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Our visit to the Breguet Manufacture

“For someone who understands mechanisms, a Breguet watch is truly a painting.”
Sir David Lionel Salomons, 1921

Breguet and fine watchmaking are indissolubly linked. Watchmaking couldn’t be the same without the impressive contribution of inventions and innovations that this brand made during a long history that spans four centuries.

Swiss-born Abraham-Louis Breguet established the eponymous watch manufacture in 1775 in Paris, where he had moved at the age of 15 to be apprenticed to a Versailles master watchmaker.

Today Breguet watches are made in Switzerland, in the Vallée de Joux, also known as the “watch valley” because it is the centre of advanced mechanical horology and the home of some of the most famous Swiss watch factories.

We recently had the pleasure to visit the main production site of the brand in L’Orient, a village at an elevation of 1,013 metres / 3,323 feet with less than 5,000 inhabitants which is part of the municipality of Le Chenit in the Canton of Vaud, near the French-Swiss border. Here is our report.

Large part of the Manufacture Breguet is installed on a factory that, in the past, housed the famous Nouvelle Lémania movement maker for many decades and that was bought by Breguet in 1992.

An old lathe machine at the entrance of the Manufacture

Since the acquisition of the prestigious brand by Swatch Group, the growth has been continuous. At the end of 2001, Swatch Group’s Founder Nicholas Hayek inaugurated a first expansion almost doubling the total space. A milestone at the entrance of this area still marks the event.

More recently, there was a further expansion with a new wing and today more than 800 people and more than 30 professions — including product designers, engineers, programmers, toolmakers, engravers, polishers and watchmakers, just to name a few of them — are practiced within the 20,000 m² production area.

The building was designed adopting the best standards for sustainable architecture and using environmentally friendly materials.

This large manufacturing site is complemented by the administrative building, located 10 minutes away from L’Orient, on the beautiful shore of the Lac de Joux in L’Abbaye.

In the factory that we visited, the most advanced and innovative methodologies and technologies are fully integrated with tradition and hand craftsmanship, just like avant-garde materials and solutions are complemented by artisanal decorations and finishes in a modern Breguet watch.

Watch production is divided into several workshops. From design and engineering to prototype-making, from machining to assembly and decoration, the entire production chain for the parts required to a Breguet timepiece is here represented.

When specific tools are required, these are produced in the tool making department. Although some of these tools might be used only two or three times in a year so representing a big investment, in-house production is a protection for the know-how of the brand.

CAD-CAM software and CNC machines guarantees the highest precision in the design and milling of complex shapes with tolerances of just few microns. Components are then finished with time consuming hand-made embellishments. These operations can actually represent one-third or even more of the time spent on making a timepiece.

Walking through the various departments it is possible to admire skilled artisans decorating the components with techniques like Côtes de Genève, perlage (circular graining), straight-graining, anglage (also referred to as bevelling or chamfering), guillochage and others.

In a single room more than thirty artisans apply anglage to the edges of plates, bridges, levers and other components. This traditional art involves both bevelling and polishing. Only highly skilled artisans can hand-apply anglage with a uniform width and angle on every edge. Whether using grinding wheels or a succession of ever finer files, the anglage is only done by hand, relying on the experience and the touch of the artisan.

Just consider that the chamfering alone of the components of an openworked tourbillon requires over a month’s work by an experienced artisan. This technique consists of eliminating the edges between the surface and the flanks while forming a 45-degree angle. The surface of the angle needs to be regular and smooth with a constant width and parallel edges.

The large department where Breguet’s guillocheurs operate is even more impressive. This traditional decoration technique became one of the many distinctive traits of a Breguet timepiece since the very beginning of the history of the brand. Founder Abraham-Louis was the first to introduce guilloché carving for watch dials. Receptive patterns were engraved on the dial plate using a manual lathe. More than merely decorative, these patterns offered the advantage of suppressing the reflection of light on metal dial plates.

Today, Breguet produces its dials as they were done historically, hand turning the gold dials on rose engine. All of Breguet’s guilloché dials, without exception, are created in this fashion respecting the finest hand craft traditions. The identical hand technique is used to bring guilloché motifs to Breguet’s movements. The majority of the gold winding rotors on Breguet’s automatic calibres are hand-guilloched following the same artisanal methods as the dials.

Three years of dedication are required to be trained as a Breguet’s guillocheur. Working on a lathe machine requires dexterity and coordination: while the left hand slowly rotates the piece to be decorated, with the right hand the guillocheur exerts the proper pressure to engrave it. Some of the machines used in this fascinating department date back to 1920.

Another finish that links modern Breguet with founder Abraham-Louis Breguet is “grenaillage”, a fine graining surface treatment of plates and bridges that is today reserved to Breguet’s La Tradition Collection.

The original technique was based on mercury evaporation and had the primary goal to make metals more resistant to oxidation. A mix of gold and mercury was used for coating the component that was then heated to evaporate the mercury, leaving the gold coating on the surface.

While today’s methods do not rely upon mercury anymore but rather on shotblasting, a technique of blasting microbeads onto the surface of an object to modify the surface structure, the “grenaillage” produces results of great appeal and elegance.

Make sure to watch the video at the end of the article to admire the talented artisans of the Manufacture in action while decorating the components with various techniques including Côtes de Genève, perlage, straight-graining and engraving (ciselage).

After passing quality-check, the components can proceed to the dust-free atmosphere of the movement assembly area where the watchmakers assemble with the highest precision. Just imagine that for each screw in a movement, Breguet specifies the exact torque to apply using the special calibrated screwdrivers.

Once assembled, each movement is thoroughly tested and tolerances, expressed in microns, are measured. It will go through stringent quality control tests for 6 to 10 weeks.

Small groups of specialised watchmakers — Breguet calls them “cellule” — take care of exclusive complication like tourbillons, perpetual calendar, minute repetitions and others. The rarefied atmosphere of these smaller workshops highlights the artisanal nature of their work.

The largest producer of tourbillon watches today, Breguet employs several specialised watchmakers, men and women, for the assembly of these sophisticated horological feats. It is remarkable that the brand has more than twenty different tourbillon movements in its catalogue!

Following final assembly and casing-up, all Breguet watches are thoroughly examined and tested to ensure they meet the most exacting standards for rate precision, water resistance, shock resistance, and numerous other properties.

At Breguet, the production processes are aimed to achieve the highest possible quality while preserving the individuality of each single watch, a requisite that makes a big difference in a world of standard products. In fact, in keeping the tradition of the early days, a unique production number is assigned to each Breguet watch. 

The capability to innovate while perpetuating tradition through the sharing of the know-how of master watchmakers and artisans — or we should rather say artists — with talented younger generations is without doubt one of the key secrets behind the continued success of Breguet.

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Time and Watches | The watch blog: Our visit to the Breguet Manufacture
Our visit to the Breguet Manufacture
Our visit to the Breguet Manufacture. Inside the Breguet Factory. Today Breguet watches are made in Switzerland, in the Vallée de Joux, also known as the “watch valley” because it is the centre of advanced mechanical horology and the home of some of the most famous Swiss watch factories. We recently had the pleasure to visit the main production site of the brand in L’Orient, which is part of the municipality of Le Chenit in the Canton of Vaud, near the French-Swiss border. Here is our report. Visiting the factory of the Breguet watchmaker.
Time and Watches | The watch blog
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