Time with Henry: Breguet and its Watches Fit for a Queen Featured

An exhibition in Hong Kong, held in September 2017, highlighted Breguet’s remarkable heritage in the area of women’s watches. Two of the founder’s most important clients were queens...

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08 October 2017

 

It’s surprising that there are still quite a lot of women’s watches that are made simply by reducing the size of a men’s watch and putting some diamonds around the bezel. This is not the case for Breguet, and this is not surprising. One of Abraham-Louis Breguet’s best clients, back in the early 19th century, was no less than Queen Marie-Antoinette, and in 1810, the brilliant watchmaker created possibly the first ever wristwatch, for Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples.

The Marie-Antoinette watch

Breguet’s horological relationship with women was celebrated by an exhibition held in the Peak Suite of the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong, on 21 and 22 September 2017. The story of Marie-Antoinette is a tale of drama and tragedy, but there was much more to this unfortunate queen than you would suspect. When she arrived in France, she was just 14, and a high-spirited tomboy, and accustomed to the Habsburg etiquette which was expected only at official events. At Versailles, etiquette ruled every moment of the day. In 1774, this girl became Queen of France. The year after, Abraham-Louis Breguet set up his watchmaking atelier in Paris, and was soon introduced to the French court. Marie-Antoinette was fascinated by his pocket watches, and purchased many of them. One of the last was a fairly simple timepiece, and she was holding it in her hands, tied behind her back, on the morning of 16 October 1793, when she climbed the scaffold, as if counting the handful of seconds remaining to the end of her life.

Marie-AntoinettePortrait of Marie-Antoinette

Breguet was still working on another timepiece destined for the Queen, number 160. It had been commissioned by a man of uncertain identity, who requested a pocket watch as complex as possible, incorporating all conventional watch complications, and others besides – even a thermometer. It was to be made in gold wherever possible, and it was to have a caseback in rock crystal, so that its workings could be admired. Marie-Antoinette never saw it and probably never even suspected of its identity. The mysterious customer who commissioned it, believed to be Count von Fersen, by some accounts Marie-Antoinette’s lover, never collected the watch that was completed 44 years after its commission. Abraham-Louis Breguet himself died four years before it was finished – it was completed by his son and assistants.

breguetDetail of the reproduction of Breguet n° 160

The story of Abraham-Louis Breguet’s watch number 160 – often known simply as “The Queen” – is worthy of a film. The precious timepiece ended up in the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem, from where in 1983 it was stolen, along with about a hundred other watches, by Na’aman Diller, a talented thief. He worked alone and it was the perfect crime – while he was alive he was never connected to the theft. The watch had seemingly disappeared into thin air.

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The company that Breguet had founded survived through alternating fortunes, and in 1999 it was purchased by the Swatch Group, helmed by Nicolas G. Hayek. In 2005, Hayek, who had learned of the story of Breguet’s watch n° 160, set his engineers and watchmakers the challenge of reproducing the lost masterpiece. He presented the result on 4 April 2008, Breguet n° 1160, the Marie-Antoinette.

Nicolas Hayek and Breguet n° 1160Nicolas Hayek and Breguet n° 1160

Ironically, the original n° 160 had just reappeared. Na’aman Diller had died in the USA in 2004, and a few days before his death, he told his wife about the crime. In 2006, his widow, acting through a lawyer, sold 40 of the stolen watches back to the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art. And there it remains. Nicolas G. Hayek, who died unexpectedly in June 2010, became another personality involved in the story of Breguet n° 160 who never managed to see the watch first-hand.

Another queen - Caroline Murat

After the Queen’s untimely end, Breguet continued relations with France’s ruling classes, and in particular Caroline Murat, Napoleon Bonaparte’s younger sister and Queen of Naples. She commissioned a watch rather different to the usual pattern. “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 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.”

Caroline MuratCaroline Murat

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.

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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?

Breguet Reine de Naples “Grande Complication” 8978Breguet Reine de Naples “Grande Complication” 8978 minute repeater

Today, the piece lives on in 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 and minute repeaters. All of them are quintessentially feminine.

The event in Hong Kong presented a series of pieces from Breguet’s superb collection of women’s jewellery watches, both classical pieces and the latest creations presented at Baselworld 2017. The watchmaking company perpetuates Abraham-Louis Breguet’s undisputed watchmaking brilliance, with timepieces featuring remarkable complications and superb finish – for men, women... and queens.

Breguet Crazy Flower watchBreguet Crazy Flower watch

For more 'Time With Henry' visit our Watches page.