The holy grail of watchmaking: Breguet’s pocket watch No. 160

By Breguet Blog
September 10th, 2018


Throughout his lifetime Abraham-Louis Breguet was acknowledged as a benefactor of horology and the supreme master of his art. Because his work was so enduring, both in quality and style, it has kept alive the admiration he enjoyed in his lifetime: the lustre of the name Breguet has never dimmed.

—George Daniels, The Art of Breguet (Preface)

IN the annals of watchmaking, Abraham-Louis Breguet’s pocket watch No. 160 Grande Complication or simply “Perpétuelle” (fig. 1) has attained mythical status. Commonly known as the “Marie-Antoinette” or “The Queen”, it was designed by Breguet as the result of a commission. Work on the watch began in 1782 and was completed by Breguet’s son, Antoine-Louis, in 1827, four years after the master’s death.

The “Marie-Antoinette”, sometimes referred to as “the watchmaker’s holy grail”, has been called the ‘Mona Lisa of watches’. The genesis of the “Marie-Antoinette” is a gripping tale shrouded in mystery.

It is thought that someone of high rank and wealth commissioned the pocket watch for Queen Marie-Antoinette but the individual’s identity remains unknown to this day. Count Axel von Fersen, her admirer and reputed lover, has been suggested but this has always been unconfirmed.

fig. 1 No. 160 by Abraham-Louis Breguet.

In addition to a pocket watch fit for a Queen, the order further stipulated that the company spare no expense in the manufacture of this lavish timepiece and that it should contain every watch function known at the time: clock, perpetual calendar, minute repeater, bimetallic mechanical thermometer, secondes d’un coup, power reserve, pare-chute, chime, equation of time, independent seconds hand and shock resistance. Only the finest materials were to be used in the manufacture of the watch, including gold, platinum, rubies and sapphires and encased in gold. The works can be seen through the crystal dial. Breguet also used sapphires in the mechanism to decrease friction.

The cost of this mysterious commission reached astronomical highs even by the standards of the day, as company records indicate factory costs alone eventually came to 17,070 Francs. This was more than three times the cost of Breguet’s other major work, No. 92, a pocket watch sold to the Duc de Praslin for 4,800 Francs.

Allowing for the years of Breguet’s exile from Paris during the French Revolution, it took around 45 years for the watch to be completed. During these decades, the firm did not work continuously and only on the “Marie-Antoinette” but fulfilled many other commissions as it strove to finish the original assignment.

Antoine-Louis, Breguet’s son, finally put the finishing touches to Watch No. 160 in 1827. He retired from watchmaking in 1833 and was succeeded by his son Louis Clément François.

Ownership

The “Marie-Antoinette” remained in the possession of Breguet et fils until it was sold to the Marquis de la Groye, who brought it back for repairs in 1838 but somehow failed to collect it.1 The “Marie-Antoinette” is also said to have been on display at the Universal Exhibition of 1855. Throughout all this time and well into the 20th century the watch was known simply as No. 160. By the 1900s it gradually became known as “The Queen” or “Marie-Antoinette”.

The watch remained in the family until the widow of Louis Clement Breguet, the last to run the business, sold it to an English collector, Sir Spencer Brunton, in 1887 for £600. Following the death of Sir Spencer Brunton in 1901, the watch was bought by Murray Marks (1840-1918), a prominent Dutch art dealer and collector who sold it in 1904 to Louis Albert Desoutter (1858-1930), a French watchmaker who settled in London’s Mayfair in 1881 and a few years later started his own business in Maddox Street.

Desoutter then sold the watch for the last time to Sir David Lionel Salomons (1851-1925), a British scientific author and barrister, to add to his extensive watch collection, which already included over 100 Breguets.2

fig. 2 No. 160 as catalogued by Sir David Lionel Salomons (Supplement, p. 26). Photo Mr. L. Desoutter

Sir David had a lifelong passion for horology and became an authority on the works of Abraham-Louis Breguet. Over the course of his lifetime, he built the world’s largest private collection of clocks and watches by Breguet, totalling some 124 pieces, including: the “Marie-Antoinette” (No. 160) and the “Duc de Praslin” (No. 92), two watches often considered the pinnacle of Breguet’s art. Perhaps it was fate but in 1924 Sir David donated the “Duc de Praslin” to the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, from where it was subsequently stolen. Luckily, the priceless watch was recovered within a matter of months when the thief took it to a Parisian watchmaker for repair.

