Loving indies is a bit like abseiling down a cliff wall, says Gary H. “Dangerous at first, but afterwards you want to do it again and again.” Gary H., 53, works in the biopharmaceutical industry and lives in Chicago, USA. Gary (@hewitgar on Instagram) was born in London, England, which is also where Gary discovered the brand featured in this edition of our Collector’s Series: De Bethune. Since today’s watch in the spotlights has been one of my absolute grail watches, this interview had extra importance to me personally, trying to find out why and how someone else fell for (almost) the same watch. Spotlights on the DeBethune DB27 Titan Hawk (first generation) in Zirconium.
Frank Geelen, MONOCHROME Watches – Please tell us, when did you see a De Bethune watch in the metal for the first time?
Gary H. – Yes, I remember it was at the London Salon QP event in November 2011 at the Saatchi Gallery where many Independent brands and watchmakers were starting to attend and showcase their watches. I had heard of DeBethune since its launch in 2002 but had never set eyes on one in person before. The watches were very striking, avant-garde even, and stood out then as offering something different from almost anything else in the market. Space-age stuff, perhaps. It was the DB28 that really stood out for me at the time and I remember I posted a wristshot of it to ThePurists saying I thought it was something that Batman or Iron Man should wear and was my favourite watch of Salon QP 2011.
What attracted you to these watches?
On looking closer it was obvious that not only was the design striking, so was the construction and finishing of the watch – the case and dial materials, the layers of highly polished surfaces and textures of the dials, and of the movements were phenomenal. While they absolutely caught my eye and impressed me, I convinced myself that the cool design was a step too far for me at the time – plus there was also the fact that I couldn’t actually afford one!
But it crossed your path again…
Yes, my next in-person encounter was at SIHH in Geneva in January of 2015 or 2016 and what caught my eye then was a unique Dream Watch model they had crafted from a solid, inimitably DeBethune-shaped, meteorite! I was blown away. This ‘rock’ had been hurtling around in space before it fell to earth and was fashioned into this object. So there you had it…. De Bethune literally was making ‘out of this world’ watches. It had sold to a collector already and I often wonder where, and with whom, it ended up…
Can you tell us more about your passion for DeBethune?
That De Bethune was immediately carving out such a distinctive design aesthetic and challenging what had gone before is incredible. Their bold use of larger case sizes, open or star-studded dials, heat-treatment coloured metals, distinctive curved hands, large mirror-polished movement bridges and plates in unusual shapes and of course their articulated lugs system all shout DeBethune. This is all to say nothing of the beautiful futuristic-looking movements using modern materials and employing patented innovations galore. The DB27 uses a S233 in-house movement with double barrels and an ultralight balance in silicon and white gold.
I hear that DeBethune has an incredible pipeline of movement designs and ideas that will carry them forward well into the future which is very exciting. It smacks of a brilliant man’s (Denis Flageollet) creative and innovative juices being allowed to come to life and flourish when many places elsewhere they would fall on deaf ears, unwilling minds and die a corporate decision-making death. This is the beauty of the independents.
Now this watch, the DeBethune DB27 Titan Hawk V1 in Zirconium. Why this one?
I think it was the (I had to work this in here somewhere) monochromatic nature of it all. It is all shades of blacks and greys and silvers with a mix of matt and gloss surfaces and quite unlike any other watch I owned. The case is made from zirconium which was new for me (whenever trying to justify another watch purchase it is certainly easier if there is an element of novelty in play!). Also, it has the articulated lugs from the DB28 that I loved that make a large watch (43mm) wear smaller on the wrist and which make operating the crown at 12 o’clock effortless, with a less scary (read more conventional) dial.
Talking of the dial, at first it appears to be very simple but when you look more closely you can see that there is a lot going on. There are concentric rings in the middle, then a stepped-up date ring, and around the outer edge a raised and curved section with the matt silver-printed roman numeral hour indices and outside of that the silver Arabic 5-minute markers – so it is quite 3-dimensional.
I do have fun with the name though because this one isn’t made from titanium – where the model gets the Titan in Titan Hawk from. So, to me it’s the Zircon Hawk. Plus, who else has a date hand incorporating a Hawk’s tail to set it apart?
That also crossed my mind, as mine is actually made in titanium and yours in zirconium. I agree, let’s rename this one to Zirconium Hawk. When did it become yours?
I think the answer to this gives you a glimpse into how some watch deals are being done now. It was in May 2019 and I was grilling in the garden. The watch was being sold by an online dealer who used to work in the Independent watch brands’ space and is now buying and selling Independent watches for a living. Because I had purchased a few watches from him over the years I had made it onto his ‘friends’ list and received a notification that the watch was available, but not yet up on his website and at an incentivised price.
