The Day of the Comet: Ultra-rare pocket watches by Breguet at Sotheby’s London

By Breguet Blog
November 26th, 2020


HUSHED EXCITEMENT surrounded Sotheby’s auction of Important Watches and Arts of the Islamic World on 27-28th October 2020, on New Bond Street, London. Amongst the breath-taking museum pieces were seven works by Breguet.

A mahogany two-day Marine Chronometer circa 1860 no. 868;
a La Tradition ref. 7027 yellow gold semi-skeletonised wristwatch with power reserve indication circa 2006;
a Le Reveil du Tsar ref. 5707 yellow gold dual-time wristwatch with alarm, date, 30-second retrograde second, 24-hour and power reserve indication circa 2007;
a Classique Tourbillon ref. 5317 platinum tourbillon wristwatch with power reserve indication circa 2006.
And three unique pocket watches by Breguet from the Sir David Lionel Salomons collection:
The Prince Regent’s no. 2788; The Caroline Bonaparte no. 1806; and The Duc de Praslin no. 20-148.

The auction might have proceeded without anyone paying much attention had it not been for the fact that irreplaceable and priceless art was about to disappear from public view – perhaps for a very long time. The extraordinary pocket watches and many fine items of Islamic art were being put up for auction by The Museum for Islamic Art (formerly known as the L.A. Mayer Institute for Islamic Art) in Jerusalem, to raise funds for the museum.

There was an immediate outcry from conservators, curators and art historians that treasures of this magnitude should not go under the hammer. On 27th October 2020, the Times of London carried an article that demonstrated the outrage of this sale of 190 pieces and more than 60 watches and timepieces from the museum’s permanent collection:

These are extremely rare objects [chosen] as a symbol of cultural coexistence. It’s one of the biggest cultural scandals in Israeli history.

––Sefy Hendler, Director of the Tel Aviv University Art Gallery

Others quickly joined in the protest including Israeli Culture Minister Hili Tropper: “We will use every legal and public means to prevent the sale of these inalienable assets of the Islamic Museum in Jerusalem,” adding that the pieces have “great historical and artistic value.”

Dr. Michael Sebbane, Director of National Treasures at the Israel Antiquities Authority said in no uncertain terms: “They are selling items that are very important, very unique, and the moment they sell them the public will have lost them,” he said. “If a private collector buys them, you won’t see them again.”

President of Israel Reuven Rivlin voiced his concern and appealed to authorities to stop the sale of cultural assets, while Nava Kessler, Chair of the Israeli Association of Museums, stated that such a sale violates professional and ethical standards among museums entrusted with the preservation of national treasures.

Nadim Sheiban, Director of Jerusalem’s Museum for Islamic Art, and the first Arab museum director in Israel, proffered the following: “Objectively, I know it is the right thing to do, so we can give this museum a future. Subjectively, it’s hard – like giving your child to others,” he said in an interview given to the Financial Times (22nd October 2020).

Regardless of these strong opinions, the watches and many Islamic artefacts were shipped to London although the story does not end there. Below are the Breguet pocket watches from the Salomons Collection.

All images are courtesy of Sotheby’s London, 2020, unless indicated otherwise. Catalogue (lot) notes by Sotheby’s where indicated plus notes by Salomons and Daniels. Fair use for educational and research purposes only.

Lot 205 The Prince Regent’s no. 2788

The Prince Regent’s no. 2788, estimate £400,000-600,000

An important and large experimental gold precision watch of royal provenance constructed on the principles of resonance with two dials and two movements each with lever escapements and seconds indications, no. 2788 ‘montre à deux mouvements’ production begun in 1812, sold to the Prince Regent on 2nd October 1818 for £350.

––Sotheby’s catalogue note
Breguet no. 2788 showing a fine refinished engine-turned case back

Certificate No. 2595, Watch No. 2788.
Sold to the Prince Regent, October 2nd, 1818, for 7200 francs.

Gold case, engine-turned, inner dome gold engraved with equation of time, silver dial, two dials showing both mean time, one dial with gold hands, central seconds driven by the works, which dial has steel hands, and this seconds hand is steel, anchor escapements, compensated balances, ruby and sapphire holes, elastic suspensions. Two complete works in one case. One balance can be approached or receded from the other. It was believed that two balances vibrating close together would correct the errors in each and beat in unison. Two nibs are present for stopping either balance.

