The Breguet Legacy

Part II

by Carlos Perez

December 17, 2002

“All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth come only from the senses.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche

Under the ownership of the imperial Swatch Group, Montres Breguet is now a central focus of its powers-that-be. Naturally not satisfied with merely being the richest and most powerful, the time has come for Swatch to reach for the crown of horological prestige, something presently contested between the independent Patek Philippe and the Richemont-owned newcomer Lange Uhren. At this time Montres Breguet is one of a crowd of ostensibly first tier backmarkers, and in truth is not yet even in contention for a backhanded “best-of-the-rest” nomination. And while Montres Breguet is very much invested now in brand management and restoration of the Breguet brand name, one thing that remains relatively neglected is the state of the product itself.

Inter-group hostilities have led Swatch to dam the supply of ebauches from Nouvelle Lemania, while replacing ebauches formerly sourced by Montres Breguet from Richemont-owned Jaeger-LeCoultre with readily available ebauches from its own Frederic Piguet. But the watches fitted with the new calibres are at this point simply replacements, unchanged other than for the odd display back. In all of the massive expenditures being made on behalf of the Breguet name, there has been little visible movement to evolve or improve Breguet branded watches. We can at this time only hope that there are great works that progress in secret, awaiting a glorious unveiling in time.

As a matter of principle, the question remains as to what path Breguet should be taken on, and I do not doubt that an enthusiast viewpoint is likely quite different than the viewpoint of most-profitable commerce. But the restoration of legitimacy and authenticity is something that must be done to appease the enthusiast, or at least the collector. Where this legitimacy is lost or gained does indeed lie in the product, however clever the marketing. Overcast by the shadow of Abraham-Louis Breguet himself, and the legacy of watches made by him and at his direction, Montres Breguet can only step up to the standard set by him and the path laid out by him, or continue to falter by the wayside as under Chaumet and Investcorp. Where the house has gone astray lies in the legacy of those post-boutique years – specifically in the watches created then and which are still being produced today.

The watches sold by AL Breguet and his immediate descendants can be divided roughly into two basic categories: Those made by AL Breguet himself and his assistants in Paris; and those purchased from other makers and sold with the Breguet signature. These latter are of no interest to us here, though they are not technically “fake.” Of the watches made by AL Breguet, two further basic subdivisions can be created: the bespoke watches individually designed and made to order; and the series made subscription (“lay-a-way”) watches sold to less affluent aristocrats and bourgeoisie. Naturally the most celebrated, or horologically ‘important’ works are the unique pieces.

In turning the Breguet boutique operation into a mass producer the capacity to produce unique pieces was unnecessarily set aside, or simply lost. Montres Breguet’s limited edition and limited production watches, while often wonderful pieces, do not make up for the essence lost by not investing in and continuing the art of crafting unique watches and clocks which so defined the original house and embodied the watchmaking vision of the man himself.

Under Chaumet – and reinforced by Investcorp – the Breguet style was reduced simply to the guilloche dial and blued Breguet hands. This has become so ingrained over the years that anyone else who attempts to adopt this once common French style is now called a Breguet wannabe. While it is an important part of the aesthetic created by AL Breguet (1786), it overlooks the earlier invention of his Arabic numerals (1783) featured on a white enamel dial as shown here, and his occasional use of the classic Roman numerals on white enamel. Both of his signature styles became common French design usage in the 19th century, but the earlier was neglected by Montres Breguet until Swatch wisely revived it in a few recent models. As Patek Philippe’s 5022 Officer’s watch preceded these new offerings to market, it is unlikely that it will be understood to be a Breguet signature that is as important as the guilloche dial – at least for some time to come.

Built up over the last 30 years, Montres Breguet’s “Classiques” collection forms the central theme of their watch production. The designs are primarily derived from Breguet et Fils simple subscription watches and some of the semi-complicated unique pieces, with some original work done in high complications. Silvered guilloche is the mainstay, and unfortunately the non-silvered gold guilloche dials which AL Breguet sometimes used is not something regularly featured on any present wristwatch models, though it has appeared occasionally in the past. Sadly, the elegant craft of the engine-turned dial is often made a bit gauche here by the “guilloche main” printed upon them. Likewise, the serial numbering system which worked for AL Breguet’s handmade watches was rarely inscribed on the dials of his watches, and even when done so was much more understated. The present mimicry of that numbering system is largely meaningless on today’s mass produced Breguets, and can only become more so with production projected to more than double.

