Biography of a visionary artist: Abraham-Louis Breguet, horologist and inventor

By Breguet Blog
July 20th, 2018


IT may sound unconventional to call Abraham-Louis (A.-L.) Breguet (fig. 1) a start-up but that is precisely what he was.

Breguet’s subject of choice was closely aligned with the spirit of the industrial revolution focusing on clock and watchmaking. But before Breguet could establish himself and his workshop, a seismic shift in conventions and the social contract was underway in France. As befits a young pioneer and entrepreneur in the making, Breguet lived through tumultuous times spanning an intense and bloody period of French history: The Treaty of Versailles (1768); the French Revolution (1789-99); the birth of the National Convention (1792); as well as the execution of King of France, Louis XVI and Queen of France, Marie-Antoinette, not forgetting the rise and fall of Napoléon Bonaparte which followed. As will be shown later, Breguet was affected by these events and forced to flee his adopted country at the height of the terror.

fig. 1 Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823), ca. 1800. Unknown artist. Private collection.

Although known the world over as a Parisian watchmaker, Breguet was born in Neuchâtel, then a Prussian principality and now Switzerland, on 10th January 1747, to Jonas-Louis Breguet (†1758) and Suzanne-Marguerite Bollein. The family were protestants and one of A.-L. Breguet’s famous ancestors was the Swiss, Jean Breguet (†1593), a Swiss protestant pastor in Neuchâtel. It is likely that they were refugees from France following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 to end the Wars of Religion, issued by Henry IV in 1598. Yet it is France that would become Breguet’s adopted country and the base for his future success.

Breguet’s father died when he was only ten years of age and his formal schooling ended two years later. His mother, who was young, remarried almost immediately to her husband’s cousin, Joseph Tattet, who came from a family of watchmakers with a showroom in Paris. In 1762, Tattet took the 15-year old Breguet to Paris where he was apprenticed to a watchmaker at Versailles although the name of his master is unknown. At the same time, Breguet studied mathematics at the Collège Mazarin under Abbé Marie. Marie acted not only as a mentor to the promising young man but, in his capacity as tutor to the children of the Comte d’Artois, was able to arrange Breguet’s first introduction to the court of King Louis XVI along with the aristocratic and wealthy families who would later become his clientele.

Tragically, it is said that Abbé Marie died under strange circumstances either by murder or suicide and shortly thereafter Breguet also lost his mother and step-father. For the first time, Breguet was alone in the world to fend for himself and his younger sister whilst attempting to establish his fledgling new firm in Paris around 1769. How he managed to do this is lost to history.

In 1775, after completing his apprenticeship, he married Cécile Marie-Louise L’Huillier who was the daughter of an established bourgeois, Parisian family – her brother served as a steward to the Marquis du Breuil (and later a business agent to the Comte d’Artois). Cécile’s dowry undoubtedly served as the means for establishing his business and the young couple was soon renting part of a house from the Duchess de Polignac at their first known address, 51 Quai de l’Horloge, in the Ile de la Cité (fig. 2: this became 79 Quai de l’Horloge du Palais by about 1812 and by the 1920s it was 39, perhaps a change of number and name, not of actual residence). With his firm established that same year, Breguet quietly began a career that would eventually propel him into the ranks of the great artists of the Renaissance. The contacts he established through his relationship with Abbé Marie were to set him on his path towards high horology.1

One of his first important commissions came from the Duc d’Orleans in 1780, for a sophisticated self-winding perpétuelle watch. Breguet’s most famous and enduring commission followed shortly thereafter: The legendary Watch No. 160, the result of a gift order shrouded in great secrecy for Marie-Antoinette. The identity of its commissioner, who expressly requested that no expense be spared to fashion the ‘most spectacular watch possible’ containing every known function of the day, remains a mystery. Some say it was her friend and reputed lover, Count Axel von Fersen. Tragically, Marie-Antoinette would not live to receive her now famous pocket watch as Watch No. 160 was not completed until 1827, thirty-four years after her execution and four years after Breguet’s death. The watch is colloquially referred to as the “Marie-Antoinette” or simply the “Queen” and was later the victim of a spectacular museum heist, which is a story worthy of its own article.

