The Story of Breguet – Part 2
With his brilliant mind, talent, and entrepreneurship, Abraham-Louis Breguet’s watchmaking firm brought about the golden age of horology. For the longest time, Breguet had peaked with the life and death of its founder. This was hardly surprising as Abraham-Louis Breguet is widely considered the greatest horologist of all time. Nevertheless, the Breguet name and brand persisted through the ages.
Abraham-Louis Breguet died rather suddenly in 1823, at the age of 76. The only son of the founder, Antoine-Louis Breguet, takes over the company in 1824. Having been in watchmaking since his earliest childhood, he pursues the work of his father. The first watches to be equipped with a winding crown were produced by Antoine-Louis. On 30 December 1830, he sold to Comte Charles de L’Espine watch No. 4952, equipped with a knurled button in the pendant which fulfilled two functions: setting the hands and rewinding the watch. And thus the ancestor of all modern winding mechanisms was born. Antoine-Louis omitted to patent this revolutionary device at the time.
Under his management as well (1824 to 1833 inclusive), the firm sold the majority of the 130 marine watches it produced to the navy, a significant increase on the figures achieved during the lifetime of Abraham-Louis. Nevertheless, Antoine-Louis Breguet was far from possessing his father’s skills with people or his business sense. Overall sales fell consistently and international outlets stagnated. At the beginning of 1833, confronted with an apparently inexorable decline in sales (annual sales of pieces from the workshop had now fallen below the 50 mark), and recognising the maturity and talents of his son, Antoine-Louis decided to arrange for the transfer of the business to Louis-Clement.
On 20 May 1833, a company called ‘Breguet, Neveu et Compagnie’ was set up to buy out the old firm for the sum of 270,000 francs. The new company consisted of Louis-Clement Breguet (‘Breguet’), Jonas-Louis Lassieur, nephew of Abraham-Louis Breguet (‘Neveu’), and the accountant Tredós, a close family colleague (‘Compagnie’). The young Louis-Clement, a member of a new generation of businessmen who had not lived through the Revolution and had hardly known the Empire, had radically different views about the future of the enterprise. Poised as it was to spread to every level of society, watchmaking had lost its mystery, and the firm had to adapt its output accordingly. He nurtured plans to diversify into instruments for research into physics and electricity. While still retaining a traditional workshop for the making of one-off pieces the old-fashioned way, he decided, from the years 1835 to 1840, to standardise the majority of the firm’s production, and simultaneously opened a shop at 4 place de la Bourse, in the rapidly expanding business quarter. Sales made a steady recovery, exceeding 200 items annually in about 1850 to reach over 350 at the end of the Second Empire.
The loss of Abraham-Louis Breguet did not mean the end of interest from the elites and other royal families. In 1835, Count Axel von Fersen, the nephew of Axel von Fersen the Younger (1755-1810), who was the closest of companions to Marie-Antoinette, bought a miniature and very slim gold hunting pair-cased and skeletonised keyless watch. Without question the smallest watch with keyless winding and hand-setting produced by any manufacture before the advent of the wristwatch in the late 19th century, it represents an important achievement in the development of the modern wristwatch, and would appear to confirm that the firm of Breguet was the inventor of the combined keyless winding and hand-setting through the crown. Three years later, Queen Victoria of England purchased a Breguet watch, in 1838, a year following her ascent to the throne.
The artistic world also presented numerous admirers of Breguet, including the great Italian composer Gioachino Rossini who treated himself to a small, simple watch in 1843: the No. 4604. It featured an engine-turned gold case, an off-centred silver dial and a lever escapement. After the composer’s death in 1868, his widow continued to have the piece serviced by Breguet. In literature, Alexandre Dumas the Elder, the most prolific and popular writer of his time, made several references to Breguet watches in his masterpiece The Count of Monte Cristo published in 1845:
“Danglars’ watch, a masterpiece by Breguet which he had rewound with care before setting out the previous day, chimed half past five in the morning.”Alexandre Dumas
The Count of Monte Cristo, 1844.
