While most people are familiar with Breguet’s consistent ability to innovate in recent times, since being taken over in 1999 by Nicolas G Hayek, the founder of the Swatch group, they are probably not aware of its storied status in European cultural history. Its prodigiously inventive 18th century founder, Abraham Louis Breguet, was courted by the rich and the mighty right from the time he first set up his workshop at Ile de la Cité in Paris in 1775, because of his ability to innovate in a manner not many watchmakers at that time could. His inventions ranged from the automatic watch to the first shock-absorber device for watches (called the ‘pare-chute’), the famous balance spring that still bears his name, the first travelling clock, the ‘sympathique’ clock, the tactile watch and the tourbillon, and all were keenly sought after by people in high places all over Europe. From royalty to politicians, writers and musicians, the list of the great men and women who were fans of Breguet is very long. It is a brand that has become synonymous with beauty, culture, luxury and creativity over the centuries, a tradition that continues to the present day. To open Breguet’s client register is to plunge into history and discover famous names that have left their mark on it. Here are some of the more distinguished ones from the past.
Marie-Antoinette was one of the first and most fervent admirers of Breguet timepieces. She bought them for her own personal use and was quick to promote the talented master watchmaker in the French court and within her entourage. Breguet is believed to have created watch No. 160, known as `Marie Antoinette’, for the Queen, a timepiece featuring all the watch complications known at the time. Unfortunately she never got to see the piece, as its production was only completed 34 years after her death.
Caroline Murat was one of A.-L. Breguet’s most loyal customers. Between 1808 and 1814, she ordered no fewer than 34 timepieces from him. The younger sister of Napoleon I, who acceded to the throne of Naples in 1808, she promoted the arts and was quick to extol the virtues of Breguet. It was also on her request that the master watchmaker produced the first ever wristwatch, in 1810.
Also in Russia, the man who was later considered to be the nation’s greatest writer was born into an established noble family, which demonstrated a particular fondness for Breguet and became loyal customers. It was therefore only natural for Alexander Pushkin to portray a Breguet timepiece in his work Eugene Onegin: `A dandy on the boulevards (…), strolling at leisure until his Breguet, ever vigilant, reminds him it is midday.’
Whether for personal purposes or to further his various military expeditions, future emperor Napoleon Bonaparte keenly indulged in several Breguet creations, with a clear preference for repeater watches. He saw these prestigious timepieces as symbols of his social and political rise, which went hand-in-hand with the power he coveted. In 1798, a few days before leaving for Egypt, Napoleon bought travel clock No. 178 from A.-L. Breguet, which featured a quarter-hour repeater function.
SULTAN SELIM III
In the throes of the Napoleonic Wars, Turkey, which was still a French ally, proved a promising market for A.-L. Breguet. His meetings with the Turkish ambassador in Paris provided him with valuable details about the habits and tastes of this new clientele. Consequently, Breguet designed a series of `Turkish’ watches especially for the Ottoman market. One of these pieces was destined for Sultan Selim III, who later ordered a replica of the original.
HONORÉ DE BALZAC
Meanwhile in France, the famous novelist Honoré de Balzac also honoured a Breguet watch in his works. In Eugénie Grandet, he writes: “He drew out the most delicious thin watch that Breguet had ever made. Fancy, it is eleven o’clock, I was up early.” Today, the tables have turned and it is Breguet’s turn to pay tribute to these great authors, with its collections of writing instruments.
TSAR ALEXANDER I
From 1801, Breguet also met with enviable success in Russia. The house was nonetheless forced to cease its exports when Tsar Alexander I banned imports of French products in his territory, in response to Napoleon’s politics. However, this did not prevent the monarch from discreetly visiting A.-L. Breguet’s workshop on the Quai de l’Horloge. This influential historical figure would later inspire the “Réveil du Tsar” Classique watch, an exceptional contemporary timepiece combining an alarm function and a second time zone indication.
SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL
Over in the United Kingdom, Sir Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister who led the allies to victory over Germany in World War II, visited Breguet regularly, sometimes in order to make a purchase, as in 1928, but more frequently to have the watch he wore during his entire life serviced: the Breguet No. 765, an exceptional chronograph with a minute-repeater and flyback seconds.
Breguet’s clientele also included some great composers, such as Gioachino Rossini. In his lifetime, Rossini owned Breguet watch No. 4604, a very small, simple watch featuring a calendar, a gold engine-turned case and an off-centred silver dial. The Breguet archives indicate that Rossini came to have it serviced in 1843. After the composer’s death in 1868, his widow continued to have the piece serviced by Breguet. In 2010, Breguet drew inspiration from its historical links with Rossini to create an original timepiece, the `La Musicale’ Classique watch. Housing a patented musical mechanism, this timepiece plays the tune of The Thieving Magpie, an opera written by the famous Italian composer.