Aoife Carrigy time-travels through the fascinating history of one of the world’s oldest watchmaking houses.
“To carry a fine Breguet watch is to feel you have the brains of a genius in your pocket.”
So wrote one Sir David Lionel Goldsmid-Stern-Salomons, the early 20th-century authority on, and collector of, Breguet watches. A barrister, philanthropist, member of Parliament and founder of the English Society of Engineers, Salomons amassed 124 separate Breguet timepieces in his lifetime and self-published the first biography of the father of modern horology, Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747–1823).
Salomons was not the only intriguing character to harbour an awed admiration of the innovative masterpieces created by A-L Breguet. Indeed, the clientele listed in the carefully maintained archives established by Breguet read like a veritable who’s who of European aristocracy and influencers.
One of Breguet’s most loyal devotees was Sir Winston Churchill who, in 1928, purchased the large gold pocket watch that he would continue to wear for the rest of his life and fondly dubbed ‘The Turnip’.
Churchill was a man with a peculiarly personal relationship to time-keeping and who famously hated to be rushed. One former bodyguard recalled telling Churchill it was time for lunch – only to have ‘The Turnip’ consulted with great deliberation and to be admonished “It’s only five to one. Why do you wish to rob me of five minutes of my life?”
Of all the stories about Churchill and his beloved pocket watch, one really captures the personality of this famously testy politician. Churchill’s daughter Sarah later wrote of how her father pulled out his trusty turnip one day after lunch and challenged his scientific adviser Professor Lindemann to explain, “in words of one syllable and in no longer than five minutes,” the quantum theory on which Lindemann had just published his treatise. “Without any hesitation,” she wrote, “like quicksilver, he explained the principle and held us all spell-bound.” It would appear that Churchill had the brains of two geniuses in his pocket that day – and that a lot can indeed be achieved in just five minutes.
It’s a story that A-L Breguet might have been rather pleased with. One of history’s greatest engineering minds, he himself was a dab hand at impressing the most powerful men and women of his time with his own elegant mastery of complex scientific principles. Part of the enduring appeal of a Breguet watch is the simple lines of its aesthetic, with its signature blue Breguet hands and elegant Arabic Breguet numerals.
By the time the Swiss watchmaker set up his historic Paris workshop in 1775, on the Quai de l’Horloge in the Île de la Cité, he had already spent more than half his 28 years learning his craft – having moved from Neuchâtel at the age of 15 to be an apprentice with a Versailles watchmaker.
Over the next 50 years, Breguet became the darling of every royal court in Europe, and the watchmaker of choice for the French Royal Navy along with the most powerful personalities across the worlds of science, finance, diplomacy and military.
His access to Europe’s deepest pockets and personal commissions from clientele such as Marie-Antoinette and Caroline Murat helped finance some of the most pioneering watchmaking innovations of all time. His achievements included inventing the ingenious tourbillon – a ground-breaking regulator that improved accuracy by reducing the effects of gravity on the escapement, patented by Breguet in 1801 – as well as the world’s first self-winding watch, travel clock and wrist-watch.
Happily, Breguet was a meticulous record-keeper as well as a genius of horology. The archives he established trace the history of Breguet watches from 1787 on, with each listed by its individual number together with a brief description, its date of sale and the name of its buyer. When these records were made public by the House in 2003, many more proud Breguet devotees came forward to add names and details to this register, helping to further develop and consolidate those original archives. A recent exhibition in Geneva’s Cité du Temps (Pont de la Machine) traced the fascinating ties that link the Breguet House to various iconic figures, writers and composers throughout the previous two centuries.
One of the most influential in helping to establish Breguet’s early reputation was Marie-Antoinette, the last queen of France (1755–1793). Though her husband King Louis XVI was also a client, it was the queen who took the young watchmaker under her wing and introduced him to the movers and shakers within her Versailles court.
In 1782, Breguet produced a self-winding, striking calendar watch for Marie-Antoinette, his watch No. 2 10/82. But it was watch No. 160 – known to many simply as ‘the Marie-Antoinette’ – that would become considered to be one of the most important watches ever made. Constructed out of wood-polished pink gold, sapphires and blued steel, it has been described as ‘the Mona Lisa of the clock world’ and was designed to be the holy grail of watchmaking.
Breguet received the commission in 1783 from an anonymous ‘Officer of the Queen’s Guard’. The brief was simple: that the watch would include every refinement and complication of watchmaking that had ever existed, with no limits set on when this masterpiece was to be completed by or at what cost. Mystery surrounds the identity of the commissioner. Some theorise that it was the queen herself who ordered it but the most common (but unproven) explanation is that the brief came from a Swedish count, one Axel von Fersen, who was Marie-Antoinette’s close friend and reputed lover. Either way, neither of these individuals got to see the masterpiece, the design and manufacture of which was not completed until several decades later, long after the head-rolling days of the French Revolution. Indeed, it was Abraham-Louis’s son Louis-Antoine who completed it in 1827, four years after his father’s death.