Sir David is also to be credited with being the first person to properly catalogue the works of Breguet. In 1921 he self-published a two-volume edition of 1,000 copies cataloguing the timepieces in his collection including an early biography of Abraham-Louis Breguet. These volumes are referenced at the end of this article and contain a rich amount of black-and-white photographic reproductions (figs. 2-4).

fig. 3 No. 160 Works under dial as catalogued by
Sir David Lionel Salomons (Supplement, p. 28). Photo Mr. L. Desoutter

On his death in 1925, Sir David bequeathed his collection to his daughter Vera Bryce Salomons. Ms Salomons, who was a frequent visitor to the Middle East and Jerusalem, funded charitable institutions and founded the L. A. Mayer Institute for Islamic Art in Jerusalem donating 57 of the finest examples by Breguet from her father’s collection to the museum. Among this collection was the “Marie-Antoinette”. Ms Salomons died in 1969 but her well-laid plans were duly honoured and the museum opened in 1974 where her father’s prized collection became a prominent exhibit.

fig. 4 No. 160 Works under crystal dial and works at back as catalogued by
Sir David Lionel Salomons (Breguet, p. 174). Photo Mr. L. Desoutter

Movement and finish

The technical specifications of the “Marie-Antoinette” are overwhelmingly impressive and include every known complication of its time – a total of 23.

The watch is 63mm in diameter and about 26mm thick. The dial side shows the famous Breguet blued steel hands. The self-winding movement comprises some 823 parts and components, all of outstanding finish. A particular trademark of this pocket watch is the “fishtail” oscillating weight which adds a very original touch to the openworked movement.

George Daniels gives a complete description in his book, The Art of Breguet (p. 162):

“No. 160, 3rd series, sold 1887.

Perpetuelle, called Marie Antoinette, minute repeating, perpetual calendar, equation of time, secondes d’un coup, equal lift lever escapement with two-armed compensation balance with recessed screws, helical spring with terminal curves free sprung, winding weight arbors supported in a parachute, every friction surface jewelled, the plates and wheels of gold, rock crystal dial with gilt numerals and subsidiary dial for seconds with inset day of the week dial, at the top left sectors for the state of winding and the equation of time and at the top right the date of the month and thermometer, blued steel hands, plain gold case with rock crystal back to display the movement, repeating piston in the pendant, 63 mm. diameter.” (see fig. 5)

The reader may be interested to note that the “Marie-Antoinette” is most commonly shown with the rock crystal on the dial side but as can be seen from the reproduction in Sir David Salomons’s catalogue above (Supplement, p.26), the watch was also delivered with an enamel dial that could be inserted by Breguet depending upon the wishes of the owner. The enamel dial would have served to aid legibility whereas the rock crystal would have revealed the splendour of the watchmaker’s art to those who had the pleasure of viewing the watch. The works at back are protected by a rock crystal with the winding weight on permanent display.

fig. 5 No. 160 Works under crystal dial and works at back as catalogued by
George Daniels (The Art of Breguet, p. 99). Photo George Daniels

In terms of finish and overall aesthetic achievement the “Marie-Antoinette” stands at the apex of Breguet’s life and work. The gold case and all it contains has been finished with exquisite care and attention to detail. The interior of the watch and its fine architecture are magnificently wrought to life by the openworked or squelette (skeleton) movement underneath the crystal. The “Marie-Antoinette” was doubtless conceived and intended primarily as an openworked piece but as previously mentioned the watch was provided with a spare enamel dial side.

Although it may be considered a relatively early commission, received only seven years after Breguet founded his firm, the watch already encompasses many of the hallmarks for which Breguet was known: smooth, fluid lines, elegant proportions, the famous blued steel ‘Breguet hands’ marking hours, minutes and seconds, Breguet-style Arabic numerals for the enamel dial and Roman numerals for the openworked option, as well as a number of key inventions by Breguet such as the pare-chute and secondes d’un coup – consummate style, overall.

The “Marie-Antoinette” is one of Breguet’s most lavishly appointed creations and at the same time one of the most outstanding ceremonial pieces ever made. Missing from the watch, however, is one of Breguet’s most famous inventions – the tourbillon – which Breguet invented in the late 1700s and patented in June 1801. Although one can only speculate, it is likely that the design and manufacture of the “Marie-Antoinette” were too far advanced by the time Breguet patented the tourbillon to include it in the original commission. Nevertheless, the watch hardly suffers as a result and continues to epitomise the genius of its author. Watch No. 160 ranks as one of the most accomplished aesthetic and artistic achievements in history, not just horology.