‘Mattre Pastrini drew from his fob a magnificent Breguet watch, bearing the name of its maker, the Paris stamp and a count’s coronet. “There,” he said. “Dear me,” said Albert, “I congratulate you upon it; I have one almost the same.” He took his watch out of his waistcoat, “And it cost me three thousand francs”.’Alexandre Dumas
The Count of Monte Cristo, 1845.
As an engineer of exceptional talent, Louis-Clement wished to give the Sympathique clock another chance at the commercial level. In 1833, he patented the idea of the clock (which his grandfather had omitted to do) and made improvements to the system. In another patent application the following year, he gave details of a process by which the clock could be made to wind the watch, and obtained an endorsement of the gold medal at the Exhibition of the Products of Industry. Around 50 copies of the second-generation Sympathique clock, with or without the regulating function, were sold between 1834 and 1838, including one to King Louis-Philippe, another to his son, the Duke of Orléans, a third to the Duke of Wellington, and a fourth to the King of Hannover. This was a commendable achievement, as his father and grandfather had sold fewer than 10 Sympathique clocks in their lifetimes.
In 1870, Louis-Clement Breguet sold the watchmaking branch of the company to English-born watchmaker Edward Brown, who was the head of the workshop. He had chosen to focus on his scientific pursuits, notably in telecommunications. Louis-Clement Breguet was an acclaimed physicist in his lifetime, having been appointed to the Bureau of Longitudes in 1843, made a member of the French Academy of Sciences in 1874, and elevated to Officer of the Legion d’Honneur in 1877. Today, his name can be found written around the base of the Eiffel Tower in recognition of his contributions. Louis-Clement died on 27 October 1883. With the posterity of Abraham-Louis Breguet unwilling to pursue watchmaking and Edward Brown as the new owner, the business leaves the hands of the Breguet family.
The Brown Family
The firm was to lie in the hands of the Browns for one century exactly, with three generations and four owner-managers succeeding each other. Edward Brown remained at the helm of the establishment from 1870 to 1895, to be followed by his two sons: Edouard, who ran the business until 1912, and Henry, who then took over until 1927. In that year, Henry’s son, Georges Brown took up the reins and remained in charge of the firm until 1970.
The French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the political and social turmoil that ensued dealt a heavy blow to the commercial life of Paris. The firm’s annual sales, which had passed the 350 mark at the end of the Second Empire, now plummeted to a hundred or so. But the years of the Belle Epoque, from 1900 to 1914, saw the figures return to the 300 mark. In this period, the firm concentrated on three types of product: simple thin watches, repeating watches, and carriage clocks. The firm also kept its reputation for technical excellence, attracting men such as the automobile pioneer the Marquis de Dion, and the aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont, both frequent customers in the first decade of the century.
The First World War struck a blow that was made all the harder by the Russian Revolution of 1917, which abruptly deprived Breguet of the most important of its foreign markets. This loss was partly ameliorated, nevertheless, by purchases made by American soldiers stationed in France between 1917 and 1920. The firm’s output between the world wars was distinguished by its diversity. Benefiting from the growing popularity of the wristwatch, it produced some astonishing creations: a bold approach that can be credited to Henry and Georges Brown, both of whom were convinced that the firm needed constantly to modernise to keep up with times. Innovations included watches with square cases and cubist numerals; watches with jumping hours and revolving dials; watches in the form of barrels; and Art Deco clocks.
