De Bethune x HG Timepiece: A Cerulean Hourglass Collaboration With Marc Newson
What happens when an old flame reenters your life? Those experienced with dating might say it depends on how you parted ways. When a whirlwind romance ends in bad luck or a fateful decision, a person reappearing can spark intense feelings of hope, excitement, and possibility. If the relationship ended in pain, heartbreak, or – worse – betrayal, seeing that person again is sometimes traumatic.
The same type of scenario is also true for things other than ex-partners, like seeing your first car or visiting the lake where you spent summer camp in seventh grade. These experiences can equally call forth myriad emotions and reactions because memories are complex. Perhaps a first car was your first real sense of freedom and being an adult, but it also broke down a lot and cost you a lot of money. Maybe that camp was where you had your first teenage crush and learned to hold your breath underwater for over a minute all while struggling to sleep at night because the in-cabin chaperone snored like a logger’s chainsaw.
When something from your past reappears, it is bound to stir up a whole host of emotions. If things were going well then the new experience is likely to be positive. If not, then it may turn out badly again. When it comes to the world of horology I have almost entirely fantastic experiences under my belt, so reappearances are usually exciting.
This trend did not falter when I heard that one of my favorite independent brands collaborated on a new version of my favorite ancient horological instrument, the hourglass. De Bethune and Marc Newson partnered to produce a new version of Newson’s Hourglass, now iconic after an earlier collaboration with Ikepod, only this time in a never-before-seen deep blue that is iconic of De Bethune.
De Bethune x Marc Newson Hourglass
Newson‘s original hourglass was one of my favorite objects of the last decade, and seeing it again was invigorating as I was whisked back to 2011 when I was just starting to make my way in the world and was still two years from becoming a part of this incredible industry as a writer. It was a different time, but the heyday of independent brands was reaching full stride (the original MB&F Legacy Machine was released the same year) and this type of non-watch horological collaboration was still largely novel.
Marc Newson‘s Ikepod Hourglass became an instant favorite thanks to its spectacularly clean design and innovative nanoballs replacing the traditional sand. The design was such a standout that a couple of high-end retailers had already secured limited editions for their boutiques (Westime L.A. and Hourglass Singapore, for example) and Ikepod made a unique piece in red glass for the Only Watch 2011 auction. The Hourglass was a highlight of the year and left such an impression upon me that more than three years later I wrote about it here on Quill & Pad.
And now it’s back and as good as ever, only this time the collaboration is with independent boutique brand De Bethune because it is this company who possess the unique ability and knowledge to create the color necessary for the new nanoballs inside the shaped glass. De Bethune has become synonymous with perfectly blued steel and titanium, having mastered the skill of heat-treating metals to achieve a uniformly pristine color. Now it has applied this skill to the smallest components the brand has ever tempered.
The nanoballs are polished stainless steel spheres just 0.6 mm in diameter, assumedly the micro ball bearings are produced by specialized suppliers. Denis Flageollet of De Bethune is the man behind the color and spent months fine-tuning the process to ensure that all the nanoballs were a consistent pure blue. The result is a pair of stunning hourglasses with millions of polished and vibrantly blued stainless steel balls poetically tracking time either across ten minutes or one hour.
Back when I first fell in love with the Marc Newson Hourglass design it was because of a sumptuously produced documentary set to dancing piano music that focused on the entire creation process in the glass studio of Glaskeller in Basel, Switzerland. Hand-blown from a single tube of borosilicate glass, the Newson Hourglass is slowly moved into shape, guided by experts and compared against graphite molds to ensure consistency on every piece.
From heating glass to heating steel
The hand-blown hourglass shapes require multiple stages of fabrication before they can be completely removed and filled, taking several days for the glass to be shaped and tempered for use. If the glass isn’t reheated and slowly cooled after shaping, the fragile material will be under stress and much more likely to crack or shatter. Tempering is a crucial step in the production of the hourglass shape.
To get a much more in-depth idea of how this exact hourglass is formed please read my first discussion of these hourglasses in the article entitled Glass, Nostalgia, And The Ikepod Hourglass. I focus much more on the delicate and fiery process, which is a perfect preface to how the De Bethune x Marc Newson Hourglass came to be. The careful heating of glass gives way to the careful heating of steel, and this is where we come back to Denis Flageollet of De Bethune.
The polished stainless steel nanoballs are, as the name suggests, very small. At only 0.6 mm in diameter, there is not a lot of material in a single nanoball, which presents a unique problem. The process that De Bethune has mastered, heat-bluing, requires precise and even application of heat to the metal to induce color change. Each alloy and metal require different temperatures to achieve specific colors and the temperatures are also dependent on the size and shape of the part being blued.
