Denis Flageollet was not born in the Jura mountain region, yet watchmaking culture has always been in his blood. He has worked in restoration. He has cooperated with a number of brands alongside François-Paul Journe, his partner at THA (Techniques Horlogères Appliquées). However, his finest creation is De Bethune, launched in 2002 and thus named in tribute to a knight who was a passionate inventor. In fact, exactly like Denis Flageollet, with one foot firmly planted in culture, another in the future and his head very much in touch with his times. Denis Flageollet has become one of the industry’s heritage figures, belonging to the category of independent creative watchmakers, and Watch Around was naturally keen to sit down for a talk.
How would you define De Bethune? “The common thread has always been about building on a global, universal tradition of anything relating to time measurement: the Gothic period, the Renaissance with figures such as Jacopo Dondi and Jost Bürgi, along with French, English and German watchmaking, Harrison’s marine chronometry, the work of cabinet-makers, the clocks of Robin, Passemant, Janvier – and indeed all the way back to the Mayas. The goal being to highlight historical themes and then bring these cultural elements firmly into the contemporary era.”
Is it a matter of reverence for the past? “The aim is not only to provide a contemporary take on this tradition, but to add something more, to improve techniques or technologies, to reformulate a particular craft or provide an unprecedented aesthetic approach. To observe tradition from a new angle, a fresh stand-point, in order to make watches a wristworn fragment of time measurement culture.”
What are your favorite themes? “Timekeeping precision, known as chronometry, is a good example.”
What is contemporary about this field? “It involves a lengthy evolutionary process. The quest for high-precision mechanical means of measuring time dates back a long way, and for centuries, watchmakers singled out mechanisms to achieve this, whether in steeples, on tables or on gimbals. Subsequently, as accuracy improved, people wanted to be able to find simple ways of carrying these timepieces around. Today, this precision must be adapted to dealing with a wide variety of wearing conditions that are in some cases extreme. The ability to withstand impacts, accelerations, while remaining firmly strapped to an athlete’s wrist: this is an extremely contemporary theme that involves cutting-edge research, just as we have previously under-taken on adjustment, the escapement, the balance wheel and the tourbillon. Tradition is constantly evolving.”
At the end of the day, the most striking aspect of De Bethune models is their highly distinctive, extremely modern design. Do you also see a connection with the past in this respect? “Aesthetic and technical elements are inseparable. Take the case of another favorite theme: horology in the Age of Enlightenment, the era of the great 18th century engineers and of astronomy. To begin with, the aim was to make extremely beautiful scientific instruments, which the elite of the period wished to transform into works of art by having them adorned by the finest cabinet- makers, bronze-smiths and enamelers, with names like Boulle, Caffieri and Coteau.
“We are also part of this evolution, while using modern methods. The dial of our DB25 Tourbillon is not in enamel but instead in blued titanium, endowing it with a more contemporary and even more intense hue than enamel. “It is absolutely not about merely replicating the past, but instead about recapturing what one feels when contemplating such exceptional objects. A truly stunning acrobatic feat that involves transposing the thrill of these great clocks to the wrist.
“Watchmaking is part of a global culture and I see myself as an explorer. The cone stems from research into a shape that is omnipresent in nature.”
If everything is all things, does that mean anything is possible? “Providing one sticks to logical models. Out of the vast melting pot of knowledge and culture, I draw inspiration from history, from peoples and from artisans. In the overlapping interactions between such elements, it can be hard to preserve their real meaning and not end up making watches whose only purpose is to be different: I’m not interested in making ‘toys for big boys.’”
What actually is a watch that has meaning? “The basis of a meaningful watch is that it must be pleasant to wear and useful in daily life. It must reflect a portion of the global body of knowledge represented by time measurement. It must contribute a touch of technical, cultural and aesthetic inspiration, and at the same time it must tell the time in a legible manner!”
Fair enough, but how is such a watch built? Where does one start? “It all begins with a desire, a theme to be explored. Then you begin imagining the object: a few sketches give you a feel for what the watch should convey. After that I switch to 3D design software without trying to obtain a realistic picture, but just to put in place the techniques involved and the respective positions of the various elements. Moving directly from there to the prototype is a chance to place the object in a real-life environment as quickly as possible. In the workshop, the model lives alongside us and develops in tune with us. It is a matter of taming it and adjusting it, using either CNC machining or hand craftsmanship.”
This kind of process is a far cry from the current methods that involve industrial conception of the prototype before actually making it. “The human hand is super important! And I can’t personally relate to the way in which watches are developed these days. It makes me feel uneasy, giving me the impression that something is missing – that the human touch is lacking.”
Your approach would be untenable without an integrated manufacture and complete autonomy, wouldn’t it? “I’m not saying it’s indispensable, but it’s what I considered necessary and it does indeed help a lot. That being said, there are also certain inherent dangers in doing things this way: you need to be integrated, yet remain flexible. The key advantage of an integrated manufacturing facility is not being dependent on the standardization imposed by others – which means one must not impose it in-house either.”
Isn’t a certain degree of standardization necessary in order to ensure quality? “One has to bear in mind that a product must be reliable, but the parameters of this reliability must be adapted to each model and one should never be afraid to challenge existing procedures. Standardization should be avoided, but not rigorous discipline.”
This formula doubtless works effectively in your case, since you are at the intersection between design and technology. “I am indeed a kind of hybrid. When I began developing watches after the years I had spent restoring them, I was working on one-of-a-kind collector’s models for the various brands I was dealing with, meaning people who had plenty of watchmaking experience but also an open-minded attitude. I derived great pleasure from making the connection between their ideas and technical feasibility, in ensuring that things worked. I have always felt at home somewhere between the two poles: creative, yet cautious. That being said, it’s definitely not a one-man show, I need a team. An integrated manufacture is first and foremost a team.”
Which brings me to my next question: You developed 26 calibers in 15 years? Is that a ‘sensible’ pace? “Let’s say we’re not very skilled at leveraging our assets. But it mostly reflects our passion for new ideas, a desire to keep making improvements, again and again. It doubtless also testifies to a somewhat monomaniac approach: doing the same thing over and over.”
One might say you make calibers just as others practice their scales? “That’s definitely true in some ways. All those who explore a profession are constantly practicing their scales, be they artists or artisans. In our day-to-day work, the fact of having developed 26 calibers doesn’t seem that amazing to us. You really have to look at the overall picture to be impressed by the accomplishment it entails.”
Another subject of curiosity: De Bethune is all about the sky and blueness. What’s the origin of this passion? “The cosmos, time, the heavens above… When you want to observe time in motion without any instruments, you look upwards. This is a recurrent theme in watchmaking. As far as blue is concerned, it’s also a watch industry tradition. tradition. Steel was originally blued to protect it from rust, before becoming a deliberately aesthetically pleasing element. We took the procedure even further when we realized titanium could also be blued: to stabilize our balance wheels, we heated them, they turned blue… and this discovery led us to the sky!”