Within its 64mm diameter, this iconic ‘perpétuelle’ featured a self-winding mechanism equipped with a full platinum oscillating weight, and included a perpetual calendar indicating the day of the week, date and month, equation of time, repetition of minutes, quarters and hours, independent seconds hand, jumping hours and thermometer.
Incidentally, the history of the watch was to prove as colourful as the life and death of its ill-fated namesake. Having been acquired by Salomons as the jewel in his glittering Breguet collection, its journey eventually brought it to the city of Jerusalem, to the L.A. Mayer Institute for Islamic Art. British master horologist George Daniels included it in his detailed 1980 study of the Breguet watches and clocks contained in the museum. It would appear that the catalogue may have come to the attention of the infamous Israeli thief, Na’aman Diller, because just three years after its publication, Diller pulled off one of the biggest heists to hit the world of horology. It took 25 years for the criminal investigation to nail the theft from the museum of over 100 timepieces on Diller – and in the end, it was his by-then-widow Nili Diller who took the rap.
Coincidentally in 2008 – the same year that the No. 160 reappeared after its 25-year hiatus – the former CEO and President of the Breguet House, Nicolas G. Hayek revealed at Baselworld a remarkable reproduction of the original but presumed lost Marie-Antoinette. Known as the No. 1160, its replica is an exceptional achievement in its own right.
This tale of innovation and intrigue is just one of the many fascinating histories associated with the Breguet House.
Several members of the family of Napoleon Bonaparte – later to become Emperor Napoleon I – were to have Breguet produce personal commissions for them. In 1798, before setting out for Egypt, Napoleon ordered one for his wife and three for himself: one chiming watch, another automatic repeater watch and what was the world’s first travel clock, the Breguet No. 178. Not to be outdone, his sister Caroline Bonaparte – later known as Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples – was to order no less than 34 timepieces between 1808 and 1814. These included the first ever wristwatch, an oval-shaped repeater produced between 1810 and 1812 and described in the archives as being “mounted in a bracelet of hair embellished in gold”. A great patron of the arts and sciences, Caroline’s support established a traditional that remains strong in the Breguet House today, with important cultural partnerships being developed by the House into the early 21st century.
During the subsequent Napoleonic Wars, Breguet developed a personal friendship with the Turkish ‘man in Paris’, more officially known as His Excellency Esseid Ali Effendi, Ambassador of the Sublime Porte. Through this acquaintance and the insight it afforded the enterprising watchmaker into the habits and tastes of the court of the Ottoman Empire, Breguet was to develop a series of ‘Turkish’ watches, such as No. 2090, specifically for the Ottoman market – one of which would end up in the ownership of Sultan Selim III.
Other orders despatched by A-L Breguet included those of Russian Tsar Alexander I (1809) and the Princes Ferdinand and Charles of Spain (1812), while his son would have dealt with the commission from Queen Victoria in 1838.
The Breguet name spread far and wide. The aristocratic family of Russian writer Alexander Pushkin were loyal customers, leading to Pushkin characterising in his verse novel, Eugene Onegin, “A dandy on the boulevards … strolling at leisure until his Breguet, ever vigilant, reminds him it is midday.” Other literary references came from Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo; Victor Hugo in Chansons des Rues et des Bois; and French novelist Balzac, who describes in Eugénie Grandet “the most delicious thin watch that Breguet had ever made”. More recently John Fowles name-checks Breguet in his 1969 post-modern historical fiction, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, as “the greatest of watchmakers”.
The relationships developed with the world of the arts and culture were to prove a long-lived source of inspiration for the Breguet House. In 1842, opera composer Gioachino Rossini bought watch No. 4604, a small, simple piece featuring a calendar, a gold engine-turned case and an off-centred silver dial, while both Rubinstein and Rachmaninov were to purchase their own Breguet in the 1930s. Today, Breguet are proud sponsors of various musical endeavours, including the annual Geneva Concours de Musique.
In 2010, it was the turn of the Breguet House to draw inspiration from their musical links when they created an original timepiece, the ‘La Musicale’ Classique watch with a patented musical mechanism that plays the tune of Rossini’s Thieving Magpie opera. This was just one of a series of patents introduced under the dynamic leadership of current President Marc A. Hayek, who has invested heavily in research in order to continue building upon the historic House’s unique place in Europe’s cultural heritage and to continue as a world-class innovator in fine watchmaking.
The legacy of A-L Breguet well and truly lives on. To paraphrase one of his greatest admirers, to wear a Breguet watch today is to have the brains of a genius on your wrist – not to mention one of the most fascinating talking points in history, let alone in the history of iconic timepieces.
- Written by Aoife Carrigy © Weir & Sons 2017