Breguet and 200 years of the wristwatch

The history and evolution of one of the greatest watch brands and the first ever wristwatch
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First Published: Sat, Oct 27 2012. 01 25 AM IST
Abraham Louis-Breguet.
Abraham Louis-Breguet.
For someone who would later become one of the greatest watchmakers of all time, Abraham Louis-Breguet’s origins were less than auspicious. Breguet was born in 1747 in Neuchatel, Switzerland, into a Protestant family that was originally French but had fled Catholic persecution in France many years before. When the young Breguet was just 10 years old, his father, a merchant and innkeeper, passed away. This was a tragedy, no doubt, for the young Breguet and his mother. But it would have profound implications for the world of watchmaking. For Breguet’s mother, Suzanne-Marguerite, would later remarry Joseph Tattet, a cousin of her dead husband and a watchmaker.
Breguet’s initiation into the art of watchmaking was unenthusiastic. Several historians say that it took some convincing on the part of his parents to get Breguet, by now a teenager who no longer went to school, interested in the family trade. Eventually, Breguet warmed to the craft and, when he was 15 years old, he was sent to apprentice with a watchmaker in Versailles, near the court of the French king. For all his initial reluctance, Breguet took to his trade with astonishing enthusiasm. To supplement his growing understanding of watchmaking, Breguet enrolled for mathematics classes at a college of the University of Paris. He impressed his tutor, a man well acquainted with the nobility, who then offered to introduce the young watchmaker to King Louis XVI.
Breguet had his foot, as it were, in the door. The king, an enthusiast of engineering himself, began to commission pieces from the young watchmaker.
Still, even as royal patronage began to smile upon the young Breguet and change his fortunes, tragedy struck. First his tutor and then his parents died. Suddenly, Breguet had to find the means to support himself and his sister. It is not known how he managed this. But he somehow did until, around 1769, he established a watchmaking business for himself in Paris. Nine years later, he would establish the company that has endured long after him and today occupies a position at the pinnacle of watchmaking: Breguet. Incorporated shortly after apprenticeship and his marriage with Cécile Marie-Louise L’Huillier, the company found instant success. Breguet began to supply watches to aristocracy all over Europe and was particularly popular among the French nobles.
Unfortunately for Breguet, there was no worse time in history to be a darling of the French aristocracy. Revolution was in the air. In July 1789, the Bastille was stormed. France was plunged into political turmoil. By 1793, a Reign of Terror was afoot under Robespierre and the Jacobins, and the king himself had been beheaded. Not only that, the ironically named Committee for Public Safety now sought out other darlings of the nobility for elimination. Breguet’s name was added to the list of those meant for the guillotine. Thankfully for Breguet and his family, an old favour done to a revolutionary, Jean-Paul Marat, came to its aid in this dark hour.
In 1921, British member of parliament, scientist and watch collector David Lionel Salomons published a book on the life and works of Breguet titled Breguet (1747-1823). Salomons tells the story like this:
“One day Marat was with Breguet at the rooms of a friend, when a crowd collected outside crying ‘Down with Marat’. Things looked dangerous, so Breguet dressed Marat up as an old woman and they left the house arm-in-arm unmolested. This good turn was remembered at a later date by the revolutionary, who found that Breguet was singled out for the guillotine… This was in the year 1793, and Marat obtained for Breguet a ‘safe-pass’ which enabled him instantly to leave France and reach Switzerland. Thence he came to England, where he remained for two years and worked for King George III, who was very fond of mechanics, also for other notable people.”
His presence of mind had saved Abraham Louis-Breguet’s life. Two years later, Breguet returned to Paris and resumed business as usual.
At the same time in Paris, a young Corsican soldier was struggling to cope with France’s political instability. Despite having proven himself in one major military operation, 26-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte found himself persona non grata with the government. He was both a victim of rivalries and jealousy in the French army, and suffering the fallout of being a good solider for the wrong, i.e. previous, government.
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And then on 3 October 1795, Bonaparte was asked to defend the French legislature in Paris from a rebellion. The Corsican leapt at the opportunity. Aided by a cavalry officer called Joachim Murat, Bonaparte used artillery to kill 1,400 rebels and disperse the rest. A relieved government embraced Bonaparte and restored him to his former military prestige. The young Murat, meanwhile, married Napoleon’s sister Caroline (shown left with her daughter) and became one of Bonaparte’s favourites.
And thus, we have with us, in Paris, in 1795, all the players responsible for the creation of the world’s first wristwatch: the watchmaker, the soldier, his favourite and the favourite’s wife. We also have two careers in motion: that of the master watchmaker on the threshold of the most profound inventions and innovations, and the soldier yearning to be conqueror and emperor.
By the early years of the 19th century, Breguet had developed a firm friendship with renowned English watchmaker John Arnold. Indeed, the watchmakers sent their sons across the Channel to apprentice in each other’s workshops. In 1808, Breguet send his friend in England a gift. It was a chronometer made by Arnold but with a converted carriage mechanism developed by Breguet, with some inputs from Arnold, called a tourbillon. The watch, now part of the British Museum’s collection, has this inscribed within in French:
“The first tourbillon regulator by Breguet incorporated in one of the first works of Arnold. Breguet’s homage to the revered memory of Arnold. Presented to his son in 1808.”
