Three prolific watchmakers share their experiences as independents.
Three prolific watchmaker—De Bethune, MB&F and Urwerk, share their experiences as independents.
ESQUIRE: How are the independent watch companies doing in these hard economic times?
Alessandro Zanetta of De Bethune: Being a real manufacture in this difficult period is not easy. Having a production of 300 to 350 pieces per year and 60 highly qualified people with a unique know-how gives an added value to our watches, but the internal costs are enormous. But it allows us to adapt our production to the market demand, as well as realise some special projects and be really reactive.
Maximilian Büsser of MB&F: It has always been difficult for independent creators, but clearly times are now even more challenging for them. The big brands have become so large that they occupy all the terrain both in the media and in terms of distribution. As a small artisan, it is virtually impossible to be heard and seen today. Social media has helped even the game a little. And luckily we have The Hour Glass, who have made it their mission to educate their clients and promote the most creative artisans in high-end watchmaking. Interestingly what nearly killed us last year is actually allowing us to have an incredible 2015. We decided a few years ago that we would start developing from 2014 onwards two new movements a year, instead of one a year. Well, guess what? There is no way our cash flow will allow this, and we learned it the hard way last year. But at the same time, coming up with the LM101 and the HM6 last year and two new calibres this year is giving us a stellar year.
Felix Baumgartner of Urwerk: Times are hard. Nobody can deny it. But we’ve already been through harsh times. Urwerk was born in harsh times. We, the independents, just like the big brands, have two options: either cry over a glorious past and look passively at the figures pointing in the red zone, or seize the momentum and be even more creative, by doing what we do best, which is offer greater value and real craftsmanship.
ESQ: In the early days, the independent watchmakers faced a lot of production challenges and delivery problems. Has anything changed?
DB: From the start, we gradually organised the manufacture to be autonomous and independent. This means being able to develop a structure that can perfectly follow up each step of the production. We have started to produce our own calibres in 2004, and nowadays, we have 19 calibres. This was really hard at the beginning, but we are improving year by year.
MB&F: It is even tougher. Many suppliers have disappeared or have been bought up by the big groups. The best independent craftspeople are therefore submerged with much more work than they can cater to. Luckily, we have incredibly strong ties to all the artisans whom we work with—and now have the internal facilities to retouch or craft pieces when needed.
Urwerk: Well, it’s difficult to talk for all independents. At Urwerk, we are only producing 100 pieces a year. It was more or less the same eight years ago. We are trying to remain stable. What did change is that we had four people working for Urwerk in 2005; today, there are 16 mostly watchmakers and CNC technicians. We are getting more independent, we can better manage time limits, and we have a better control of production process.
MB&F: The nature of independents is to stay independent! A few of us have managed to present together in commercial and communication activities (think Baselworld, for example), but I don’t think we will ever manage to pool together for manufacturing activities. ESQ: There has been talk about the independents getting together to manufacture their own movement with joint resources to avoid the pitfalls and the challenges that the watchmaking industry currently faces. Is this true? DB: Being a real manufacture that develops and produces their own calibres since 2004, we have no need to band together with other independents.
URWERK: The watches that we produce are so particular, and our needs so specific, that it would be difficult, almost impossible, to share a production line.
ESQ: How did your watch company start? How did your design inspirations come about?
DB: The company started from the desire of my father (David Zanetta) and Denis Flageollet to recreate a company with a real watchmaking spirit. This means respecting the knowhow of the past, but always trying to add new technologies and materials to let watchmaking evolve (exactly as the best watchmakers of the past did). The aesthetic signature always belongs to my father, the only designer of De Bethune.
MB&F: It was my father’s passing 14 years ago that made me realise that even though I was in the middle of a fantastic career, this was not the life that I wanted to live, not the life that I would be proud of on the day I die. So I started dreaming about what would later become MB&F: a very small company where I create for myself and work only