemars Piguet, Breguet, Vacheron Constantin, or Patek Philippe. If you’re looking to go indie, but you don’t want to take too many risks, then Journe is your choice. 22 years of history plus a 20 percent stake sale to Chanel ensure that unlike many boutique labels, Journe has the stability and projected longevity to rival a large group brand.
F.P. Journe watch models span a price range starting at $26,300 for the entry-level Chronomètre Bleu and ending at $885,000 for the monstrously complicated Astronomic Souveraine. Key watches from the Journe brand include the following models:
- Chronomètre Bleu: A 39mm dress watch with a tantalum case and a mirror-like blue dial, the CB was launched in 2009 as a point-of-entry watch for the brand. In the years since, the CB has become the single most sought and best known F.P. Journe product. Despite its long production run and entry-level status, the CB has become for Journe what the Nautilus 5711 is to Patek Philippe and the Daytona is to Rolex. Despite a retail price of just over $26,000, used CBs can change hands at over $100,000.
- Chronomètre à Résonance: Think of this one as two independent watches in a single case that are linked by the faint emanation of energy due to friction and vibration. Journe observed the phenomenon by which clock pendulums could be coupled by resonance, and he created a wristwatch version that accomplished the same with balance wheels.
The watch can be set to dual time zones, but that’s not really the point. When properly regulated, each balance should provide an active check on the chronometric “drift” or imprecision of the other. The current 42mm model retails for between $112,700 for red gold and $116,700 for a platinum case.
- Tourbillon Souverain: This is the closest living relative of the first 1991 Journe wristwatch and the initial 1999 “souscription” watches that launched the Montres Journe brand. Now 42mm, this bedrock model was redesigned for 2019 with a 30-second tourbillon regulator that spins perpendicular to the dial.
As with every Journe edition of this long-running model line, the current Tourbillon Souverain includes a “remontoir” buffer spring that keeps the escapement isolated from the fluctuating torque of the mainspring. F.P. Journe himself has remarked that this mechanism has a greater impact on the precision of the watch than the tourbillon.
This independent from L’Auberson is difficult to characterize but easy to love. Founded by vintage dealer David Zanetta and watchmaker Denis Flageollet in 2002, De Bethune is something of a best-kept secret among collectors who have moved beyond the comfort of larger indies such as Journe, H. Moser & Cie., and Richard Mille.
Throughout, the scientist-watchmaker Flageollet has indulged in a level of technical research and development unheard of at watch brands of this size. For example: most indie watch brands don’t develop even a single proprietary balance wheel; De Bethune has patented over eight unique balance wheel designs in pursuit of chronometric perfection. Additional patents for manic tourbillon regulators, exacting moonphase displays, and extreme shock protection flesh out the broad portfolio of exclusive DB technologies. A rarity among independents, De Bethune crafts its own cases, dials, and movements.
While this degree of egghead engineering drive might suggest a cold and clinical approach to product development, the reality of De Bethune flies in the face of that notion. DB abides by a design philosophy that former Chrysler design chief Tom Gale once described as love-hate; nobody walks away without a forceful opinion of the product.
De Bethune’s watch designs have ranged from classical (DB1 onward) to monolithic (DB20 onward) to ethereal (DB26 onward) to outrageous (the Dream Watches). Extravagant aesthetic technologies including fired blue titanium, spherical moonphase displays, and LED lighting demonstrate the same company commitment to visual horsepower that Flageollet dedicates to chronometry.
And De Bethune watches are rare. The brand currently ships roughly 150 pieces per year, and fewer than 3,000 De Bethune watches have been created since 2002. This output includes the following signature models:
- DB27 Titan Hawk: Now in its second generation, the $43,000 titanium DB27 is the entry-level watch at De Bethune. But “entry level” in this catalog could equate to flagship status almost anywhere else. The automatic Titan Hawk is a substantial 43mm machine that features the brand’s signature spring-loaded “floating” lugs. As a result, fit is outstanding on a broad range of wrists, and the watch wears small for its size.
An automatic manufacture DB AUTOV2 movement provides 60 hours of power reserve. For 2021, a new green dial limited edition of ten pieces is available. And, like all De Bethune watches, custom dial work is offered on the DB27 if stock options fail to inspire. Used examples of the first-generation DB27 also offer great value since the original – and more expensive – Titan Hawk featured a six-day power reserve and a date indicator.
- DB28XP: Most watch collectors who know of De Bethune recognize the DB28 as the brand’s signature model. Launched in 2010, the original DB28 won the “Aiguille d’Or” at the 2011 GPHG; it’s the equivalent of “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards of watchmaking.
Redesigned for 2020, the $83,500 DB28XP shaves the 43mm titanium watch’s thickness down to 7.2mm while retaining its floating lugs, open-escapement dial, and six-day power reserve. Despite its avant-garde aesthetic chops, the DB28’s details exude traditional haute horlogerie details including black polish, mirrored bevels, and reductive “microlight” guilloché.
Need more utility? De Bethune has that covered with the $98,500 DB28GS Grand Bleu. LED lights, a unidirectional diver’s bezel, and 105-meter water resistance give the DB28 relevance in the haute de gamme sports watch market dominated by Richard Mille.
- DB Kind of Two Tourbillon: The name is odd, but the watch is money – in more ways than one. De Bethune’s $250,000 tourbillon watch grants watch collectors’ longstanding dreams of wearing the best display-caseback watches upside down. Both sides of the Kind of Two display time, but the rotating case allows its user to choose between classical silver guilloché or a mirror-polished movement architecture straight out of Star Trek.
Floating lugs frame a 43mm case that makes this machine a surprisingly easy mega-watch to wear. Unlike the overpowering size and bulk of competitors such as Greubel Forsey, the titanium Kind of Two is light and wieldy, and it’s only as thick – 12.2mm – as a Rolex Daytona. The 30-second tourbillon beats away at an El Primero-like 36,000 VpH, and its five-day power reserve is extraordinary for such a power intensive escapement. Only ten owners will have the pleasure of its company in 2021.