N.B.––A similar watch was made for Louis XVIII. of France, no. 2794. This watch, viz., no. 2788, has certain points of difference from the other one, mainly in the balances which are each completely surrounded by a closed thin hoop, which vibrates with the balance, but pierced with holes to gain access to timing screws.

––Sir David Lionel Salomons, Breguet. (1747-1823.)
Breguet no. 2788 inner dome showing the winding mechanisms for the mainsprings and inscribed table of the Equation Of Time.

Watch No. 2788, p. 226, also has two subsidiary dials each with hour and minutes hands, but in this case both are for mean solar time. This watch and No. 2794, p. 229, are examples of an experiment to demonstrate Breguet’s theory of dynamics as applied to oscillating bodies. They are mentioned in an undated treatise written in Breguet’s own hand, relating almost wholly to clocks with two pendulums. With these watches Breguet was concerned to eliminate small variations in rate due to errors of construction and adjustment of the watch. His experiments with clocks led him to conclude that the whole of the matter composing the frame was in continuous microscopic motion with the vibration of the pendulum. He realised that the same phenomena must occur in a balance wheel system where the motion would be transmitted to the plate of the watch by the couple of the balance and spring at the limit of arc of vibration. If two systems were employed working in contra direction, then the movement of the plate would be equalised and cancelled. In the event of one system gaining or losing relative to the other the induced movement of the plate would act favourably to reduce the variation. It can be seen in the illustrations that there are in effect two watches in each case. The barrels, trains and escapements are duplicated. The balances are in close proximity and intended to influence each other to maintain the same rate. In order that the effects of this may be studied one of the escapements can be adjusted about its escape wheel to vary the distance apart of the balances. This was done to discover to what extent the disturbance of the air by the vibrating balances would affect the rate. His discoveries are recorded in his notes in which he says: ‘…the distance apart of the two circular balance systems can be varied easily to experiment with the influence of one upon the other, because I thought that the air would have a very great influence on their facility to work together. I was very surprised to find that it influenced the mechanism far less than the effort accorded each other by the impulsion of their mutual movements.’ This discovery was made when he encircled the balances with a thin steel guard to minimise the effect of the air disturbance. No. 2788 had this feature, ill. 244b, but as he was now satisfied with his conclusion he did not include it in No. 2794.

The system was undoubtedly successful, for Breguet concludes his notes on them by saying: ‘The first of these double watches was three months in the hands of M. M. Bouvard and Arago without the seconds hands having parted by the smallest part of a second; it was put twice in a vacuum and maintained in ‘absolute void’ for twenty-four hours, as well as worn, laid flat and hanging from a chain without ceasing to keep to the second.’

Excepting in some of his later tourbillon watches it is rare for Breguet to use a spiral spring without a regulator but in this case it was essential if the effect of the vibration was to be fully transmitted to the cock. Regulation is effected by alteration to the recessed radial screws in the rim of the balance. The escapements are lever with divided lift, and the balance staffs have conical pivots and parachute suspension. Seen from the back and with the balances below, as illustrated, the right hand escapement is adjustable for position and its train carries the centre seconds hand. The dials are silver engine-turned with the seconds numbered in units of ten and the right-hand subsidiary dial has gold hands and a small seconds dial.

Breguet declares that he made several of these watches but the two illustrated are the only ones known to the author. They sold for 7,000 francs and, in common with some other pieces made by Breguet, were intended to be a demonstration of his art, made more for his own pleasure than for commercial purposes.

No. 2788, 3rd series, sold 1818.
Double lever watch, the escapements identical with two-armed compensation balances with recessed screws, spiral steel springs free sprung, parachute suspension, each driven by a separate barrel and train, silver engine-turned dial with sweep centre seconds hand for the left subsidiary dial and small seconds hand for the right subsidiary dial, signed Breguet et Fils, gold engine-turned case, 60 mm. diameter. [Breguet Blog: Sotheby’s gives the size of the watch as 63mm]

––George Daniels, The Art of Breguet
Breguet no. 2788 showing the works and two balances residing inside very thin steel guards, with the mean time and temperature compensation screws facing inwards

History

One of the most expensive watches sold by Breguet, watch no. 2788 was delivered to the Prince Regent, later King George IV, for the remarkable sum of £350 or 7,200 francs. Two other similar watches are currently known although the late George Daniels in his book The Art of Breguet could only confirm the existence of one of them, no. 2794, which was sold to King Louis XVIII of France on 3rd September 1821.

Since then another example of a double lever watch has emerged, no. 2667, which was sold to a Mr. Garcias in August 1814 for the sum of 5,000 francs. The watch was later offered at Christie’s Geneva as lot 230 on 14th May 2012 and sold for CHF 4,339,000.

