Belgium has long been a hothouse for homegrown designers like Dries Van Noten, Martin Margiela or the Surrealist artist René Magritte. That creative legacy has spread into the world of watchmaking with more Belgian creators producing their own designs.
Brands with a distinctive style include Tamawa with its Bakelite cases, Ice Watch with its color-popping designs and S. Albert, featuring quirky off-center hand and minute dials.
But there are hurdles. While there are at least 25 Belgian watch brands, there is no formal association, makers say. And it is harder to find factories that make components in Belgium rather than in Switzerland or China.
Still, the country inspires watchmakers. Revenue from the overall luxury watch market in Belgium is forecast to exceed $272 million this year, according to Statista, a data portal.
Stijn Busschaert — a founder of the Belgium Watch Club — created the Méraud Watch Company in 2016, mixing the color and balanced designs of 1950s, ’60s and ’70s watches with the styles of his favorite Belgian artists and architects alongside nautical themes inspired by the De Haan coastline, the seaside resort in West Flanders where he grew up. Méraud is a hybrid of the French words mer (sea) and émeraude (emerald) because “the stone is precious and the sea is precious to me,” he said.
A real estate project developer, Mr. Busschaert, 34, runs Méraud two or three hours a day and on some weekends, allowing him “to express my creativity through my watches,” he said in a video call from his home in Ghent, Belgium’s third largest city.
“Magritte’s surrealism inspires me to incorporate unexpected and symbolic elements into my watch designs,” Mr. Busschaert wrote in a later email — like “the seconds hand at 9 o’clock, symbolizing a nautical compass” for his 40-millimeter stainless steel Antigua chronographs with vintage Swiss movements, which sold out at a pretax price of 1,750 euros (or $1,914).
Now he is working to bolster the name recognition of his brand outside Belgium because “ideally I’d like to make it my main job” within the next five years, he said. He introduced a new collection of dive watches at the WatchPro Salon in London last month, revamping his debut Bonaire collection of 2018.
Again named for the Caribbean island known for its dive sites, the new 40-millimeter Bonaire watches come with dials in black, blue and a new green (because of its “luxury vibe,” he said); new Swiss mechanical movements; and an open-case back that reveals some of the movement. Pretax prices range from €925 to €1,025. Straps are rubber, leather or stainless steel.
Nate Borgelt, head of watches in the Americas for the Bonhams auction house, said by phone that he would slot Méraud watches alongside brands like Oris, Nomos Glashütte or Tissot, because they have “bang for your buck, that, kind of, goes under the radar; that watch people know.”
Mr. Busschaert liaises with each of his factories to make the cases, dials, hands and stainless steel straps in China, the movements and rubber straps in Switzerland, and leather straps in France. His watches are assembled in Switzerland and shipped to clients from his office in Ghent, he said.
The sight of new apartment buildings springing up along the Belgian coast prompted him to study for a professional bachelor’s degree in real estate from 2006 to 2009 at University College Ghent, where he began watch collecting. He bought a black and orange Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean, he said, after breaking his Rodania chronograph.
He now owns six new and pre-owned watches including a 1962 Rolex Submariner 5512 as “the essence of a dive watch,” he wrote, and a Bulgari Octo Finissimo 103023 with dark green numerals in Arabic for “its distinctive design,” he said. Mr. Busschaert keeps his collection tight by buying and selling them, saying that he has “only one wrist and there are only seven days.”
Preferring a “more technical” real estate career, he said, he embarked on his second degree in land surveying at the same university, graduating in 2011 and worked as a surveyor until becoming a property developer in 2020.
His technical drawings for surveying helped him create the 2-D technical drawings of his watch designs, he said, which he emails to his case manufacturer in China, who then creates a 3-D design. “Then I am able to make a 3-D print of basically the watch head and I can adjust my design on the 3-D drawing,” he explained.
In 2013, he was a founder of the Belgium Watch Club, which now has 17 members, he said, with as many as 75 collectors meeting in a pub or restaurant in cities across Belgium, to “show each other which watch we have,” he said. Sometimes global brands present models to the group, he said.
“It wasn’t really my intention to start a watch brand,” he said. “I just got creative and drew a timepiece,” he said, and “started asking around what people could advise” about costs. By visiting watch fairs in Switzerland and Hong Kong as a collector, he “got to know quite a lot of people” in the industry, he said.
He sells his watches online, estimating that 60 percent of his customers come from the United States, 10 percent from Belgium and 30 percent from countries including Japan and Colombia.
Finding a multibrand watch retailer in Belgium to sell local brands is tough, according to Arnaud Wittman, owner of Maison De Greef, a retailer founded in 1848 that currently stocks only one Belgian brand: Ressence.
“Price, image and the quality of movement” matter, said Mr. Wittman, who tends to stock much more expensive timepieces.
Creating watches that locals cannot buy from traditional watchmaking territories like Switzerland is the way homegrown watch brands will survive, according to Roland Baptiste, 52, who produces engraved watches under his signature brand, RBaptiste. He sells his watches online, from his workshop or from private client events held at multibrand watch and jewelry stores.
To be recognized by Belgian watch fans, he said, you must make something that has first been appreciated in other countries. Only then, “you are famous in Belgium,” he said by phone.
Still, Mr. Baptiste leans into the popularity of his country’s artistic heritage. He designs, engraves and assembles his watches from his home workshop in Verviers, a city in the eastern province of Liège. His cases and dials are made in Liège and his leather straps come from Ostend. (The movements are Swiss and the hands are French, he said.)
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