The History of Breguet and the Museum
Emmanuel Breguet is as polished and refined as they come. Welcoming us to the Breguet Museum in Paris, just above the recently inaugurated boutique at N° 6 Place Vendôme, this 7th generation descendent of the man universally considered to be the greatest watchmaker of all time begins by telling us he did not originally intend to become the custodian of the Breguet heritage. “I was studying the history of technical inventions at Sorbonne University, and it was my Professor who suggested I write a thesis about Breguet inventions. I quickly realized they were not just technical; the aesthetic aspect is equally important. Breguet totally changed the codes of aesthetics on timepieces that at the time were baroque and heavy. He simplified the form, made them more pure, and took away all decorations. Simple and austere, with nevertheless an imaginative touch, he had a great sense of proportion, an artist’s eye, where everything is balanced. It went hand in hand with the technical side: to make thinner, more aesthetic timepieces, he needed to make smaller movements.”
Emmanuel Breguet knows Abraham-Louis Breguet by heart. “We have complete archives dating from 1787. Only the years between 1775 and 1787 were erased when those archives were looted and destroyed by Revolutionaries in 1794.” He tells us of his ancestor’s departure from Neuchâtel at the age of 15 to study watchmaking in Paris, a city he loved and left with regret for two years during the French Revolution for security reasons. “But those two years in Geneva, Neuchâtel and Le Locle were intellectually stimulating. When he returned to Paris, a number of exceptional inventions quickly took shape.”
We admire a Subscription watch from 1796 – a timepiece made ‘on order’, partially paid in advance – and also “the most simple watch ever made. The watchmaker who made the most complicated timepieces also made the simplest ones. This one has few components and only one hand, and yet the dial is totally readable.”
We continue on to the Tact watch, made 3 years later, a tactile timepiece to discreetly ‘feel’ the time, with a movement “that inspired ‘La Tradition Chronograph Independent 7077’, voted best Haute Time watch of the year in 2015”. And what about this ‘Sympathique clock’ created in 1793 with a pocket watch that is automatically set and wound through a system of cams and winding stem when placed in a recess at the top of the clock. “Fewer than ten of these were made” continues Breguet, “and all had a royal destiny. One still sits in the bedroom of a royal house today.”
We move towards one of the first Tourbillon timepieces ever made, past small travel clocks made for Napoléon Bonaparte and his sister Caroline — the ‘Reine de Naples’, on to a blue Tact watch made for Joséphine, past minute repeaters, marine chronometers – “Breguet entered the Academy of Sciences and was awarded the Legion of Honour by Louis XVIII” – and even a wake-up ring with a point that projects into your finger at the pre-set time! The museum also displays vintage pilot watches from the 1950s particularly appreciated by collectors.
Advice for Collectors
Emmanuel Breguet recommends to begin a collection with a Subscription watch, followed by a Tact watch to create a good base, and then “whatever one desires”.
“With our archives, I am able to reply, free of charge, to requests for information concerning the authenticity of a timepiece, who it belonged to, when was it made, etc. I receive 30 such requests every week. On average, twenty of the pieces are false.”
His advice is clear. “Your first reflex should be to provide us with a full description of the piece, photos of the dial, the movement, and especially precise photos of the number, of the signature (Abraham-Louis worked together with his son Antoine-Louis and from 1800 their timepieces were signed ‘Breguet et Fils’), and of the hallmark inside the case so we know it is the original case. Our hallmark includes a kind of spiral, but case makers also had their own hallmarks. After that, if you ask for an “Official Certificate of Authenticity” there may be a cost, but the initial information is not charged. I am regularly consulted by auction houses to authenticate and provide certificates for their antique Breguets.”
When the Swatch Group acquired Breguet in 1999, Founder Nicolas G. Hayek decided to create a collection that would best represent Breguet and the personalities that are part of its history. “At the time, we had archives but only about ten timepieces. We started to attend auctions in the year 2000, always public auctions, because Mr. Hayek wanted all of our acquisitions to be open, clear and simple. Now, we have a collection of about 240 pieces, and we continue today with his grandson, Marc Hayek (Marc A. Hayek, CEO Breguet, Blancpain and Jaquet Droz).”
There are about 20 pieces on the market every year, and collectors, who are mostly from England, the USA, the Middle East, Japan, and more recently China “are asking us to ‘leave some for them’. Perhaps they will find what they are looking for at the next auction in May (16th) at Christie’s in Geneva.”
The amounts paid for these rare pieces vary from 20 000€ to several million; for a Subscription watch the investment could be “around 20 000€ – 30 000€”.
From the Past to the Future
“Breguet has always had an open, international outlook, and this is the third aspect that constitutes the success of the brand. Abraham-Louis Breguet was a very sociable person who was in contact with all the scientists and all the ambassadors in Paris who knew his products and presented them to their sovereigns. This is how he became so quickly known in England, Spain, Russia, Turkey…He had an extraordinary sense of human relations, with no notion of frontiers. He prospected the US too; we have replies to his letters advising him it was still a bit premature for his timepieces. Several sales were nevertheless made to customers in Boston and Philadelphia. The development of his sales network is fascinating to follow through his correspondences. In the 19th century, in Russia, the name Breguet was almost synonymous with Haute Horlogerie; Russian authors cite Breguet in their works.
Emmanuel Breguet concludes with a word for the future: “It would be an error to believe that we imitate the past. It is true that aesthetically, our watches today are still very marked by the Breguet style. That is our identity, but many innovations are hidden under this style. Since 2000, under the late Mr. Hayek, and Marc Hayek today, Breguet has filed from 10 to 12 technical patents every year — the highest number of watchmaking patents in the world. Beneath our traditional appearance with a dial, hand, and guillochage that we can instantly recognize, we create and employ new techniques, new materials, new lubricants…
All of this fabulous patrimony incites us to move forward and continue to innovate. We still discover solutions, levers, things that we had not noticed before, in some of these antique pieces. Breguet never made two watches in exactly the same way, and throughout his life he continued to find new and different solutions, that sometimes shocked. Even in the Subscription watches, no two are alike.
The happy combination of technical, aesthetic, and network developments earned Abraham-Louis Breguet recognition during his lifetime. An astounding example for all of us, and something to pursue, with balance in all things.”
Breguet N° 1009 Tact watch, gold, guilloché, enamel, diamonds. The arrow points to the hour; here the hour markers are in diamonds
Breguet n666 et n721 Pendule Sympathique Clock, property of Her Majesty Queen Elisabeth II
Breguet N°180_Winding crown of the Bague Reveil, or Wake-Up Ring
Breguet N°1176 Tourbillon
A guillochage machine in the museum
How to wind and set your watch with a crown
A-L Breguet's request to patent his tourbillon invention.
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Breguet N°1176 Tourbillon pocket watch
Boutique Paris 6 Place Vendôme
Photo Credits : Breguet and Haute Time. Follow Haute Time on Instagram to catch all of the new releases as they happen.