This interview of De Bethune co-founder David Zanetta forms the second part of my time with David and Alessandro Zanetta of De Bethune during their visit to Sydney. Part one, with photos covering many of the brand’s watches, can be found here.
Sometimes, during an interview, one is fortunate enough to see a bit deeper into a watchmaker. Not just what drives them and why they became a watchmaker or how they view the watch industry, but also about how they see the world around them, and how it forms part of who and what they are. My time spent with Mr. Zanetta was one of those times.
Horologium (H) : Nine patents, 17 world-firsts and 15 in-house calibres. In ten years, your research department has been incredibly active. In terms of tradition versus new advancements, how would you explain the balance that De Bethune tries to achieve? To what degree do you think the two overlap or are mutually exclusive?
Mr. David Zanetta (DZ): Well the approach of De Bethune to the watchmaking world is a very personal experience and vision of the flow of life through the centuries, and is based on the concept that Nature is not jumping but evolving smoothly, and that in order to advance through your contributions, you need firstly to be aware of culture and about what horology has been doing in past centuries – know the history of horology, as well as the history of architecture of medicine or science.
There is a common link in the so-called ‘improvers’, no matter what the field. I take into consideration all those who have contributed to the evolution of any field. My personal attitude is that it is a form of art, of “improvement creation”. The history of horology is always important to De Bethune even when pursuing technological advances. We are in a clear field – classic mechanics. Classic mechanics is mathematics, dynamics, statics, it’s not quantum energy, it’s mechanical energy. And it’s the field that mankind started a thousand years ago through tools, and in improving, they have been able to make tools move themselves through mechanical energy. So, starting with Galileo, there was the discovery of the tool that’s moving itself…we still belong to this field, even if we are in the quantum period, our period is linked to the mechanical.
H: DB has developed a ‘signature look’, with the arch and the lug system in particular. How important is it for you to have a brand with a design aesthetic that is instantly recognisable?
DZ: This has not been the result of any research. This is a natural interpretation of aesthetics. If you are a painter, a good painter in principle knows all the great artists preceding him. This knowledge forms his attitude, because the influences will open inside the artist without his deliberate knowledge. It’s a matter of reaction and synergy at the same time between other people’s work and personality. Growing and living means to receive vibrations and energy from living things as well as from static things. We exchange these vibrations. The influence of the vibrations emitted is absorbed with no intention or interpretation other than pleasure. It is a flowing of energy that is mixed and interpreted and makes you grow. You absorb, re-elaborate and transfer into another form. Each one of us is a sort of a machine reflecting energy. The point is to try to release the best from your interpretation of the energy you get from others. It’s a way of living, it’s all connected.
The fact that I am dedicated to watchmaking does not mean that I am not sensitive to other beautiful vibrations and cannot reinterpret and transfer beauty.
H : Comfort of wear sometimes doesn’t seem to be a feature of some watch designs – how it sits on a wide variety of wrists for example. One of the most distinctive features of some of your watches are the articulated lugs enabling fine adjustment to the shape and size of the wearer’s wrist. How did you come to design those?
DZ : It’s very simple. I was confronted with a few main questions. Firstly, which is the most beautiful physical view of a watch? My answer was the round form of a pocket watch. Because, in fact, a pocket watch is the form from which the wristwatch has its origins. At this point I two problems – to keep the beauty near to the perfection (roundness, smoothness) of the pocket watch, and to put it on the wrist. My answer was let us keep this perfect round shape and try to adapt it to the wrist through a physical structure that gives comfort to the wearer, leaving intact the object in itself. The floating lugs are apart from the body of the watch, and have a function to just to leave the pure ‘round’ as it is. In my point of view, this was the answer to the problem of keeping the beauty and serving the function. How long did it take to develop the design? Just one minute! You act and react, you don’t need to think too much.
H : You presented the DB27 Titan Hawk at Baselworld 2012. At a price of CHF40,000, it has been presented as De Bethune’s entry level model.
DZ : The idea was to be able to produce a watch that has all the qualities of the more expensive watches in terms of precision, readability, resistance and so on with less tradition, decoration etc in order to have 100% De Bethune on the wrist at a more affordable cost. It is light, extremely resistant, extremely waterproof. It is at the same time a racing car and a truck that allows good sight, a good touch and good performance without the hand finishing component that’s merely aesthetic, in its mechanical parts. The naming of the Titan Hawk is simply related to the Titan Hawk itself; the bird, a greyish bird, powerful and beautiful. The substance titanium – Titan, ‘Hawk’ from the floating wings.
H : Even though nowaday, a watch doesn’t seem to be considered ‘big’ unless it’s over 47mm, for a lot of people, 44mm or even 42mm, is bigger than they are comfortable with. Do De Bethune have any plans for smaller watches?
DZ: Yes. In January we are presenting a watch that is 40mm for people who like smaller watches. We’ve been asked, from different sources, to do this, and we have, because of the demand. The perfect size of the watch is, in my opinion, the biggest possible wearing watch, related to the human size. As a matter of taste, people have a different perfect size; as a matter of practice, no, because the floating lugs are made in two different lengths, so with this system, almost everybody can wear our sizes. The maximum size possible for wearing at the wrist means the maximum readability possible. We have to respect the function of a watch – to read the time.