The watches which deviate most from AL Breguet’s aesthetic principles are, naturally, the most distinctly recognizable. As the inventor of the tourbillon regulator, to my knowledge Breguet himself never made a watch where the mechanism was visible through a dial aperture. Dial-display tourbillons are of course the standard in the current market – likely a standard created and set by Montres Breguet sometime in the last quarter century. Protesting this now is spitting into the wind of established market preference and practice, but we note the disparity.

We also note that while Breguet made some partially skeletonized watches in his time, Montres Breguet’s lingering fascination with heavily skeletonized and engraved watches has little to do with his vision and his pursuit of high craft watchmaking. Despite these two significant deviations from the dogma, the Classiques collection remains the foundation of the house’s work, with the strongest connection to AL Breguet’s vision. At least on the face of it. They have failed thus far it seems to connect with the modern market, which is still seeking a deeper type of exclusivity, or proof of legitimacy, that Montres Breguet does not yet offer. It seems that it will take more than the ‘Breguet look,’ despite the truly lavish way which Montres Breguet executes it.

Likewise, the Heritage and Type XX collections are perfectly nice watches – on the face of it. Lacking any historical or philosophical connection to AL Breguet, they are primarily undermined by their watchmaking: The lack of form movements in the former, and the lack of a column wheel calibre in the latter. Most dubious of the new lines is the Marine collection, which is too easy and obvious a target to deride further. I feel that the appellation “Marine” would have better served a special group of high accuracy ‘chronometer’ grade, perhaps observatory certified watches, following the stern but elegant functionalism of the classical marine chronometer style. While there are a few such products already established in the market, there always remains room to do it better, something which Breguet’s heritage nearly demands.

Bringing the broken record to a stop, the subject of watchmaking is something that can no longer be avoided as the most fundamental element which strikes at the heart of the authenticity of Breguet branded wristwatches – the largely dead language of French watchmaking. While cases can be made for AL Breguet being a Neuchatelois that emigrated to France, or for being of a French family which merely returned to France, it is not our place to argue the murky truths of genealogy. It is perhaps enough to say that AL Breguet learned watchmaking as a youth in Paris, choose to live and work his entire adult life in Paris, and made watches in the distinctively French style. A national style which he contributed to, and played a large part in defining for the 19th century.

While a handful of purists (including myself) hunger for a Breguet truly “Made in France”, the market perception of “Swiss Made” superiority combined with the tax burden and labour laws of socialist France all but make impossible a return to French, much less Parisian manufacture. The original Paris-based Breguet SA is now just the French distributor of Swiss-made Breguet watches. Thus, Montres Breguet as a Swiss concern with its manufacturing base also in Switzerland faces the issue of whether it intends to make antique French-styled Swiss watches as it does now, or to make watches following and continuing the old French watchmaking philosophy, ethos, and aesthetic, albeit in Switzerland. One road leads to simulacra, the other could lead to something never achieved by Chaumet or Investcorp.

The real conceptual individuality of the French tradition of watchmaking began in Paris with Jean-Antoine Lepine in the mid-18th century. It was he who initiated the leap from bulky pair cased watches with full-plate movements, to the fully bridged movement in an extra-flat single case. He also invented the floating mainspring barrel which remains an essential component of ultrathin calibre design. You can see here a movement made by Lepine himself; a true “Lepine calibre.” Also note the finishing style which is a definitive element of high-grade French watchmaking. Here the plates and bridges are given a frosted gilt finish, and all screws are deeply heat blued. There are no unnecessary decorations or other flourishes, just high-quality watchmaking.

While Breguet did some work with ¾ plate calibres for his tourbillons and perpetuelles, as well as full-plate calibres for marine chronometers, his in-house movement design and production focused almost entirely on bridged calibres (example shown at top) following Lepine’s innovation. These thin French movements and watches lay in direct contrast with the watchmaking of England and Germany, which were more focused on robustness, and which were also given to additional decorative elaboration through various degrees of engraving – much more so in England. When the watchmakers of these nations made the move to thinner watch and calibre designs they chose the stable ¾ plate, not the more elaborate and delicate full-bridge which had become the French, and later the Swiss-French standard.

