Thursday, October 29

History at a Glance: The Story of Breguet – Part 1

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The Story of Breguet – Part 1

To look into the story of Breguet is to peer into the history of time measurement. Such is the legacy left behind by arguably the most important figure in watchmaking, Abraham-Louis Breguet. From the days of Catherine the Great to well into the information age, Breguet continues to influence the course of horology. On top of being one of the oldest watchmaking Maisons today, Breguet is widely regarded as one of the most prestigious manufacturers of fine timepieces in Switzerland and across the globe.

This is the story of a brand with humble beginnings in Paris stemming from the curiosity and raw talent of its then young founder; a story of how the baton was later passed between different owners; and importantly, a story of the numerous inventions and patrons of the brand that have helped shape the landscape of haute horlogerie into that of which we see today.

This is the story of Breguet.

Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823), founder of Breguet, was one of the greatest horologists of all time, a man who revolutionised the technique, design, and image of his chosen subject.

Abraham-Louis Breguet

Every story of a great watch Maison begins with its founder. Abraham-Louis Breguet was born on 10 January 1747 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. He was only 11 years old when his father died, but his mother remarried to her late husband’s cousin Joseph Tattet whose family were already watchmakers with a sales office in Paris. In 1762, Tattet took Breguet to Paris where he became an apprentice to a watchmaker at Versailles – the identity of this master watchmaker is unknown. It is speculated that after Breguet completed his apprenticeship, he may have worked for horological greats Ferdinand Berthoud or Jean-Antoine Lepine, but he certainly studied mathematics at the Collège Mazarin under his mentor Abbé Marie. Through his role as tutor to the children of the Comte d’Artois, Marie introduced Breguet to the aristocratic families that will later become his clientele.

Queen Marie-Antoinette had, in her day, been one of the keenest admirers of the timepieces created by Breguet. At the French court of the 1780s, Breguet could not have wished for a finer supporter. She herself owned many of the master watchmaker’s designs and enthusiastically recommended him to the entire kingdom as well as to the court’s most exalted guests. Thanks to her, not a few crowned heads, emperors included, and diplomatic envoys, including one Axel de Fersen, acquired a taste for Breguet’s works, consolidating his reputation in Europe and beyond. A regular patron of the horological workshop on the Quai de l’Horloge, until her tragic demise, she even requested, and in September 1792 received, “ a simple Breguet watch” in her cell at the Temple prison. On the 16th of October 1793, Queen Marie-Antoinette of France was led to the guillotine a few months after her husband, King Louis XVI.

In 1775, he wedded Cécile Marie-Louise L’Huillier. She was the daughter of an established Parisian bourgeois family, and her dowry would later provide much of the capital needed to establish a business. The couple rented part of the house at No. 39, Quai de l’Horloge, from the Duchess de Polignac. The house was a dual-aspect building, which faced out from Quai de l’Horloge on one side and Place Dauphine on the other. It is situated ideally in the district of the Ile de la Cité, where the silversmiths, dial-makers, needle, and case manufacturers of the time operated, taking full advantage of the Pont-Neuf, the central hub of Paris. In the same year that he married his wife and moved in, Breguet opened for business on his own account.

Evidently, the contacts Breguet had established through Abbé Marie proved to be beneficial. In 1780, he supplied his very first self-winding watch (dubbed the Perpétuelle) to the Duc d’Orleans, and another in 1782 to none other than Marie-Antoinette.

The Breguet No. 15, dating back to around 1780, was one of the earliest Perpétuelle or self-winding watches made by Abraham-Louis Breguet.

Said to have been fascinated by Breguet’s watches, Marie-Antoinette acquired over the years a number of his timepieces. In 1783, a mysterious admirer of hers (at least, according to one of several theories) ordered from Breguet, as a gift for the Queen, a watch that was to be as spectacular as possible, incorporating the fullest range of horological expertise known at the time. The order stipulated that wherever possible gold should replace other metals and that complications should be as numerous and varied as possible. No time or financial limits were imposed. This grandiose timepiece was the “Marie-Antoinette” watch bearing Breguet No. 160, a watch that is today regarded as one of the most important and valuable timepieces ever made.

The life story of the “Marie-Antoinette” watch (No. 160) is as fascinating as the mechanics within it. Due to the complexity of the piece and the unfavourable political climate at the time, the watch was only completed in 1827 – 34 years after the death of Queen Marie-Antoinette, four years after Breguet’s, and 44 years after the order was accepted. Ownership of the pocket watch was passed on from hand to hand over the century; it eventually found its way into the The Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem in 1925. In 1983, the watch – among other rare art pieces – was stolen from the museum by Israeli thief Na’aman Diller. It was finally recovered in December 2007.

Up until this point, Breguet’s endeavours had progressed swimmingly. On top of distinguished clientele, he had also brought into the world of watchmaking numerous inventions, including the gong spring for repeater watches, Breguet hands, Breguet numerals, and the Breguet key. Interestingly, in 1787 he brokered a partnership with Xavier Gide, an established clock and watch dealer; Breguet had previously worked largely on his own for several years. His goal was to inject additional capital into the business. Unfortunately for Breguet, things did not work out and the partnership crumbled in 1791, probably due to the different characters of the two men.

One of Abraham-Louis Breguet’s missions in watchmaking was to streamline not only the internal mechanisms of a watch, but also the external elements. Hands in his time were often short, broad and heavily decorated, which negatively affected dial legibility. They along with the Arabic numerals were refined by Breguet. These new graphic lines would prove highly popular with the public and strongly influence other manufactures’ watches – a fact that holds true even today.

