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.
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.
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.
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.
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.