A little bit of Breguet in my life…

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Written for Shawati. Image gratuitously nicked off Google. 

There are times when an author, embellishing his character with the very last details of attire and circumstance, takes recourse to singularly recognisable props. In modern fiction, the Ferrari heralds the ostentatious playboy, an Aston Martin the refined older gentleman, and the Audi R8 a young millionaire wanting refined thrills. Horological instruments, of course, remain a crucial prop to pin onto characters.

Take for example a line by French author Alexandre Dumas in his masterful novel “The Count of Monte Cristo”. “Danglars’ watch, a masterpiece by Breguet which he had rewound with care before setting out the previous day, chimed half past five in the morning. ”

Even out of context, that sentence compels the reader to make deductions – that Danglars enjoys the finer things in life, has taught himself refined if not extravagant tastes, and seems to value punctuality. In this surmise, the reader may eventually be proved correct – for Danglars is a millionaire banker who has made a fortune through illegal transactions in the French army. Putting aside his initial perfidy in framing the novel’s protagonist as a Napoleonite, or the shady ways in which he sought his gains, Dumas has managed to express much about his villain by making reference to that bastion of horological tradition – Breguet.

The story of the house of Breguet starts with one man - A.-L. Breguet. Born in Neuchâtel in 1747, but based in Paris, his career as watchmaker is marked with repeated breakthroughs in the art of horology. His inventions were as decisive to horology as they were varied. His career started with a series of breakthroughs: the development of the successful self-winding perpétuelle watches, the introduction of gongs for repeating watches and the first shock-protection for balance pivots. His work with escapements also resulted in the eponymous Breguet spring, an overcoil that rectified some of the deficiencies in the springs used at the time.

There is no argument over Breguet’s seminal influence on watchmaking. But serious followers of the horological arts have often given thought to whether Breguet really invented all that is often credited to him. For instance, popular culture has him invent the balance spring – but the technology was in use when he started working on watches.

The confusion in attributions arises not from some artifice, or clever marketing. It stems from the basic fact that the advancement of machinery and technology is usually never as simple as history books might narrate. James Watt may be credited with the steam engine, but he did not wink it into existence. A host of artisans and technology enthusiasts were simultaneously working on the technology. However, Watt did offer improvements to the technology in ways that rendered the engine effective and useful, where prior it had perhaps been an inefficient curio. While he may not have invented the technology, he had certainly nurtured it to the point that offered useful economic and social contributions.

So it was with A.-L. Breguet. Heavy disks in timepieces were replaced with hollowed out masses, bridges were constructed, and springs were created so as to have consistent centres of gravity. He might not have invented the basics of watchmaking technology, but perfect it he certainly did. He was a genius, and one of the pioneers of very high quality watchmaking with mechanics that would not be out of place in the masterpieces of today.

It was A.-L. Breguet who invented the tourbillion, a horological complication that has since become the calling card of masterful watchmaking. A tourbillion is essentially a watch mechanism within a watch mechanism, with a balance and escapement enclosed in a revolving cage. The inspiration behind it was Breguet’s concern that changes in gravitational force due to the inclination of the watch – from horizontal to vertical – would result in inaccuracies. In his patent application, he noted, “By means of this invention, I have succeeded in cancelling through compensation the anomalies caused by the different positions of the centres of gravity of the regulator movements, to distribute frictions on all parts of the circumference of this regulator's pivots and of the holes in which these pivots move.” The idea was to average out deviations caused by differences in position to allow for chronometer-like accuracy.

Whether a tourbillion is strictly useful is an interesting if distracting argument in modern horology. The concept was sound, except that for wrists watches the movement of the wearer’s hand averages out deviations in position regardless. The tourbillion was perhaps of greater use for pocket watches, held vertically in a jacket or waistcoat for elongated periods of time. Nevertheless, the original raison de etre for the tourbillion is a moot point. Modern materials and techniques might have lessened its mathematical significance, but even in the era of machine design, it is one of the most delicate and precise complications to successfully implement and remains revered for its beauty and complexity.

Every master craftsman leaves signature traits on his work. So it was with A.-L. Breguet. His creations, and those of the house he inspired, can be told apart via characteristics such as delicate guilloché work, blued-steel hollowed out apple-tip watch hands introduced in 1783, and fluting on the caseband.