It is interesting to note that the Breguet certificate for no. 2788 shows that production of this watch began in 1812 but was not sold until 1818. As noted above, during that time watch no. 2667 was sold and later watch no. 2794 – both without guards, suggesting that no. 2788 was a prototype for Breguet’s resonance movement. It was not uncommon for Breguet to retain a watch after it was completed and upon being satisfied that air disturbance was not a significant factor in maintaining the same rate he decided to dispense with the use of guards in the two other models.

Movement

The phenomenon of forced oscillations and mechanical resonance was described by Galileo early in the 17th century. Galileo, however, was unable to define it fully and the phenomenon was overlooked by Sir Isaac Newton before it was partly rediscovered in the 18th century by Leonhard Euler, a Swiss mathematician. Not until the 19th century did the subject receive the first correct description by Thomas Young, who coined the expression forced vibration (Young, 1807).

A term originally derived from music meaning acoustics and audible repercussion, resonance [latin resonantia or echo, resonare or to reverberate] is the increased amplitude of an oscillating system as the result of an applied force leading to a natural frequency of the system.

Breguet no. 2788 side view of the two escapements

The first person with an interest in horology to observe and describe the synchronisation of pendulums was Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens (14th April 1629 – 8th July 1695). In February 1665 he was convalescing at home and from his bed he observed the interaction between two nearly identical pendulum clocks. Immediately after his recovery Huygens performed a number of experiments to determine the behaviour of two pendulum clocks attached to a beam supported by two chairs (12th February 1665). This experiment is known as “Huygens Synchronisation”; Huygens also introduced the term “sympathiae” to describe the interaction of the pendulums.

These findings were later adopted into the pioneering work of Antide Janvier (1751-1835), a French clockmaker. Janvier applied the principle to clockmaking and built several long-case and table clocks with two pendulums, each with their own train. Aged just 15, Janvier began as a young prodigy, who successfully presented his first planetarium sphere before the Academy of Science in Besançon. This so impressed Louis XVI that in 1784 the King bought a pair of his mechanical spheres. Only some sixty of six hundred or so clocks are known to survive and Janvier’s most visionary output was reserved for a field in which he was a founding father – celestial clockmaking. Tragically, much of Janvier’s work did not survive the French Revolution or his bankruptcy in 1810 but his legacy is forever assured.

Breguet no. 2788 reverse view of works and watch plade

Some time in 1812, on the heels of Janvier’s double pendulums, the next milestone swiftly followed when Abraham-Louis Breguet was the first to apply this principle to a pocket watch movement. Breguet’s work on watch no. 2788 represented a tremendous breakthrough in miniaturisation and is likely a prototype but is already fully accomplished. The overall watch is thin and elegant throughout, the gold case handsomely sized at 63mm and bears the classical engine-turned band, refinished engine-turned case back, unmistakably Breguet. A fine gold chain and double-ended ratchet key for winding and setting are attached. The hands, numerals, silver engine-turned dial, two subsidiary dials and spectacular needle-style centre, seconds hand identify Breguet from afar. A particularly fine detail is the ethereal, centre seconds hand made in steel while the small seconds hand is made in gold. This could very well be by design, knowing Breguet’s eye for detail, to balance the effect of inertia on the going train.

Overall this is an outstanding example from Breguet and represents a quantum leap in horology with its resonance movement effortlessly displayed in a symphony of simplicity.

Provenance of no. 2788

Breguet Certificate and a ‘notice’ from Breguet to David Salomons both dated 3rd November 1920 and each annotated with David Salomons’ collection number

Sotheby’s London lists the provenance of Breguet no. 2788 as follows:

Pièce commencée en 1812, vendu au Prince-Régent d’Angleterre le 2 October 1818 pour le prix de 350 Livres Sterling évalué à 7,200 francs [from 2020 Breguet Certificate]
Sir Berkeley Sheffield Bt.
Louis Desoutter sold May 1920 to Sir David Salomons
The Sir David Salomons Collection, Cat. no. 3 
Vera Bryce Salomons
L.A. Mayer Memorial Institute, Jerusalem, inventory no. WA 76-71

Lot 206 The Caroline Bonaparte no. 1806

The Caroline Bonaparte no. 1806, estimate £200,000-300,000

A very fine gold quarter repeating watch with calendar, year indication and thermometer, watch no. 1806 sold to Caroline Bonaparte, Princess Murat on 25th March 1807 for 4,000 francs and likely purchased as a gift by the Princess for Charles Joseph, comte de Flahaut.

