Life wasn’t bad for Caroline Murat, née Bonaparte, in Naples. Her husband Gioacchino had crowned his meteoric career, which began as son of an inn-keeper, with a prestige post. After a rapid rise through the ranks of Napoleon’s army, he secured his new role as King of Naples in 1808. Caroline, as ambitious as her brother Napoleon, was free to continue one of her favourite pursuits: collecting watches.
And so on 8 June 1810, in the heat of the Neapolitan afternoon, Caroline called her personal secretary to the drawing-room of her palace, and dictated a letter to Abraham-Louis Breguet, her trusted watchmaker working in Paris.
“M. Breguet, we wish you to make a watch with slender lines, and, in addition to the usual hours and minutes, it should chime the time when we desire, and it should have a thermometer, something for which, here in Naples, is important for us and our health. We wish it to be small and thin, and instead of a chain, it should be mounted on a wristlet in gold thread, so that it shall be a piece of jewellery, on our wrist at all times.”
I’m inventing here, because the letter (I believe) hasn’t survived, and neither has the watch. But there is no doubt that Caroline had unknowingly commissioned something ground-breaking. At a time at which most timepieces were either pocket watches or clocks, she had invented the wristwatch, way ahead of the years in which it reached widespread popularity in the early 20th century.
Breguet was a perfectionist, and he was only satisfied with the watch after two years and the work of 17 craftsmen. It was delivered on 21 December 1812. With a graceful oval shape, it was unusually thin, particularly considering the intricacies of the repeater complication. Breguet’s jewellers made a beautiful wristlet in gold thread, adding intertwined hair for extra strength. The Breguet workshops saw the watch twice more, in 1849 and in 1855, when it was returned by Caroline’s daughter for maintenance. The entry in the company archives reveals that the timepiece had a silver dial with Arabic numerals, and a fast/slow indicator. After 1855, the watch apparently disappeared from circulation. Who knows where it is today?
It lives on in the form of the Reine de Naples collection, watches that have the same oval shape, a whole range of bracelets and decorative finishes, and Breguet’s superb mechanical movements inside. The models range from hour and minute functions, to complications such as moon phases. All of them are quintessentially feminine.
On 9 June 2014, in Milan, the anniversary of the first wristwatch was celebrated at the maison’s boutique on Via Montenapoleone. Staff dressed in period costume, and even a drawing room with authentic decoration and furniture, recreated a regal atmosphere. The brand invited some journalists—all girls, of course!—and immersed us into a long-lost world. We saw a cameo craftsman from Naples, carving superb bas-reliefs on conch shells, a technique that is used on dials of some Reine de Naples watches. I was even able to try on some of these watches. Not just beautiful, but also perfectly shaped and very comfortable on the wrist.
So for an all too brief moment in 21st century Milan, I had the sensation of being none other than the Queen of Naples!