Breguet at the Louvre: An Apogee of European Watchmaking

Breguet No. 1160

Apogee means culmination or high point. In astronomy, it refers to the point in a heavenly body’s orbit when it is furthest from earth, or, in other words, when it is most out of this world. All of these describe “Breguet at the Louvre,” a retrospective exhibition that runs through September 7.

More than 2 years in the making, this is the most important showing of A.L. Breguet timepieces and historical items ever mounted. It includes both exceptional loans and significant pieces never before displayed publicly. Loans have been extended by the Louvre, the British Royal Collections, the Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris, the Kremlin Museum, Moscow, and the Swiss National Museum, Zurich. Items not previously shown publicly include Breguet’s original patent for the tourbillon and a magnificent Sympathique clock and watch set that are part of Queen Elizabeth’s personal effects.

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This portrait of Abraham-Louis Breguet is displayed at the exhibition.
Abraham-Louis Breguet portrait

A Man of Many Talents

Abraham-Louis Breguet’s contributions to horology, and indeed to the watch industry as we know it today, can hardly be overstated. His aesthetic sense – the Breguet style – remains a moving force in watch design more than 200 years after its creation. His notable achievements include, among others, the first watch designed to be worn on the wrist (ordered by Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples in 1810), the self-winding movement, the tourbillon regulator, “pare-chute” shock-protection, a balance-spring-powered travel clock that could function during transportation, a constant-force escapement, striking mechanisms, spring gongs, and the first watch designed to be read by touch. He created (though he did not personally complete) what may be the most famous timepiece in history, the beautiful and complex “Marie-Antoinette.”

Below, Breguet No. 1160, a modern recreation of the original No. 160 “Marie-Antoinette.”
Breguet No. 1160

His achievements brought Breguet a client list that included the Who’s Who of his age, including royalty, statesmen, military leaders and intellectuals: Louis XVI, Louis XVIII, King George IV of England, Napoleon Bonaparte, Marie-Antoinette, Tsar Alexander I of Russia, the Prince of Wales, the Empress Josephine, and the Duke of Wellington, to name but a few.

Breguet was also an astute entrepreneur. He built a broad distribution network for his timepieces by actively cultivating foreign markets and producing watches designed for their tastes. He introduced the simple “souscription” watch and allowed customers to secure their position by depositing one-quarter of the purchase price upon placing their order. This approach assured a steady flow of capital and work.

Yet despite his mind for business, Breguet’s heart clearly followed the artist’s path. Rather than serially producing identical watches, Breguet devoted time to details, and to experimentation. The result is that no two Breguet watches are exactly alike. It is thought that approximately 5000 timekeepers of all types bearing his name were produced during his lifetime, and each is a unique piece of history. Interestingly, previously unknown Breguet timepieces continue to surface today. In recent years, a few have been discovered in the collections of Russian museums.

Breguet Pocketwatch

Breguet achieved all this while “living during interesting times,” to paraphrase an old saying. He launched his career as a Parisian watchmaker in 1775, and by 1780 he was accepting orders from the royal family. His service to the very highest echelons of society placed him at risk during the French Revolution, and in 1793, he obtained an official passport and traveled to Switzerland. Breguet managed his business affairs and continued his technical developments there until his return to Paris in 1795. Following the Revolution, Breguet rebuilt his business and achieved his greatest successes, counting many members of the Bonaparte family among his clients. This association meant that Breguet’s timepieces witnessed history. For example, in April, 1798, General Bonaparte purchased two complicated watches and Breguet’s new spring-driven travel clock to use during his Egyptian Campaign.

Breguet’s achievements brought him widespread renown and gold-medal awards at national exhibitions. He was named a member of the French Académie des Sciences and he was awarded the insignia of chevalier of the Legion of Honour. He was, simply, the leading watchmaker of his day, and today he is widely acknowledged as the greatest watchmaker of all time. Yet Breguet was more than a watchmaker; he was and inventor, engineer, artist, craftsman and entrepreneur. He was a singular personality whose multifaceted accomplishments transcend time.