––Sotheby’s catalogue note
Breguet no. 1806 showing a fine refinished engine-turned case back

Certificate No. 2424, Watch No. 1806
Sold to the Princesse Murat, 25th May, 1807, for 4000 francs.

Gold case, quarter repeater, secret place for portrait in back, engine-turned, body fluted, calendar, seconds dial, gold dial, steel hands, thermometer, ruby cylinder, ruby holes, parachutes, secret signature on dial.

––Sir David Lionel Salomons, Breguet. (1747-1823.)
Breguet no. 1806 inner dome showing apertures for winding and regulation and signed Breguet No. 1806, pendant with French control marks

In No. 1806, p. 202, this theme is developed further and the month, day and year are included. Although at first sight this might appear to be a great complication it is in fact simply achieved. By means of a 2:1 reduction from the hour hand a twenty-four hour wheel advances the day and date hands. Each full revolution of the date hand turns the month hand wheel one tooth to indicate the following month and each full revolution of the month wheel advances the year wheel one tooth. There is no provision for thirty-one day months and the hand must be set accordingly.

Few of Breguet’s watches had any provision for setting the calendar and the wearer is expected to prod the hands into the correct position with a wooden peg. Breguet used three methods for dealing with thirty-one day months. The first is to leave off the thirty-one from the calendar dial so that on the last day the hand would indicate the first of the following month. The hand must be turned back to thirty and the unfortunate wearer must remember that it is the thirty-first day of the month. The second method is to include the thirty-one and for a thirty-day month the wearer must remember to advance the hand to one on the last day of the month. The third method is to mark the thirty-first day with a diamond motif. When the hand reaches the diamond it will remain there until the wearer advances it to the correct date.

No. 1806, 3rd series, sold 1807.
Quarter repeating, ruby cylinder escapement with three-armed plain balance with parachute suspension, spiral steel spring with regulator and compensation curb, gold engine-turned dial with subsidiary dials to the right for seconds with inner circle for the days of the week, and to the left, the date of the month with inner circle for the initial letter of the month, between the two an aperture for the year and above a sector for the thermometer, signed Breguet et Fils, blued steel hands, gold engine-turned case, 60 mm. diameter. [Breguet Blog: Sotheby’s gives the size of the watch as 62mm]

––George Daniels, The Art of Breguet
Breguet no. 1806 showing the works with three-armed plain balance with parachute suspension

History

Breguet no. 1806 was purchased by Princess Murat, Maria Annunziata Carolina Murat (25th March 1782 – 18th May 1839), better known as Caroline Bonaparte. Princess Murat was a younger sister of Napoleon I of France and of noble birth. The Princess was born in Ajaccio, Corsica, and moved to France with her family in 1793 during the French Revolution. On 20th January 1800 she married Joachim Murat, one of Napoleon’s generals and later King of Naples.

By 1814 watch no. 1806 was in the possession of Charles Joseph, Comte de Flahaut (1785-1870), a French general during the Napoleonic Wars. Charles de Flahaut volunteered for military service and joined the Cavalry in 1800, later serving as aide-de-camp to Joachim Murat. Princess Murat became Comte de Flahaut’s lover in 1804 and it is possible the watch was purchased as a gift for him or gifted to the count at a later date. In any event, the watch was returned to Breguet by the count on 4th June 1814 and re-sold by Breguet in 1815.

Company records show that Comte de Flahaut owned several Breguet watches in his lifetime and on 21st August 1814 he purchased Breguet no. 2200, possibly intending it as a replacement for no. 1806; in 1822, no. 2200 was bought back by Breguet with Comte de Flahaut purchasing no. 3802, a Breguet lever watch, the same year. He would go on to have numerous other affairs before becoming aide-de-camp to Napoleon in 1813 and serving at the Battle of Waterloo. After a long and storied life as a military general and French ambassador the Comte de Flahaut died in Paris, the city of his birth, on 1st September 1870 aged 85.

As for Caroline Murat and her husband, both were appointed King and Queen Consort of Naples by the Emperor in 1806. Caroline was a passionate supporter of the arts and a champion of girls’ education. She also encouraged the archaeological excavations at Pompeii. During the Hundred Days War in 1815, it became clear that Napoleon’s fortunes were waning and Caroline was forced to surrender and fled to Austria. Her husband fled to Corsica and his attempts to regain control of Naples were unsuccessful; Joachim Murat was captured and executed on 13th October 1815. After the Second French Revolution of 1830, Caroline was allowed to stay in Paris before later moving to Florence for the remainder of her life where she died on 18th May 1839 aged 57.

