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The history of Breguet - Part I

The history of the Breguet brand spans four centuries and is so rich of inventions and innovations that represents an essential part of the entire history of watchmaking.

Given the amount of relevant events that mark Breguet’s history, we will trace the path from the origins to the present days in two articles.

The brand takes it name from its founder, Abraham-Louis Breguet who was born in Neuchatel, Switzerland, on 10 January 1747.

Abraham-Louis Breguet portrayed as a young man

Neuchatel in the 18th Century

His ancestors were French and, since they were protestants, they moved to Switzerland in 1685. In fact, following this revocation of the Edict of Nantes (which in 1598 put an end to the religious wars that had afflicted France during the second half of the 16th century), an intense persecution of Protestants had taken place again in France. In spite of the prohibition to leave the country, around 400,000 protestants - including the Breguet - flee France at risk of their lives.

When he was just eleven, his father Jonas-Louis died. Soon after, his mother Suzanne-Marguerite Bollein remarried to her husband’s cousin, Joseph Tattet, who came from a family of watchmakers.

In 1762 Tattet took Breguet to Paris - where, in the meanwhile, things had calmed down a bit - where he was apprenticed to a Versailles master watchmaker whose name remains unknown.

France and Switzerland on the eve of the French Revolution

After completing his apprenticeship, he worked for two of the most acclaimed watchmakers of their time like Ferdinand Berthoud (1727-1807) and Jean-Antoine Lépine (1720-1814).

At the same time, having realized that mathematics was essential to success in his work, he kept furthering his education by taking evening classes on the subject at the Collège Mazarin, under Abbé Marie. Impressed by his talent and intelligence, Marie had the important role to introduce Breguet to the French Court and the aristocracy gravitating around it, later to become Breguet’s clientele.

Although facing a difficult time for the loss of his mother, his step-father and his mentor Marie in a very short timeframe, Breguet was able to take care of his younger sister and finally, in 1775, establish his own business at No. 39, Quai de l’Horloge, in the Ile de la Cité, just on the banks of the River Seine near Notre Dame. He was 28.

The Breguet workshop in Quai de l'Horloge, Paris

Quai de l'Horloge today

In that same year, he had married Cécile Marie-Louise L'Huillier, the daughter of an established Parisian bourgeois family. Most probably, part of the capital required to establish the business came from her dowry.

Thanks to Abbé Marie’s introductions, Breguet quickly started receiving his first orders from the aristocracy, including a self-winding watch for the Duc d'Orleans in 1780 and another one for Marie-Antoinette in 1782.

His self-winding or “perpétuelle” watches brought him considerable fame both at the court of Versailles and throughout Europe. Although he was not the first to produce a self-winding watch, most experts agree in saying that he produced the first watch of this kind that was truly reliable and effective.

Above and below, two examples of Breguet’s perpetuelle watches: the oscillating weight, sprung so that it returned to its original position after each movement, pushed up two going-barrels, stopping when the springs were fully depressed


Breguet’s watches had immediate success not only for the quality of the internal mechanisms but also for their design. Just think to the watch hands that he designed in 1783. Made of gold or blued steel and with the circle motifs hollowed out in eccentric fashion, they added irresistible elegance to a watch. They became an immediate success demonstrated by the fact that the term ‘Breguet hands’ soon entered the vocabulary of watchmaking.


For his dials he used white enamel plates with typical Arabic numerals leaning slightly to the right or guilloché decorations, i.e. receptive patterns engraved on the dial plate using a manual lathe. More than merely decorative, a guilloché pattern offered the advantage of suppressing the reflection of light on metal dial plates.

The guilloché dial of a Breguet pocket watch - 1786 

In 1783 Breguet received a commission, through a member of the Marie-Antoinette Guards, for a special timepiece that had to be created as a gift for Queen Marie-Antoinette, one of the most enthusiastic admirers of his timepieces. The watch had to incorporate every complication and function known at the time. No time or monetary limit had been placed on the order. It was completed in 1827, 44 years after the commission and 34 years after the death of the queen herself, but the result was what many experts consider the most important watch ever produced for technological, aesthetic, and historical reasons. We invite you to read the detailed history of the exceptional Breguet No.160 "Marie-Antoinette" here.

The "Marie-Antoinette" 

Other remarkable inventions of these years are the “gong-spring” (1783), used for chiming watches in place of a bell, and the “parachute” (1790), a shock protection system or “elastic suspension” (as Breguet himself sometimes called it) which made watches less fragile and resistant.