During this time, Breguet still supplied pieces to the navy, and from the 1930s, it also became official supplier to the aeronautical industry, developing instruments in response to the requirements of civilian and military aircraft. In this domain, the firm benefited from the kind assistance provided by one of the most outstanding aircraft builders of the time, none other than Louis Breguet, great-great grandson of Abraham-Louis. Louis Breguet, the aviation pioneer whose factories were some of the largest in the world at the time, was able to convince the watchmaking company that it was their duty to address the field of aviation. At a time when aviation was still in its infancy, contributing to the development of aerial navigation was as pertinent as helping to develop maritime navigation had been a century and a half earlier.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Georges Brown judiciously developed his aeronautical specialties, securing a series of orders from the state which, at this unpromising time for sales of luxury articles, were like a breath of fresh air to the company. Two new products were to become beacons for the firm: the Type XX wrist-chronograph with its famous retour en vol function, made for the French Air Force and the Fleet Air Arm, and the Types XI and XII for instrument panels, sold in fifteen countries around the world. It was these ‘military’ watches which – in most part – enabled production to rise to close to one thousand items per year.
This is not to imply that the firm neglected its traditional clientele. Winston Churchill, for example, was inseparable from his Breguet watch No. 765, a minute repeating chronograph bought by his uncle the Duke of Marlborough in 1890, which he had serviced multiple times over the decades. In 1946, the ledgers record, the firm made no charge for the repair work it carried out, as a ‘tribute to his conduct during the war’. In return, Churchill sent them a signed copy of his book Into Battle.
In 1970, at the end of a long career, Georges Brown announced his intention of selling Breguet, preferably to one of the firm’s neighbours on place Vendôme. The house of Chaumet decided to buy the firm.
The Pre-Swatch Era
Jacques and Pierre Chaumet – jewellers of worldwide reputation who had themselves inherited a business with a history stretching back two hundred years – acquired Breguet in order to add watchmaking to their prestigious portfolio of activities. Aware of the extraordinary potential offered by Breguet, they were determined to restore to the firm the ambition that had been partly lost under the Brown family as a result of the limited financial resources available to them.
While continuing to oversee all strategic decisions personally, they very rapidly entrusted the direction of the marque to one of their youngest executives, François Bodet, who was himself descended from a family of watchmakers in the region of Angers. This was to prove a wise choice, as during the twenty years that he was to spend in various positions at the top of the firm, Bodet was as successful as he was tireless in breathing new life into Breguet. From as early as the late 1970s, in a move that outpaced some of its Swiss rivals, Breguet decided to dedicate its efforts exclusively to precision watchmaking at the highest level, giving pride of place to watches with complications, which had fallen out of fashion over recent decades. In 1976, the firm opened a new workshop in the Vallée de Joux, as a complement to its Paris workshop. At 12 place Vendôme, meanwhile, one of the five arcades of the Chaumet boutique was dedicated to the Breguet collections, which it also displayed in its shops in New York, London, and Geneva.
In 1987, after experiencing considerable difficulties, Chaumet sold Breguet to the investment company Investcorp. This new ownership provided the firm with even greater financial resources – its management now moved to Switzerland. The Breguet style, inherited from the aesthetic of the firm’s now-antique watches, was given pride of place once more by François Bodet, and the appeal of its timeless elegance remains as powerful as ever. In 1990, as a tribute to the prestigious title of Horloger de la Marine, bestowed on Breguet in 1815, the brand launched a new line of ‘Marine’ sports watches for men and women.
The brand also underwent a major expansion, supplementing its important traditional European markets with the dynamic Asian and North American markets. Its retail outlets multiplied, and its annual production grew to over 4,000 pieces. The workshops at Le Brassus and Le Sentier were no longer able to keep pace with demand, and it became clear that a re-organisation was required; a new factory was therefore opened in 1994 in the village of L’Abbaye.
In the early 1990s, the Groupe Horloger Breguet was formed, comprising three watchmaking firms belonging to Investcorp: Nouvelle Lemania, specialists in movements and complications; the components manufacturer Valdar; and Breguet. Its president until 1995 was Wolfgang Peter, who was succeeded by Jean J. Jacober. In effect, Nouvelle Lemania increasingly became the Breguet factory, as – while also supplying other clients such as Omega and Patek Philippe – it supplied all the movements finished by Breguet for an increasing proportion of its models. In 1995, rationalisation and the introduction of production line processes by Nouvelle Lemania bore fruit in the form of the new Type XX chronograph, inspired by the aeronautical designs of preceding decades.