Caroline was not only a great patron of the arts but she was one of Breguet’s most important and loyal clients throughout her life. Between 1808 and 1814 Queen Caroline purchased some 34 clocks and watches from Breguet; this included the first watch designed to be worn on the wrist. This revolutionary idea comprised an ultra-slim watch oblong in shape with repeater and thermometer mounted on a wristlet of hair entwined with gold thread – a watch fit for a queen. During the turbulent summer of 1813, when Breguet lost many of his best clients in Europe, Queen Caroline bought a further twelve watches from Breguet – eight repeating and four simple – when the firm needed it most.

Breguet no. 1806 showing works under dial with quarter repeating mechanism

Movement

No. 1806 is a fine example exhibiting a quarter repeating watch with calendar, year indication and thermometer. At first it appears complicated but apart from the repeating mechanism the rest of the watch is relatively straightforward: at twelve o’clock a sector for the thermometer labelled Chaud, Tempéré, Froid (hot, temperate, cold); blued steel hours and minutes hands at centre with a jumping hour hand, with subsidiary dials to the left showing the date of the month with inner circle for the initial letter of the month and to the right for seconds with inner circle for the days of the week: the day, date and month, each with arrow indicating their counter-clockwise progression and, between the two an aperture for the year; the year disc is double-sided for a 10 year-cycle and designed to be interchangeable so that it may be updated when the decade has expired. Note: the back of the year disc is engraved from 1902-1911 and as the current year visible to the front is 1901, it seems likely that the disc’s front is calibrated from 1892-1901.

The watch is imbued with an appealing aura in large part due to its gold engine-turned dial that gives it a warm glow. The entire display is classically framed by a gold, satin-finished chapter ring with Roman numerals as well as an outer track for the minutes.

Breguet no. 1806 showing the year disc engraved from 1902-1911

All of these features sit on a gilded, ruby cylinder escapement with three-armed plain balance with parachute suspension, spiral steel spring with regulator and compensation curb, repeating on a single gong.

The watch is customarily signed and numbered in the manner for which Breguet is known: the dial is signed Breguet et Fils, further signed and numbered with secret signature and numbered 1806 either side of XII, dial plate also numbered to the underside 1806; the movement is numbered to the top-plate beneath the dial 1806; the interior case signed Breguet No. 1806, the case back refinished and numbered 1806, pendant replete with French control marks. No. 1806 also comes with a particularly handsome set of a gold chain, ratchet key and hinged blued steel pointed tool for engaging the button for releasing the case back and concealed cuvette, the blued steel tip hinged into a pink gold shaft.

A handsome watch that exudes tremendous luxury and warmth, the Caroline Bonaparte no. 1806 is another superb example of the timeless work of Breguet and his art.

Provenance of no. 1806

Breguet Certificate for no. 1806 dated 1st April 1899 carrying the stamp of Desoutter and annotated by hand with David Salomons’ collection number

Sotheby’s London lists the provenance of Breguet no. 1806 as follows:

Vendu à la Princesse Murat, le 25 Mars 1807, pour le prix de Fr. 4000 [from 2020 Breguet Certificate]
Charles Joseph, comte de Flahaut
Sir Berkeley Sheffield Bt.
Louis Desoutter sold May 1920 to Sir David Salomons
The Sir David Salomons Collection, Cat. No. 16
Vera Bryce Salomons
L.A. Mayer Memorial Institute, Jerusalem, inventory no. WA 101-71

Lot 207 The Duc de Praslin’s no. 20-148

The Duc de Praslin’s no. 20-148, estimate £250,000-350,000

A rare and fine gold self-winding minute repeating watch with date, day of the week, up-and-down indication and thermometer, no. 20-148 ‘montre perpétuelle’ sold to Le Duc de Praslin 20th December 1791 for 4,000 francs.

––Sotheby’s catalogue note
Breguet no. 20-148 gold, engine-turned case back

Certificate No. 2508, Watch No. 148
Sold to Duc de Praslin, December, 1792, for 4000 francs.

Gold case minute repeater, “Perpetuelle,” calendar, indicator shewing spring would, thermometer, silver dial, seconds dial, chronometer escapement, compensated balance, ruby holes.

