Home Options Timepieces

The history of time

Audrey Simon
Audrey Simon4/24/2020 6:0 AM GMT+08  • 8 min read
The history of time
We celebrate the genius that is Abraham-Louis Breguet who founded a way to create complicated timepieces as well as the simplest ones ever made
Font Resizer
Share to WhatsappShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInMore Share
Scroll to top
Follow us on Facebook and join our Telegram channel for the latest updates.

SINGAPORE (Apr 24): This year marks the 245th anniversary of Breguet. In normal times, there would have been a celebration for guests and collectors, but these are not normal times. In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the way to mark the occasion is to take a retrospective look at the history of Breguet and how far it has come.

Mention Breguet the brand and we think of its founder and native of Neuchatel, Abraham-Louis Breguet, who is recognised as the father of the tourbillon. He has also been credited for inventing the world’s first self-winding watch as well as the very first wristwatch made specially for Caroline Bonaparte, Queen of Naples.

Abraham was first introduced to the world of watchmaking when a relative of his stepfather Joseph Tattet, who comes from a family of watchmakers, took young Abraham under his apprenticeship. It was in Versailles that Abraham studied under two watchmaking geniuses, Ferdinand Berthoud and Jean-Antoine Lepine.

At the same time, Abraham studied mathematics — a required subject for watchmakers — under Abbé Marie, who introduced him to wealthy families at that time. It was to serve him in good stead as it was through his connections that Abraham was asked to create timepieces for royalty like Queen Bonaparte.

Another royalty, Queen Marie Antoinette was fascinated by Breguet’s unique self-winding watch and Louis XVI bought several of his watches. In 1783, the Swedish count Axel Von Fersen, who was the queen’s friend and reputed lover, commissioned a watch from Breguet that was to contain every watch complication known at that time as a gift to Marie Antoinette.

The result is Breguet’s masterpiece, the Marie-Antoinette pocket watch (Breguet No.160). This was one of the many reasons that Breguet created this tagline “In every woman is a queen”.

The extravagant lifestyle in France came to an end in the 18th century when Louis XVI’s reign ended with the fall of the Capet monarchy and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Known for having created the most complicated watches of his era, Abraham-Louis Breguet was also the man who created the simplest watch ever made, dubbing it “souscription”.

The origins of Tradition

The only way a Swiss watchmaker can survive the upheaval was to move to Paris and set up his own watchmaking business. In the spring of 1795, Abraham moved to Paris and established his own company Quai de l’Horloge on the Ile de La Cité. In 1807, Abraham-Louis Breguet took on his son Louis-Antoine as his partner, renaming the firm “Breguet et Fils” or Breguet and Sons.

In the last decade of the 18th century he developed new technical innovations and commercial ideas. Amid the economic and political turmoil, Abraham thrived.

Louis-Antoine took over the firm upon the death of his father in 1823. From here, the company changed hands through a succession of family members and other stakeholders until 1991 when the company was acquired by the Swatch Group.

The Swatch Group never stopped looking to the past to tap on Breguet’s expertise to create new models every year, one always better than the last. One example is the Traditional line that was reworked, given a new lease on life and launched in 2005.

The name of this watch is explained by Breguet himself in the brochure he had printed in 1797: “The price of the watches will be 600 livres; onequarter of this sum will be paid when subscribing; the construction will not suffer any delay and deliveries will be made by order of subscription…” Recorded as souscription watches in the production and sales registers, they are still referred to and studied by numerous watch collectors and connoisseurs

The early days

The first Tradition collection ran on the 1796 souscription calibre — which was the basis of many future complicated watches. The name of this watch is explained by Breguet himself in the brochure he had printed in 1797, “The price of the watches will be 600 livres; one-quarter of this sum will be paid when subscribing; the construction will not suffer any delay and deliveries will be made by order of subscription…”. Recorded as souscription watches in the production and sales registers, they are still referred to and studied by numerous watch collectors and connoisseurs.

To recognise the calibre movement, one only has to spot the large central barrel and a going train symmetrically arranged on either side of the barrel. The souscription calibre powers a single hand serving to read off both the hours and minutes and its sparing, yet surprisingly edgy design, remains as striking today as ever.

