The first among equals

23.08.2017
Any conversation about traditions of mechanical watchmaking or the secrets of the old masters often begins and ends with mention of Abraham-Louis Breguet. His name and brand is familiar to people even infinitely far from horology, and numerous inventions defined in fact the industry character for two and a half centuries forward.


Like it or not the history of watchmaking has never been similar to the well-groomed and well-lit alley in the park, rather a maze full of dead ends and hidden treasures. Try to trace the chronology of one or another invention, and you will certainly encounter many explanations, slips of the tongue and outright speculations. Eminent artisans closely followed the work of their contemporaries, supplemented, borrowed and blatantly stole ideas from each other, and now hundreds of years later, it is extremely difficult to determine the scale of interinfluence accurately. If there exists a consensus, it concerns only one person – Abraham-Louis Breguet. Since 1780-ies, the great Swiss has made a number of fundamental discoveries, and thus earned the most honorable place in the virtual hall of world horology fame. Born in Neuchâtel in 1747, already at the age of fifteen Breguet went to seek his fortune in France, where his stepfather procured him an apprentice appointment by the court watchmaker. As a result, the fate let the unique talent of the young man reveal precisely where it was most popular - in the noble Versailles. By the time of Louis XVI enthronement, products of the young artist have already earned a certain reputation, and after the offi cial presentation to the king, Breguet did not lack in orders until the end of life. His watch not only decorated pockets of almost all ruling dynasties of Europe, but actually became a symbol of status and taste for several ages at once, receiving mention on the pages of the works of Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac, Alexander Pushkin and Leo Tolstoy.

7727 Classique Chronométrie won the main prize of the GPHG 2014


Battles of the titan

Just one dry list of Abraham-Louis Breguet achievements in the field of fine mechanics can take a few minutes: here is both the first reliable watch with automatic winding rotor and the shockprotection mechanism parachute able to protect the calibre in case of a fall, and probably the most spectacular and timeconsuming complication in the history, the tourbillon, designed to compensate for the effects of gravity on the balance system. Essentially, he was able to rethink and to improve nearly every aspect of production, starting with the replacement of the traditional repeater bells by gongs and ending with the designing of mechanism, very similar to the chronograph soon patented by Nicolas Rieussec. Ironically, a desire for simplicity and practicality motivated the most important for craft innovations. For example, the blue hands made of hardened steel, which became one of the most recognizable hallmarks of the brand, not only pleased the eye, but also greatly lightened the reading among the abundance of gold elements on the case and dial. The great Swiss felt very comfortable not only in the silence of the workshop. His biography looks perhaps brighter than all the inventions mentioned above. He traveled much, talked to leading scientists and artists, visited often courts, that is why during the Great French Revolution, according to rumors, he even got into the preliminary list for execution, but due to a friendship with one of the leaders of the Jacobins, Jean-Paul Marat, and timely departure from the country he was saved. However, even global geopolitical turmoil did not affect the relevance of the brand.
Of course, with such fame, fakes were not long in coming, and to guarantee authenticity of his products, the master decided to mark each exemplar with two symbols at the same time: a stamp invisible to the naked eye and a sequence number. In Breguet lifetime his manufactory produced about 15 000 watches in three series, the largest of which slightly exceeded 5,000 pieces. Every time the countdown just started again. This tradition continues to this day, sometimes causing confusion by an owner trying unsuccessfully to associate a four-digit figure with a modern serial or reference number.

Timeless

The finances of the clientele revealed to Abraham-Louis unprecedented opportunities in the field of experiments, allowing creating to order outstanding works of watchmaking art. Nevertheless, even in this context, two instances stand apart. Let us start with the legendary Queen Marie Antoinette No. 1160. The august personage gave the master carte blanche on the budget and delivery time if he would be able to combine in one case all the complications, known at the time, and to perform the maximum number of functional parts of gold. When guillotine from Place de la Concorde in Paris intervened, the original plan had to be revised, but Breguet decided not to give up the idea. The work continued for many years with breaks, and his disciples completed the masterpiece. Subsequently, the historical relic continuously passed from one wealthy collector to another, until it fi nally landed in the collections of the L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem, and became a victim of the biggest theft in Israel’s history in 1983. 
The second legend is rightly considered the world’s very first wristwatch, created at the request of Queen of Naples, Napoleon’s sister, Caroline Murat. An unprecedented oval or even better to say, an egg shaped dial as if deliberately emphasized a not-pocket origin of the miniature device with a quaternary repeater. By the way, principles used in the model permeated the modern line of the Reine de Naples brand.

A glorious path

Although the collections Classique and Tradition fully pay tribute to the legacy of the great Swiss, the company’s catalogue is not limited to endless tribute to the founding father. There is both a series Heritage with barrel-like cases, and Marine models dedicated to sea, and even automatic chronographs Type XX – XXI – XXII, inspired by the homonymous brand products, released in the mid-twentieth century, especially for the French military. Indeed, after the death of Breguet the famous manufactory was not going to fall apart. First his son, Louis-Antoine, then grandson, Louis-Clement, inherited the helm, then the company was bought by British, but the quality and ability to
keep up with the times has always remained the same.
A large-scale return to the roots began only in 1999 with the appearance of the Swatch Group in sight. Its head Nicolas G. Hayek relied just on hundred years’ traditions, so even in the twenty-first century, all the brand characteristic features remain in place. Breguet hands with “apples”, typical way of writing numbers, and almost mandatory guilloche of all dials – a client can always be sure that he will find here a luxury dress watch with the instantly recognizable pedigree. Needless to add, that the heirs of the tourbillon inventor remain one of the largest manufacturers of this complication in the world?
Finally, there is something about careful attitude towards the past and the marketing acumen of the Swatch Group founder Nicolas G. Hayek. While the already mentioned No. 160, called Marie-Antoinette for clarity, was still missing, the company conceived an incredible daring project – to create an exact replica, based on old documentation and photos. Since the world community has lost one of the pinnacles of watchmaking experts from Switzerland will give it a worthy replacement. After three years of work the miracle called No. 1160 Grand Complication appeared, even its branded box was made from the Queen’s favorite tree, felled by a hurricane in Versailles the day before. It seemed that the historical justice was restored, but then again, fate stepped in. The heirs of the Israeli robber got in touch themselves, and, after passing all the necessary legal procedures, the original returned to its museum soon, making all fans of horology twice happier. A real adventure novel, quite in the spirit of Abraham-Louis himself.