Hacking away in your home studio, skeletonizing simple hand-wound movements, finding your first customer and attracting clientele by word of mouth, developing your own brand, engineering your very own complications, and branching out into a fully equipped atelier perfectly set up for watchmaking is a tall order for any fledgeling watchmaker. Meet Stefan Ketelaars, founder of the Dutch brand, Ketelaars Watches.
As I dive deeper into the world of watchmaking on offer in our little country that is the Netherlands (both Frank Geelen and I are Dutch) I am more and more impressed by what I uncover. The Dutch watchmaking community is a tiny but ambitious group. There really is only one official institute offering watchmaking courses (both full-time and part-time) and a few individuals who offer insights into the industry through masterclasses, for instance.
What I also learned is that this group of Dutch watchmakers is tight-knit. They all know and support one another, whether it is with the development of an idea, the sharing of production capacity or learning or honing a certain skill. The community looks out for each other. Fledgeling watchmakers need help and advice before setting up their own fully functional atelier. Cutting gears, for instance, requires high-precision machines, often decades old and maintained to perfection. Not something that one can easily come by, let alone the space it requires to house these machines.
One of the brands in this group of Dutch watchmakers is Ketelaars Watches, founded in 2017 by Stefan Ketelaars. This young guy, just 26 years old, has been involved in watchmaking for about a decade! What is even more fascinating is the fact that he bought his first mechanical wristwatch at the age of 9, an age when most kids are playing videogames. After starting his own brand, things moved quickly. Only two years in as a watchmaker with his own brand, and just one year full-time, he is developing his own complications, designing, manufacturing and finishing his own movement parts and doing the final assembly. What’s important to note is that Stefan is mostly a self-taught watchmaker, with the aforementioned help from colleagues in the Netherlands.
Stefan’s inspiration comes from time itself. In his eyes, time is unfathomable, it cannot be grasped, contained or controlled. It can be measured, yes, and worn on the wrist, but the progression of time is influenced by none of us. It is that notion that drives Stefan Ketelaars. His atelier, situated in an office building, is clean and neatly maintained. A set of CNC machines, a few old but pristine lathes, a microscope, a watchmaker’s bench, electroplating machines, parts cleaning installation. Pretty much everything you need to manufacture a watch yourself is there. Whether it is 3D designs, or hand painting a miniature globe under a microscope, Stefan does it all by himself.
And that in-house manufacturing is exactly what Stefan Ketelaars strives for. With each model he produces – and we’re talking small numbers here – he pushes his engineering, his finishing. From his early skeletonized watches to his latest creations, the Time in Motion and the Terra Luna/Luna Terra, you can really see the advancements in his watchmaking. Only recently he started adopting movements and creating his own ¾ bridges to upgrade the base movements he uses. For movements, he still uses the hand-wound ETA 6497/6498 ébauches, tried-and-tested, rugged calibres with a large diameter.
So what makes this guy special? Well, “special” is hard to designate, but if you consider a lead time of only 17 days to develop a brand-new complication, that’s rather impressive! From a basic idea to the first sketches to building prototype parts and eventually assembling a working prototype in under three weeks is no mean feat. And what is really interesting is that he uses a public Dutch watch forum to showcase his watches, bounce around ideas, gather feedback and change small touches on his watches. A good example is the placement of his brand name on the ring of the balance wheel in the Time in Motion watch. That detail is finished with direct input from the forum.
This doesn’t mean he doesn’t stick to his own beliefs, but he is open-minded enough to listen to feedback and not shy of changing things if he feels it eventually benefits his watches. His approach has earned him a strong following, regardless of what he posts and shares, and there are even a few collectors who have since ordered a watch from him. A key element in the watches by Stefan Ketelaars is the exposed balance wheel on top of the dial, in the style of MB&F’s Legacy Machines. Both watches feature vast amounts of in-house made and hand-finished parts, done by Stefan himself. The current lead time for one of his existing models is about two to three months.
There’s no shortage of ambition either. Stefan is aiming to develop his own movement parts and eventually develop his very own movement. Stefan sets his goals high; only the very best is good enough. We’ll go deeper into his watches in a follow-up article where we’ll examine both the Time in Motion and the Terra Luna/Luna Terra watch, this last model offering a world-first in watchmaking.
For more information, go to Ketelaars-watches.com.