De Bethune has unveiled three new products during the most important week of watchmaking in Geneva. The first, the DB25T Zodiac—technically demanding with its tourbillon, jumping seconds and five-day power reserve—appeals to the emotions with its twelve signs of the zodiac finely engraved in solid gold. The second, the DB28 GS, which stands for “Grand Sport”, features a titanium case and rubber strap. For this model, the DB28’s characteristic bridges have been given a guilloché finish and the small, spherical two-tone moon has been replaced by a power-reserve indicator at 2 o’clock. Finally, the DB28 Maxichrono Titanium offers a new version of the single push-piece chronograph presented last year at Baselworld, adorned in titanium for 2015.
The De Bethune business plan can be summed up by one short maxim, which the brand cites readily: don’t do more, do better. “It is by concentrating on quality that we can achieve long-term development,” explains CEO Pierre Jacques. The future lies in innovation and the quality of the products and their components, rather than in the number of pieces leaving the Manufacture—around 400 in 2014. In consequence, everything depends on the brand’s control over the various stages of production and on its choice of partners.
This decision is difficult to accept for sub-contractors, whose profit margins are under constant pressure.
Opposing the industrial way of thinking
From the very outset, the brand has produced most of its watches in-house, but it is now stepping up this shift. “Over the past two years, we have verticalized a great deal,” confirms Denis Flageollet, co-founder and technical director. “If I need a specific screw, I can now produce it as and when I want.” In its Manufacture based in La Chaux l’Auberson, nestled on the slopes of the Jura Mountains just a few miles above Sainte-Croix, De Bethune has already excelled in electroplating, polishing and decoration. Now it also produces 100% of the brand’s hands, most of its dials, and all the pieces needed for its limited editions.
Even components produced by external suppliers, such as sapphire crystals, are sometimes made on-site to meet the specific criteria of some commission pieces. To better illustrate his point, Denis Flageollet opens his inside jacket pocket and pulls out a watch featuring a Mayan head sculpted in jade emerging from the center of the watch crystal. A sapphire crystal with a hole in the middle was needed to house it, and this was produced in-house. For this same piece, “we installed a small workshop in order to cut the stones.”
However, verticalizing production isn’t an end in itself: “As long as external solutions satisfy me, I won’t press the issue. But as soon as there is a problem with quality, we won’t hesitate to internalize the process. By paying attention to every detail and continuously raising our standards, we are opposing the industrial way of thinking that is dictated by brands focused primarily on production volumes.” While explaining the purchase of an automatic lathe, Denis Flageollet also stressed the difficulty of having certain pieces produced in small quantities. “Our expectations sometimes mean that an operator has to be constantly present, and that machines are not left operating alone.” This decision is difficult to accept for sub-contractors, whose profit margins are under constant pressure.
Yet, this doesn’t just concern the processes; the raw materials are also affected. For example, it is difficult to find very high-quality leather for an alligator-skin strap. De Bethune therefore sources its leathers itself, before entrusting a supplier with the strap’s production. “In this field, there are still excellent professionals out there who take the time to stitch neatly by hand, and who stand by high-quality work.” Denis Flageollet has gradually surrounded himself with a whole network of artisans, personal acquaintances and friendships that considerably predate De Bethune, founded on passion, drive and a mutual fascination for the work of the other. “The quality of our partnerships could never be attained in the context of a purely commercial client-supplier relationship.”
Some crafts that require rare expertise and experience are in fact outsourced, such as hand guillochage, gem-setting and the treatment of certain dials. The same is true for engraving, an essential element of the DB25T Zodiac, which showcases the work of Michèle Rothen with whom Denis Flageollet has worked for a long time. To illustrate her working method, he looks through the photos on his cell phone and finds the first pencil sketches she sent him. From the index, he flicks back to the photo album and shows his reply: the same sketch with a few suggestions in blue pen, which the artist then interprets—without copying—to express the essence of his ideas in a new draft. And this continues, adjustment after adjustment, until the final version is reached.
Article published in WtheJournal.com