Watchmaking would never be the same again. Breguet’s tourbillon not only made for an immensely more compact calibre, but also made the watch more accurate by making it less susceptible to gravity. To this day, more than 200 years later, the tourbillon remains the most-refined and sought-after interpretation of the watchmaking art. Connoisseurs pay hundreds upon thousands of dollars for a watch with a tourbillon movement, and still have to often wait for months for delivery. Novice watchmakers dream of the day they will be allowed to assemble their own tourbillon. And yet, even the most modern tourbillon looks almost exactly like Breguet’s original from 1808.
Meanwhile, as Breguet pushed the boundaries of watchmaking, Napoleon Bonaparte conquered and conquered. By now the ruler of France, Napolean eventually created a patchwork quilt of kingdoms all over Europe ruled by members of his family. In 1806, he installed his brother Joseph as the king of Naples. And then two years later, in 1808, the very same year Breguet sent his masterpiece to Arnold, Napoleon replaced his brother with Joachim Murat, once a devoted young cavalry officer, as king and his sister Caroline as queen of Naples.
Breguet had few admirers quite as fervent as the queen of Naples. At a time when just a single timepiece by a major watchmaker was considered a substantial investment, Caroline commissioned 34 watches and clocks from Breguet’s workshops. This included a landmark commission in 1810 for what is widely considered the first ever wristwatch.
The commission still exists in the original order book that is part of Breguet’s company archives. It mentions an “repeater in oblong form for a bracelet” quoted at 5,000 francs, an eye-popping amount of money for the time. And it was filed under order number 2,639. It would take Breguet two years to deliver the masterpiece. And he would do so at a price of 4,800 francs, 200 francs within budget.
Even today, it is not entirely clear what prompted Caroline to ask for a watch on a bracelet. At a special press conference held in Naples earlier this month, to commemorate 200 years of this commission, Mark Hayek, chief executive of Breguet, said that this was still a mystery: “Which is why we like to say that both Abraham Louis-Breguet and Caroline Murat were co-inventors of the world’s first wristwatch.”
Till that point in time, watches had always been large devices carried in the pocket or inside containers. This unique piece was the first to suggest that a small enough watch, very hard to make of course, could be worn on the wrist. Commission number 2,639 was so far ahead of its time that it would take another hundred years for the idea of the wristwatch to become more popular. (And that too only when soldiers during World War I realized that wristwatches were much easier to use than pocketwatches during battle.)
All through 2012, Hayek and his team have been celebrating this major anniversary. At the BaselWorld watch fair in March this year, the company unveiled a travelling exhibition to celebrate this historic coming together of Caroline’s taste for luxury and Breguet exquisite engineering talent. The travelling exhibition includes fascinating objects from the lives of both individuals. None more so than the original order book from the 19th century that records this pathbreaking commission.
Still the story isn’t without further tragedy. For one thing, the original watch, a unique piece, is now lost. Records indicate that it was returned to Breguet for repairs twice: in 1849 and 1855. And then the watch vanishes from all records.
Eventually, Joachim Murat would be defeated in battle and executed, despite trying to survive by switching allegiances from and then back to Napoleon. Caroline fled to Florence, where she married and then eventually died in 1839.
Breguet, meanwhile, lived a less turbulent life. He continued to innovate and invent all the while remaining an honest, hard-working and humane businessman. Salomons says this about him:
“Breguet was young to the end and never became proud through his success. He was universally esteemed, since he was modest and not envious of anyone. Indeed, he was so retiring that many of his inventions were kept secret for a long time, not for the sake of secrecy as many thought at the time, but purely out of modesty. In course of time he became wealthy, but notwithstanding this he continued the simple life to the end. With age, his only failing was deafness, and eventually he became completely deaf, but he was never morose, which is the usual result of this malady.”
Breguet died on 17 September 1823. His legacy includes the tourbillon, automatic winding mechanisms and improvements to the balance spring. And, most significantly perhaps, the first wristwatch. He is remembered as one of the greatest watchmakers ever.
In 2002, Breguet unveiled the Queen of Naples—the Reine de Naples—watch collection as a tribute to the first wristwatch. The watches remain true to many of the original design elements. Most significantly the collection boasts of the original ovoid shape and come with self-winding movements with repeater complications. While the original may have been lost, the descendants of that original piece are masterpieces in themselves.
And this year, to commemorate the bicentennial of the original commission, Breguet has launched a new anniversary piece set with 28 brilliant cut diamonds and 27 blue sapphires. The silvered gold dial and its flange are paved with 233 brilliant cut diamonds and 303 blue sapphires. The watch is mounted on an alligator strap with a folding clasp set with 26 diamonds.
Accompanying the watch is also a set of jewellery in diamond and sapphire.
Priced at 200,000 Swiss francs (around Rs.1.16 crore), the watch is a celebration of both the extravaganza of a queen and the mechanical genius of a master watchmaker.
INDULGE RECOMMENDS:
Marie Antoinette Dentelle Haute Joaillerie watch: Rs.1.1 crore
Classique La Musicale 7800: Rs.48.68 lakh
Reine de Naples 8918 in Red Gold: Rs.19.14 lakh
Classic 5717 Hora Mundi: Rs.43 lakh
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First Published: Sat, Oct 27 2012. 01 25 AM IST
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