Gong-spring in a minute repeater watch and, on the right, "parachute" anti-shock system

Breguet worked on his own until 1787, when he partnered with Xavier Gide, a dealer in clocks and watches which brought more capital into the business.

Although not particularly successful and dissolved in 1791, this partnership was very important in the history of Breguet because, with it, the company started to keep archival records of the sale and the factory costs providing us with invaluable information.


Just as an example, with regard to the self-winding watches that we mentioned above, we know from records that Breguet sold sixty “perpétuelle” from 1787 to 1823. And while there are no records for the years between 1780 and 1787, we can assume that other twenty or thirty pieces were produced in that timeframe.

But those were dangerous times with the French revolution storm quickly approaching, especially for a man that was considered too close to the aristocracy and the royal court.

Luckily, Breguet had become a close friend of revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat, whose sister Albertine made watch hands for the watchmaker. According to tradition, Breguet had saved Marat from an angry crowd that had gathered outside the house of a common friend: he had the idea to dress his friend as an old woman and this way the two could successfully escape.

When Marat discovered that Breguet was marked for the guillotine, he arranged for a safe conduct pass which allowed Abraham-Louis to leave Paris and travel to Geneva in 1793. From there, he moved to Le Locle where he set up a small workshop with only a handful of employees. This way, he was able to continue working for the royal families of Russia and England, King George III in particular.

In 1795 the political scene in France stabilised and Breguet returned to Paris where he  found his factory in ruins. Friends, and amongst them chiefly the Choiseul-Praslin family, helped him to rebuild his business which he set up again in Quai de l'Horloge.

The Army and the Navy were in urgent need of reliable timepieces so Breguet was welcomed back. He was even compensated for the losses experienced during the Terror and obtained that his staff be exempt from military service in order to accelerate the recovery of his factory.

Although Breguet’s activity was seriously hit in the years of the exile, he had used his time to develop many of the exceptional ideas and inventions that were implemented in the following years quickly achieving great success.


Breguet’s excellence was not just in technique and style. He was also a great marketer. An example: in 1797, the watchmaker created one of the most famous example of single-hand pocket watch, the "Souscription". Launched through a publicity brochure in 1797 and equipped with a special movement of great simplicity based on a large central barrel, it was sold on a subscription basis (hence the name), with a down-payment of a quarter of the price when the order was placed. The "Souscription" was highly successful and various models were produced, with different dials and gold or silver cases.

Breguet Souscription N. 542, 62 mm, silver case with gold fillets, enamel dial, sold in 1800

Breguet Souscription N. 1391, 57 mm diameter, gold-case, gold engine-turned dial, sold in 1805

In the late 1790s Abraham Louis Breguet invented the "montre à tact" or "tactful watch".

As well as enabling the wearer to tell the time in the traditional fashion by opening the watch-case and looking at the internal dial, it also enabled him to check the time in the dark by turning the hand or arrow outside the case clockwise until it was felt to stop at the hour shown by the watch. Thanks to little knobs around the case, used as hour markers, it was possible to feel at which hour hand/arrow was positioned and discern the right time approximately.

A pink gold, enamel and diamond-set hunter case 'médaillon montre à tact' cylinder watch signed Breguet, No. 608, sold to Monsieur Bastreche in 1800 for 3,000 Francs

The "à tact" system helped to tactfully tell the time in polite society without taking the watch out of your pocket and appearing bored or impatient. And in fact, another meaning of the word “tact” in French is the sense of sensitivity to others (hence the words “tact” and “tactful” in English).

On 26 June 1801, the French Interior Minister granted Breguet a 10-year patent for his invention of  the tourbillon, a new type of regulator.


It is interesting to read the letter that Breguet wrote to the French Minister to present his invention:

"Citizen Minister,

I have the honour to present to you a memo detailing a new invention, applicable to instruments for measuring time, that I have named Régulateur a tourbillon, and I request a patent for the construction of these regulators for a period of ten years.


I have succeeded, by this invention, in removing through compensation the errors due to positional differences in the centres of gravity, and by the movement of the regulator, in distributing equally the friction over all parts of the pivots of the said regulator and the holes in which they turn, in such a way that the lubrication of the contact points will always be equal even as the oil thickens, and in removing many other errors that affect, to a greater or lesser extent, the accuracy of the movement, in a manner that is totally beyond the present knowledge of our art, even with an infinite period of trial and error.