The Swatch Group
In the context of the scale of market growth today, the improvements introduced during the Chaumet and Investcorp years – although timely and significant – appear relatively modest. The major investment and long-term strategy that were required had no part in the plans of Investcorp, which from 1997 made no secret of its desire to sell Breguet. And so, on 14 September 1994, an announcement that came out of the blue put an end to years of speculation: Breguet had been bought by the Swatch Group. The new owner was none other than Nicolas G. Hayek, founder of the Swatch Group, the largest watchmaking company in the world. By acquiring Breguet, he was determined to restore this reverent name to its rightful place as a world leader in watchmaking.
Taking over from Jean J. Jacober, who headed the firm since 1995, Nicolas G. Hayek now became president and general director. In December 1999, Paris, Breguet’s birthplace, became the venue for the world’s first Breguet store; and in September 2000, the Musée Breguet opened downstairs. In the same year, Breguet made and sold over 8,000 watches with complications and advanced complications. In a matter of a few months, the company doubled its turnover and increased its profits once more. Any attempt to summarise Nicolas G. Hayek’s eleven years at the helm is a major challenge, but some of the major themes that have characterised his contribution nevertheless emerge clearly. His major focus had been on the products, on ensuring advances and exploring new avenues, on capturing the emotions of its clientele and on constantly fostering an element of surprise.
In 2002, the brand launched the Reine de Naples line – not a smaller or adapted version of a men’s watch, but a true women’s watch designed exclusively for women, with its own distinct shape and a name recalling the first watch ever designed to be worn on the wrist, created by Abraham-Louis Breguet for Napoleon’s sister Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples.
From 2004, the Marine range, first conceived in the 1980s and early 1990s, was completely redesigned. In 2005, the Tradition range was launched, its clearly visible movement recalling the design of the historic souscription calibre. In the same year, the first watches with silicon escapements were launched, then a cutting-edge technical advance introduced on the initiative of Nicolas Hayek, ensuring immunity to the effects of magnetism. In 2006, the decision to reproduce the famous watch No. 160 ‘Marie-Antoinette’, stolen in 1983, was made. A piece from Marie-Antoinette’s famous oak tree – already weakened by recent storms and due to be felled – was obtained and from which a box to house the new Marie-Antoinette watch was to be carved. The high frequency 10 Hz technology made its appearance in 2010, on the Type XXII sports watch, followed in 2013 by the Classique Chronométrie watch, which also featured magnetic pivots.
By 2007, annual production of watches had surpassed 20,000, a target achieved by a workforce of 621. However, Nicolas Hayek, who died on 28 June 2010 was not to see the realisation of his final initiatives. It was to be his grandson, Marc A. Hayek who would oversee a new expansion of the L’Orient factory, built in 2013 and 2014. In 2011, the casemaker Favre & Perret, long established as a Breguet supplier, was renamed officially the Manufacture des Boîtes Breguet. In 2013, production of watches exceeded 30,000 with the workforce rising to 992. Yet, another figure is perhaps even more impressive: between 2002 and 2014 Breguet registered no fewer than 116 patents.
The Breguet marque, founded in 1775 and presided over today by Marc A. Hayek, continues to face new challenges. In conquering new markets, introducing new products, and adapting to new economic conditions, it continues to enrich a long, fascinating and distinguished history. Even after 245 years of operation, and undergoing several changes in ownership, the Breguet name remains one that is synonymous with prestige and quality. What started as a small watchmaking firm based in Abraham-Louis Breguet’s humble home in Paris is now a global powerhouse in not just traditional fine watchmaking, but also in manufacturing and innovation. Based on the trajectory that it is heading, it would seem that it isn’t just Breguet’s past and present that appear bright, but also its foreseeable future.