Marie Antoinette, Queen of France from 1774 to 1793, was a victim of the Revolution, but during her life she did a lot to cultivate the arts and sciences in France. She commissioned many watches from Abraham-Louis Breguet, becoming one of his most important and influential customers. Particularly famous is watch No. 160, ordered by a mysterious figure – possibly Count von Fersen – as a gift for the Queen. The commissioner requested that the watch should contain all the known complications, and the watch, which took over 40 years to complete, remained the most complicated timepiece ever made for almost a century.
The links between Marie Antoinette and Breguet continue still today. After the Queen’s untimely end, Breguet continued relations with France’s ruling classes, and in particular Caroline Murat, Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister and Queen of Naples. She commissioned a watch from Abraham-Louis Breguet specifying that, instead of being the usual pocket watch, it should be small, slender, and mounted on a wristlet in gold thread. It took Breguet two years' work, involving 17 craftsmen, to complete the piece, but in the end, the oval watch was delivered on 21 December 1812. It was possibly the first wristwatch in the world.
Today, the heritage of that wristwatch and of Marie Antoinette lives on in two special pieces exhibited in Tokyo. Désir de la Reine has the oval shape of the watch made for Caroline Murat, but it features one of the most iconic features of Marie Antoinette’s dress, the bow, placed at the bottom of the case. The dial is an unusual, asymmetric composition featuring mother-of-pearl studded with graded pink sapphires and diamonds. The watch has a self-winding movement, as is appropriate for a timepiece fit for that particular Queen.
Breguet Classique Rose de la Reine, N° 9075, celebrates Marie Antoinette’s special love for roses, with a meticulous, botanical depiction of the Rosa centifolia bullata rendered in enamel. The craftsmanship involved is nothing short of astounding: the enameller applies the colour not in liquid form, but in powders, delicately positioned on the pure white enamel base using a tiny sable brush, and then fired at over 800°C. Each colour requires a separate firing. The watch is embellished by diamonds, Breguet open-tipped hands, and a circle of indices consisting of small gold dots. A self-winding mechanical movement can be viewed through the sapphire crystal caseback. This is a one-off piece.
The exhibition celebrating Marie Antoinette and Breguet is running at:
Mori Arts Center Gallery
52F Roppongi Hills Mori Tower
6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Opening times 10am-8pm (Tues until 5 pm). Tel. 03-5777-8600