The Exhibition

The musée du Louvre provides the perfect setting for this exhibition. It is not only the world’s most well-known and prestigious museum, but Breguet lived about 500 meters from the spot where his life’s work is now on display. As one of the world’s great cultural institutions, the Louvre has also benefited from the generosity of Montres Breguet President and CEO Nicolas G. Hayek. In addition to selecting the Louvre to host the exhibition, Mr. Hayek is funding restoration work on the museum’s Louis XIV Wing – namely the Council of State Rooms and Salon Beauvais. This gift is part of Mr. Hayek’s ongoing mission to restore and preserve Europe’s cultural heritage.

The Louvre provides an unsurpassed setting for the exhibition.

The Louvre

Once inside, the exhibition is beautifully presented. The low light creates a hushed, reverent atmosphere, while the illumination in the displays shows off the historical treasures within to great effect. The exhibition is arranged chronologically, with 146 exhibits in eight sections covering every phase of Breguet’s career. The show’s horological highlights include three of Breguet’s most complicated watches. No. 45 displays both the Gregorian and the Republican “decimal” calendars. Breguet made only 3 Republican calendar timepieces. No. 1160, the modern recreation of the famous No. 160 “Marie-Antoinette” is also displayed. Its polished rock-crystal dial allows visitors to appreciate its exquisite, complex movement. The exhibition includes many other examples of Breguet’s technical achievements such as his Perpétuelle self-winding watches and multiple original tourbillons. There is also an unusual large-scale demonstration tourbillon that was later purchased by King George IV of England. Visitors will also see examples of the “pare-chute” shock-protection system, constant force escapements, and more.

Breguet at the Louvre
Breguet at the Louvre
Breguet at the Louvre

Breguet No. 45
Breguet No. 45

The demonstration tourbillon purchased by King George IV of England

Demonstration Tourbillon

The beautiful No. 5 quarter-repeating, self-winding watch is on display. To many, this is the quintessential Breguet timepiece. It is complicated yet thin. It reflects the highest levels of craftsmanship, yet it is not ostentatious. The crystal-clear displays are arranged asymmetrically. The dial incorporates the trademark guilloché, with blued steel “Breguet” hands, and “Breguet” numerals.

Breguet No. 5
Breguet No. 5

At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, visitors can view Empress Josephine Bonaparte’s medallion tact watch, No. 611, with its deep blue enamel case with a diamond-inlaid gold arrow and large diamonds marking the hours around the outer edge of the case.

Several important clocks are displayed, including the Sympathique set with Nos. 666 and 721, loaned by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, a pair of clocks with constant force escapements, and No. 178, the travel clock purchased by General Bonaparte for use during his Egyptian campaign, loaned by the Swiss National Museum in Zurich. The exhibit also includes marine chronometers, including one purchased by Tsar Alexander I of Russia for use by the Russian Navy.

Clocks with constant force escapements
Clocks with constant-force escapements

No. 666 and No. 721 Sympathique clock and watch
No. 666 and No. 721 "Sympathique"

No. 3778, travel clock with day and date indications
Breguet No. 3778

No. 3196, a twin-barrel marine chronometer.
Breguet No. 3196

For many, the chance to view original historical documents will match the thrill of the mechanical masterpieces, for these provide a rarely-seen window into Breguet’s inner world. In addition to the original tourbillon patent, visitors can view ledgers from Breguet’s workshop, including a page identifying the watchmakers who worked on No. 160 and the particular work each performed. As an aside, the numbers used to identify Breguet’s watches, such as No. 5 or No. 160, are based on numbers assigned to the timepieces in his ledgers. The exhibition also includes a workshop notebook with drawings and text in Breguet’s own hand.

The original tourbillon patent, issued in 1801.
The original tourbillon patent

A workshop notebook in the hand of Abraham-Louis Breguet.
Breguet workshop notebook

The exhibition is curated by Marc Bascou, curator in the Department of Decorative Arts at the musée du Louvre, and by Emmanuel Breguet, a seventh-generation descendent of A.L. Breguet and a historian specializing in the works of Breguet at Montres Breguet S.A. It runs through September 7. Considering the more than 2 years of planning, the number of important loans and the never-before-seen pieces, the exhibition represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the most significant works by the greatest watchmaker of all time in the grandest of settings. If you appreciate fine watches, a singular experience awaits.

All images taken by the author, except: No. 3196 marine chronometer, No. 3778 travel clock, No. 666 and 721 Sympathique set, and the workshop notebook. Provided images used with permission.

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