7 Things You (Probably) Don’t Know About Breguet

Modern watchmaking owes a massive debt to Abraham-Louis Breguet, often called the greatest horologist of all time. Born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, in 1747, Breguet achieved his greatest success in Paris, where he made watches for the French aristocracy and members of the European nobility, from Czar Alexander I to Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples.

On Sept. 19, “Breguet: Art and Innovation in Watchmaking,” a tribute to his far-reaching legacy, opened at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor, part of the city’s Fine Arts Museums. I was honored to attend the opening-night gala on Sept. 16.

Courtesy Montres Breguet SA

The Legion of Honor in San Francisco with a blue carpet rolled out for the Sept. 16 gala celebrating the opening of “Breguet: Art and Innovation in Watchmaking”

The rain that deluged the city that evening added a moody ambience to the deluxe affair, which began with cocktails in the museum’s Rodin Galleries, before moving on to a luxury tent in the courtyard presided over by “The Thinker.” It was like being at the super-fancy wedding of a richer-than-rich society friend with excellent taste. The dessert of marzipan cake (pictured below) was museum-worthy, in and of itself.

Courtesy Montres Breguet SA

Watch them eat cake!

Shaped in the likeness of the one of the exhibition’s iconic timepieces—an elegant pocket watch in a gold engine-turned case with a silver engine-turned dial featuring the phases of the moon—the spongy cake was as rich and luxurious as the modern-day brand that bears Breguet’s name.

Courtesy Montres Breguet SA

Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747–1823)

“The exhibition provides an opportunity to discover an art at its pinnacle,” Jean-Charles Zufferey, vice president and head of marketing and media relations at Breguet, said in his welcoming remarks.

Indeed, the display of 77 pieces spanning Breguet’s most significant works from the late 18th century to the 1930s—from his early, relatively simple subscription watches (so called because Breguet required his customers to make down payments) to pieces of increasing complexity, including repeating mechanisms, grand complications, marine chronometers, carriage clocks, automatic watches, and, of course, tourbillons—offers an excellent encapsulation of why many people in the contemporary watch business revere the guy, and, now, the brand. (The celebrated watchmaker François-Paul Journe told me, over a sushi lunch in Los Angeles this past summer, that he considers Breguet watchmaking’s “one true genius.”)

If you have plans to be in San Francisco between now and Jan. 10, when the exhibition closes, don’t miss “Breguet: Art and Innovation in Watchmaking.” To whet your appetite, here are seven fun facts you probably don’t know about the man (the myth, the legend)!

1. Napoleon took one of Breguet’s carriage clocks into battle.

Known as Clock No. 178, the quarter-repeating travel clock in a gilt bronze case with Doric columns, a silver dial with a large moonphase display, and three windows for date, month, and day of the week looks more like a golden treasure rescued from a sunken Spanish galleon than something you’d want to take to war. Nevertheless, General Napoleon Bonaparte purchased it on April 24, 1798, before heading to battle in Egypt. 

Courtesy Montres Breguet SA

Clock No. 178, a quarter-repeating travel clock sold on April 24, 1798, to Napoleon

“The travel clock that was delivered to Napoleon shows watchmaking in warfare and its importance to navigation and coordinating troops,” said Marc A. Hayek, president and CEO of Montres Breguet SA, during a Skype session on the morning of the gala. Unable to join the festivities in person, he beamed himself in from his home in Switzerland to answer questions from the press, adding that he hopes the exhibition inspires attendees to “go deeper” into the brand and its history.

2. The name tourbillon is derived from an arcane astronomical reference.

In 1801, Breguet patented the most notable invention of his career: the tourbillon, a regulator designed to counteract the effects of gravity on a mechanical watch’s functionality.

 

Courtesy Montres Breguet SA

Watch No. 1176, a gold pocket watch with tourbillon sold to Count Stanislas Potocki on Feb. 12, 1809

The word has several meanings in French: chiefly, whirlwind, but also a violent rotation; unpredictable, impetuous movement; or an uncontrollable storm.

“None of these seems to fit the tranquil regularity of a watch movement,” Emmanuel Breguet, vice president and head of patrimony and strategic development at Montres Breguet, writes in the exhibition catalog. “But the word has another meaning, one almost forgotten today. In his Principia philosophiae of 1644, Descartes described the rotation of the planets around the sun, carried by the force of their tourbillon, by which he meant vortices. This definition, sitting at the interface between astronomy and philosophy, was echoed a century later by the mathematician and physicist Jean le Rond d’Alembert, who used the term to denote the rotation of a planetary system around a single axis. Astronomy is a domain of regularity and certainty, far removed from the vicissitudes and whims of meteorology; hence the analogy with horology, the science in which 18th-century philosophers liked to see the universe in microcosm.”

