An unexpected torrential downpour, along with occasional hail pellets, befell the city of Geneva on the last day of March. Watches and Wonders 2023 was coming to an end, but journalists from around the world were still visiting brands hosting exhibits outside the fair.
On the agenda was De Bethune, whose exquisite movements and cutting-edge craftsmanship have enthralled both the aesthete and the adept. The independent manufacture was showcasing its 2023 novelties at the iconic Beau-Rivage Hotel overlooking the lake. Upon our arrival, the rainclouds strangely dissipated and in place of that morning’s dreary coldness was the warmth of the springtime sun. A good omen, perhaps?
It was here that we had our first encounter with the DB25 Starry Varius, a breathtaking timepiece with a view of the night sky — customisable, by the way — on its dial. It is evidently a thing of beauty, one that is still talked about since its 2018 release. The dial’s dreamy midnight hue, a signature of De Bethune style, is made of highly polished blued titanium. As it was brought to the light filtering through the windows, it gleamed with a dazzling allure. With demand through the roof, anyone who manages to secure a Starry variant from De Bethune — there is a moon phase, a tourbillon and even one created from a meteorite — or any watch for that matter, should, for lack of a better phrase, count their lucky stars.
More recently, the Swiss brand announced the release of the DB28xs Starry Seas. In a move that befits a growing demand for smaller watches, the latest evolution of the DB28 signals the beginning of a more wearable case size for the collection. The “extra small” model is 38.7mm wide as opposed to the usual 43mm, with a grade 5 titanium case and floating hinged lugs with a mirror polish finish. The size reduction also bodes well for the calibre DB2005, which has been adapted to this timepiece. The increased lightness of the watch endows it with better efficiency in cases of impact and acceleration.
Now onto the dial. The idea was to create a vision of the night sky reflected on water. To achieve this, the DB28xs features the same blued and polished grade 5 titanium, but with a “random guilloché” pattern — a world first, they say — that mimics undulating waves. An array of white-gold stars floats among its surface, creating a beguiling yet tranquil face that almost elicits an emotional response.
According to De Bethune, the Japanese concept of wabi sabi impelled co-founder and master watchmaker Denis Flageollet in the poetic creation of the DB28xs. The veritable life philosophy evokes an appreciation and acceptance of the imperfect, natural and transient. “While design is constantly experimenting, it appears that, despite the development of industrial technology, this subtle link between humankind and nature traditionally expressed in art, literature and craftsmanship remains alive and well,” he said.
These principles are reflected in its downsizing to uphold modest simplicity; the stars on the waves evoke the feeling of impermanence; and the watch as a whole represents the act of finding beauty in atypical things. There are plenty of timepieces that capture attention, but few that capture hearts.
That aside, one should not forget De Bethune’s prowess in other areas, too. At the Beau-Rivage Hotel, we were also able to experience the DB Eight, a svelte monopusher chronograph — the maison’s fourth — powered by its 31st in-house movement, the DB3000. While the DB28 Maxichrono is its most technically complex chronograph, its first watch featuring this function was the DB1. And although the intention was to mature this idea launched 20 years ago, a revisitation of the DB1 might not be the best way to describe it. “It’s more like finishing a walk that you started,” said CEO Pierre Jacques.
Crafted in polished titanium, the 42.4mm case of the DB Eight has a slender profile of 9.2mm and an open caseback. Framed by a very slim bezel, a 12-sector radiating hand-guilloché pattern occupies the heart of the dial, while a silvered barley grain subdial at six o’clock delivers 60-minute chronograph readings. A delicate railway outer seconds track, which offers great legibility, runs the circumference, and Breguet numerals and blued polished titanium hands keep track of time. When the chronograph is reset to zero, the tail of the central chronograph seconds hand aligns with the chronograph minutes hand. The result is a clean and elegant dress watch that is far from being staid.
There was also the DBD Digitale ‘Season 2’, De Bethune’s second collaboration with American rapper and record producer Swizz Beatz. Its first was in 2021, when the luminous and transparent Dream Watch 5 Tourbillon ‘Season 1’ was created. This time, the DBD is revived in an entirely different interpretation, futuristic even. The novel feature is certainly the burgundy dial, adorned with a Côtes de Genève motif that reveals subtle light effects that dance with the wearer’s movements. It is tastefully austere, save for three jewels that aid the time and date wheels. It is executed in lightweight zirconium, which is durable, corrosion-resistant and hypoallergenic.
Five discs visible through Art Deco-style apertures at 12 o’clock indicate the day, date and month in a linear mode, while jumping hours and scrolling minutes appear opposite each other on the lower half of the dial. At the stroke of midnight, all the indications progress instantaneously and simultaneously. Powered by the mechanical hand-wound calibre DB2044, the DBD ‘Season 2’ is equipped with the latest titanium balance with white gold inserts, as well as the triple pare-chute shock-absorbing system. It can, of course, be admired from the back.
It is issued in a 13-piece numbered limited edition with a duly engraved caseback and comes with a burgundy fabric and black alligator leather strap.
De Bethune is no stranger to technical and artistic innovation, and this year’s novelties prove the breadth of its watchmakers’ abilities. The brand has been collecting superlatives for years, bringing fanciful ideas to fruition and sparking dynamic conversations from both fans and critics. Jacques is aware of the gap between demand and supply, but being independent has its limits. “We’re really sorry we cannot satisfy everyone. We receive so many requests and the quantity is so limited worldwide,” he says.
On the other hand, there is complete freedom. “The advantage is that you can do whatever you want in a shorter period of time. To be independent is really to be reactive and not follow trends. You follow your own vision.”
So, what will the future look like? “We want to be consistent, creative, innovative and remain at the human scale. Keep two feet on the ground and not grow too fast; to stay ourselves even with success. I know from experience there are ups and downs. We want to stay humble,” he says. Sounds like De Bethune is on the right track.
This article first appeared on June 5, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.