Breguet: Watchmaking Excellence Personified

Close-up of Breguet dress watch
Image credit: Johnson Watch / Public domain

With timepieces that sell for five- or six-figure prices as a matter of course, Breguet (pronounced ‘breh-gay’) is a name generally spoken only by those who have well and truly passed through the rabbit-hole that is watch obsession. But while the revered luxury watchmaker might not be a household name, its many key discoveries spanning two and a half centuries have proven integral at every step to the history of horology and the evolution of the watch as we know it. 

Here are just a small handful of the watchmaking innovations Breguet can lay claim to: 

  • Self-winding watches: The novelty that first brought Breguet widespread acclaim in the late eighteenth century was the reliable and effective execution of a so-called montre perpétuelle, a self-winding watch powered simply by a bouncing weight that responded to the wearer’s ordinary movements. Breguet may not have invented the self-winding watch but can be considered the first to perfect it. 
  • Tourbillon: Breguet is credited with inventing a revolutionary regulator known as a tourbillon — a rotating carriage containing a watch’s balance spring and escapement —  which acts to counter the negative effects of gravity on timekeeping. Tourbillons enabled greater accuracy and continue to be among the most captivating and sought-after complications in a high-end watch. 
Breguet tourbillon watch
A contemporary Breguet tourbillon watch
Guy Sie / CC BY-SA 2.0
  • Gong-spring, parachute, and overcoil: Other early mechanical strides include the gong-spring, which was used in chiming watches instead of a bell, so-called ‘elastic suspension’ or ‘parachute’, a shock protection system that made pocket watches considerably less fragile, and a special type of concentric hairspring often referred to as a Breguet overcoil, which allowed for improved accuracy.
  • Blind watches and Breguet hands: In addition to all of this mechanical mastery, Breguet is further credited with a range of aesthetic developments. One of these was a special â tact pocket watch that could be used by blind owners to tell the time using touch. It proved equally useful to sighted users seeking to check the time in the dark or avoid noticeably glancing at the time in social contexts. Another dial-related novelty included Breguet hands, a term still used in watchmaking today to refer to a set of gold or blued steel hands with hollowed-out circle motifs. While these still look elegant today, they were considered all the more so at the time of their invention in the 1700s when watch hands were typically short, broad and overly decorated.
  • The first wristwatch: Breguet is also credited with creating the very first wristwatch, which was made on commission for the Queen of Naples in 1810. While the whereabouts of the original are unknown, company records show it to have been thin, oval, and attached to a wristlet of hair and gold thread. 
Close-up-of-breguet-hands
A set of Breguet hands in action
Image credit: Johnson Watch / Public domain

These and many other groundbreaking developments are all attributed to the revered founder of the company, Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823). He was born in Switzerland but moved to Paris where he founded at age 28 his eponymous company at 39 Quai de l’Horloge, in the Ile de la Cité, the watch-making quarter at the time. His ingenious self-winding watches earned him considerable fame throughout France and the rest of Europe, including in the court of Versailles. Louis XVIII even made Breguet the official chronometer maker for the French Royal Navy, a prestigious title synonymous with scientific excellence since accurate chronometers were essential for marine navigation. 

In fact, the seed of one of Breguet’s most famous achievements came from within Versailles in the form of a watch commissioned as a gift for Queen Marie Antoinette (herself such a regular Breguet customer that she even ordered a watch from him when she was in prison). The Breguet No.160 ‘Marie-Antoinette’ was made to incorporate every known complication and function of the day and took no fewer than 44 years to complete, a full 34 years after the death of its intended recipient. For all its technical, aesthetic, and historic importance, it continues to be widely regarded as perhaps the most important watch ever made.

The revolution that would spell the end for Breguet’s most famous royal customers equally drove him into exile back in his homeland of Switzerland in 1793, where he continued supplying an aristocratic clientele. Breguet was able to return to France two years later, however, where he rebuilt his business back in Quai de l’Horloge and continued to work for another three decades until his death at the age of 77. Breguet was considered during his lifetime to be among the most gifted and prodigious watchmakers in the profession. Under his guidance, the firm that bore his name produced somewhere around 17 000 timepieces (and concurrently inspired somewhere in the order of 500 fakes to be made in imitation for every one of the genuine article). 

Breguet’s patrons included some of the most famous names of the period. Apart from members of the French court, Breguet also supplied watches to the royal houses of Britain and Russia, to Napoleon and Josephine, as well as Caroline Bonaparte, one of Napoleon’s younger sisters and wife of Joachim Murat, the King of Naples, who was undoubtedbly one of Breguet’s best clients, having bought as many as 34 clocks and watches from him between 1808 up to 1814. Over time, other distinguished customers would follow, including composers like Gioachino Rossini and Sergei Rachmaninoff, politicians like the 1st Duke of Wellington and Sir Winston Churchill, and entrepreneurs like Ettore Bugatti. 

Breguet Marie Antoinette pocket watch
Тhe famous Breguet No. 160 grand complication, more commonly known as ‘The Marie-Antoinette’ or, simply, ‘The Queen’
Image credit: Michael.vainshtein / CC BY-SA 4.0

Breguet watches have also been immortalised several times in the literary canon, including in works by Stendhal, Pushkin, and Balzac. Victor Hugo refers to ‘the mighty Breguet’ in his work, Alexandre Dumas called one of his watches ‘a masterpiece’ in The Count of Monte Cristo, and Jules Verne’s Phineas Fogg took a Breguet with him when he set out to go around the world in 80 days

After Abraham-Louis Breguet died, the business passed on to his son, Antoine-Louis, who, true to his father’s spirit, maintained the business’s reputation for excellence and contributed many further horological advancements. These included the so-called sympathique clock, which allowed a pocket watch to be set and wound automatically when placed into a recess on top of a table clock, as well as the invention of the modern crown, which allows a user to both set and wind a watch using a single mechanism. Breguet’s grandson, Louis-Clément, followed in similar form by expanding the business into the development of a range scientific instruments. His work on the electric telegraph, in particular, won Louis-Clément the Legion of Honor and earned him a spot among the 72 French scientists, engineers and mathematicians whose names are inscribed around the base of the Eiffel Tower.

Abraham-Louis Breguet’s last descendant to own the company was his great-grandson, after which the business exchanged hands several times, all while managing to maintain the brand’s association with prestige and originality. Today it is owned by the Swatch Group, which acquired it back in 1999.

Incredibly, the Breguet brand still hasn’t stopped to rest on its laurels, having registered well over a hundred patents in just the last twenty years. Moreover, it continues to be every bit as sought after as when Abraham-Louis first started serving the French aristocracy, with Breguet watches regularly setting records at auction in the present day. There is a kind of poetic symmetry in the fact that the business that is Breguet should continue to be as well-functioning and long-lasting as one of the timepieces first made famous by the company’s founder two and a half centuries ago. Long may it keep on ticking. 

Breguet watch on a wrist
Image credit: Johnson Watch / Public domain