De Bethune of L’Auberson, Switzerland is the most underrated brand in watchmaking. No other outfit is guided by De Bethune’s laser-like focus on technical innovation or its fixation – to a fault – on engineering and basic research and development. No other watch brand offers this firm’s electrifying combination of innovation, quality, and avant-garde design. Led by watchmaker Denis Flageollet, De Bethune is the best kept secret in independent horology.
2002 was year-one for De Bethune, and the initial DB1 chronograph embodied the incipient marque’s strengths. Design by collector and founding partner David Zanetta was offbeat but artful, and the hardware was informed by one of the finest minds in 1990s white-label watch engineering. Flageollet, a scientist first and a watchmaker second, was a partner in a movement supplier called Techniques Horlogeres Appliques, which he co-founded with F.P. Journe and Vianney Halter. The THA-developed monopusher chronograph caliber in the DB1 hailed from exalted lineage.
De Bethune didn’t wait long to introduce proprietary movements, and the 2004 arrival of the firm’s twin-barrel workhorse architecture heralded the arrival of Flageollet and company among the ranks of integrated manufactures. Patents – many patents – followed. Over a half-dozen balance wheels, systems for fire-bluing titanium, shock-resistant winding systems, spherical moon phase displays, exotic balance staff shock protection, variable-geometry “floating” lugs, unique hairsprings, and innovative chronograph clutches arrived in rapid succession.
And via the GPHG – the “Oscars” of watchmaking, awards followed. Class wins in the “Chronograph” and “Chronometry” categories are laudable given the size of the firm and its billion-dollar rivals for honors, but the 2011 “Aiguille d’Or” – the top prize – places De Bethune alongside past winners such as A. Lange & Sohne, F.P. Journe, and Breguet.
Why isn’t De Bethune celebrated accordingly among the ranks of collectors? The answer is as complicated as the firm’s micro machines.
The products of standout modern independent watch brands are fodder for social media. Lavish photos of F.P. Journe, MB&F, Richard Mille, and other top “indies” are ever present where impressionable eyeballs look for shopping ideas. De Bethune’s PR modesty and engineering-first ethic clashes with the fashion-first landscape of social media marketing.
Flageollet is notoriously private, scholarly, laconic, and introverted. He doesn’t sing, dance, charm or hold court like the celebrity focal points of the personality-driven Journe, MB&F, and RM brands. If you believe that your watchmaker should build you the world’s best watch, Flageollet is your man. If you expect him to entertain you at a booze-and-cocktail, look elsewhere.
Low volume also hurts. De Bethune’s product integrity means that even the high-water marks for production involved shipping somewhere around 450 watches per year. The current annual mark hovers around 150. This puts less hardware on the wrists of influential collectors and journalists. In an era when every collector is a sales surrogate for his indie watch brand of choice, the sheer rarity of De Bethune watches works against its branding interest.
Finally, finances were a problem – at least until 2017. That year involved sea changes for the company as new ownership, a cash injection, the retirement of co-founder Zanetta, and a corporate re-launch by returning CEO Pierre Jacques marked a turnaround for De Bethune’s business prospects.
The watches from L’Auberson remain spectacular. Flageollet’s budget-busting R&D of past years has borne fruit on every level from the comparatively basic DB27 to the aptly named Dream Watch series.
Consider what a collector gets in a typical De Bethune DB28 “Kind of Blue.” The patents alone stagger one’s imagination and include the “floating” lugs, the blued titanium, the hairspring, the “triple pare-chute” shock protection, the spherical moonphase, the twin self-adjusting mainspring barrels, and the proprietary titanium-and-white gold balance wheel. Only major watchmaking groups such as Rolex and Swatch routinely include this level of proprietary engineering technology in series-production watches.
And all of De Bethune’s technology benefits the fortunate owner. Start with the process of bluing titanium; De Bethune’s 2002 innovation in fire-oxidizing titanium allows an otherworldly layer of ultramarine metallic gleam to coat the case, lugs, and even movement components of a De Bethune watch. Even better, De Bethune is one of the few brands large or small that can restore the factory coating of a scratched watch; the marred surface can be re-fired at the factory during routine service.
Mechanical innovations ensure the DB28 is built like no other watch. “Triple Pare-Chute” supplements the standard Incabloc balance staff springs with flanking De Bethune steel springs that further brace the balance against even the most severe wrist trauma. And the balance assembly is exclusive.
De Bethune’s latest 2016 patent balance wheel is crafted of blued titanium with white gold masses outboard. It resists timing deviation due to temperature variations, maximizes its inertia by moving the mass to the rim, and even reduces aerodynamic friction. The patented hairspring offers the thin profile of a flat hairspring with the concentric “breathing” of a Breguet overcoil.
Craft arts exist hand-in-hand with engineering at De Bethune. Aside from the signature blue and yellow fired titanium, De Bethune has created its own “Microlight” and “côtes de Bethune” bridge decorations that cut more deeply and dramatically than standard côtes de Genève. Movement finish includes the standard hallmarks of high horology; mirrored anglage, black polish, engine turning, and satin graining. All of this combines with exotic full-meteorite cases, micro-sculpture, and gold gilding on certain limited edition and special series models.
F.P. Journe is hot right now. Richard Mille’s A-list celebrity endorsements suck the oxygen out of social media. And yes, Max Busser’s larger-than-life personality sets the gold standard for one-man-branding of an independent label. But if you want the best hardware for the money, can bring an open mind to the table, and don’t need your watchmaker to entertain you amid cocktails, there’s a small shop in L’Auberson building spaceships for the confident wrist.