[Re: a side question about watch sizes and female customers of De Bethune]
We have women as well, they are a minority – but let’s say that my point of view is that there is no ‘women’s watch’ or ‘men’s watch’. There is no ‘women’s car’ or ‘men’s car’; it’s a matter of taste, of culture, of pleasure. It’s subjective. The woman is approaching the object for what it is and tries to ‘see’, not to ‘look’ at things. To look at things means to look through other concepts. If you see, you see with your own eye. So this is a conflict of our society, which marketing is imposing on consumers.
If you put one of these on your wrist – it is up to you to define which lugs are the best fitting to your wrist.
H : You have used the tourbillon, perpetual calendar and a minute repeater complication for example. Can you give us a hint of what other complications you are going to tackle next?
DZ: We are making, in a limited series this year, a tourbillon perpetual calendar as a standard product to add to our line, and as well a new chronograph with five concentric hands and we are developing a lot of other research. We are working on the Resonic system as well.
H : In an interview with WatchTime‘s Mark Bernardo in 2010, George Daniels was asked whether he believed new materials like silicon bring something to watchmaking, Daniels replied: “I don’t believe they’re necessary, no. There is no evidence that they are. Clocks and watches have been made of brass and steel for a thousand years, and they’re still running perfectly. We don’t need these things. I don’t accept these materials as being the least bit useful in haute horologie.” With an increasing number of watch brands like yourself using silicon, do you have any thoughts about this?
DZ: Yes. I have. My friend George Daniels was an old gentleman impressed by Breguet’s work. The problem with horology in its essence, and George Daniels would have known this, is related to weight. A perfect mechanical machines is as light as possible and with as less friction as possible. The perfect mechanical watch has no weight and no friction. So whatever mechanics can help you reduce weight and friction, these allow you to be more precise. So the sense of the watchmaker is to make a precise instrument. So Daniels is going against his own work!
The ‘sense’ of a watchmaker is to make better performing instruments, and in order to be more precise he has to be advanced in the knowledge of technology in order to reduce friction. This is the only way to go. It is like to refuse the sense of your profession, talking about the material … silicon doesn’t mean anything, it is just a substance that has less weight than others. You use silicon because today’s technology allows mechanics to manufacture this matter in an almost perfect weight and lighter weight. We have, in all our watches, the highest inertia and the lightest weight in the world. This is the sense of horology.
[RE: Breguet etc were trying to innovate in their day]
If they had the chances we have today to work with some materials, they would have done it. Their problem is that they never had the chance to use technology that allowed them to be lighter than they were. Tomorrow for sure there will be more materials. Silicon is used because it is flexible, elastic and extremely light.
H : How is your Resonique project is going, and will it become part of a De Bethune watch?
DZ: This year we will start wearing Resonique watches on the wrist to test the system. At this moment research is being done with the intention of transfer to production. If you can, transform research to something positive – to research for the sake of it is useless. Everything you do you do in a positive constructive attitude. The balance spring and wheel – over a certain number of vibrations, it breaks. It is like the engine of a car or a jet. If you want more precision, you must increase the vibration. It’s mechanics. So we research higher vibration to transfer to everyday use.
H : Is there a ‘typical’ De Bethune customer?
DZ : There is no typical customer. The customer today is multifaceted, as in every different field. Most people buy a watch for the brand written on the dial because they need to be recognised by others. There is no knowledge, it is a matter of show. It is enough to be recognised by the man walking on the road. It is about connection. My will is that my customer is someone who doesn’t look at the brand written on the dial, that is why some of our watches are not even signed on the dial. It is deliberate. You don’t have your name written on your hand!
A name is just a name. Some people buying a De Bethune probably don’t even see what they buy. They buy something they believe is different, something that the others cannot have because of the price, because of the quality, because of the limited number. Self-limited by quality, I mean. These watches are self-limited by quality. It is impossible to make thousands of these watches with this quality and finishing. Knowledge is something that is rare, extremely rare.
Why do you buy something? Why do you buy a watch to tell the time when everyone has a phone and it’s so easy to read the time without a watch? It must be something else, because otherwise it’s not worth it. You cannot spend $100,000, $200,000, $400,000 in order to see what time it is, you buy something else, at the time of the day!
H : If you had to describe De Bethune in half a dozen words to someone unfamiliar with your watches, what would they be?
DZ: The reason why I founded the company – the sense of De Bethune is doing the best regardless of cost, where the cost is not just money, but the effort to put it all together. No dial maker, case maker, movement maker, balance wheel maker is like De Bethune. So I had to put together a system, over 3,500 companies to put together this quality. It is knowledge, it is experience, it is being engaged 24 hours a day.
H : When you aren’t a watchmaker, what do you like to spend your time doing?
DZ: Mostly gardening. I have my own bulldozer and tractor. There is a part dedicated to vegetables, but my pleasure is shaping landscapes and Japanese pines, rocks, long views with particular trees, colours. It is a scenic garden. Also, I’ve built some cars, my own cars, for me. I build it as I want to my own design. It must fit to me. I interact with three dimensional things.
So, which is the De Bethune watch closest to David Zanetta’s heart? It’s the one that they are making. It is always the next watch.
My thanks to Ching of The Hour Glass (Sydney) for making this interview possible.