In the post-boutique era Montres Breguet has followed two different styles of movement finishing, neither of them in the French tradition. Most common is the standard modern Swiss quasi-Genevois style, fully striped and rhodium plated. The other is in the old English style, heavily engraved and gilt, which they use for more expensive semi-complicated watches and high complications. The French style, most beautiful of all in its simplicity, is nowhere to be found.

Further, the French passion for thinness – which passed onto the Swiss-French to a degree – cannot be overstated when it comes to what ought to be considered appropriate for the present and future Montres Breguet collections. In theory all watches other than the tourbillons and chronometers should be ‘ultra-thin.’ The 2.4mm thick automatic calibre 71 supplied by Frederic Piguet is, I think, the kind of movement that should be the base automatic of the entire line, not merely featured in their higher grade pieces. That there there should be no lower grade at the house of Breguet nearly goes without saying. And while the 3.25mm thick F. Piguet calibre 1150 recently adopted by Montres Breguet is an excellent movement, its increased thickness makes it less desirable conceptually, as does its strong association with Blancpain and its many other third party users (given the values of today’s collectors).

The Piguet 71 also provides an excellent example of how some Swiss-French watchmaking can be easily made almost wholly French in style, allowing it to stand apart from the crowd of its Genevois styled competitors. Already ultra-thin and fully bridged, I think it would take little to restyle this movement in the mode of the famous “Montres Perpetuelles Breguet:” With blued screws, a blued regulator, a frosted gilt finish for plates and bridges, and a plain platinum rotor, one would have a movement that would evoke “Breguet” without even needing the name inscribed on it. Given the need for exclusivity, it wouldn’t hurt to remove the movement from its limited usage in Blancpain’s classique watches, as well as terminate any ebauche sales, making it exclusively Breguet. All this is possible without the capital investment or model changes required by creating a new ‘in-house’ calibre.

If the house’s watchmaking style were brought more in line with the style of AL Breguet’s watchmaking, then all of those expensive antique watches purchased at auction could be used in Breguet’s marketing to better effect, demonstrating the legitimacy of the present wristwatches by direct link. Of course, the in-house frenzy does require new in-house movements in time, and far be it from me to complain. Indeed the flow of millions from Mr. Hayek’s pocket would perhaps serve better to retool Breguet-Lemania to compete with Lange Uhren, Patek Philippe, and Audemars Piguet, rather than attempting to scoop the entire extent of AL Breguet and Breguet et Fils pocket watches from the aftermarket. This seeming attempt to acquire legitimacy for the house by acquisition, will I think always be less satisfying to the potential Breguet owner than having more authentic wristwatches produced by the house.

The most recent watches introduced by Breguet offer a glimmer of promise for a new vision that will lead the house away from the stagnation and pervasive mediocrity of its prior ownership. They are akin to the Villeret collection produced by sister company Blancpain, and their antique-style soldered lugs further the impression of the classic wristlet watch. But this, in the early 19th century style versus Blancpain’s 20th century Modernity. Though oversized, these new 40mm Classiques are on the whole a good example of what is needed, though the fluted case edge which has become a Montres Breguet fetish interferes with the full thinness potential of the watches – symptomatic of a fixation which the house must overcome: The holism of design must override the narrow dogma of “identifying marks”, while remaining true to the spirit of the house.

On the whole the task set out for Mr. Hayek is a Herculean one, and with little direct insight into his vision for the house, we as enthusiasts can only wonder, speculate, and hope. Thus far every silver lining found also bears a cloud, but it is still a sunnier outlook than anything in recent memory. Certainly I am in no position to dictate the path of Montres Breguet’s development, but it remains in the hands of Mr. Hayek to convince us as a community that his wristwatches are the true heirs to the legacy of Abraham-Louis Breguet.

Even setting aside everything I have written here, the contents of Swatch’s Breguet museum provides all of the inspiration that one would need to continue AL Breguet’s work, assuming that this is the intent of the house. To what degree we may presume to have any expectations as hobbyists in the art of horology lies in the significance of Breguet’s contribution to that art. Like the works of Leonardo, the name and idea of ‘Breguet’ is a part of our common heritage, and something which I think belongs to us all.

Image Credits

Breguet et Files No. 564 “souscription” calibre (1802), Breguet et Fils No. 3872 (1825), Lepine Invenit et Fecit à Paris No. 6131 calibre (1805), original Breguet document (1821); courtesy of Antiquorum.

Copyright © Carlos A. Perez  2002
All Rights Reserved