Abraham-Louis Breguet : a peculiar encounter.12

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Note : I still have to check some technical terms. If by chance you are quickier than me, please let me know what I should change. Thanks in advance. We can make it by Email (in contact).

The peculiar encounters about which I have written until now are focused on people I physically met and with whom I have spoken. This time it is different and it is little by little that Abraham-Louis Breguet came into my life. He is the kind of person that inspires me and I have nothing but admiration for such a personality !

The world of watchmaking entered my life in an unexpected way. I wanted to pay tribute to late my friend André Oppel. He had left some drawings, photo montages, catalogues and acronyms of the time he had worked for the industry. That marked the beginning of my love affair with the history of watchmaking, which is one of the mainstays of my adopted region (canton) in Switzerland. I realize that the watchmaking has developed powerful roots in my life. The name of’ Abraham-Louis Breguet was not unfamiliar to me as one of our streets, in Neuchâtel, bears his name.

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I ignore the reason why his first name « Abraham » was reduced to « Abram ». Lack of space ? If we take off the « H », there is more place but still not enough for the second « A »… It comes to my mind that long ago I had met in Neuchâtel a lady whose family name was « Dieu-de-Belle-Fontaine » (God-of-Beautiful-Fountain, a wonderful name, isn’t it ? She was upset with the taxes service as they used to ask her to pay for a substantial amount of taxes but her name was always truncated ! That belongs to the mysteries of the administration !

The written form Abram – Abraham : looking on the internet I found three towns that have streets with this name in Switzerland : Neuchâtel and La Chaux-de-Fonds use the name as on the picture and only Le Locle is the one which distinguishes itself with the right spelling « Abraham-Louis Breguet » ! It was also funny to see on the electronic directory that some institutions and people are listed under « Street A.-L. Breguet », which is resourceful, and even diplomatic way as they don’t make a choice !

Finally, on the streets, in Paris one sees :

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The odonym (proper names used also for lines of communication) used in Paris… according to Wikipedia, it is to pay tribute to Abraham-Louis Breguet. One cannot say that we see all the colours expression, but all spellings, yes ! The one who thought to correct « Breguet » by « Bréguet » was wrong.

I just found an answer : « Abram » was the written form at that period of time and it is also the spelling on Abraham-Louis Breguet’s certificate of baptism. Now we have solved something. But, as usually, once we have solved a question, comes another one : when did he change to the final form ? That question remains open.

The day I gave the documents André had left to the Watch Museum of Le Locle, I heard the name of Abraham-Louis Breguet associated with a lot of inventions he had made. My interest was immediately awakened.

The Breguet Museum in Paris. Upon visiting there, the guide, Mr. Richard Vassor, fed the admiration I had for the character Breguet. I suddenly felt the need to meet him… Just an illusion ? There are many ways to meet somebody, there is more than the physical dimension. Moreover, I am convinced that we have to celebrate clever, sensitive, fine people, those who bring something to the others and Breguet is a champion in this regard.

One of the first things that Mr. Vassor told me was that Breguet was one of the oldest watch brands still active. He added that the creation of the museum was due to Nicolas Hayek. Beg your pardon ? The Hayek I know is the one of Swatch. Exactly, said the guide. Mr. Hayek has a deep respect for the genius of A.-L. Breguet, as no other watchmaker has developed the branch as much as him and in so many aspects. We can consider him as the father of the modern watch industry. I tell myself that I was right to be attracted to him.

Abraham-Louis Breguet was born in the small town Les Verrières in the canton of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Indeed it was not the first time that I had heard so much about this place since I know that my friend Freddy Landry was born there too. It is again one of these coincidences in my life. So Mr. Breguet was born there in 1747 and he left this world in Paris in 1823. In 1775 he created his manufacturing base, in Quai de l’Horloge no 39, a place that I very well know as the clock of the Palace of Justice, some meters further on, is the most ancient public clock in Paris. I have even passed in front of the former manufacturing site without knowing that.

The list of inventions and improvements of A.-L. Breguet is impressive. I am not interested in the quantity of his successes, but more on the spirit that he made them. It is a spirit of reflection, of research for his clients, of adaptation to the needs, and all of that together with technical tips combined with his own unique aesthetics.

At that time, the baroque style still reigned, a style regarded as too much rich for some ones. I must say that I very much like that style. So, at that period of time the clocks had big needles and numbers and decorations abounded.

Let us see the contributions of Abraham-Louis Breguet :

1. Aesthetics : he becomes the father of modern aesthetics putting together simplicity and functionality. The needles and numbers of his watches are fine and delicate.