I clicked on the link to the watch, I loved the look of the watch and two WhatsApp messages later we had agreed on the price and I had wired him the money. I think the whole process took 20 minutes and I had never even seen this specific DeBethune DB27 model in zirconium before. The watch arrived 2 days later in perfect condition.
Yes, it was an impulsive decision. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and this one, well, looks fantastic to me! As I said it is a big help if there is something new it brings to my watch collection and I didn’t have a watch with articulating lugs already so that was a win!
But you had loved the model from earlier on, hadn’t you?
The decision was purely timing really. DeBethune watches are made in incredibly small quantities (I think they have made a total of 1,700 watches in their 19-year history) and if you want one you have to be prepared to strike while the iron is hot, so to speak. If I hadn’t jumped to secure this one when I did, who knows when the next one would have come along. There are only 27 numbered pieces of the zirconium Titan Hawk. I haven’t seen this exact one for sale anywhere since. I do prefer this first version of the DB27 with the date over the V2 that did away with it. Which also messes with the name further as the Hawk-tail hand is gone from the V2 making it the DB27 Titan – and then only if it is actually made in Titanium! I can be pedantic, I know!
There are several other DBs that I would dearly love to own if money and availability were not an issue. But they are! DeBethune will also work with you on a highly customized or even unique idea if you have the appetite.
Does your watch get a lot of wrist time?
The DB27 is definitely a watch I wear a lot. It is low key, discrete and well enough under the radar of most people so I don’t feel self-conscious or at risk when wearing it. I wear it out and about almost anywhere – at bars and restaurants when I’m in downtown Chicago or when travelling through airports and planes for work or pleasure it is often on my wrist. I don’t recommend wearing it to the beach, though.
The fact that it is an automatic winding watch with a 6-day power reserve makes it very practical as well since I don’t have to wind it and I can switch it for another watch for several days and still come back to a beating watch.
You say it’s ‘under the radar’, but when people notice it, how do they react?
There is one memorable story with its ups and downs. I, unfortunately, suffered a herniated disc in my back in 2020 (L5-S1 – and yes, it was agony) and I had surgery in January this year to fix it (scooping out the goop). One day I wore the zircon hawk to one of my physiotherapy sessions and the guy helping me with my back asked me “is that a DeBethune?” in a fairly hushed and excited tone. At the end of the session, he had me showing off the watch to all his PT colleagues at the place and I became a bit of a sensation there for my 15 minutes of fame. We are now firm IG watchfam nerd pals!
With respect to my immediate family, they really couldn’t care less about any of my watches with one notable exception. My wife and daughter would both happily steal my DB25 Starry Varius – a watch that could well be the topic of another conversation!
We’ll keep that in mind! What about the current market value of the Titan Hawk?
I think the watch retailed new for about $40k when it came out. The guy I bought it from told me I stole his lunch when I bought it and since then in two short years the market for watches generally, but pointedly for certain Independent brands, has gone nuts. The DB27 has definitely been a model that profited from this boom in interest. Will it go bust? There are many that will tell you that it does and that it will.
Would I sell it? Sure. Do I know if I own my watches or if they own me? Much like my marriage, I like to think I am in control.
How have watches defined your life (talking about marriages)?
A significant period of my watch journey saw me buying the likes of Omega and Tissot and Swatch and Longines, many of which I still have. Following a protracted period of collecting, Rolex acquired a controlling interest in ‘Hewitt Watches Inc.’ However, through a leveraged buy-out I was able to trade myself into some pretty scary watches from Patek, Vacheron, Audemars, Lange…. and I couldn’t really be describing a more stereotypical ‘guy on the journey’ story, could I!?
When watch puberty struck and my brain was still forming I had made a couple of purchasing mistakes as many of us do but eventually I realized how smart were the folks I knew that were appreciating something called Independent Brands and watchmakers.
If I loved watches already, it definitely went to the equivalent of a drug-fueled high when I had the guts and the money to appreciate these watchmakers with their own eponymous companies.
I associate my risk-taking with these micro-brands with a heightened enjoyment of the watches and the DB27 epitomises this. It’s like abseiling (rappelling) down a cliff wall. It’s scary as hell the first time but afterwards, you want to do it again and again.
Tell us about your collection?
Eclectic has been put on the table. I guess this is what happens over time when searching for and adding novelty factor via something you don’t already have. I don’t have a collecting theme or style (that I’m aware of) and the only thing that binds them is that I love how they look.
