The Most Challenging Timepiece Is Yet To Materialize for Denis Flageollet

The De Bethune co-founder and master watchmaker provides a retrospective look at the impactful projects that shaped his career and journey with the brand.

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Recently founded, The 1916 Company is a refreshing destination for watch and jewelry collectors. It was formed through the unification of Watchbox, Radcliffe, Hyde Park Jewelers, and Goveberg — all of which are unique hotspots for collectors of exquisite and luxurious timepieces.

Earlier this month month at the former Watchbox location in Hong Kong, The 1916 Company hosted its first private collectors event. For two days only, Denis Flageollet, De Bethune’s co-founder and master watchmaker was present for an exclusive Asia tour. Accompanying Flageollet is a curated collection of his time-telling creations ranging from the 2011 GPHG l’Aiguille d’Or-award winning DB28 model to important, brand-specific references such as the DB20.

As one of the few independent Maisons supported by The 1916 Company (formerly Watchbox), De Bethune is hailed for both its finesse in classic and avant-garde watchmaking, where it has been touted as a Haute Horlogerie hidden gem by industry insiders such as Tim Mosso. A relatively young brand in the luxury watch sphere, De Bethune was founded in 2002 by Denis Flageollet and David Zanetta, an avid collector and expert in watches. The duo first crossed paths at Technicien d’Horlogerie Ancienne (THA) for the relaunch of L.Leroy. At the time, Flageollet was working as a restorer for antique clocks, where he honed his in-depth knowledge and skills in traditional watchmaking.

As a fourth-generation watchmaker, Denis Flageollet’s life has always been closely tied to watchmaking – yet, it was his experience at THA that facilitated his growth as a craftsman. “I started to bring this knowledge into a new language of horological culture, where every modern touch I add is always made by respecting what I’ve learned from restoring vintage clocks,” he said.

The eventual birth of De Bethune was also inspired by the turn of the new millennium, as Flageollet explained, “Together with David, our aim and goal were to bring what we learned from restoring ancient timepieces, but reimagined with modern codes, and onto the wrists of collectors. The timing was perfect then,” said Flageollet.

According to the De Bethune master watchmaker, “The tradition of watchmaking has always been to innovate.” As an independent brand, De Bethune has always been at the forefront of innovation, where it made a name for itself through its distinct and avant-garde creations. Flageollet believed his mission was to communicate the history and ever-evolving narrative of watchmaking through a contemporary vision. With an unwavering interest in engineering as well as a passion for forging, Flageollet’s style serves as an embodiment of the brand’s approach in imbuing modern technology with classic watchmaking.

“The tradition of watchmaking has always been to innovate.”

The color blue, along with the highly-characterized Dream Watch 5 are emblems of De Bethune, a classic for the brand. In truth, the iconic and mesmerizing blue hue seen on a number of De Bethune timepieces was in fact, discovered by chance. Traditionally, that color was only used on steel. However, at De Bethune, Flageollet discovered blued titanium when he was heating the metal in a test to improve its oxidation resistance. Flageollet, who was fascinated by the beautiful hue later incorporated the color throughout the watches, where it could be spotted on the dial and movement across a plethora of De Bethune timepieces.

He often experience an inevitable rush of emotions whenever a concept of his imagination becomes materialized, albeit in an unprecedented manner. This sense of indescribable achievement and fulfillment is also closely interlinked with his determination for trial and error. “It’s important to find the solution during the research process. If you keep trying and end up not finding the solution, then the idea won’t motivate you to research anymore,” said Flageollet, highlighting the importance of self-motivation — something he has learnt and succeeded many times through experience.

When describing his process and approach to watchmaking, Flageollet considered himself more of a forger than an engineer. In terms of methods, he prefers to be more hands-on with the materials he uses, stating that his “approach is quite the other way round in comparison to engineers,” and that he always commence his projects by following his intuition and observations. “It’s instinctive. Through my interactions with raw materials, I could feel them speaking to me — it’s that level of understanding that allows me to feel at one with the materials I use,” he commented.

Consequently, this instinctive approach is also what Flageollet employs when conceptualizing new time-tellers. “I get this itching feeling in the back of my head. That’s really the first instinct,” he said. Elaborating on that, Flageollet explains, “The process is also very intuitive near the beginning stages, and then I gradually write it down on paper as notes before I start putting together something more technical. At the end of the day, you’ll always need a technical plan before you start creating.”

“My biggest achievements or the things I’m most proud of were never from something that I tried to chase, but rather ideas that just suddenly appear.”

Inspiration strikes Denis Flageollet in many forms — mostly in the subjects that he’s deeply captivated by. Inspiration for him, first and foremost comes from his passion for horology, science, and astronomy. “In order to bring something to the table from inspiration, I believe it’s important to maintain a passionate mindset and a daily curiosity about my surroundings,” in which he adds that, “inspiration doesn’t just appear suddenly. It’s when I look at something, and I’ll think to myself, ‘What can I make out of this?’ This all stems from my interest in almost everything, and it’s hard to explain. But ideas just start forming in my mind, and then I’ll start sketching.”

Looking back on the history of De Bethune, Flageollet describes his journey with the brand and co-founder, David Zanetta as enjoyable. One particular event that still hits him with disbelief today was when he and Zanetta launched their first-ever timepiece: the DB1. “Back then it wasn’t even called the DB1, as it was just a micro-series for specific customers,” he recounts, noting that the reference then was devoid of branding, and was simply labeled “1” as its model number. The unbranded model turned out to be positively received by industry experts and collectors, which encouraged the duo to continue their venture.

Over the span of Denis Flageollet’s career, there were projects that left an indelible mark on him and De Bethune. While for the brand itself, it would be the DB28 Tourbillon, where the master watchmaker and his team met the demanding challenge of adapting a high frequency tourbillon onto a wristwatch. The resulting complication still remains the lightest of its kind today, weighing only 0.18 grams on its 63 components alone.

For Denis Flageollet, the most challenging creations he’s ever encountered in his watchmaking career would be the projects he’s currently working on. “If it’s not released yet, it’s because it’s challenging for me,” he shared, stating that he’s currently working on a few projects at the same time. “These will be released when they’re ready, or when I find a solution to bring them to life,” he added assuringly.

In a more general sense, one of the most important projects for Flageollet in his pre-De Bethune days was a Breguet Sympathique clock. Thirty years before he was handed this project, the Sympathique was scarcely worked on, which made it a nerve-wracking project for Flageollet. “I worked really hard on it. When I saw the finalized Sympathique working, I couldn’t really believe my eyes. I was so shocked that I kept waking up in the middle of the night to check if the clock was still running. I was so amazed then that I couldn’t stop crying.”

When asked about whether there is a particular timepiece that signified a milestone for him as a watchmaker today, Flageollet simply replied, “The next one” – teasing a future release that could potentially mark another career-defining moment for the master watchmaker. “My biggest achievements or the things I’m most proud of were never from something that I tried to chase, but rather ideas that just suddenly appear. It’s always so much more interesting when it comes from inspirations like that,” he concluded.

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