Watch Directory

Breguet: the inventor

It’s one of the oldest names in the business and the house of some of the most important inventions in watchmaking. And Breguet is showing no signs of taking its foot off the gas any time soon.

23.01.2020

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Get a group of watch geeks together for a few drinks and chances are someone will start the “what would Abraham-Louis Breguet be doing if he were still alive today?”

Thanks to his numerous inventions – from the world’s first workable self-winding watch to the tourbillon – Breguet and the brand that bears its name has been elevated to almost mythic status.

He was a designer, inventor, disruptor – more akin to a Steve Jobs-style character than a watchmaker; horology, like technology for Jobs, just happened to be the medium through which his genius was refracted.

It was Breguet’s stepfather, Joseph Tattet, who introduced the young boy to watches, in the early 1760s when he was 11 or 12, though apparently at the time he showed little interest in Tattet’s workshop. It wasn’t until he was 15, in 1762, that he decided watchmaking might be something he could explore, but it took being apprenticed to a Versailles-based master watchmaker for Breguet’s talents to come to the fore.

In 1775 he finally set up his own watchmaking company on the Quai de l’Horloge near Notre Dame. And it was from this address that some of the most incredible inventions in watchmaking were created.

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First up, in 1780, was the Perpétuelle – the world’s first self-winding watch that actually worked. It was this watch that drew the attention of Queen Marie-Antoinette – she bought one of the first produced – and led to one of the most famous commissions the Breguet name ever produced. In 1783, an anonymous admirer of the Queen ordered a watch that was to be as spectacular as possible. It was to be rendered in gold with every complication available at the time. Due to a lack of time or financial limits, neither Abraham-Louis or Marie-Antoinette saw the finished watch as it was completed four years after his death and 34 years after hers.

However, Breguet’s lifetime wasn’t short of achievements. He invented the Sympathique – a table clock that could automatically wind and set the pocket watch that accompanied it; there was the automatic winding device with a central rotor; the parachute, which is the shock absorber for the balance wheel; the ultra-flat movement complete with several complications, the circular gong and the Breguet overcoil – the upraising of the balance spring’s last coil, which reduced its curvature and improved the watch’s precision.

He is most famous, though, for the tourbillon. The rotating cage-mounted escapement and balance wheel that counteracts the effects of gravity when the wearer’s pocket watch is kept in a single position for any period of time. Despite now being useless in a world of wristwatches it continues to be a signifier of a brand’s technical skill.

But Breguet didn’t just invent things, he had a design language that has lasted, too. There are the blued hands with moon tips and the slightly ornate Arabic numerals, which have been prefaced with Abraham-Louis’s name and that remain a signature of the brand, as well as being appropriated by others.

Breguet’s name was continued by his family, via deviations into telephones and aviation, before the business was sold, in 1870, to an English watchmaker called Edward Brown, who had been watchmaker-in-chief at Breguet.

Then, 100 years later, in the 1970s the brand was acquired by the Chaumet brothers, though it soon got sold to InvestCorp when, in 1987, the brothers were arrested for defrauding their customers and bankers and filed for bankruptcy with $300m in liabilities. InvestCorp didn’t know what it was doing with the brand – it tried to position it as a sports brand for starters – so in 1999 it was sold, along with its movement supplier Nouvelle Lemania, to the Swatch Group. This was the start of Breguet 2.0. Then-CEO of Swatch Group Nicolas Hayek Sr resigned his chief-exec role so he could devote all his energy to making the brand great again.

Tradition was back in and women got their own collection called Reine de Naples – exquisite jewellery watches that took their design cues from a timepiece Breguet created for Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, the Queen of Naples.

Then in 2008 it recreated the famous Marie-Antoinette pocket watch complete with jumping hour, perpetual calendar, minute repeater, thermometer and equation of time. It was an incredible feat of watchmaking; something that was made even more special when, in November of that year, the original was recovered after it was stolen in a priceless clock-collection heist from the LA Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem in 1983.

In keeping with the MO of its founder, Breguet continues to balance tradition and innovation. It has spearheaded the use of silicon becoming, back in 2005 with its Calibre 591A, the first brand to have a movement featuring the escape wheel, lever and balance spring in this material, while in 2017, it’s Marine Équation Marchante Ref. 5887 featured a peanut-shaped equation of time cam, which was grown onto a sapphire disc using electroplating to improve accuracy.

It’s the sort of brave leap Breguet himself could have made; if only he’d had the technology…

Which Breguet should I buy?

It has to be the Reine de Naples. It has one of the most unusual watch-case shapes around and is often dripping in diamonds but there’s something to be said for the restrained cool of this steel-case and denim-strap version.

It’s a wonderful blend of tradition and bravery of design that few brands could pull off with such aplomb.

Reine de Naples, £17 400

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