Reflecting On Ten Years Of The Sensational De Bethune DB28
by Tim Mosso
It’s been ten years since the De Bethune DB28 won the Aiguille d’Or at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. Effectively the “Best Picture” at the “Oscars” of watchmaking, this recognition placed De Bethune among the elite company of other Aiguille d’Or winners such as F.P. Journe, Greubel Forsey, Breguet, Audemars Piguet, A. Lange & Söhne, and Patek Philippe.
A decade removed from its Hollywood ending, the DB28 remains a grail watch in every sense.
Not that sense has anything to do with the DB28. It’s a wild experiment that pulses with the ambition of the Manhattan Project and radiates just as much piercing energy. Watchmaker and founding partner Denis Flageollet and his now-retired design lead, vintage dealer David Zanetta, planned the 42.7 mm titanium DB28 in a fashion designed to elicit love-hate reactions. Like the 1992 Dodge Viper, this is a concept machine that escaped unsullied by accountants, marketers, or MBAs.
And that’s its greatest strength.
To understand the genius of the De Bethune DB28, start inside and work your way to the edges. After years of experimenting with dial-side escapements and extravagant case backs, De Bethune put all the mechanical magic at the center of the DB28’s dial. A twin-barrel bridge blazes with “black” mirrored polish and “côtes De Bethune.” Similar to côtes de Genève, De Bethune’s stripes are laid down by abrasive wheels, but the wheel is reversed halfway through so that these unique waves point outward from each side.
Hands are in fire-blued titanium in a process patented by De Bethune.
Thanks to double self-adjusting mainspring barrels (patented), the DB28 boasts a still-impressive six-day power reserve. And unlike many watch brands of all sizes, De Bethune employs no compromised beat-rate tricks to achieve the 144-hour autonomy; this watch retains the industry-standard 28,800 vibrations per hour.
The mainspring barrels broach the edges of their seemingly Star Trek-inspired bridge and form prominent features of the dial; less prominent is the case back power reserve indicator. For good measure, this manual-wind machine employs a slipping mainspring to eliminate the threat of excessive winding.
Two triple Pare-Chute shock protection springs brace a balance bridge executed in full specular finish. The unique (and patented) antishock system elevates both the shock resistance and the chronometry of the watch.
In its 2011 form, the DB28 included an in-house balance wheel comprised of solid silicon with a white gold rim. Aside from its spectacular appearance, this wheel resists temperature-driven timing drift, maximizes mass in the balance rim, and reduces the aerodynamic drag of the wheel.
A hand-shaped hairspring consists of two elements bound together; they achieve the concentric “breathing” of an overcoil hairspring without the thickness or shock susceptibility of such a spiral.
The remainder of the DB28 dial is a combination of mechanical and aesthetic fixtures. Polished titanium cabochons grace the hour track, while a concave silver chapter ring provides a reference for reading the minutes. At the base of the dial, De Bethune employs its spherical moon phase display with a precision of 1,112 years between necessary corrections. One half of the moon sphere is fired blue steel, and the other is white palladium. And, yes, it’s patented.
Externally, the DB28 is a radical departure from conventional watch design. “Floating lugs,” first employed in 2008’s DB26 Perpetual Calendar, achieved immortality on the DB28. This system offers up to four millimeters of lateral compression. Like the wings of the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, De Bethune employs a variable geometry system that adapts to conditions – in this case, on the wrist. Several different lug sizes are offered to achieve lug-to-lug spans as disparate as 47 mm and 58 mm.
And unlike most luxury brands, De Bethune is amenable to retrofitting components for original and subsequent owners during mechanical service.
The fit is outstanding, and most collectors encountering a DB28 for the first time comment on the svelte 11 mm thickness. Not only does it sit as low as a dress watch, but the grade five titanium ensures a light and comfortable feel on the wrist.
Despite appearances, the DB28 is refreshingly compact for an extravagant design from a brash independent brand. Monsters from indie haute horlogerie mainstays like Richard Mille, Greubel Forsey, and MB&F generally wear as large as they look. But the DB28 is a joy even on a petite wrist, and a momentary encounter reveals unanticipated unisex potential. Taste and confidence – not wrist size – are the limiting factors for potential DB28 owners.
As of 2021, De Bethune can be described as a brand that builds nothing but “grail” watches. This term, invented eons ago by the online watch community, is overused. But when a watchmaker makes only around 200 watches per year, resolutely plows money into pure science R&D, and designs watches with a Blade Runner sensibility, the shoe – or the watch – fits.
De Bethune only builds grail watches; the DB28 was the watch that made it official.
For more information, please visit www.debethune.ch/en/collections/db28-collections.
Quick Facts De Bethune DB28 ca. 2010
Case: grade five titanium, 42.6 x 11.4 mm; floating lugs
Movement: manually wound, twin spring barrels, silicon balance wheel with palladium rim, five-day power reserve, 4 Hz/28,800 vph frequency, triple Pare-Chute shock absorber
Functions: hours, minutes; power reserve, spherical moon phase
Price (in 2010): approx. CHF 83,000 excluding VAT
* Disclosure: Tim Mosso is the Media Director and Watch Specialist at Watchbox, whose parent company is as of August 2021 a shareholder in De Bethune.