It was the only product for which Breguet had a document specifically printed to outline his intentions, motivations and technical choices. All these happened in the wake of the French Revolution and having spent the past two years in Switzerland, he had realised how much society and, thus, his potential customers, had changed.

In the spring of 1795, Abraham moved to Paris and established his own company Quai de l’Horloge on the Ile de La Cité

The first general statement of this text notes that the accurate watches were intended “for astronomy and the Navy”, and that watches designed for everyday use had two main flaws: They were generally of poor quality and their price was “not within reach of a majority of citizens”.

Breguet took it upon himself to design timepieces that were affordable with a degree of robustness and precision. Breguet described these watches — based on what he himself referred to as a new construction — in these terms, “They are distinguished by their simplicity and by a layout that protects the escapement from serious incidents, even if the watch were to be dropped. The going train, escapement and regulator, and the heat and cold compensator are so openly positioned and so easy to grasp that the attentive observer can see at a glance... the harmonious workmanship and the reliability of its functions.”

After describing the regulating components and announcing a 36-hour power reserve, Breguet also wrote that these watches would have a respectable diameter of 25 lignes (61 mm) and, surprisingly enough, only one hand — immediately adding, as if to reassure readers, “this dial size ensures sufficient distance between one hour and the next so as to mark out 12 divisions that the hand sweeps past every five minutes, and which are placed in such a way that it is easy to estimate the time to the nearest minute.”

Three years after developing his souscription watch, Breguet introduced his “tact” watches that provided the possibility of reading the time by touch using an outer hand and two raised markers placed around the case.

Breguet watch No. 960. This tact watch displayed a small off-centre dial, visible through an opening in the guilloche gold case

While this read-off mode was indeed valuable when there was no light available, it also enabled the wearer to check the time discreetly without removing the watch from his pocket, thus giving a further meaning to the word “tact”.

“Tact” watches picked up the souscription calibre in a slightly evolved form. Fitted with a mobile outer hand, some of these “tact” watches also had an exIt featuetremely small dial featuring one or two hands, visible on the opposite side to that of the external arrow.
It was precisely this arrangement that enabled both conventional reading of the time and a chance to admire the movement, a possibility that Breguet regarded as highly desirable and is reflected in today’s Tradition watches.

In 2005, drawing on Breguet’s early designs and archival evidence, Swatch Group’s Nicolas G Hayek and the design team were convinced that a layout where it is possible to see from a single side that can normally be viewed only by turning the watch over, would appeal to connoisseurs of mechanical watchmaking.

That is how a contemporary wristwatch came to reprise the beautiful positioning of the central barrel as well as the symmetry of the gear trains and balance, all designed more than two centuries earlier by a brilliant pioneer of both techniques and design.

In its first 10 years, the Tradition line has asserted itself through its powerful originality and the various models that range from hand-wound or self-winding to others with dual-time or retrograde seconds, tourbillon with fusée, independent chronograph or minute repeater functions.

In each case, the effortless simultaneous view of the dial and the vital components of the timepiece proves as strongly appealing today as it did historically, especially since the grey or pink colour of the movement mainplate and bridges along with the silvered or black shade of the guilloché dial heighten the contrasts and endow these models with an amazingly modern touch.

The Tradition 7077

Tradition 7077 is an independent chronograph in 18-carat gold. The watch has an anthracite hand-wound movement, a 20-minute counter and power reserve indicator at the back of the movement. It also features a chronograph running indicator at six o’clock and silicon Breguet balance-springs. The off-centred dial comes in silvered gold, hand engraved on a rose engine. It also has a sapphire crystal caseback. The watch is water-resistant up to 3 bars (30 m) and is 44 mm in diameters. Available in rose gold or white gold.

Loading next article...
The Edge Singapore
Download The Edge Singapore App
Google playApple store play
Keep updated
Follow our social media
Subscribe to The Edge Singapore
Get credible investing ideas from our in-depth stock analysis, interviews with key executives, corporate movements coverage and their impact on the market.
© 2022 The Edge Publishing Pte Ltd. All rights reserved.