It is probable that Breguet worked largely on his own during these early years and very few completed watches survive from this period. (Remarkably, the “Queen”, however, has survived to this day.) Interestingly, Breguet arranged a partnership with Xavier Gide, an established dealer in clocks and watches, quite possibly for the purposes of expansion although the partnership was dissolved in 1791. The greatest legacy from this arrangement was the meticulous records kept by the firm, since the first year of their association. A practice that continues to this day.

An interesting post-script to the Breguet-Gide partnership is that circa 1792, the Duc d’Orleans travelled to England where he met the prominent Mr. John Arnold, of Arnold & Son fame – joint inventor of the chronometer and Europe’s leading clock and watchmaker. The Duc d’Orleans showed a clock fashioned by Breguet to Arnold who was so impressed that he immediately took a passage to Paris and asked Breguet to accept his son, John Roger, as an apprentice. So great was the mutual admiration and respect between these two giants of horology that Breguet had previously sent his own son, Antoine-Louis (born 1776), to study under Arnold.2

The early rise to fame of Breguet, however, was punctuated by a great civic unrest leading to the French Revolution, which began with the storming of the Bastille on 14th July, 1789. Breguet, by this time, had become friendly with members of the aristocracy as well as high profile politicians such as revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat. Initially a Jacobin, Breguet’s associations with the upper echelon of society increasingly exposed him to danger. His son, Antoine-Louis, living in London, wrote home to him in August 1792, expressing his fears for his father’s safety and desperately urging him to “leave those damned Jacobins”.

A most fascinating tale told from this time is that, one day, Breguet and Marat were visiting the rooms of a friend, when a crowd gathered outside and began chanting “Down with Marat!” Breguet, ever the problem solver, proceeded to dress Marat as an old woman and both parties were able to escape the angry crowd unmolested. Marat later discovered that Breguet was marked for the guillotine, possibly because of his friendship with Abbé Marie or his association with the royal court and remembering this “good turn”, he arranged for safe passage to Geneva in 1793. From Switzerland, Breguet would travel to England where he remained for two years and worked for King George III. The King, like many patrons, was highly interested in mechanics and his gracious patronage was no doubt deeply appreciated by Breguet.

While the events of the French Revolution were barbaric and tragic for many, history is fortunate to record that Breguet’s exile coincided with its worst excesses. The execution of Louis XVI on 21st January 1793, saw the beginning of 14 months of administrative and political purges commonly known as the “Reign of Terror”. The bloodbath continued to escalate and on 16th October 1793, former Queen of France, Marie-Antoinette, was also executed by guillotine. (Her last Breguet watch, a simple model, was delivered to her in prison and rumour has it that she climbed the scaffold with it in her hand.)

Although the revolutionary turmoil was far from over, Breguet returned to Paris in 1795. The business had suffered noticeable in the master’s absence with the premises and tools being confiscated, however, Breguet was already bursting with a vast range of new ideas for many innovations in clock and watchmaking. Resuming his business from the premises in Quai de l’Horloge, he quickly established a reputation among the new wealthy class of Generals, politicians and their families who rose to prominence under Napoleon.

Breguet sought out the finest watchmakers in Paris and employed them to manufacture clocks and watches to his own designs at his workshop. This was the beginning of the foundation upon which Breguet’s eternal reputation would be built. Innovations poured out from Breguet’s mind onto the workbench including the Breguet balance spring, his first carriage clock (sold to Bonaparte), the sympathique clock and its dependent watch, the montre à tact, and finally the tourbillon, patented in 1801.

Around 1807 Breguet took his son Antoine-Louis into full partnership and the name of the firm was changed from “Breguet” to “Breguet et Fils”. The commercial aspects of the business were run by Suzanne l’Huillier, Breguet’s sister-in-law, his wife having died long before in 1780. Sometime after the partnership between father and son, Breguet met watchmaker, Louis Moinet, and seeing Moinet’s worth, the two men worked closely together with Moinet becoming Breguet’s personal adviser from around 1811.3

fig. 2 A.-L. Breguet sets up his own business on
Quai de l’Horloge, Ile de la Cité in Paris in 1775.