It is after due consideration of all these advantages, with the ability to perfect the means of fabrication and the considerable expenses I have incurred in arriving at such a point, that I have decided to apply for a patent to fix the date of my invention and to compensate myself for the expenses I have incurred.


Respectfully yours,


Signed Breguet"



Thanks to his deep understanding of physical laws, Breguet realised that the way a watch run was affected by changes in its position. Changes were particularly evident when timepieces were kept in vertical position, which happened often considering that pocket watches were kept in the waistcoat pocket most of the time. He understood that the main cause of this behaviour was gravity. While it was not possible to eliminate the gravitational forces, he thought that it was possible to compensate them by installing the regulating organ (the sprung balance) and the escapement inside a mobile carriage performing a complete rotation about its own axis once per minute.


With this invention, Breguet not only improved the accuracy of pocket-chronometers, but created one of the most appreciated and fascinating horological devices. We wrote more about the history of the tourbillon here.

Breguet No. 2567 a hunter case tourbillon pocket watch with Breguet's distinctive engine-turned silvered dial, roman numerals and Breguet hands in blued steel - 1812

In 1807, Breguet took his son Antoine-Louis (born 1776) into full partnership and, from that point, the firm became known as Breguet et Fils. The commercial aspects of the business were run by Suzanne l’Hillier, his sister-in-law, for his wife had died in 1780.

Immersed in watchmaking since his earliest childhood, Antoine-Louis soon demonstrated great skills. He was trained in Paris under his father and in London, under great English chronometer maker and friend, John Arnold.

In these years, Breguet kept developing his foreign clientele with growing success. Particularly successful in Russia, he opened a branch in Saint Petersburg in 1808. Unfortunately, he was forced to close it three years later when the Tsar Alexander I forbade the entry of French products on Russian ground, as a response to the politics of Napoleon.

Letters of Breguet senior and junior to Lazare Moreau, the salaried man managing the Saint Petersburg branch

Napoleon himself was a good patron, and purchased a number of Breguet's watches and clocks, a "Pendule Sympathique" amongst the number. In few occasions, he visited Breguet’s factory in incognito.

Caroline Bonaparte, a younger sister of Napoleon and wife of Joachim Murat, King of Naples, was without a doubt one of Breguet's best clients acquiring thirty-four clocks and watches from 1808 up to 1814.

Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples

It was in response to a commission from the Queen of Naples that, in 1810, Breguet conceived and made the first wristwatch ever known, the Breguet watch number 2639, an exceptionally thin, oval repeater watch with complications, mounted on a wristlet of hair and gold thread.

There are no sketches in the archives to indicate its exterior. Fortunately for us, the watch appears in a register of repairs of what we now call after-sales service. The entry, dated March 8th 1849, notes that Countess Rasponi, "residing in Paris at 63, Rue d'Anjou," had sent watch number 2639 for repair. The countess was none other than Louise Murat, born 1805, the fourth and last child of Joachim and Caroline Murat, who in 1825 married Count Giulio Rasponi.

It was again brought in for repair in 1855, which is the last trace Breguet has of it. Today, it is unknown if the Queen of Naples watch still exists as no public or private collection lists it on its inventory.

Breguet’s success made him wealthy. During his life, his firm produced around 17,000 timepieces. Nonetheless, he always maintained a simple life style. He was known for his kindness and good humour.

Among the numerous recognitions achieved during his lifetime, Abraham-Louis Breguet was awarded by Louis XVIII with the official title of chronometer maker to the French Royal Navy. This was probably the most prestigious title a horologist could hope to receive, given that the very concept of marine chronometry implied scientific knowledge. It also involved playing a crucial role for the country, as marine chronometers were of capital importance for fleets by making it possible to calculate ships’ positions at sea.

Breguet became a full member of the French Academy of Sciences in 1816 and received the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour from the hands of Louis XVIII in 1819.

A portrait of Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1816 when he became a member of the French Academy of Sciences 

Abraham-Louis Breguet died rather suddenly at the age of 77 on 17 September 1823. The only son of the founder, Antoine-Louis Breguet, took over the company successfully following the path of his father and maintaining the top quality standard that made the brand famous worldwide.

___________________

Continue to "The history of Breguet - Part II"


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Time and Watches: The history of Breguet - Part I
The history of Breguet - Part I
The complete history of Breguet, an essential part of the entire history of watchmaking. From founder Abraham-Louis Breguet to the modern days as part of the Swatch Group.
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