The X-Files
The Quest for a Mechanical Rapprochement of Quartz-Accuracy

An inside report of De Bethune SA, La Chaux l'Auberson

by Magnus Bosse, November 2006

Part 2
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2. Watchmaking at De Bethune today
2.1 Vertical integration bottom-up in the smallest possible space!
Once you enter the De Bethune building, the impression of traditional handcrafting in the world of watchmaking will completely vanish: What you see is computer-controlled machinery everywhere, operated by technicians. CAD, CNC and spark erosion machines, all magically selecting and adjusting their tools, fill the rooms on the first floor (large image and small images, left and middle). Highly sterile and dust-clean working benches help to foster the feeling of high-tech, automated production of part. Is this the birthplace of reportedly hand-made watches?


However, there are also traditional lathes still in use, so this should reassure the startled audience. With this equippment, almost all components necessary to build a watch can be produced on a raw state.The precision aimed for with omitting hand-work in the initial production procesess (a strategy now almost universally employed in the watchmaking industry) lies in the range of few 1/1000th of a millimetre. Not surprisingly, the tools used to machine the parts are unbelievably small in scale. Here a CNC moulding cutter is shown (right), side-by-side with a normal drill we all know from the do-it-yourself markets (left):

This machinery "creates", so to speak, the raw material for the movements parts, which are then finished by hand by the master craftsmen - one floor up! But let us take a closer look at the plates, bridges and levers that come out of the black-box machinery:
The sophisticated tools allow for a great deal of flexibility, combined with the necessary precision. Note, that base-plates, cocks, bridges, but also wheel blanks can be manufactured (large image). Of note, different materials are use, such as brass (plates and bridges), red gold (wheels), steel (levers and pinions) or titanium and platinum (balance components). The plates are made in a two-step process: Brass blankets are pre-cut with spark-erosion first to shape the raw plates, and then CNC machines carve the subtle layers and drill additional whole and structures not possible with the former (small images, left: left, plate after spark erosion; left: plate after CNC treatment). The result is a relatively complex architecture (small image, middle). As a true manufacture, De Bethune is able to produce entire gears consisting of wheels mounted on pinions. The combination of red gold (wheels) and steel (pinions) are a further sign for the watchmaking class the company is striving for (small image, right).

2.2 Traditional watchmaking virtues are even more alive in the Computer age!
At this point we leave the first floor, go one staircase up and enter the finishing department. Dedicated craftsmen devote their skills to apply the hand finishing, which by no one else then the noted watchmaker extraordinaire and eccentric Philippe Dufour is called the "soul of Swiss watchmaking". Now lets spend a few minutes to watch the polisher doing his magic:
Below you can see, as an example, a Perpetual Calendar lever. Several of this pieces are glued on a support using shellack and then treated with tiny files and polishing heads (small images below, left). Of course, the polisher has to use a binocular to control his work. After several hours, the levers really sparkle at you (small images below, right).

But this alone is not responsible for the allure of De Bethune timepieces - every effort to create ultimate quality would be lost if the dials and hands would not be made with adequate stringency. Dial and hands represent the "face" of every watch, and to me the proverb of "a watchmaker has to sell the dial, then 50% of the deal is done" has some undisputable truth.
In La Chaux à l'Auberson, the dials are made of 18kt gold, hand guilloched (if applicable; and this is done out-house) and then silvered. The indices and numerals are printed onto them using a complicated, highly demanding multiple step printing method, resulting in an almost 3-D look. The dials of the more complicated pieces consist of several separate elements and layers, which require maximum precision while being crafted (small images below, left). But even the simpler dials show the mastery of the process (small images below, right).

Finally, the hands are everything else than off-the-shelf products. De Bethune is proud of producing their own hands, which are truly three-dimensional sculptures of time, and like the dials they are the product of elaborated and masterfully executed processes. I refrain from going into details, but the pictures alone speak legion about the challenges the technicians and watchmakers do not spare: If you look at the picture below, you will notice that the hands for hours and minutes are made of one piece of metal each, but only a part is (heat!) blued. Also, as the small pics reveal, the hands show significant changes in thickness, which makes it even more difficult to blue (or better, to yield a consistent blue colour that matches the dial printings or even the blued moonphase ball...). It goes without saying that the technical execution, that is the cutting, skeletonising and polishing, is top-notch:
2.3 Final steps - breathing life into a De Bethune watch!
Once the parts are ready, its time to change the room and enter the watchmaker's reign. 20 watchmakers, most of them in their 20s or 30s, are assembling the complicated De Bethune watches using the parts produced under the very same roof. The watchmakers are all "polyvalent", as De Bethune describes it, meaning that they are qualified to execute all necessary steps to build a watch, and depending on the current needs they perform these. Before the parts are handed over to the watchmakers, a quality specialist checks each and every component for specification and finishing (small images below, left). Only with her "placet", it is transferred to a watchmaker's bench and carefully fitted in a De Bethune movement (small images, middle). Finally, the finished watches are checked for timekeeping and function, of course, but also for finishing using a binocular that also is equipped with a timing device (small images, right).
The watchmakers are in permanent discussion with Denis Flageollet, who is more of a father and a sparring partner to them than a boss. He enjoys the interaction with his mostly young colleagues, and thus spends ample time in their atelier (see below, on the right at the last bench). This permanent reciprocal inspiration is beneficial for all people at De Bethune and certainly has a great impact on the fascinating new developments we have been presented with by De Bethune.

Denis Flageollet of course from time to time disappears - necessarily, as he enjoys the creative moments in his "chamber of secrets", as his own, fully equipped atelier is called. It is located under the roof of the manufacture, as if the proximity to the sky would help putting ideas into concepts and finally into working mechanisms. Lathes, files, drilling tools and timing machines allow the creation and testing of entire movements in complete isolation.
When I visited De Bethune in 2005, the prototype of the new automatic calibre laid on the bench, ticking quite contentedly. Of course, photos were not allowed, but Mr. Flageollet talked with great pride about the new movement, and considered it a corner stone of the manufacture's future - a fact that was underlined with the intense reconstruction work that was underway in La Chaux (small pic). If he is right in his evaluation - well, make up your own mind after we tackled the entire collection (chapters 4 & 5)!

Naturally, this is only a part of the story of De Bethune's excellency. The next chapter guides you through the marvellous movements, and opens some X-Files!

Part 1 - The Introduction
Part 2 - Watchmaking at Be Bethune today
Part 3 - De Bethune's bespoke movements and its unique "spider" balance assembly
Part 4 - The current De Bethune collection - Part I
Part 5 - The current De Bethune collection - Part II