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Breguet: The Artistic Functionality of Decoration

by Jonathan Ho on March 3, 2017
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As material sciences advanced, watchmaking and watch decoration eventually progressed into specialist fields, executed by professionals in separate departments of a modern manufacture. However, for men like Abraham-Louis Breguet, the watchmaking conundrum was dual-pronged – a test of engineering and a challenge of material sciences. Indeed, watchmakers in the era of Breguet had to consider both the architecture of their calibres from a mechanical standpoint as well as a material perspective given that metals back then were not as thoroughly understood and the watchmakers themselves had to delay the onset of oxidation and corrosion.

Using traditional watchmaking materials like brass plates and bridges, oxidation and corrosion potentially raised the friction co-efficient between the pinions, gears and wheels which they held which could lead to power transfer inefficiencies and a loss of chronometric performance. Thus Breguet pioneered a style of  fine graining or grenaillage.

Grenailage is a decorative motif linking Breguet today with their namesake founder Abraham-Louis Breguet. The grained surface treatment was used in the past to increase corrosion resistance. Today, it’s found in Breguet’s La Tradition Collection.

Breguet and the how decoration has evolved from purely functional to artistic functionality

For all his artistic sensibilities, Breguet was not a man prone to the whimsy of decoration for the sake of decoration. Grenaillage finishing as executed by Breguet was not only attractive but performed admirably as a bulwark against oxidation. With similar objectives, Breguet also adopted poli mirroir techniques or highly polished mirror finishing for many of the components in his movements, particularly the steel hammers of his minute repeaters – High polished surface didn’t leave imperceptible porousness surfaces for moisture to take a foothold.

Furthermore, the practice of the bluing of screws might serve as decorative contrast today against metallic grey hues but back in Breguet’s day, the bluing of screws served to harden the steel and make it more robust. That said, it’s a point of importance to note that when some present day watchmakers choose to colour their screws rather than heat blue them, you run the risk of paint flakes potentially gumming up fine mechanisms when eventual wear and tear occurs.

Traditionally, poli mirroir is reserved for only the highest tiers of watchmaking but today, the process serves to highlight and provide distinctive contrast by reflecting light thus highlighting specific components. Viewed perpendicularly, it looks almost black, earning it the nickname “black polish”. Today, Manufacture Breguet demonstrates their deft handling of the technique through the Réveil du Tsar minute repeater.

In the two hundred or so years that has progressed since the era of Breguet, collecting tastes and as a result watchmakers have moved past the traditional ethic of enhancing functional properties of movements and components with decoration and embraced a wider notion of artistic decoration as an expression of craft while improving the value of a timepiece.

Today, decorative techniques like grenaillage finishing as executed by Manufacture Breguet has evolved according to business and technical needs, growing into a diverse palate of aesthetic finishes which demonstrate the talent and dedication of the artisans in the maison, yet the philosophy underlying the practice and philosophy of decoration has not changed from that of Abraham Louis Breguet – mere aesthetic flourishes which serve as a mark of distinction were simply not part of Breguet’s watchmaking philosophy of functional beauty.

Two primary decorative techniques can be seen here: Côtes de Genève or Geneva ribs is also decribed as vagues de Genéve or Geneva waves and the less commonly known, “côtes droites” or straight ribs. It is rarely applied to components other than plates and bridges usually because uneven surface treatments on gears and wheels tend to risk reduction in mechanical efficiencies. Côtes de Genève is applied with a wooden burnisher and the artisan alters the sharpness of the stripe, width, angle, depth and evenness with different varieties of wood. Vagaries like the artisan’s endurance, mood and skill also create a unique tapestry of almost imperceptible differences. The other technique: Hand turned guilloche was a technique pioneered by Abraham-Louis Breguet. It is one of the hallmarks linking heritage Breguet with the modern Breguet manufacture – guilloche techniques practiced are exactly the same as they were over 200 years ago – hand turned on rose engine.

Interestingly, the 1800s and 1900s were a period of a small watchmaking schism in the Vallée de Joux with many movement makers favouring undecorated movement blanks, home to components like mainplates, wheels, bridges and occassion, complications but lacking the hearts of the watch – the balance assortment and escapment. Genevan etablisseurs would then buy the ebauche or movement blanks from the Vallée de Joux makers, add the escapement and then to distinguish their watches from others, applied lavish and creative forms of decoration on the components, creating a vertiable artwork on the wrist.

Grenaillage during the age of Breguet was a process of first treating a surface with a brushing of aluminium powder which turned the smooth surface of brass into a powdered surface; after which a mercury-gold concoction was applied onto the newly treated surface so that heat treatment in the final part of the process would cause the mercury to evaporate  leaving the distinctive gold coating on the movement part and corrosion resistant properties for over a hundred years. Scientifically speaking, greater understanding of the health dangers of mercury used by Breguet in the practice of grenaillage techniques  eventually led to the eventual adoption of other finishing techniques.

The iconic swirls or circles found on many a mainplate and bridge is called “perlage”, it served to prevent corrosion. Today as in yesteryear, Breguet applied the treatment to both seen and unseen areas for purely functional purposes. While the technique can be reproduced mechanically, machine perlage lacks the life of hand applied perlage finish – each circle is placed in symmetry by hand, assisted by tools requiring talent and artistic eye to place the circles just right.

Although unimaginable in present times, there was a time when fine watchmakers embraced a fairly gauche (if commercially sensible) practice of offering differing grades of finishing to suit the varying budgets of their clients. At the entry level, you would be offered normal finishing which while addressed the functional needs of the movement, would be purely industrial. At mid and higher levels, decorative motifs were applied to enhance the beauty of the movement, the watchmakers called them soignée or extra soignée.

Today, it would be inconceivable to classify a timepiece with less than stellar finishing as a product of high horology and even though the practice of watchmaking and its accompanying decoration have been forever bound as determinants of quality and value, watch idiot savants would do well to understand the intent of finishing so as to better quantify what serves as a real mark of watchmaking and the other, which is purely to charge an extra premium for the watch.

Many steel arms, levers and cams are treated with Brossage or brush finishing. The edges are completed with anglage. Direction of the lines are determined by the shape of the component. The winding barrel is often finished with a spiral brushed pattern also known as colimaçonnage. A rotating buffer is applied to the barrel, grinding the motif in a spiral pattern radiating out from the centre of the surface.

One of the most painstaking tasks involves carving and engraving. Known officially in the French terms – Le Ciselage and Le Gravage, artisans hand carve arabesque motifs or scripts using a variety of awls through the lens of a microscope. There is no possibility for error, a misdirected stroke usually results in the component being discarded. The mainplate becomes a literal metal canvas for the painter.

Anglage is one of the most noticeable decorations primarily because the mirrored edges stand in contrast to the matt brushed surfaces it usually accompanies. Anglage technique is applied to remove smudges and burs even from CNC machined components because if left unfinished, the excess left over material is home for moisture to grow and corrode the metal. Geometrically speaking, the more complex the shape of a component, the harder it is to apply anglage; it’s not even a process as simple as the description might hint – anglage can be accomplished on a variety of straight edges, sharp exterior corners, rounded bombée edges, sharp interior corners, the sky (or rather, the metal) is the imit. Connoisseurs often look to the interior angle or angle rentrant of a component or bridge as a visual hint on whether the movement has been hand finished to artisanal standards or machine finished because it is essentially impossible to form an interior corner perfectly when a part is machined.

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