More fruitful periods followed and by 1812, Breguet delivered a model to Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples, that proved an unprecedented watershed: the first wristwatch.

The distinct oval shape of the Reine de Naples Collection is no accident; its ancestry is assured and a description from the firm’s archives reads: “oblong-shaped minute repeater watch (…), the said watch being fitted with a wristlet made of hair intertwined with gold thread”.

During the last ten to fifteen years of Breguet’s life, the firm reached a high point in its commercial success, with commissions coming from London to Madrid and Constantinople to Moscow. The wars of Europe had actually benefitted the firm as word of mouth became widespread: Ambassadors, aristocrats, diplomats and royal families all sought out creations by Breguet. By 1823, the firm’s assets were valued in the region of Fr. 800,000, of which just over half was listed as work in progress.

Breguet was praised and recognised for both his aesthetic and scientific achievements in horology. He was appointed to the French Board of Longitude in 1814 and on 27th October 1815, Chronometer-Maker to the French Royal Navy by the King of France, Louis XVIII who was in and out of exile because of Napoleon. The King had previously conferred upon Breguet the title of Horloger de la Marine. Breguet was elected to the Académie Royale des Sciences in 1816 and received the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur from the hands of The King in 1819.

Abraham-Louis Breguet died suddenly on 17th September 1823. It is said that François Arago, the famous French polymath and politician, gave the funeral oration, together with other noteworthy speakers, and that Népomucène Le Mercier composed some verses in Breguet’s memory.4

Breguet is laid to rest at Père Lachaise Cemetery in the 20th arrondissement of Paris and the original premises for the Breguet workshops remain on Quai de l’Horloge in Paris, however, the space has since been broken up into galleries, private homes, and shops – though it is owned by a distant arm of the Breguet family.

It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that this modest, quiet genius was probably the greatest horologist of all time. Breguet’s name is one of the 72 names inscribed on the Eiffel Tower. His creations stand alone as having harnessed, seemingly with ease, the marvels of the mechanical age, merging these with new innovations and his unique aesthetic sensibilities. The works of Breguet and Breguet et Fils are timeless and remain effortlessly vibrant, and can perhaps be said to evoke immortality. No other watchmaker has left an imprint of such profound breadth and depth on the subject, yet Breguet himself is not known to have published a single word during his lifetime.

A.-L. Breguet’s son Antoine-Louis retired in 1833 but lived until 1858. He died at Buisson, near Mennecy. His son Louis Clément François, who was born in 1804 and died in Paris in October 1883, succeeded him. He in turn had a son named Louis Antoine, born in Paris in 1851 and died there in 1882. Here the line of succession ends, for although Louis Antoine left a widow, two sons and a daughter, none of them entered the firm.5

As the last successor, Louis Antoine looked for a suitable person to take over stewardship of the firm. He found a first-class engineer in Clerkenwell, North London, named Edward Brown, who subsequently came to Paris to oversee the manufacture from 1870 onwards. In time, he became a partner and later, after Louis Antoine’s passing, the owner and Head of Breguet.

Breguet in the 20th and 21st Centuries

With the passing of Louis Antoine, the original era of family ownership ended and gradually a new one began although it would take many decades for the firm to reemerge from obscurity to prominence. For much of the 20th Century, Breguet remained a small Parisian boutique owned by the Brown family and their descendants. Production was low with only a few hundred pieces a year.

Edward Brown died, aged 66, in 1895, and was succeeded by his sons Edouard, who ran the business until 1912, and Henry, who took over until 1927. In that year, Henry’s son, Georges Brown, who had graduated from the watchmaking school at Cluses, became the new Head of Breguet and sole proprietor.

Technological advances changed the watchmaking landscape significantly when the Quartz revolution became a serious threat to the mechanical watch industry. In Switzerland, Max Hetzel achieved the first milestone by inventing the first electronic oscillator designed to fit into a wristwatch for Bulova. This watch – the Accutron – was launched in 1960.