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This watch belonged to James Watt, who revolutionized transport with the steam engine ! That is fascinating for me and the watch looks so modern…

2. The art of guilloche : around 1785-87 Breguet started to utilize this art : very small lines, figures, that he engraves first on the boxes and then on the dial. The pinnacle is to do them is doing them by hand ; in that way every watch is unique. This art continues until this day, but very seldom are the craftsmen to practice it.

These two elements have revolutionised the aesthetics in the watch making. Since him, we will speak of « Breguet needles » which are made out of blue steel, having towards the tip a hollow apple, called eccentric apple. We will also speak of « Breguet figures » due to their finesse. It is the Breguet’s signature !

3. His first technological contribution, the shaking system (système à secousses), the perpetual watch, the automatic watch : at that time the watches were wound up using a key and the watchmakers were looking for a more practical system ; if you forgot to wind up the watch, or if you didn’t remind any more where you had put the key, you didn’t know anymore what time it was. Breguet is the first to create a watch that can be wound up when the wearer of the watch moves !

It is interesting to know that at that time people wore the watches in a vertical position, in the pocket. Breguet created a jerking system that adapts itself to body’s movements or to its owner’s pace. That must have been a sensation !

You understood, we are speaking about the so-called perpetual watch. But Breguet does not attribute the idea nor the name to himself ; he says that they are due to a 17th century German monk. Anyway, nobody had seen such a system before him !

These perfections and inventions will draw the attention of the King and Queen of France, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. She will be attracted by the stroke of the pencil, so to say, and He by the technical side. Breguet’s watches start to be in fashion and he manufactures watches, all different, for the crowned heads of Europe and other prestigious figures. We are around 1782.

Here we have a firs sample of Breguet’s customers :

  • Queen Marie-Antoinette ;
  • King Louis XVI ;
  • King George IV ;
  • Napoleon ;
  • Empress Joséphine ;
  • Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand ;
  • Selim III, ottoman sultan ;
  • Marshal Ney ;
  • Georges Washington ;
  • Queen Victoria ;
  • After Breguet’s death the personalities follow each other : Giacomo Rossini, Winston Churchill, Arthur Rubinstein, and so on.

The price of the watches range between 3 and 7 thousands gold francs… (to be verified)

Tsar Alexandre I, passionate about watchmaking, was a very good customer of Breguet.

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We see a podometer. In fact it is a military counter. A metronome gives the musical measure, the podometer gives the cadence of the soldiers’ footsteps. We are around 1820.

4. Pare-chute : system that protects the movements of the watch against shocks. Breguet is the first watchmaker that has this idea ! We are in 1790. At the bottom of the text you will find an anecdote on this subject as well as a note (no 6) on the spelling of its name.

After the French Revolution and the Terror period, a new class emerges, the bourgeoisie. Breguet is clever in many aspects and by instinct adapts to a new situation knows to put himself in the shoes of others in order to know what their needs are. He thinks of a practical but elegant watch that can be manufactured to a bigger scale ant of a payment system that will allow the new class to wear a watch, object that belongs from now on to the daily life. The solution is born under the name : the subscription watches!

5. The subscription watches : the price goes around 600 gold francs, an already large amount, but possible for the new social class. How the system worked : an account at the order, and the balance on delivery. The subscription watches have the minimum of elements, but they are reliable and precise ; if they have only the needle for the hours, the dial is big, very well done and you can read the time to within one or two minutes ! We are around 1797. Moreover, Breguet designed a watch that could be repaired by an average watchmaker, which was not the case with the other items he produced.

It is curious, but a single needle is enough ; the time is exact to within one or two minutes ! Thanks to the new payment system, which ensures more frequent cash inflows, Breguet was able to continue to manufacture very high-complication watches – these took much longer to be manufactured.

6. The tourbillon (whirlwind) : it is a mechanical system which makes every passionate watch dream as it improves the accuracy of time measurement by cancelling out the effects of the earth’s attraction on the watch. The mechanical watch has its movement disturbed by earth’s gravity. In addition, the movements, the motions of the watch wearer participate in the disruption of the mechanism. The tourbillon centers the watch, if we can say so, it is not any more disturbed and its precision is improved by an ingenious system (the mechanism of the watch is inside a mobile cage).

It is one of the few times that Breguet files a patent. We are in 1805. At that time five documents had to be presented and the Breguet Museum has one, written by Breguet’s son.

7. The tact watches : you must remember that in the 17th and 18th centuries people lived in the twilight. On top of that a candle cost a worker’s work week ! Even wealthy people had only a few lit candles and carried them from a room to another. So that it was difficult to know, if it was pitch dark in your bedroom, if you still could sleep three hours or one… Breguet had the idea to invent the tact watch : On the one hand we have the display with the needle or the needles and on the other one a needle in relief which gives the time by an ingenious system : you slide the needle which will lock in the time displayed on the other side ; it is synchronized with the automatic watch.