––Sir David Lionel Salomons, Breguet. (1747-1823.)
Breguet no. 20-148 movement rim signed Breguet à Paris No. 148
Breguet no. 20-148 movement rim signed Breguet à Paris No. 148

No. 148, 3rd series.
Perpetuelle, minute repeating, Earnshaw spring detent escapement, Arnold-type compensation balance, spiral steel spring with regulator, silver engine-turned dial with subsidiary dial for seconds containing day-of-the-week dial, sectors for the state of winding and thermometer, outer circle with centre gold hand for the date, gold engine-turned case with piston pendant, 60 mm. diameter. [Breguet Blog: Sotheby’s gives the size of the watch as 59mm]
There are two No. 148 perpetuelles and neither is recorded in the sales books.

––George Daniels, The Art of Breguet
Breguet no. 20-148 works under dial

History

Antoine César de Choiseul-Praslin, duc de Praslin (6th April 1756 – 28th January 1808), was a soldier and member of the French Consulate. His father was an ambassador to Naples and his great grandfather served as a minister under Ludwig XV. His military career began in earnest on 6th April 1772 as Sous-lieutenant à la suite in the 3e régiment d’artillerie in the town of Besançon. César was promoted to Cavalry Captain on 18th April 1774 and then transferred to the Régiment Royal-Cravates cavalerie on 10th December 1776. Later he transferred to the infantry and on 3rd June 1779 became Colonel en second in the Régiment de La Reine. On 21st June he was promoted to Colonel of the Régiment de Lorraine. On 28th November 1791 César was promoted to Maréchal de camp, the same year that he purchased watch no. 20-148.

In 1793 during the height of the French Terror, the Duc de Praslin was arrested together with his wife Charlotte de Thomond. Thanks to the fall of Robespierre and an intervention by their children’s tutor, Joseph François Baudelaire – father of the French poet Charles Baudelaire – the pair were released in July 1794.

Napoleon made him a member of the Sénat conservateur and awarded him the Legion of Honour on 2nd October 1803, the highest French order of merit for military and civil merits. The Duc de Praslin became Commander of the same order on 14th June 1804.

In addition to the present watch the Duc de Praslin also owned the second most complex watch created by Breguet, no. 92. This is a double-sided watch with grand complications: lever escapement, independent centre seconds, minute repeater, perpetual calendar comprising month subsidiary and separate retrograde sectors for date and day of the week, equation of time, thermometer, up-and-down indication and moon phases. Sir David Salomons also later owned no. 92 which he described with characteristic understatement in Breguet: “The watch is a remarkable piece of work, and not inferior to the one intended for Marie-Antoinette (No. 160).”

Salomons writes the certificate for watch no. 92 states it was made around 1783 or 1785. This is about the same time as the commission for Marie Antoinette’s famous watch was received. Watch no. 92 was not finished and sold until 1805 and the delay is likely explained by the fact that Breguet was an exile during the French Revolution.

Watch no. 92 was donated by Salomons to the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris. A further watch owned by the Duc was a Souscription, (no. 443, sold 1799), for that watch please refer to: Antiquorum Geneva, The Art of Breguet, 14 April 1991, lot 13.

The Duc de Praslin died in Paris, the city of his birth, on 28th January 1808 and was laid to rest in the Panthéon, Paris.

Movement

Breguet did not invent the perpetuelle but he certainly did perfect it.

––George Daniels, The Art of Breguet, 1975, p. 63.

Automatic winding was invented during the 1770s pocket watch era and significant contributions were made by Abraham-Louis Perrelet (1729-1826) and later Breguet.

In fact, the earliest reference to self-winding watches is from a newspaper article found in Wienerisches Diarium (Vienna, 1773) that refers to a Dr. Joseph Tlustos as having invented a completely new kind of self-winding pocket watch. Another newspaper article from Munich, 1775, also refers to the same achievement by the same person.

No such watch is known to survive at this point in time, however, it is known that Perrelet made the first practical self-winding watches some time in 1776-77 using a side-weight and going barrel, most likely in conjunction with a cylinder escapement. Breguet became familiar with the recent advancements of Perrelet around 1777-79 and began to study the new mechanism. Breguet’s earliest designs had featured a verge escapement but the self-winding watch saved space inside the watch case and offered other potential refinements.

Around the same time Hubert Sarton of Liège, a clockmaker, was working on developing an automatic rotor movement and succeeded in 1777 or early 1778. Towards the end of 1778, Sarton sent a watch and a drawing to the Paris Académie Royale des Sciences. A written report followed giving a detailed description of the mechanism.