In 1970 the Brown family sold the Breguet firm to Jacques and Pierre Chaumet who are singularly remembered for plowing their company headlong into bankruptcy in 1987. Nevertheless, their period of ownership of Breguet was a fruitful one: The Chaumet brothers transferred the workshops from Paris to the Vallée de Joux, Switzerland, the home of Swiss horology. This move yielded a magnificent rebirth of the firm after the brothers hired François Bodet, a Maison Chaumet executive, who renewed the firm and positioned Breguet within high-end watchmaking. Bodet, in turn, recruited a young Daniel Roth, whose influence upon the manufacture has proved incalculable. Monsieur Roth spent fifteen happy years with Breguet as lead designer and his signature designs, including slim, ornate cases, elegant lugs and the legendary coin edging, have left an indelible mark on the company and remain a hallmark of Breguet’s wristwatches to this day.

The spectacular bankruptcy caused by the Chaumet brothers led them to sell Breguet to the international investment firm Investcorp that same year, a leading Bahrain-based investment bank that also once owned Tiffany & Co. and Vacheron Constantin. With his patrons gone, Daniel Roth struck out on his own and started Daniel Roth SA in 1989, while Breguet continued to operate and manufacture watches and clocks under the Investcorp umbrella.

The Investcorp years also bore fruit for the firm as it acquired Valdar SA in 1991, a Swiss manufacturer and supplier of micro-mechanical components for the watch and clock industry, and also movement maker, Nouvelle Lémania SA, in 1992. Breguet, Lémania, and Valdar were subsequently united into the “Groupe Horloger Breguet” (G.H.B.). At the time, Lémania supplied Breguet with only a small portion of its movements (9%), while the rest were provided by Jaeger-LeCoultre and Frederic Piguet. As Lémania began to lose money the Breguet atelier was transferred in 1994 to the village of L’Abbaye, Switzerland. Breguet’s annual production grew to over 4,000 pieces in 1995, and in 1997 the company transferred its watchmakers and additional watch production over to Lémania. It is worth noting that Lémania also provided movements and complications to clients such as Omega and Patek Philippe.

The Groupe Horloger Breguet fought declining profits and after many years of hard work returned to profitability around 1998. Investcorp was able to extract a profit when G.H.B. was sold to the Swatch Group in 1999, in an important acquisition personally overseen by Mr. Nicolas G. Hayek, president of the Swatch Group and became known as Montres Breguet SA. Hayek took a deep personal interest in the company and went on to build a formidable Research & Development department at Montres Breguet that would go on to register in excess of 120 patents since 2002. This incredibly vibrant period included a major breakthrough in horological technology with the introduction of various movement parts in silicon, including the escape wheel and lever, in 2006, and the magnetic pivot and magnetic strike governor in 2010.

Nicolas Hayek also fostered the creation of The Breguet Museum, which was inaugurated 13th September 2000 and is located on the first floor of the Breguet Boutique at Place Vendôme in Paris. It is headed by Emmanuel Breguet, the seventh-generation direct descendant of Abraham-Louis. The Museum is home to the famous Breguet archives, numerous drawings, production registers, letters and technical annotations, as well as a growing collection of rare and unique clocks and watches, many of which have been added to the collection by the Swatch Group. In fact, some 70 pieces, approximately one third of the historical pieces owned by Montres Breguet can be viewed at the museum.

It is both fair and necessary to say Nicolas G. Hayek was not only the saviour of the Swiss watch industry with the invention of the Swatch watch in 1983 but that he also ushered in a second golden era at Breguet after the important contribution made by Daniel Roth’s tenure in the 70s and 80s. Breguet owes its entire modern incarnation and technological vibrancy to the drive, unwavering passion and vision of Mr. Nicolas G. Hayek and his work continues to this day under the watchful eye and stewardship of his grandson, Marc A. Hayek.

Legacy

A.-L. Breguet was universally acknowledged as a revolutionary in horology and many of his creations have survived and are preserved in public or private collections around the world. These include the Louvre and Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris; the Kremlin in Moscow; the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg; the Château de Prangins in Switzerland; the Musée international d’horlogerie in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland; the Frick Collection in New York; the Casa-Museu Fundação Medeiros e Almeida in Lisbon, Portugal; the Royal Collection and the British Museum in London; and the L.A. Mayer Museum in Jerusalem and, as previously mentioned, The Breguet Museum, 6 Place Vendôme in Paris, France.