Eventually, the growing storm surrounding the French revolution which began in 1789 was to both disrupt Breguet’s life in Paris but also herald the period of his greatest achievements. Abraham-Louis Breguet fled Paris in 1793 for Geneva. While his business in Paris suffered significantly from his absence – the premises and his tools being confiscated – his exile in Switzerland was not unfruitful. Breguet used this time to cement his contacts with watchmakers in his native country and to develop a range of ideas that were to re-launch his business upon his return to Paris in 1795.

Indeed, a flurry of activity followed his arrival in France, and many of his most important inventions can be dated to the years immediately following. This included the Breguet balance spring in 1795, which features the famous Breguet overcoil that improves precision and reduces wear. But of all his great invetions, none were as celebrated as the tourbillon regulator. Along with the complete technical file accompanied by a watercolour technical drawing, Breguet had prepared a letter addressed to the Minister of the Interior who was responsible for the patent department. In it, he explained the function and benefit of the tourbillon in layman’s terms, and requested a patent:

Breguet, to the Minister of the Interior.

Citizen Minister,

I have the honour of presenting to you a memoir containing the description of a new invention applicable to the time-measurement machines that I call Tourbillon Regulator, and request the privilege of building these Regulators for a ten-year period.

By means of this invention, I have succeeded in cancelling out by compensation the anomalies due to the different positions of the centres of gravity of the Regulator movement; in distributing the friction over all parts of the circumference of the pivots of this regulator and the holes in which these pivots move, in such a way as to ensure that the lubrication of the parts that rub together should remain constant despite the coagulation of oils; and finally in eliminating many other sources of error that influence the precision of the movement to varying degrees, which the art (of horology) could only so far attain with a great deal of trial and error and even often with uncertainty of success.

It is after duly considering all these advantages, the advanced means of production that I have at my disposal, and the considerable expenditures I have made in order to procure these means, that I have decided to lay claim to a privilege of establishing the date of invention and thus ensuring due compensation for my sacrifices.

Respectfully yours

BREGUET

Quai de l’Horloge No. 51.

Emmanuel Breguet
Breguet invents THE TOURBILLON
Le Quai de l’Horloge N°2
Watercolor plate from the patent documents. Filed in 1801 for the tourbillon regulator.

Breguet’s return also heralded a tweak in his business model, for in 1797, the firm launched the sales of ‘subscription watches’ through an advertising brochure. These subscription watches were sold on a subscription basis, and required a down payment of a quarter of the price upon order placement. Called souscription in the sales ledgers, these watches were reliable and affordable; they proved a great success, attracting a large new clientele. 

Although many of Breguet’s clients amongst the aristocracy had been dispossessed or executed during the French Revolution, they were swiftly replaced by the generals and politicians raised to prominence under Napoleon Bonaparte. In fact, General Bonaparte himself was a faithful client of Breguet. In April 1798, a month before setting out on his Egyptian campaign, General Bonaparte purchased three timepieces from Breguet: a repeater watch, a travelling and repeating clock, and a self-winding repeater watch. The timepieces were bought for two reasons: 1) to serve as symbols of his power and social status, and 2) for practical reasons.

Napoleon Bonaparte. It was almost certainly through General Leclerc and his own companions in arms Berthier and Dessolle, all three regular clients of Breguet, that General Bonaparte first heard of Breguet and his establishment on the Quai de l’Horloge.

In that very same year, the famed Breguet sympathique (synchronising) clock was presented to the public for the first time at the national exhibition. The sympathique clock was a system comprising a clock and watch. The clock was designed to hold the watch which, when placed in a recess, was automatically adjusted and reset. Although the clock had further enhanced Breguet’s fame, it remained complex and costly to make. Breguet only managed to sell five different examples during his lifetime – all were purchased by royalty.

A Breguet symphatique clock, newly restored and undergoing testing. The pocket watch had been removed in this photograph.

Within just the first decade of the 19th century, Abraham-Louis Breguet could count two more distinguished persons as his patrons. The first was Caroline Murat, Napoleon Bonaparte’s younger sister, and the Queen of Naples. Between 1808 up to 1814, the Queen of Naples had acquired 34 clocks and watches from Breguet, making her one of his best clients. But it was her commission in 1810 that would leave an indelible mark in the history of horology. Completed and delivered to her in 1812 was the first wristwatch ever made. It was an ultra-thin repeating watch, oblong in shape, fitted with a thermometer, and mounted on a wristlet of hair entwined with gold thread.

Of all the Bonaparte family, Caroline Murat (1782-1839) was Breguet’s most loyal patron. As queen, she introduced Naples to French painters, among them Ingres, and craftsmen of Parisian fashion, theatre, and, of course, watchmaking.

The second of these distinguished patrons was Tsar Alexandre I. On 2 April 1814, a mysterious visitor to Breguet’s office proved to be none other than the Tsar of all Russias, travelling incognito with only one manservant. The two men enjoyed a long discussion about watchmaking before sharing a modest meal. Records confirm that on that day, the tsar bought two watches, one of which was a repeater. He also placed an order for a series of ‘pedometers’ – metronomes for regulating military marches – of which he was to receive eight between 1820 and 1822.

“Breguet makes a watch which for twenty years never goes wrong, while the pitiful machine by which we live runs amiss and produces pain at least once a week.”

Stendhal
Rome, Naples and Florence, 1817

The final ten years of Abraham-Louis Breguet’s life saw his business reaching a high point in its commercial success, with assets valued at some 800,000 francs in 1823. He was himself to be rewarded for his achievements; already made Horloger de la Marine by Louis XVIII, he became a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, member of the French Board of Longitude, and in 1816 elected to the Académie Royale Des Sciences. Abraham-Louis Breguet died rather suddenly on 17 September 1823, at the age of 76.

The Breguet No. 3833, featuring an off-centred time display. The piece was sold on May 12th, 1823, just four months before Abraham-Louis Breguet’s death.

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