Like a lot of other folks that have been bitten by the bug I get the stock question “how many watches do you have” and I’ve come up with a smart-ass way of answering it without answering it. I tell them that I have twice as many as I should and half as many as I would like – which is a bit Bilbo Baggins, but it does the job of avoiding the embarrassing reality that it is too many.
But there are still ones to be desired…
Oh yes! Are you kidding! Doesn’t everyone have a wish list of watches we think we might buy if we could only find a good one at a good price? Maybe not on paper, but most have a couple on their mind – don’t they?! (Please tell me you do).
Then there are the folks that have a list of all the watches they wish that they had bought ages ago (before they sky-rocketed out of reach). A list of all the watches they wish they never sold. A list of watches that whilst beautiful and amazing they just won’t ever be able to afford – otherwise known as the list of watches that we would be prepared to do bad things for. Then there’s the list of watches you will absolutely never ever let go because they will have to be pried out of your cold dying hands (my wife thinks this is all of them).
We all know the big names so some of my recommendations to follow or check out their work from all around the world are Rexhepi, MassenaLab, Habring, Sartory Billard, Kurono, Kudoke, Ming, JN Shapiro, David Walter and Colibrica Design. I can’t list everyone whose work I love and admire here, but please go and check out folks making watches across the entire spectrum of cost because they are out there and doing amazing things. Support the little guys if you can that are getting started. Their creativity and passion are infectious and you’re sure to uncover many a surprise find.
It’s much easier (if not the only sustainable way) for them to be represented online only so it can be harder to touch the product. This is where watch meet-ups come in handy because maybe someone will turn up with a watch you have been interested in and will let you try it on for size and play with it.
What would you recommend to other collectors who want the Titan Hawk?
De Bethune has a pre-owned watches site with watches serviced by them and which come with a 2-year warranty so that’s always worth keeping an eye on and there are online dealers that have a particular focus on the independent brands. Also, you could save a search on Chrono24 and other online sites and set up alerts as they add new watches – and check back often. It may seem a bit intimidating but the watch auctions are a great place to lurk as well because they are globally accessible so you don’t need to be in the room and with the ability to pre-set your maximum bid you don’t even need to be awake at the time! Alternatively, make me an offer I can’t refuse and it’s as good as yours!
Apart from your sales pitch, do you have any other tips for collectors who are only starting collecting?
As the cliché goes, if you haven’t already started your watch collection the best time to start is today. The logical place to start is identifying a budget and what brands and models sell in that space. Which do you not like and why, and which brands and specific watches are left? Decide if you are open to second-hand pieces or not. My mantra is always to be true to what you really love the look of rather than getting wrapped up in the hype for individual watches. If you are looking at second-hand watches always search for and buy the best quality or condition you can find, and everyone to a man and his dog will tell you to buy the seller and a complete (and matching) package. You always want matching collars and cuffs, as Mr Bond would say when considering the merchandise.
Life doesn’t have to be logical though, so if you want a life hack and can sell a child or a kidney and get away with it, buy a Patek 2499. Box & Papers.
And how do other collectors fit in this picture?
There are so many opportunities to meet great people along this journey and invariably many a watch-loving physiotherapist will also become your friend. It started for me with the retailers near to where I lived or went hunting for watches.
Just like at the bar in “Cheers!”, it is always pleasant to be welcomed by name at a downtown watch retailer/boutique/grey market dealer. Especially so if they have a hot watch available and you can buy it if you want to. This is the stuff of dreams nowadays with more demand than supply for many watches.
You get to know them and build fairly superficial relationships, to begin with. But once you have bought a watch or two they get to know your tastes and you have pressed the flesh with some hard-earned cash. Before you know it you are being offered watches and sent chocolates at Christmas and invitations to receptions and sales events flood in and maybe even Manufacture visits, invitations to events like SIHH, local RedBar meetups and Watches & Wonders by private plane! Or maybe just the chocolates if they don’t have any actual watches to sell or you aren’t buying any watches!
Being invited to visit a Manufacture is a great experience as not only do you get to see where they are made, and who makes them, you get to meet a lot of other watch crazies who on the whole are a decent fun-loving bunch. There’s the odd egotistical maniac but everyone in the group knows who they are and if you don’t, you are the egotistical maniac.
Online forums are your friend, too. Some still provide incredible resources and have fonts of knowledge (nerds) in the form of real people from all walks of life that might have in the past been working in the watch industry or are owners of watches you are interested in and can share their experiences.
Everything about watches is becoming more digital and the channels have multiplied. You have to spread yourself out across bricks & mortar establishments, Brand boutiques for new watches or those dealers specialized in second-hand pieces, watch auctions big and small, the online forums and the direct to customer watchmaker websites.
By the way, I can’t believe I got through an entire conversation about a completely black watch without mentioning stealth.