It is then a tragedy that the Queen herself (fig. 6) never lived to see the watch with which she is forever associated and neither did its author, nor the mysterious commissioner who placed the order. Posterity, however, is blessed with being able to enjoy and marvel at this artistic creation that may be said to represent the climax of the Renaissance, embodying the spirit of the Enlightenment and heralding the Industrial Revolution long before it became an accepted fact. Abraham-Louis Breguet was an artist, poet, engineer, mathematician and horologist whose works stand at the river mouth of time: beauty, simplicity and mechanical excellence of the highest order merge in a confluence of wondrous execution that marries time, tradition and modernity. It is therefore not without justification that Watch No. 160 is viewed by some as the holy grail in all of watchmaking.

fig. 6 Marie-Antoinette with the rose, 1783,
by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (Public Domain).

The most famous watch heist in history

The most famous and audacious watch heist in history occurred during the early morning hours on Saturday, April 16th 1983, at Jerusalem’s L. A. Mayer Institute for Islamic Art. The museum guards had closed up early the night before in time for the Sabbath. There were no unusual signs and it was just another weekend.

As the night shift ended, the guards on duty made their final rounds before leaving the museum to re-open that day. When they checked the Sir David Lionel Salomons collection, however, they were stunned to find the room had been ransacked.

The museum’s director and curator at the time, Rachel Hasson, recalled the scene: “I came as soon as they phoned me. It was shocking. On the floor were the glass panels and the locks of the showcases. Everywhere lay remnants of packing materials, tape and cardboard; there were empty Coca-Cola bottles, cables and wires.” It soon became apparent that more than half the collection of 192 rare timepieces had vanished. “I saw at once they had taken the jewel of the collection, the Breguet No. 160. The “Queen” was gone.”3

Israeli authorities were left with a burglary that, on the face of it, seemed easy to solve: simply wait for some of the rare watches and clocks to turn up on the grey market or perhaps they might surface in the community of antique dealers. As time went by, nothing happened and the trail went cold. A daring theft gradually became one of the great mysteries of the art world and remained unsolved for a quarter of a century. The value of the haul was inestimable, the contents priceless and irreplaceable artifacts: the “Marie-Antoinette” alone is conservatively valued at around 30 million US dollars but such numbers are gestures for insurance purposes. The Salomons collection constituted one of the finest private collections that had ever been seen. These watches and clocks represented the purest artistry of Abraham-Louis Breguet distilled into utterly unique pieces. They were uninsurable.

Details of the break-in emerged: the burglars had pulled up in a tiny Sedan near a heavy iron gate and used a jack to pry apart the bars, just enough to slip through. A rope ladder and hooks were used to access a small window, barely 50cm high and over 2 meters above the ground at the rear of the museum, to gain entry into the Salomons room. Incredibly, the burglar alarm was broken, allowing the operation to proceed smoothly and silently.

The raid showed a high degree of planning and sophistication. The police found a cable that had been run along the gallery to the guards’ quarters with a microphone attached to the end, to allow the thieves to eavesdrop on the conversation. The glass panels of the display cases had been swiftly cut with a diamond-cutter and lifted off using suction cups. Debris was strewn everywhere, including tools and a mattress, probably used to cushion the fall, snacks and refreshments. DNA technology was still evolving and none of the fingerprints matched police files.

Investigators soon had a list of known criminals who had the ability and know-how to carry out such a crime. One of the names that stood out was renowned master-thief Na’aman Diller but documents showed him to have been out of the country in April 1983. Even so, police doubted that Diller could have carried out the burglary on his own and were still working on the assumption that a team was involved.

Years slowly turned into decades and no more was heard or seen of the stolen clocks and watches. Were they sold to a private collector only to be admired in secret? Rami Mohr, a former police officer who worked on the case, commented: “This was not the usual break-in. Usually people say things here and there so you build a picture. That never happened; no one talked. So, there was an assumption they had been smuggled abroad.” Without adequate leads, Mohr and his colleagues eventually closed the file.

Then in August 2006, something remarkable happened and the first signs of life in connection with the missing haul occurred. A lawyer by the name of Hila Efron-Gabai had contacted an old Tel Aviv antiques dealer named Zeon Jakubov. Efron-Gabai wanted Jakubov to evaluate some items for her and she in turn had been hired by an anonymous client in the US to broker a return of said items to the L. A. Mayer Institute for Islamic Art. The lawyer explained that the items were contained in boxes in a safe place in Tel Aviv and that the client had inherited them from her late husband.

The antiques dealer, Zeon Jakubov, confirmed the likelihood that the clocks and watches, wrapped in newspaper inside cardboard boxes, were indeed from the museum. Efron-Gabai then contacted Rachel Hasson and Eli Kahan, chair of the museum board.

Without much ado the pair visited the lawyer’s office and were finally reunited with some of the greatest treasures in horological history. “I opened them and identified them from their numbers. Most were in good shape. Some were damaged,” Hasson told a newspaper in 2009. “When I came to the “Marie-Antoinette”, I couldn’t help crying. It was so moving and exciting to see it after so many years.”