Although the origin of the rotor design had not come to light at the time George Daniels wrote his book, The Art of Breguet, it is useful to quote from Daniels in this regard as his own research confirms the general chronology:

There is evidence to suggest that it was invented in Switzerland in about 1765 but was not a success. Because the winding work was inefficient in design considerable exertion was required of the wearer in order to wind the movement to run for a day. It was typical of Breguet’s philosophy that he should at the outset of his career undertake to develop an entirely new field of horology. His acute perception for mechanics and commercial instinct for business combined to make it clear to him that the perpetuelle was the key to fame. He saw clearly the requirements of a successful perpetuelle and claimed to have made some by 1780.

––George Daniels, The Art of Breguet, 1975, p. 63.

Breguet quickly absorbed this revolutionary breakthrough in horology and began to develop his own version of a self-winding watch which he called the perpetuelle. Breguet no. 2 10/82 represents an early example of a perpetuelle and is believed to have been owned by Marie Antoinette. Breguet himself recorded that the Duc D’Orléans owned a perpetuelle in 1780 but George Daniels’ own research found that to be unlikely:

There are no records of watches made before 1787 and so it is not possible to say exactly when the first perpetuelle was sold. The watches are numbered with a series of fractional numbers and a serial number, and from this it is possible to determine when the watch was made. The earliest known number is mentioned in the 1895 sale catalogue of the collection of the Reverend W. B. Hawkins. This is said to have belonged to Marie Antoinette and is described in the certificate, p. 17 as perpetuelle, repeater, with date indication, the case and hands of gold and the dial enamel. The visible edge of the movement bears the inscription, Inventé perfectionné et exécute par Breguet à Paris, No. 2 10/82. The 10/82 indicates that it was completed in October 1782. No. 8 10/83 is the earliest known to the author and is illustrated on p. 139.

––George Daniels, The Art of Breguet, 1975, p. 64.
Breguet no. 20-148 movement showing “fishtail” side-weight and banking springs

Breguet devoted his efforts to improving the winding efficiency of the self-winding watch. The solution was in part achieved by two mainspring barrels wound together by a platinum weight pivoted at the edge of the backplate (the perpetuelle weight is yellow gold fused over platinum). The weight is cushioned by two banking springs and tiny safety rollers to prevent ‘jerking’ or rubbing against the case. The banking springs are thin and flexible in order to help maximise the weight’s pendulum-style motion.

A further refinement made around the same time is a shock protection system invented by Breguet in 1790, called pare-chute or parachute. This device protects the pivots of a balance from damage if the watch is dropped or otherwise impacted. This is achieved via the bearing which is fitted into a spring that flexes with the inertia of the balance so that any shocks are absorbed by the stronger pivot shoulders of the balance staff. Also known by its French name suspension élastique. Breguet introduced this system into his perpetuelles and the pare-chute shock protection device eventually became an adopted standard throughout the watchmaking industry.

Watch no. 20-148 may seem unusual in that this complication combines a calendar, chronometer escapement, minute repeater and thermometer. A broader view, however, surely reveals a perfect balance between beauty and practicality. This is a watch that was made for the 18th and 19th century; the dial display is one of harmony and the functions most useful. In any case, the Duc would have greatly appreciated this complication and made use of its features without rendering the watch merely decorative. In short, watch no. 20-148 is also a utilitarian timepiece perfectly suited for daily wear.

Additionally, the original dial was enamel and was later replaced with the silver engine-turned dial we see here. The enamel dial may have become cracked or damaged and it was not uncommon to replace it in such circumstances. It is also known that Breguet offered a choice of different dials in some cases, such as watch no. 160 which was delivered with an enamel dial and a crystal dial.

These watches, perhaps above all Breguet’s products, best represent the genius of his horological philosophy, technical skill and aesthetic interpretation of function.

––George Daniels, The Art of Breguet, 1975, p.65.