This invention was useful not only at nights but also if you had a meeting and you didn’t want to sound rude, you slept your hand into the pocket, touched the watch and you knew what the situation was, so to say. Hereby we have one of them :

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This is the medallion watch that Mme Bonaparte bought to A.-L. Breguet.

The hand is in relief, the diamonds represent the hours ; twelve, three, six and nine are indicated by bigger diamonds, noon differs by the chain. That is the system that allowed you to know what time it was by touching.

8. The travel clock : it is also an invention of Breguet : until then, when you travelled, you stopped the mechanism and you would wind it again once you would reach your destination ; you would find the time at a neighbour or in your automatic watch. Breguet invents a clock with a balance. The firs travel clock was sold to General Bonaparte (1798) ! The date at which Bonaparte went to the manufacture to collect it was three weeks before the campaign of Egypt. He is a young general. The same day he buys two pocket watches. For the record, his wives, his sister, his brothers, in short, the whole Napoleon’s family was Breguet’s customers.

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Extract from the register kept by Abraham-Louis Breguet. We distinguish « Général Bonaparte ». It is the consignment of the sale of one of the watches mentioned above. This one is at quarter repeater.

9. The alarm system : Breguet perfectionates and adapts the former system. In the museum you can see the ring watch of Count Alexander Demidov (1836). Not only it is a feat to design a watch on a ring, but it has also an alarm clock watch. The time is set by the crown on the right side and the alarm clock on the left one. This system allowed the count to set the alarm at a fixed time ; then, at that precise moment, a small spike would sink into the count’s finger to make him aware that the time was over ! Again, Breguet was ingenious as this system was also practical when you had a meeting, when you were in visit and so on. I tell myself that even today it would be interesting to have ii !

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Here we have the ring watch of count Alexander Demidov (the background is not uniform as the ring is in its original box. You very well see the crowns that allowed the mechanism to work.

The more I know about Abraham-Louis Breguet, the more I admire him. He wondered how he could make more simple and more pertinent at the same time the use of the « garde-temps » (timekeeper), the watch. He not only applied what his predecessors hat invented, created, introduced, but he would also take every element of the watch and lead it to some perfection. He succeeded as some of the mechanical watches from our time have inventions that Breguet introduced 200 years ago ! As I already said, the parts of the subscription watches could easily be taken out and put again if the watch broke down by an average watchmaker, and not only in his manufacture. Breguet thought of everything !

10. Mr. Vassor is passionate by his job, I can feel it. Hearing him talk about the watches, I understand that if we wear clothes, jewelry, a watch, there is a difference with the last one : clothes, we change them, jewelry, we even forget that we are wearing them, the watch, we wear it, we consult it, we use it almost the whole day ! It is a personal item. Do you want a proof ? Madame Joséphine Bonaparte ordered a watch in 1800 and when she becomes empress, she goes back to the manufacture to adjust the size of the diamonds. It was her watch and it shall continue to be her watch ! Later, she will have it personalised for her daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais – who becomes Queen of the Netherlands – by having an H encrusted in diamonds ; we are speaking about the medalion watch we saw above.

11. The first wristwatch : here again we have Breguet who invents it for Napoleon’s sister, Caroline Bonaparte, who becomes queen consort of Naples. In the archives, it is described as a « repeating wristwatch», « repeating » meaning that it sings the hours. In the registers we read :  « Oblong shaped repeating watch on gold and hair bracelet « . It was sold in 1810. It is absolutely fabulous to think about the birth of such a watch ! We all have or have had such a shaped watch without thinking about the way it came into this world !

And now we come to the complicated watches (in the A.-L. Breguet’s vocabulary !) : they are repeating watches on demand. it means that they have a button on which you can press and which will trigger the striking of the hour close to the quarter of a hour or the minute. And yet, on the outside, these watches is as aesthetically refined as the others ! In fact, in 1783 Breguet has already invented the gong spring that will replace the gong or the bell on the watches and which shall also allow to diminish the thickness of the striking watches. He will perfect his system until the strike will match to the second after the last quarter of an hour ! The other watchmakers will follow him.

12. The marine chronometer : it is Louis XVIII who appoints Breguet « Naval Watchmaker ». At the time a strong country has a strong navy for trade and wars. Until the invention of GPS there is the marine chronometer which allows to know where the boat is on a map. Before that, a ship could calculate its position in the middle of the ocean from north to south using the position of the stars and the Sun, but it had no mean to do so from east to west. In the field of chronometer, Breguet brings also innovations to the mechanisms. He also invents the double barrel chronometer. I suppose that an expert what we are speaking about… We are in 1815, but Breguet had already manufactured chronometers for the Spanish navy. The collaboration with the French navy shall last for three generations.

