For watch enthusiasts, Abraham-Louis Breguet’s meticulous records are a gift that keeps on giving. iW recently explored them during a visit to the Breguet Museum at Place Vendôme.
Barely suppressing his glee, Emmanuel Breguet slowly pulls open a drawer underneath a showcase on the second floor of the Breguet Boutique in Place Vendôme. Open inside the drawer are pages from the personal notebook of his forebear, famed watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet. Visible are statistics, rough architectural blueprints, scientific notations and even a cross section of a pocket watch movement.
Breguet, a seventh-generation descendent of the famed watchmaker whose last name he shares, is a Sorbonne-trained historian who began studying his family’s history in depth when he started with Montres Breguet in 1993 when it was still owned by a Middle East-based financial company. Currently head of patrimony and strategic development for Breguet, his knowledge arrives from far more than family lore, however. Much of his insight stems from poring over the sales records kept by Abraham-Louis Breguet and his company. The sales ledgers, stored in a custom-made vault, give Breguet access to the dates and the original owners of every timepiece made by the company.
Breguet’s Place Vendôme historic collection, which opened in 2000, is the largest of three Breguet museums worldwide. As curator of all three collections, Emmanuel Breguet has not only researched his family’s history, but he has methodically searched the globe for original Breguet creations, purchasing hundreds of Breguet automatic watches, souscription sets, tact watches, simple or repeating watches, and some of the world’s oldest keyless watches, travel clocks, marine chronometers and newer Breguet military watches.
Many of those purchases are now among the 100 or so pocket watches and clocks on display at the Paris location. All are true historical treasures that can be considered a record of the birth of modern horology. A visit here will certainly thrill anyone with even the slightest interest in the origins and development of chronographs, automatic movements, travel clocks, tourbillons, minute repeaters, and power reserve indicators—all aspects of modern watchmaking that Breguet influenced or invented.
As noted, much of what Breguet has learned about his family business he has gleaned from the extensive set of archives
During a recent tour of the Paris museum with Mr. Breguet, he retrieved several original leather-bound volumes from the walk-in vault. As Emmanuel turned the pages, I gasped several times. There, recorded in ink and by quill, are sales orders from historical figures like Marie-Antoinette, Napoleon Bonaparte, the Duke of Wellington and Tsar Alexander I of Russia.
One of the most famous entries is for repeating watch No. 179, requested by Marie Antoinette from her prison cell in 1792. It was delivered in September that year and said to have been the watch the French royal family marked their final days.
Emmanuel Breguet’s role at his namesake company expanded considerably after the Swatch Group purchased Breguet in 1999. Legendary Swatch Group CEO Nicolas Hayek loved the brand and asked Breguet to continue to research his family’s history. Breguet then updated his 1997 book, “Breguet, Watchmakers Since 1775,” in 2001 and again in early 2017. With each new edition he added new details about Breguet’s inventions and with seemingly forgotten information about individual watches.
Breguet notably discovered during his research that Abraham-Louis Breguet made what the brand deems the first wristwatch (a small quarter repeater with thermometer, watch number 2639). It was delivered in 1812 the Caroline Murat, the younger sister of Napoleon I and the Queen of Naples.
In his book, Breguet explains that the piece required two-and-a-half years to make and “was of revolutionary construction and unprecedented sophistication, consisting of a repeating watch with the additional refinements, oblong and exceptionally slender, with a wristlet made of hair intertwined with gold thread. Did anyone in Quai de l’Horloge workshops suspect the future of that late in store for the wristwatch? Almost certainly not.”
One possible reason for the delay in recognizing that the piece was designed for a wristlet is that the watch itself is still in private hands and hasn’t been seen publically for many years.
Murat was an extremely influential Breguet client, and would purchase thirty-four timepieces from him over the next decade.
Breguet has also confirmed that Antoine, son of Abraham-Louis Breguet, devised the modern winding crown in 1830, though the invention was not patented, and was instead patented a decade later by someone else.
The Breguet Museum in Paris is located at 6 Place Vendôme and is open each weekday from 10:30 am to 6:30 pm. Additional museums are located in Zurich (on Bahnhofstrasse 31) and at the Breguet boutique at the Langham Hotel in Shanghai.
Breguet, Aviation…and Cars
Soon to be on display at one of the three Breguet Museums is this 1967 Type XX, purchased by Breguet from the same October Phillips auction in New York that made headlines with a record-breaking 'Paul Newman' Rolex sale. The chronograph is a reminder of Breguet’s deep involvement in the field of aviation. In 1907 Louis Breguet, A.L. Breguet's great-great grandson, made a name for himself in aviation with several notable inventions, including the gyroplane, the ancestor of the helicopter, and the two-seater Breguet XIV plane. The Breguet watch firm then developed chronograph mechanisms fitted on aircraft cockpits and began producing watches for aviators. (Of the latter variety, the watch pictured here In 1971 Breguet Aviation merged with Dassault to form Avions Marcel Dassault-Breguet Aviation.)
During WWII, Breguet was sidelined from building airplanes by the Nazi-controlled government. So, it made automobiles, including the Type A2 Electrique. Of the two hundred manufactured, only a few still exist, including this one seen in a Dutch museum, and three others owned by the Breguet family.