The good news is that a sphere is an easy-to-heat object because every part of the surface is an equal distance from the center, meaning that it should heat more evenly than any other shape. The bad news is that this is only true if you can evenly heat the sphere’s full exterior simultaneously. A very large sphere would require a very large oven to evenly heat the object from all sides at once.
Once again, the good news is that a 0.6 mm sphere is tiny, so it is no problem to heat it evenly from all sides at once; any oven is large enough for this task. But the bad news is that since it is so small, it heats up very quickly and the window for the desired blue color that De Bethune seeks is not very wide: 280-300° Celsius. On any piece of metal it is easy to overshoot this narrow band and take the color from a penetrating deep blue to a light blue – or worse, grey.
Some prefer coming up a bit short and having a mix of dark purple and deep blue, but De Bethune is the master of a very specific blue. So approaching this narrow band slowly and precisely is incredibly important. And even more so when the parts the technicians are trying to heat are so small that it wouldn’t require much energy to blow right past the goal and turn them into dull little balls.
Flageollet eventually landed on the exact process needed to achieve this color: heating thousands of nanoballs at the same time to provide a bit of a heat mass to slow the process and achieve a better result for the bulk of the nanoballs. But unfortunately, there is still more bad news: heat bluing requires an absolutely pristine surface free of debris, oils, and abrasions, meaning that careful cleaning and preparation of all the nanoballs was crucial to success just as much as the required temperature.
Step by step, million by million
This means that in every batch of nanoballs successfully heat blued there would be rejects, and these imperfect nanoballs had to be manually inspected and removed one by one until only consistent and perfectly blued nanoballs remained. This already sounds like a daunting task as we’re talking thousands of nanoballs in each batch. But this is where the scale of the problem rears its head: the small ten-minute Hourglas requires 1.33 million nanoballs. That is million with a capital M. The 60-minute timer requires – you guessed it – six times more, approximately eight million nanoballs just for one 60-minute timer.
Which is why this is an extremely limited edition: there are only going to be 12 of the 60-minute timers and 24 (!) of the ten-minute timers. That means that, all in all, Denis Flageollet and his team need to manually prepare, blue, and sort through 127 million individual nanoballs to make these hourglasses.
Actually, they needed to sort through more than that because that is not accounting for the rejects, which, even if only a tiny fraction of the batches, will still be a significant number when you are dealing with over 127 million tiny stainless steel balls only 0.6 mm in diameter.
That is where these hourglasses take a leap from an already incredible display of craft and skill to the insane dedication of masters to create a visual aesthetic that borders on crazy perfection. The glass and the nanoballs combine to make such a brilliant object that even if it had no functional purpose, it would be something deserving of a spot in a museum.
But it does have a purpose as a timing device, even if the precision of the timers is not regulated down to the second. The accuracy varies between the two pieces: the ten-minute timer has a running time of ten minutes plus or minus one minute, or up to ten percent deviation. The 60-minute timer is more accurate with a running time of 60 minutes, plus or minus three minutes (up to five percent deviation).
Since the price and artistic nature of these hourglasses make them more about the craft and visual than the precision, I’m sure nobody will be complaining. Hourglasses are notorious for having variable timing each time you flip them over since a cascade of events takes place randomly each time, and the time for every one of the millions of nanoballs to fall can vary. As someone who loves hourglasses and has a couple, I can say that I have never cared if the time was different on each turn, the only instances where it might have ever mattered was when playing Pictionary.
The takeaway from these fantastic objects is not the precision of the timing but the experience of watching it work. Millions of tiny, perfectly blued nanoballs bouncing and falling past each other within a crystalline cavern is something that is both magical and grounding. Humans using sand timers goes back far into our history, and the fascination with their descendants makes perfect sense.
Like with the original models, I may have to wait a while before I get to see the De Bethune x HG Timepiece Hourglass in person, but I know that when I do I will be transfixed the entire time those tiny polished balls are falling. Then, when it’s done, I’ll flip it and do it all over again – just like I hope this won’t be the last of these creations we ever see!
For more information, please visit hg-timepiece.com/product/blue-hourglass.
Quick Facts De Bethune x HG Timepiece Hourglass by Marc Newson
Hourglass: 150 x 125 mm (10 minutes) or 300 x 1,250 mm (60 minutes) in handblown borosilicate glass
Weight: 1.1 kg (10 minutes), 10 kg (60 minutes)
Movement: 1.3 or 8 million blued and polished stainless steel nanoballs
Functions: 10- or 60-minute timer
Limitation: 36 pieces total, 24 of the 10-minute timer and 12 of the 60-minute timer
Price: CHF 25,000 (10 minutes); CHF 60,000 (60 minutes)
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