The GPS and the cellphone nowadays take stock from the distance between three different satellites around the Earth and thanks to the difference in times that we shall know the time we live and where we are located.

1823 Abraham-Louis Breguet dies. But his manufacture continues to exist for three generations in the family. In 1870, the watchmaking changes : watchmakers know how to manufacture exact watches and of a good quality on a bigger scale. It is also the era of electricity and Breguet’s son will be interested in it. It is also the era of the telegraph, of the telephone. Later, Breguet’s grand son, will sell the manufacture to his foreman Edward Brown. The trade Breguet remains by the Browns for almost hundred years, that is to say until around 1970. We owe to this family the fact that the manufacture survived the first World War, the crises of 1929, and the second World War. Not easy at all. Another wonderful thing is to be mentioned : the Brown family continued to feed the archives. They really belong to the Breguet family ! Two other investors follow and in 1999 Nicolas Hayek comes with the Swatch Group.

After the death of the manufacture founder, one continues to see his descendants and allies play a big role in technological changes.

Watchmaking, telegraphy, telephony, aviation : these are the domains where they are brilliant. His son, Antoine Louis, invented the first keyless winding watch, his grand-son Louis-François Clément, the one who sold the factory, is interested by electricity, the great-grandson Antoine Breguet becomes famous with the electric dynamo and the telephone. The first telephonic call in France was made between the 1st and the 3rd floor at 39 Quai de l’Horloge ! It is not nothing ; and Louis-Charles Breguet, Antoine’s son, is the founder of the « Compagnie des messageries aériennes » (The Air Courier Company), origin of « Air France » of which he is, according to Wikipedia, his founder too !

I come back to Abraham-Louis Breguet, as he is the one that interests me. I find him fascinating and it is possible that I envy a bit Mr. Richard Vassor for he works in such a place full of History and of personalities that have left an imprint in this world. I find there is nothing more remarkable than participating in binging amenities into the life of others. We all do it but some more that others. I particularly salute Mr. Breguet for that.

Notes :

  • how did all these watches arrive to the museum ? It is Nicolas Hayek and his family members who acquired them at auctions. We thank them for this wonderful action ;
  • all the watches of the museum were designed by Breguet but one, by the Brown family. The French army had launched a call for a watch for his pilotes. Breguet wins ! Fortunately the Brown had kept the name Breguet. They are worthy his successors ;
  • all the watches produced by Breguet have his signature and a number. This number appears in the Breguet’s archives where we also see the name of the owner, the specifics of the watch, the date of manufacture and purchase. The archives go back to the 18th century and the Paris museum is very proud of it ;
  •  Breguet never manufactured two same watches. One of those I saw has the phases oft he moon, it is the personal watch of Marie-Louise, the second wife of Napoleon ;
  • Breguet doesn’t keep all his inventions and improvements for him. He gives them further to his students and collaborators. He was convinced that we could only move forward through exchange !
  • here we have the anecdote about the watch system protection when a fall happens : Abraham-Louis Breguet was visiting Talleyrand and he speaks about his system. In order to proof what he says, he throws his watch against the floor and Talleyrand says : « This bloody Breguet always wants to do other than better ! »
  • in French the word that Breguet chose for « parachute » is « pare-chute », but in the dictionaries we find only the spelling like in English. The spelling « pare-chute » is made from the verb « parer » which means « protect ». All that is very interesting for me and I’ll have some discussions with specialists. I am sure that Breguet’s spelling is the right one !

As I say at the beginning, one should celebrate people who have contributed to improve our lives and it is the case of Abraham-Louis Breguet. The only thing that remains me to show is the manufacture building where I had the privilege to enter and sit in the living room and spend unforgettable moments with one of his descendants. All that gives me the impression that the spirit of Mr. Breguet is behind a door that I am unable to see but that I feel.

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One sees the windows lit. One could say that A.-L. Breguet is at his workbench thinking about one of his inventions !

I am publishing this article a 1st of March mars, the Neuchâtel Republic Day, a day that Abraham-Louis Breguet would have celebrated with joy if he had lived this historical day in 1848, as he was such an independent person. To be independent, ingenious, to bring so many nourishing innovations, that is wonderful. He passed his life exam !

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By the times I am living, I have the chance to see again some places in this world. I went back to the Breguet Museum and Mr. Vassor welcomed me again with his communicative enthusiasm and now I have the picture of Antoine Louis Breguet’s watch, Abraham-Louis Breguet’s son. The watch was manufactured between 1804 et 1817. It es mentioned that it is an experimental watch, but it is also his personal one. The son was aged between 30 and 40 years.

I am deeply thankful to Mr. Vassor for the explanations he gave me and I thank him for having allowed me to take pictures in the museum.


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