A recent trip to the Breguet museum in Paris has fueled the author’s respect and passion for Breguet and its famous founder.
Known as the father of modern horology, Abraham-Louis Breguet was a genius, a visionary, and an innovator. His inventions, which include the tourbillon, repeater, “pendule sympathique,” and countless others, have made such an indelible mark in watchmaking that his legacy continues to live on today.
While I’ve known about the museum above the flagship Breguet boutique at 6 Place Vendôme for a long time, I never had a chance to pay a visit until recently. If you have plans to go, I would recommend going around 10:30 am on a Saturday morning, like I did, while Paris is still quiet.
Richard Vassor, the Breguet Museum manager, welcomed me warmly upon my arrival at the boutique and took me straight upstairs to start the tour. After about half an hour into the visit, Richard suddenly realized that, because we were so immersed in the world of Breguet, he had not offered to take my coat or provide me with refreshments.
The size and atmosphere of the museum is cozy, though it is the largest of the three Breguet museums (there is one in Zurich and one in Shanghai). After all, ever since Abraham-Louis Breguet established his business on Quai de l'Horloge, Ile de la Cité in 1775, he has stayed true to the brand’s French identity—despite the fact that he was born in Neuchâtel, which was then a Prussian principality and now part of Switzerland.
Among the many royal clients of Abraham-Louis Breguet were the famous members of the House of Bonaparte including Emperor Napoleon, Empress Joséphine, Queen Hortense, and Queen Caroline. It must be noted that the Queen of Naples, Caroline Murat (née Bonaparte), was one of Breguet’s best customers, amassing thirty-four clocks and watches. Today, Breguet has dedicated an entire collection of ladies watches to her called Reine de Naples.
In just over an hour at the museum, I discovered the detailed history of the brand, the origins of the different productions and collections, and the philosophy of Nicolas G. Hayek—the man who took over the brand in 1999 under his Swatch Group umbrella and continued to run Breguet until his death in 2010. Hayek inaugurated the museum on September 13, 2000, and filled it with historically significant Breguet timepieces he acquired from auctions with help from Emmanuel Breguet.
Emmanuel Breguet is a seventh-generation descendant of Abraham-Louis Breguet, the curator of the museum and the author of the definitive book on Breguet’s history called “Breguet: Watchmakers Since 1775.”
The first phase of the museum outlines the iconic design details that make up the unmistakable Breguet aesthetic. These include enamel dials, decorative guilloché, Breguet numerals, blue Breguet hands and more. These designs came about during a new moment in history when the extravagant and ornate Baroque movement gave way to the simpler Neoclassicism style.
The oldest identified Breguet timepiece is dated to 1782 and it is equipped with a perpetual movement, which is considered the ancestor of the modern automatic movement.
Making my way through the Breguet museum, I saw timepieces that once belonged to George Watt, (the inventor of the steam engine), and King George IV. The museum also houses two tourbillons made by Abraham-Louis Breguet himself (he made thirty-two of them during his lifetime). Remarkably, so many modern Breguet watches still draw design inspiration from the founder’s original creations.
In addition to timepieces, the museum also displays important paperwork. In the 18th and 19th centuries, every Breguet piece was made by hand, thus, each was essentially unique. Every timepiece was individually numbered and accompanied by a description, including the owner’s name. These documents have been stored in the Breguet archives since 1787, providing exceptional documentation about a significantly important time in watchmaking history.
For instance, there are documents relating to the original patents for the tourbillon and the constant force escapement. Although Abraham-Louis Breguet invented so many mechanisms, he only registered two patents because he believed in the importance of sharing his developments with other watchmakers to the benefit of the entire horology industry.
The second phase of the museum displays other marvelous pieces like a traveling clock sold to then-General Napoleon Bonaparte. It’s quickly apparent that the museum is not concerned with quantity but rather with the quality and significance of the timepieces it chooses to display.
Other notable exhibits are Abraham-Louis Breguet’s personal items, like his personal sketchbook. Another part of the museum is dedicated to the iconic Type 20 French military watches, made by the Breguet company (along with other watchmakers) according to the specifications laid out by the Ministry of War.
The museum tour wraps up with a presentation of the company’s oldest guilloché machine (dating to 1820), once used to create intricately decorated dials. Visitors can even try the guilloché machine out.
A lovely parting gift from the museum is the Breguet magazine (which you can also request online). And if you are interested in learning more about this storied brand, then I highly recommend Emmanuel Breguet’s book, "Breguet, Watchmakers Since 1775. The Life and Legacy of Abraham-Louis Breguet."
During my visit, Richard Vassor told me that it is indeed Maison Breguet’s dream that everyone comes and visits the museum. Judging by the passionate way he expressed this sentiment, I believe him. Everyone who visits the museum is given a guided tour, customized to the visitor’s particular interests. I thoroughly enjoyed Richard’s company during the tour and his willingness to share stories and anecdotes. If you have ever thought about visiting the Breguet Museum, all I can say is don’t be shy and just go—you will not regret it.
Laurent Martinez is the proprietor of Laurent Fine Watches in Greenwich, Connecticut. Read more by him at blog.laurentfinewatches.com or visit his store’s site at www.laurentfinewatches.com