An especially nice touch is that the city of Paris named a street after Breguet near La Place de la Bastille where the Bastille prison once stood. Rue Bréguet also houses the five-star hotel and restaurant, La Maison Breguet, located at number 8.6

In a similar gesture in 2006, Nicolas G. Hayek together with Maison Breguet spearheaded and financed a complete restoration of Château du Petit Trianon, a small château located within the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. Louis XVI gave the château and its surrounding park to Queen Marie-Antoinette for her exclusive use and enjoyment upon his succession to the throne in 1774. It is quite fitting that one of Breguet’s first clients has been honoured in this way. The château’s gardens and park, designed by architect, Ange-Jacques Gabriel, with its intimate and refined splendour, are now open to the public.

La Maison Breguet is also proud to have Emmanuel Breguet as its official curator, historian and record keeper. Emmanuel is the seventh-generation descendant of A.-L. Breguet. A historian by trade and training, who has authored various books on A.-L. and on watchmaking throughout the years.

Today, the creations and patents wrought by its founder, Abraham-Louis Breguet, have neither dated nor withered but instead the manufacture continues to evolve as it seeks to innovate and excite with new collections that would surely have made its founder proud.

Notes

1 An important compilation and contribution to horological scholarship, Britten’s Old Clocks and Watches and their Makers Seventh Edition (first published as Former Clock and Watchmakers and Their Work, 1894), contains the following supplementary information [p. 293]:

“Breguet later visited England where he was kindly received and lodged with the jewellers John Duval & Son. He returned to France in 1795. His workshop was at 51, Qui de l’Horloge, of which the number was changed in 1812 to 79. The firm also had a shop at 4, Place de la Bourse, later moved to the Rue de la Paix and again to 2, Rue Edouard VII and finally to 28, Place Vendôme, where the business is still conducted.”

The reader will note that nowadays the Paris boutique of Breguet is located at 6, Place Vendôme, 75001, Paris.

2 The reader might enjoy the following extract from Sir David Salomons’ seminal cataloguing work, Breguet. (1747-1823.) [p. 10] sourced from Britten’s Old Clocks and Watches and their Makers Seventh Edition:

“The following pretty fact is recorded in Mr. Britten’s book on “Old Clocks and their Makers”:—Breguet invented the Tourbillon and John Arnold invented the chronometer escapement at the same time as did Thomas Earnshaw in England. Breguet gave Arnold’s son a silver watch by John Arnold to which Breguet had added his famous Tourbillon. This watch bears the following inscription on part of the works:—“Premier régulateur à Tourbillon de Breguet réuni à un des premier ouvrages d’Arnold. Homage de Breguet à la mémoire révérée d’Arnold offert a son fils. An 1808.” The workmanship is first class. The watch belonged to Mr. Hurcomb, who may still possess it.”

3 With regard to Moinet, Britten’s Old Clocks and Watches and their Makers Seventh Edition relates the following interesting facts [p. 294]:

“Breguet left no writings though he was long known to have been collecting material for a magnum opus. At the time of his death he had confided these to Moinet, his secretary, for arrangement, after which no more was seen of them until 1848, when Moinet published an important horological work under his own name. It was recognised that this was based largely on Breguet’s notes and on application by the Breguets to the Courts the notes were returned and still belong to the firm.”

4 Breguet left behind a rich legacy and tutored a number of pupils, a fact not always known or forgotten with time. Britten’s Old Clocks and Watches and their Makers Seventh Edition summarises as follows [p. 294]:

“Breguet had a world-wide reputation and clientèle in his life-time and exerted a tremendous influence on watchmaking throughout Europe. He had many famous pupils of whom the Dane Urban Jurgensen (1776-1830) was probably the most eminent. Several of these afterwards set up on their own, often producing watches almost or quite equal in merit to those of Breguet himself. These they were proud to sign with their own name coupled with the words élève de Breguet. Prominent among the élèves were Ingold, Kessels, Jurgensen, Winnerl, Oudin, Jacob, Firche, Laissieur, Fatton, Lopin and Renevier.”

