Fathers of Time is a series of articles which documents key founders and innovators in watchmaking, many of which are still employed in high end horology to this day. We begin our series with perhaps the most important Father of Time: A. L. Breguet.
Breguet is one of only a few houses of 18th century watchmaking still thriving, representing and continuing an unbroken tradition spanning centuries. Regarded as the greatest horologer of all time, the influence of Abraham-Louis Breguet remains quite literally a watchword for horological excellence.
Abraham-Louis Breguet was born on January 10th 1747 in Neuchâtel in Switzerland to Jonas-Louis Breguet and Suzanne-Marguerite Bollein. He went on to become not only the leading horologist of his day, but also the pioneer of several major horological innovations which are still widely employed in the Swiss watchmaking industry to this day.
Following his father’s death in 1758, Breguet’s mother remarried Joseph Tattet, who came from a family of watchmakers.
Tattet had a showroom in Paris and in 1762 Breguet was sent there to be apprenticed to an unknown master as a watchmaker.
In 1775, Breguet married into money. His bride, Cécile Marie-Louise L’Huillier, was the daughter of a wealthy French bourgeois. Her handsome dowry enabled Breguet to set up his own watchmaking company at 39 Quai de l’Horloge in Île de la Cité in Paris.
During his years as an apprentice watchmaker Breguet had cultivated wealthy and scholarly connections that would ultimately lead to an introduction to the French court in Versailles.
As a watchmaker Breguet was extremely innovative. He invented different escapements, including the tourbillon, automatic winding mechanisms, and the overcoil (an improvement of the balance spring with a raised outer coil). Within ten years Breguet had commissions from the aristocratic families of France and even the French queen, Marie-Antoinette.
Queen Marie-Antoinette grew fascinated by Breguet’s unique self-winding pocketwatch, and Louis XIV bought several of his watches. Marie Antoinette commissioned the pocketwatch that was to contain every watch function known at that time, including a clock, perpetual calendar, repeater, thermometer, chronograph, power reserve and pare-chute, which are timepiece shock absorbers. The design of such a watch was a huge undertaking, and for all her enthusiasm Marie Antoinette never lived to see it, as it was only completed some 34 years after she had been executed.
An important customer
Although Breguet’s wife died in 1780, it was really only the start of Breguet’s indelible influence on watchmaking. By 1784, having met with another master horologist of the day, Abraham-Louis Perrelet, Breguet became a master clockmaker. He had already developed the perpétuelle, or automatic watch in the year his wife died, and three years later he had developed the gong spring for the minute repeater and the design of the still famous and widely used Breguet hands and numerals.
By 1789 Breguet wisely departed for Geneva to escape the turmoil of the French Revolution. His association with the Royal family made him an easy target.
In 1795, however, Breguet returned to Paris brimming with ideas for innovations which produced the Breguet balance-spring, his first carriage clock (sold to Napoleon Bonaparte), the sympathique clock and its dependent watch, the tact watch, and finally the tourbillon, patented in 1801.He set up business once more in Quai de l’Horloge and quickly established a first class reputation among the new wealthy classes in the Empire.
Breguet surrounded himself with the finest craftsmen
Breguet did not man his workshops in the traditional way, with unskilled apprentices. Instead, he sought to surround himself with giants – the finest available craftsmen in Paris, whom he employed to make watches to his own designs. In the early 19th century Breguet accepted his son, Louis-Antoine, as a business partner after having sent him to London to study with the great English chronometer maker, John Arnold. Such was the mutual respect between the two watchmakers that Arnold in turn sent his son John Roger to study with Breguet.
When Breguet met fellow horologist Louis Moinet, he immediately recognised Moinet’s worth, and the two men worked closely together. From 1811 onwards, Moinet became Breguet’s personal adviser. Human relations being what they are, this was not a popular move with Breguet’s son, Antoine-Louis, who found it difficult to tolerate the presence of a man who spent far more time with his father than he himself could. When Breguet died in 1823, Moinet left the house on the Quai de l’Horloge to live elsewhere.
Breguet: Legacy of a master horologer
In the last decade of his life, Breguet enjoyed the acclaim and reputation befitting a master horologer. He became a member of the Board of Longitude in 1814. Appointed to the Board of Longitude and as chronometer-maker to the navy, he entered the French Academy of Sciences and received the Legion of Honour from the hands of Louis XVIII. In 1815 he gained an official appointment with the French Navy and Breguet remains the official watchmakers to the French Navy to this day. He also became a Member of the French Academy of Sciences in 1816, and a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1819.
In between the bestowing of these prestigious honours and appointments, Breguet continued to make his enormous contribution to the science and art of horology. Each watch from his workshops demonstrated the latest horological improvements in an original movement, mostly fitted with lever or ruby-cylinder escapements that he perfected.
Breguet became the indispensable watchmaker to the scientific, military, financial and diplomatic elites of the age. His timepieces ruled the courts of Europe. For his most celebrated clients Breguet designed exceptional timepieces. In 1810, for Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples, he conceived the world’s very first wristwatch. Upon his death in 1823 all mourned the passing of one of the most creative and inventive artisans in watch and clock making history.
His watches and clocks are still widely regarded as some of the most beautiful and technically-accomplished. The Breguet manufacture, now part of the Swatch Group, remains in family hands.
Abraham-Louis Breguet, truly a father of time.
The Sir David Salomon’s Breguet Collection
Sir David Salomons (1851-1925) a philanthropist, scientist, first director of the City of London Electric Lighting Company, and Member of Parliament for Kent England, was the greatest Breguet collector and historian ever.
In his lifetime, he compiled a remarkable collection of Breguets, most importantly the Marie-Antoinette skeletonised masterpiece. When he wrote his seminal book in 1921, he owned 87 fine examples and had “weeded out” dozens of less important pieces. After its publication, he continued to collect, amassing 124 pieces. Upon his death, he donated 57 to Jerusalem’s Museum of Islamic Art (which was built by his daughter Vera), and his wife inherited the rest.
In 1963, she walked into Sothebys London to arrange the auction of the remaining pieces, wherein a department assistant shooed her away. He simply could not believe that this old lady had 67 genuine watches by A-L. Breguet! They were subsequently sold by Christie’s in three sales between 1964 and 1965.
On April 15th 1983, shortly after George Daniels catalogued the Salomons collection in the Jerusalem Museum of Islamic Art, jewel thief Na’aman Diller burgled the museum (See: The Man Who Stole Time). The lost items were valued then at some $6 million, including the Marie Antoinette. Today’s value is immeasurable. The th came specifically for the 57 piece Breguet collection.
One other important Breguet watch from the Salomons collection was stolen, but fortunately found its way home. In 1924, Sir David donated the double faced Duke de Praslin, considered the second greatest Breguet watch after the Marie Antoinette, to the Musée des Techniques du Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in Paris.
Once stolen, after three months of tinkering with the watch, the thief brought it to a renowned Parisian watch specialist for repair; an unwise move.
With his incredible collection and vast knowledge about all things Breguet, Sir David compiled the first complete Breguet biography, including an analysis of the principal inventions, and a detailed timeline of production, uniquely tapping examples in his collection for illustration. Also, in his book Sir David included dozens of incredible “Notices” printed by the House of Breguet between 1819-1824, which describe in great detail and illustrate Breguet offerings and inventions.