Courtesy Montres Breguet SA

Actress Kelly Rutherford and Emmanuel Breguet stand before the opening of the Legion of Honor exhibition on Breguet.

3. The famed Marie-Antoinette pocket watch commissioned by the queen and delivered after her beheading was stolen from a Jerusalem museum in 1983…

Of the grand complication watches created by Breguet, No. 160, aka the Marie-Antoinette, remains the most illustrious. Commissioned in 1783, the self-winding gold pocket watch—requested by the queen to contain every complication and refinement possible—was completed (by Breguet’s son, Antoine-Louis) in 1827, four years after Breguet’s death and 34 years after Marie Antoinette’s beheading.

The masterpiece was equipped with a minute repeater, perpetual calendar, equation of time, power reserve indicator, metallic thermometer, a large independent seconds hand on command, a small sweeps second hand, a lever escapement, a Breguet overcoil, and double pare-chute shockproofing. For almost 100 years, it remained the most complicated watch in the world.

Courtesy Montres Breguet SA

A reproduction of the Marie-Antoinette pocket watch on display at the Legion of Honor

In 1974, the L.A. Mayer Memorial Institute for Islamic Art in Jerusalem acquired the timepiece. Nine years later, in April 1983, the museum’s collection of watches, including the Marie-Antoinette, disappeared. The unsolved crime dogged international law enforcement for decades. In 2005, the late Nicolas G. Hayek, owner of Breguet since 1999, decided to create a replica of the timepiece, which now sits in the Legion of Honor exhibition.

4. …by a career criminal whose widow returned it.

In 2007, nearly a quarter-century after the watch’s disappearance, the Marie-Antoinette resurfaced, and news came to light that one of Israel’s most notorious criminals had masterminded the heist. “A man called Naaman Diller on his deathbed told his wife about the operation,” Martin Chapman, the museums’ curator in charge of decorative arts, said. “She took the necessary steps to restore the stolen good.”

5. Winston Churchill was a fan.

“Winston Churchill wore a Breguet pocket watch,” Chapman said. “It’s still in the family. It was given to him by his uncle, and he wore it for the rest of his life. He used to take it back to Breguet to get it cleaned. After the Second World War, he took it back to Breguet in Paris and Breguet sent it back saying the service was complimentary in recognition of what he’d done.”

6. “Usefulness over beauty” was Breguet’s (unofficial) mantra.

The elegant, minimalist, neoclassicist aesthetic that Breguet favored was a direct contrast to the florid, ornamental watches produced by the English, whose rococo timepieces ruled the day.

Courtesy Montres Breguet SA

Watch No. 2667, a highly complicated watch sold to a Mr. Garcias of London in August 1814

When a Breguet watch featured decoration, there was always a practical purpose for it. For example, the guilloche work on the outside of Breguet’s pocket watches “was not only a simple decoration but about preventing the watch from slipping out of a man’s fingers,” Chapman said, adding that he hopes that people viewing the exhibition come away with an understanding of “the precision and prestige born by the Breguet watch in the 19th century.”

“These were the most extraordinary instruments of precision,” Chapman continued. “They were able to convey a really large amount of information; they were the precursors of the smartphone today. A Breguet watch was regarded as the most reliable watch you could obtain.”

7. The modern timepiece originated with Breguet.

The list of watchmaking features that Abraham-Louis Breguet developed—such as Breguet hands (open moon-tipped hands), the Breguet spiral, and repeating mechanisms—is so long and full of so many standard elements of modern timekeeping that it’s easy to forget they originated with a specific person.

“There’ve been lots of inventors in the last 300 years, but Breguet was a prolific inventor,” says watch historian David Christianson. “Instead of just making one or two, he made numerous inventions that lasted, and that combined with his personality and his immense natural artistic talent stood him above the rest.”

At the Legion of Honor gala dinner, as the skies opened up on a city and state beset by drought and wildfires, Diane “Dede” Wilsey, president of the board of trustees of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, said it best:

“I think that Breguet has brought us good luck,” she said during her welcome remarks. “Because we have not had rain in four years, and this is a really good omen for all of us. It’s time for rain—and it’s time to celebrate time. We don’t normally do shows that aren’t paintings and art, but we have one mantra here: It has to be the best that there is. And Breguet clearly fits that bill.”