The good news, however, had to be kept strictly under wraps, as the pair had signed a non-disclosure agreement to protect the mystery client about how the watches had resurfaced. They negotiated a price of around $30,000 with Efron-Gabai but then had to face repaying the insurance monies as the museum had already taken an insurance pay-out when the stolen pieces were thought to have been lost forever. The watches once again disappeared, this time into the museum vault. Not even the police would know for another year that the greatest loot in decades had been found.

Finally, in November 2008, Eli Kahan made an official announcement that the stolen items had indeed been recovered and returned to the rightful owner – the L. A. Mayer Institute for Islamic Art.

Eventually, the secret client’s identity came to light: Nili Shomrat, 59, the wife of Na’aman Lidor. It was soon revealed that Lidor had changed his name from Na’aman Diller, the master thief who had already served time in prison more than once for his burglaries throughout Europe (including in Holland, France, Germany and Switzerland). A raid of his Los Angeles home in 2008 uncovered more rare and valuable artifacts.

The “Marie-Antoinette” now rests deep inside a vault behind bulletproof glass in the L. A. Mayer Institute for Islamic Art. Unfortunately, Montres Breguet SA was not allowed to examine the watch and it has not been exhibited publicly since its return. There are no immediate plans to display the watch but it is hoped the museum will once again allow Breguet’s shining masterpiece to be enjoyed by a worldwide audience.

“Marie-Antoinette” Replica – Grande Complication No. 1160

Nicolas G. Hayek, Founder and Chairman of The Swatch Group, was a larger-than-life personality whose enormous passion for Breguet was unmatched. Hayek personally oversaw the acquisition of Breguet in 1999 and proceeded to invest heavily in R&D – Breguet was swept up and its feet set down firmly in the 21st century.

In 2005, Hayek pursued a new dream and commissioned watchmakers from Breguet to make an exact replica of the original No. 160. A small, dedicated team toiled for three full years before Mr. Hayek unveiled No. 1160 before the media at Baselworld on 4th April 2008.

The watch was completely re-created at Montres Breguet SA by the team of watchmakers using documents of Breguet’s time and presented in a lavish, handmade wooden box using oak from Queen Marie-Antoinette’s favourite tree in the Palace of Versailles (fig. 7).

The presentation box alone is a masterpiece consisting of over 3,500 pieces sculpted from the wood of the oak tree. A beautifully crafted inlay work of more than one thousand pieces of wood depicts the hand of Marie-Antoinette holding her rose, a detail that was inspired by a famous portrait of the Queen. The outside of this marvellous presentation box faithfully reproduces the parquet flooring of the Petit Trianon, which was Marie-Antoinette’s private retreat from the pressures of courtly life.

The completion of the replica coincided with the recovery of the original No. 160 in 2007 (not announced until late 2008), which was subsequently returned to the L. A. Mayer Institute for Islamic Art. According to the terms of Vera Salomons’s bequest, the famous pocket watch remains the property of the museum. It has not been exhibited publicly since but this may change in future.

Nicolas G. Hayek presenting the Breguet No. 1160.
fig. 7 Nicolas G. Hayek presenting the Breguet No. 1160 – The presentation case – The new “Marie-Antoinette”. © Montres Breguet SA.

Watch No. 1160 goes on tour from time to time and has been presented to great acclaim at various Breguet boutiques worldwide, including London, New York, Paris, Taiwan, and Tokyo. More information about and high-resolution photos of the Breguet No. 1160 can be found online at:

BBC documentary

The return of the “Marie-Antoinette” and dazzling original watch were featured in the BBC production The Incredible Story of Marie Antoinette’s Watch with Nicholas Parsons (2016), director: John MacLaverty. Run Time: 1h.

Nicholas Parsons presents a fascinating and enthralling documentary that also takes the viewer behind the scenes to reveal Parsons’s own life-long enthusiasm for clocks and watches, as well as showing the viewer a number of antique creations by Breguet. This is the first and, so far, only documentary to provide a close-up view of a number of Breguet’s finest pocket watches including the original “Marie-Antoinette”. Highly recommended.

Notes

1 The name may have been a misspelling and it is possible that it was a son or grandson of Charles Eugène Gabriel de La Croix de Castries.

2 SALOMONS, Sir David Lionel, Breguet. (1747-1823.), p. 4.

3 KIRSTA, Alix, The queen, her watch and the master burglar (Telegraph Magazine: 18th April 2009).

Bibliography

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

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).

SALOMONS, Sir David Lionel, Supplement. Breguet. (1747-1823.), London: Kent and Sussex Courier Company (1,000 copies printed). Illustrated with over 40 photographic reproductions (1921).

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