Provenance of no. 20-148

Breguet Certificate for no. 20-148 dated 8th June 1906 carrying the stamp of Desoutter and annotated by hand with David Salomons’ collection number

Sotheby’s London lists the provenance of Breguet no. 20-148 as follows:

Vendu à Monsieur le Comte [Duc] de Praslin, Le 20 Décembre 1791, pour le prix de 4,000 Francs [from 2020 Breguet Certificate]
Christie, Manson & Woods, The Reverend Bentinck Hawkins Collection, 1895, lot 493
Sir Berkeley Sheffield Bt.
Louis Desoutter sold May 1920 to Sir David Salomons
The Sir David Salomons Collection, Cat. No. 6
Vera Bryce Salomons
L.A. Mayer Memorial Institute, Jerusalem inventory no. WA 104-71

The comet disappears

Breguet Blog visited Sotheby’s London and viewed the pocket watches on Tuesday 27th October 2020, as the live auction was already underway. To be able to examine actual works by Breguet in the flesh is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. All three pocket watches give an insight into Breguet’s genius and the resonance movement in watch no. 2788 encapsulates the mechanical brilliance of its maker. This watch is thin, light and the most lustrous of the three. It is simply unsurpassed in elegance; a sheer masterpiece of simplicity. The Prince Regent’s no. 2788 not only has striking visual appeal that makes it easily identifiable from afar – it embodies the quintessence of Breguet and is at once flawless.

Whilst such praise may seem hard to equal, Breguet never disappoints and watch nos. 1806 and 20-148 represent incredibly fine timepieces in their own right. Both watches resonate very strongly in the Breguet canon and feel most excellent in the hand. Both watches are of course thicker than their counterpart, no. 2788, though they remain sleek and silken to the touch. All of them are exquisite and radiate with beauty. At the same time they remain practical instruments fit for purpose and daily wear. Breguet’s watches may be viewed as art but they were also designed to be used and it is likely that their original owners took great joy in doing so.

But what happened to these beautiful items?

Later that evening Sotheby’s London withdrew all lots at the request of the Hermann de Stern Foundation, which owns the Museum for Islamic Art’s collection, as the museum faces growing calls to stop the sale of rare artefacts. The Israeli attorney for the Hermann de Stern Foundation, Zvi Agmon, confirmed that the sale had been postponed. This was echoed by Galit Gottfried, spokeswoman for the museum, who told Haaretz that the postponement was intended to enable discussions between the Museum for Islamic Art, the Israeli government and the Stern foundation, according to the Times of Israel (1st November 2020).

Dr. Andrew Hildreth, independent watch consultant and Liveryman at the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, told the Times of Israel that if the sale goes ahead, he hopes the watches will be bought by a museum or collector who will put them back on display.

The fate of the three pocket watches by Breguet is uncertain for now but if the sale resumes the best outcome would be that the Swatch Group purchases these watches for their own museum. The watches can then be shown to the public once again and loaned out worldwide.

Breguet Blog would like to thank the excellent and helpful staff at Sotheby’s London for being kind enough to show us these watches. It was a momentous occasion.

Photo © Breguet Blog
Breguet no. 20-148 (l), Breguet no. 2788 (m), Breguet no. 1806 (r). Photo © Breguet Blog

Bibliography

DANIELS, George, The Art of Breguet, Switzerland: Sotheby’s Publications (1986), pp. 76-77 & p. 226 figs. 244a-c (Breguet no. 2788).

DANIELS, George, The Art of Breguet, Switzerland: Sotheby’s Publications (1986), p. 75 & p. 202, figs. 191 a-b (Breguet no. 1806).

DANIELS, George, The Art of Breguet, Switzerland: Sotheby’s Publications (1986), p. 161, figs. 110a-c (Breguet no. 20-148).

FLORES, Joseph, Perpétuelles à roues de rencontre: Ou Montres automatiques, une nouvelle page d’histoire, France: AFAHA (Second Edition 2009). ISBN 978-2914741712.

SALOMONS, Sir David Lionel, Breguet. (1747-1823.), London: 1921, p. 31, ill. p.118, cat. no. 3 (Breguet no. 2788).

SALOMONS, Sir David Lionel, Breguet. (1747-1823.), London: 1921, p. 35, ill. p. 134, cat. no. 16 (Breguet no. 1806).

SALOMONS, Sir David Lionel, Breguet. (1747-1823.), London: 1921, p. 32, ill. p. 123, cat. no. 6 (Breguet no. 20-148).

SALOMONS, Sir David Lionel, Supplement. Breguet. (1747-1823.), London: 1921, pp. 7, 21-22, cat. no. 100 (Breguet no. 20-148).

SOTHEBY’S LONDON Breguet no. 2788.

SOTHEBY’S LONDON Breguet no. 1806.

SOTHEBY’S LONDON Breguet no. 20-148.

WATKINS, Richard, The Origins of Self-Winding Watches 1773 – 1779, Australia: NewPrint, Huntingfield, Tasmania (Second Edition, 2016). Limited edition of 125 copies. (Available from http://www.watkinsr.id.au).

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