For such a small piece of accessory, there’s so much complex mathematics behind how watches work and a long history of how this elaborate mechanism became as compact as we know them today. Their additional function as arm candy may have overshadowed the appreciation that should be given to the craftsmanship that’s required to make them but Breguet is one of the luxury brands that continues to remind us of the rich development behind watchmaking, as its history spans four centuries–enough to cover the whole history of watchmaking itself.
It all starts with Abraham-Louis Breguet, whose story and watchmaking journey is directly woven and affected by the notable historical events during his lifetime. The tradition of watchmaking wasn’t from his own immediate bloodline but it was for his stepfather’s, who instilled the interest in young Breguet. His story is universal to almost anyone who started young with an enthusiasm for any creative endeavor.
He originally came from Switzerland but found a second home in Paris where he took up an apprenticeship and worked still with two more watchmakers, all the while sharpening his knowledge of mathematics when he realized it was a huge part of the craft. It was in 1775 that his first workshop is opened in Paris through the help of Abbot Joseph-François Marie who also introduced him to the French Court. The French Revolution forces him out of the country but eventually returns after he was led to close his workshop at Saint Petersburg.
From Breguet to Brown
What Abraham-Louis started went to the route of being a family heritage as he handed it down to his only son, Antoine-Louis, through a full partnership at first. His interest for watchmaking has been apparent since his early years from direct influence from his father.
Upon retirement, Antoine-Louis then handed it down to his son, Louis-Clément. When he took over, the business landscape changed as he turned towards making the watches for all social classes. He also had expansive interests for electrical and scientific instruments, which led him to leave the watchmaking business for good. Antoine, his son, was the last Breguet to be able to run the business.
In 1870, the workshop was sold to Edward Brown, who also worked as the head of the business. As with any transfer of ownership, it could’ve meant a lot of drastic changes for the brand. Fortunately, the Brown family knew the importance of Breguet’s legacy and they continued the business honoring the original artisans for a whole century after.
Patents and key inventions
Breguet sign display on wall in center of Kuala Lumpur. Jaggat Rashidi.
Even for something as basic as the self-winding watch, Breguet has a name for it that’s their own. You can’t even find a watch today that requires manual winding but if you ever want to know how special it was back then, Breguet’s word for it was perpétuelles. Pretty special for something that’s so common now.
Over the years, especially within the first few centuries of its existence, Breguet has patented a lot of their creations and has invented so much that developed the watchmaking business. A few include the Breguet hands and the use of Arabic numerals, the tourbillon for “negating the effects of gravity”, the Subscription watch or the single-hand watch for traveling, the Breguet key for preventing the watch from going in the reverse direction, and the very first wristwatch in all of history.
Some patented inventions were the Sympathique clock, sidereal timekeeper with the ability to locate celestial objects, the moon-phase mechanism, and the tact watch. It was used for etiquette back in the day because it allowed the person to know the time by touch, which would have been rude if you’re with company, but now it’s made mainly for people with visual impairments. The Guilloche dials, a decorative engraving, is still made manually in Breguet’s workshop to this day.
The Royal and aristocratic clientele
The introduction of Abraham-Louis Breguet to the French Court became the catalyst for a lineup of aristocratic clientele and his prominence to an upper-class market. Breguet made two of the most historic watches the world will know for two Queens.
As mentioned, it was Breguet who invented the first ever wristwatch: the Breguet watch number 2639. That was made for the Queen of Naples at the time, Caroline Murat. The other was for Queen Marie Antoinette, a constant patron of Breguet’s masterpieces. It was ordered as a gift for her, but she passed on 34 years before it was finished. The Breguet No. 160 “Marie Antoinette” watch is now one of utmost importance.
Joining the Swiss Group and embracing modern styles
A century after the ownership was transferred to the Brown family, Breguet would see yet another transition to the Chaumet brothers then to Investcorp. These transitions have enabled more progress as greater financial flow made for improvements on the craft and the business. Production was stationed in Switzerland and new markets were found in Asia and North America.
The year 1999 would be the last big change of ownership the brand went through until the present as it joined the Swatch Group under Nicolas Hayek. Today, his grandson, Marc Hayek is running the business.
Until now, Breguet is creating new inventions. One of the latest is the magnetic pivot which is a “shock protection device.” Some are mainly upgrades from previous inventions, while others are reimagined for the sole purpose of better aesthetics.
Not everything about watchmaking came from Breguet. There was the balance spring and the use of the gear train system even before he started. However, most of the things we can learn about watches now, Breguet has been an inventor, creator, or at the very least, a contributor for it. You can say it’s passion, which is more easily relatable, but it’s really Breguet’s eye for aesthetics that led him to achieve and contribute so much in this craft.
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Breguet Boutique in Venetian Casino. Macau, China. withGod