By Laurent Martinez
The wonderful thing about the love of watches and horology is that you learn something new every day. You can learn about amazing companies, industry insiders, collectors, watchmakers and watches by reading books and articles, listening to podcasts, watching YouTube videos, and of course, talking with fellow enthusiasts.
Oftentimes, you hear the same names—the famous watchmakers that have left a legacy behind or big brands that everyone wants.
However, sometimes you come across an unfamiliar name that’s worth learning about.
I was recently listening to John Reardon’s Collectability podcast, which focuses on Patek Philippe, while also reading George Daniels’ book about Abraham-Louis Breguet. As you likely already know, Breguet is recognized as one of the very best watchmakers of all time; he was also an excellent businessman who was ahead of his time.
In the book, Daniels explained that many collectors may be disappointed to learn that Breguet only built a few timepieces himself. He actually had a team of exceptional watchmakers to whom he gave a lot of freedom to develop and manufacture watches and clocks. Breguet would then inspect each piece to validate the work before sending them to clients.
A friend of mine, who is a watchmaker specializing in servicing grand complication pocket watches made by A. Lange & Söhne, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and other high horology brands, told me that he wanted to show me a watch signed “Louis Raby” and find out if I knew that name.
Who was Louis Raby?
The truth is, little is known in detail about watchmaker Louis Raby. I reached out to the archive of Napoleon III The Empereur in Compiegne, France, hoping to get some information. Unfortunately, they could not tell me anything.
His name appears in Dictionnaire des Horlogers Francais published by Tardy as “Raby – succeda a A. Benoit a Versailles.” In 1867, “il exposa une montre en aluminum” (he exhibited a watch in aluminum), which was an extremely rare and difficult metal to use and work with during the nineteen century.
Between the author G. H. Baillie (who wrote the book Watchmakers and Clockmakers Of the World), publisher Tardy, and one other spelling variation (Rabi), it can be pieced together that Louis Raby was the third or fourth generation of a watchmaking family working in Paris for approximately a century and a half.
In the book The Art of Breguet by George Daniels, he describes Louis Raby as being one of Breguet’s most talented pupils, surpassing even the Master in the execution of his own pendule sympathique. More details can be read in that book on pages 90 and 180.
After doing this research, I sensed that Louis Raby had a lot of credentials and that his work would be spectacular. My intuition was correct; when I saw the Louis Raby pocket watch in person, it was magnificent. Even my friend Don Loke, who was the former head of the technical department at Breguet, was speechless upon seeing the quality of the watch. He said it was, “one of the finest finished watches from the 1800s that I have ever seen.”
The Louis Raby piece in question is a splendid quarter repeater pocket watch with an instantaneous jump calendar with day, date, month, and moon phase. It is also the first pocket watch Don saw with a gold train through the repeating mechanism.
The level of quality and work on this 300-plus-part timepiece is outstanding. Don details the hard fire enamel white dial, followed by the blue enamel moon phase disk. In this video, Don presents the watch in detail including all parts of the movement. It is a real journey of beauty.
What makes these timepieces so valuable is a compilation of many things, but mostly name (provenance), complication, dial, screws, and quality. This was probably a pocket watch commissioned by the Emperor since the quality of the work is so remarkable. Don shares how he services a watch and the process he follows. It is a work of art. In the video he shows us how to put back the dial and hands – and the meticulous work it takes to do it.
I invite you to watch the video to not only discover this astonishing piece but also find how a watchmaker services a timepiece by walking us through the complexity and precision of timepieces. The video ends with the presentation of his next project and introduces us to his watch collection called D Loke, which includes his double escapement patent.