5 Louis Antoine had two sons, Louis Charles and Jacques Breguet. Louis was born on 2nd January 1880 in Paris. He was the grandson of Louis-Francois-Clement Breguet, and great-great-grandson of the famous horologist A.-L. Breguet. A French aircraft designer and builder, Louis was one of the early aviation pioneers.

In 1902, Louis married Nelly Girardet, the daughter of painter Eugène Girardet. They had five children. In 1903, he graduated from École supérieure d’électricité and in 1905, with his brother Jacques, under the guidance of Charles Richet, began work on a gyroplane.

Louis built his first fixed-wing aircraft, the Breguet Type 1, in 1909, flying it successfully before crashing it at the Grande Semaine d’Aviation held at Reims. In 1911, he founded the Société anonyme des ateliers d’aviation Louis Breguet and in 1912, constructed his first hydroplane.

Louis Breguet was known for his development of reconnaissance aircraft used by the French in World War I and also a pioneer of metal aircraft – the Breguet 14, single-engined, day bomber, a popular warplane with a largely aluminium frame; his Breguet-XIX was especially noteworthy.

In 1919, he founded the Compagnie des messageries aériennes, which evolved into Air France and in 1927, a Breguet plane made the first nonstop crossing of the South Atlantic, followed in 1933 by the longest flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

Louis Breguet continued to work on his planes during the 1930s, setting various records before serving as a manufacturer of aircraft during World War II. Later, Louis developed commercial transport and the equation, for determining aircraft range, which is also named after A.-L. Breguet.

If that wasn’t enough, Louis Breguet won a bronze medal in sailing during the 1924 Summer Olympics as helmsman of his 8 metre yacht Namousa. He died of a heart attack on 4th May 1955 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France.

6 Sir David Salomons, in his catalogue, Breguet. (1747-1823.) [p. 71], recounts a particularly amusing set of circumstances surrounding the dedication of this street name:

“Breguet always spelt his name with no accent on either of the “e’s,” and most forgeries are known by the fact that “Breguet” is spelt upon them “Bréguet,” though it occasionally occurs in watches which are genuine that an engraver has made the error to accent the first “e.”.

Close to the Quai de l’Horloge, where Breguet lived, there is a street named after him, “Rue de Bréguet,” with the accent in the name. The Académie Française has decided that this is correct. Consequently, it must be concluded that Breguet did not know how to spell his name, such is the grandmotherly care of the French Government! The question arises: Did Breguet know how to spell his name or not? Here is the trouble of the French language.

For other examples: The French Academy has settled that “automobile” is masculine, that is “un automobile”; the people always say “une automobile,” i.e., feminine. The Academy say this is also right, for the word “voiture” feminine is understood, that is “une voiture automobile.” Hence this august body blows hot and cold! Again, “Enfant” may be masculine or feminine, according as the child is male or female, but “Bébé” must remain masculine, even when a girl! I could give dozens of such instances. Result: Since Breguet spelt his name as he did, and he was certainly intelligent, I have followed his way of spelling in defiance of the Academy!”

Bibliography

BAILLIE, G. H., CLUTTON, C., and ILBERT, C. A., Britten’s Old Clocks and Watches and their Makers Seventh Edition, London: Eyre & Spottiswoode Ltd (1969). ISBN 413 27390 3.

BREGUET, Emmanuel, Breguet: Art and Innovation in Watchmaking, USA: Prestel (2015). ISBN 978-3791354675.

BREGUET, Emmanuel, Breguet: Watchmakers since 1775, The life and legacy of Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823), China: Swan éditeur (2016). ISBN 978-2-9536796-8-7.

DANIELS, George, The Art of Breguet, Switzerland: Sotheby’s Publications (1986). ISBN 0-85667-004-9.

HABSBURG Antiquorum, THE ART OF BREGUET: An Important Collection of 204 Watches, Clocks and Wristwatches, GENEVA, HOTEL DES BERGUES, SUNDAY 14 APRIL 1991, Switzerland: Schudeldruck, 4125 Riehen (1991). ISBN 3-85895-911-1.

SALOMONS, Sir David Lionel, Breguet. (1747-1823.), London: Kent and Sussex Courier Company (1,000 copies printed). Illustrated with over 150 photographic reproductions & other parts (1921).

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