Breguet - an incredible story

The saga of the Marie-Antoinette watch is as complicated as the timepiece itself

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22 November 2012

Reference no. 160. Breguet. A few words that sound like a classification in a catalogue. In actual fact, they conceal an incredible, unbelievable story. A story of watchmaking brilliance. A beheaded queen. A tale of thievery, deception, a detective story, a chase all over Europe. A story running through about 240 years of history. It would make a fantastic film.

It has a happy ending. Breguet's pocket watch '1160 Marie-Antoinette' is a masterpiece of contemporary watchmaking, considered the fifth most complicated in the world. Its functions include hours, minutes, seconds, perpetual calendar, equation of time, a repeater that chimes hours, quarters and minutes, independent seconds (in other words, a chronometer), thermometer, and power-reserve indicator. It incorporates some new patents such as the straight-line perpetual calendar patented in 1997, and the perpetual equation of time mechanism patented in 1991.

The 1160 watch has a total of 823 components, with automatic mechanism and a platinum oscillating weight. Bridges and many components are in pink gold, wood-polished according to the finest traditions. Blued screws and extensive jewelling are accompanied by skeleton-work and a rock crystal dial and caseback that allows much of the movement to be seen. A masterpiece – it has been referred to as the Mona Lisa of watchmaking – that has been exhibited at Petit Trianon, Versailles, and the Louvre.

All this began a long, long time ago. In 1782, Queen Marie-Antoinette of France bought a watch from Breguet, reference 10/82, with repeater and perpetual calendar. She liked it. Next year, Abraham-Louis Breguet received another order, from an officer in the Queen's Guard, asking for another watch that incorporated all the complications known at the time. No limits of time, no limits of price. It was all a bit mysterious. Possibly the commission came from one of the Queen's admirers, perhaps Count Axel von Fersen. Whoever it was, it wasn't an order that could be ignored, and so Breguet started work, designing a watch that would include his two prime specialities, the perpetual calendar and the repeater mechanism, and a great deal besides. First of all, an automatic winding mechanism, at that time known as 'perpétuelle' and exclusive to Breguet, with a platinum oscillating weight. Power reserve, a thermometer, a large 'independent seconds hand' (which made the watch the first chronograph), small seconds, and a double pare-chute anti-shock system. All bearings in sapphire. The perpetual calendar included the four-year cycle. Without doubt it was the most complicated watch ever made for at least the next hundred years. It had a 60 millimetre case, with caseback and dial in rock crystal, housing the incredible total of 23 complications.

All this took a long time. The Breguet manufacture completed it in 1827. By then, poor Marie-Antoinette had been put to death, climbing the scaffold to the guillotine holding her last purchase from Breguet, a simple model that had been delivered to her in 1792, while she was in prison. Abraham-Louis Breguet himself had died. It's not clear to whom Breguet sold this masterpiece, but, according to the company records, they saw it again in 1838 when one Marquis dello Groye brought it to them for maintenance. Another mystery: he never returned to collect it. The maison kept it until 1887, when they sold it to a British collector, Sir Spencer Brunton. It changed hands several times in later decades, until 1974, when its final owner, Vera Salomons, donated it, along with the rest of her father's collection of watches, to the LA Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem.

In 1983, the entire collection of watches conserved at the museum was stolen. Notwithstanding the efforts of the Interpol, by 2004 there was still no trace of the 'Marie-Antoinette,' valued at about $30 million, nor of the rest of the collection. So Nicolas G. Hayek, CEO of the Swatch Group that owned Breguet and many other watch brands, decided to re-create this incredible watch. All that Breguet had to go on were some brief descriptions, simplified drawings, and a few old photographs. They also had some other antique movements that reflected some parts of Reference 160. The engineers at Breguet put together all the clues and began to work on the new 'Marie-Antoinette.'

At this stage, another player enters the scene. In Versailles, an old oak traditionally associated with Marie-Antoinette had to be cut down, at the age of 322 years, in 2003 following gales and drought. Nicolas G. Hayek sent a Breguet delegation to Versailles in the hope of buying part of the Marie-Antoinette oak in order to make a casket for the watch that, when completed, would bear the same name. The Versailles authorities accepted, and in return asked Breguet to restore a statue in the park. Hayek generously said that he would prefer to restore the entire Petit Trianon, buildings used and loved by Queen Marie-Antoinette, an investment of €5 million. The timber was taken to Switzerland, and work began on the casket.

In 2007, the watch was complete, and it started running for the first time. News of the story appeared in the press. Soon after, Nicolas G. Hayek received an email. Someone was offering him the original Marie-Antoinette!

The Swatch CEO contacted the police, who started investigations, and found that someone was trying to sell some of the watches stolen from the museum in Jerusalem. After a lot of detective work, it was found that the seller was the widow of a notorious Israeli thief who had fled to Europe and then the USA, and confessed this particular crime to his wife on his deathbed.

Meanwhile, Marie-Antoinette 2.0 was complete, along with the casket, beautifully inlaid with over 1,000 pieces of different types of wood, created by a cabinetmaker in Val de Joux. In April 2008, the watch was presented at Baselworld, and in October 2008, Breguet presented the completion of the Petit Trianon, after a restoration project designed to show the building as if the Queen had just left. In other words, a home and not a museum.

Nicolas George Hayek died suddenly in June 2010, while at work at the Swatch Group headquarters in Biel. He had contributed a lot to the Renaissance of the Swiss watch industry following the quartz revolution, masterminding the Swatch concept, and the continuing success of fine watch brands including Blancpain, Omega, Longines, Tissot, Breguet and others. He also played an important part in the launch of the Smart car. But probably the finest monument to his work is the Marie-Antoinette. The original is back in the museum in Jerusalem, but it was a very complicated story involving insurance, ownership and ongoing investigations. Hayek never saw the original version of the watch that he had so lovingly recreated.

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