Breguet’s masterful designs and engineering were quickly embraced by the nobility of the time, and also became ingrained in the aspirations of the bourgeoisie. In April 1798, a few weeks before he left for Egypt, General Bonaparte acquired three timepieces from Breguet: a repeating watch, a repeating carriage clock with a calendar, and a self-winding perpétuelle repeating watch. The future emperor’s family also became Breguet’s clients. Queen Marie-Antoinette was also given a self-winding perpétuelle repeater with a date indication invented, perfected and completed by Breguet for her in October 1782.

In more recent history, Sir Winston Churchill was a regular client at Breguet, sometimes to buy a watch, but more often to have the watch he wore all his life attended to. His watch, Breguet number 765, an exceptional minute-repeater with split-seconds chronograph, was bought by his grandfather, the Duke of Marlborough, in 1890. King Fuad I of Egypt, Arthur Rubinstein Ettore Bugatti, Sergei Rachmaninov, Prince George of Greece (1934) and The Duke of Windsor (1950) have offered the house of Breguet their custom.

There is no denying the provenance of the house of Breguet, or its influence in the world of horology. But purists cast an alarmed glance at the house’s buyout by the Swatch Group – a brand that was once best known for playful watches with Disney characters. Horologists have a penchant for independent watchmaking houses, and were concerned that involvement from the corporate world would dilute the Breguet line.

They need not have worried. The connoisseur gossip lines indicate that two houses under the Swatch umbrella – Breguet and Glashütte Original - have retained the expressive freedom through fine watchmaking that is a hallmark of independent houses.

In fact, Swatch is very keen to dispel notions that the Group is interfering in Breguet’s legacy since the house became part of the Group in September 1999 under the watchful eye of Swiss-Lebanese-American entrepreneur and Swatch Group founder Nicolas G. Hayek. On the contrary, says Swatch, efforts are being made to expand the house’s operations through substantial investment.

Swatch’s spokespeople note that, “The Swatch Group has confirmed its intention of endowing Breguet with an emotional dimension as well as making available even more considerable means and resources.” They point to the fact that substantial investments have been made in the Vallée de Joux, where the manufacturing facility is based, not only to maintain Breguet’s tradition of simplicity and high technology, but also extend it. The new Manufacture Breguet opened in 2003, and a first extension of the building was made in 2006.

Simultaneously, the Swatch group says that it has made investing in equipment, sophisticated machine tools and the recruitment of highly trained watchmakers a priority to cope with steadily growing demand. New infrastructure and sophisticated machine tools coupled with the recruitment of highly trained and experienced watchmakers enables Breguet to cope with steadily growing demand. Swatch has launched another manufacturing extension project expected to complete in 2013.  

The contemporary line of Breguet watches diverge in form and function while paying homage to traditional design cues. The Classique wristwatches, for instance, exemplify the watchmaking ideals of precision, clarity and elegant lines. Whether extra-thin models with manually wound or automatic movements, or complicated watches, they are perhaps closest to the technical principles, artistry and traditional values of the classic Breguet watch of old.

The Marine line of watches tend to embrace comfort and practicality, and take cues from A.-L. Breguet’s role as chronometer maker to the French navy,  while the Type XX borrow cues from the 1950s models designed for the French naval air arm. While interesting, these models seem to want to appeal more to the laid-back executive indulging his sporty, man of action side. Sporty watches have risen in popularity over the years, and Breguet is catering to the market. Then there are the Héritage models, which  depart from Breguet’s classic round cases in favour of curved tonneau ones. Breguet also carries the Reine De Naples line for women, paying tribute to prominent female figures in history that have offered the house patronage – Queen Marie-Antoinette of France, the Marquise de Condorcet and Empress Josephine among them.

The Tradition line consists of Breguet’s more upmarket offerings, melding traditional design cues with horological complications that salute A.-L. Breguet’s mechanical precision and innovations.

Though times do change, and with it the mores of design and technology, Breguet under the Swatch Group has maintained more than enough of the semiotics and hallmarks of its designer, inventor and founder to keep its timepieces authentic, and even sublime.