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Preserving a legacy

Aaron De Silva
Aaron De Silva • 10 min read
Preserving a legacy
As recently appointed head of patrimony, Emmanuel Breguet — a seventh-generation descendant of wunderkind watchmaker Abraham- Louis Breguet (1747 to 1823) — tells Options how he feels right at home in this new role.
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As recently appointed head of patrimony, Emmanuel Breguet — a seventh-generation descendant of wunderkind watchmaker Abraham- Louis Breguet (1747 to 1823) — tells Options how he feels right at home in this new role.

Geneva, May 16, 2016. At a Christie’s auction of Rare Watches, Breguet’s No 217 — a piece owned by Jean Victor Marie Moreau, one of Napoléon’s generals — came up for sale. It was a rare self-winding perpétuelle pocket watch equipped with an equation of time indication, and was once the property of Charles-Louis Havas, founder of Agence France-Presse (AFP), the world’s first news agency. Adding to No 217’s allure was the fact that the highly complicated timekeeper was completed during founder Abraham- Louis Breguet’s lifetime.

With such exceptional provenance, historical significance and technical accomplishment, it was only natural for Emmanuel Breguet, the Swiss watchmaker’s head of patrimony, to want to add the piece to the Breguet Museum. Unfortunately, he lost out after a fierce bidding war with a private Swiss museum. “It was a very long fight — [lasting] more than 10 or 12 minutes — and very exciting. Up until CHF500,000 [$713,000], everyone in the room was talking. After CHF1 million, it got quieter. And after CHF2 million, there was total silence,” he says.

Of the five bidders at the start, the fight came down to just Emmanuel and the other competitor once the million-franc threshold was crossed. The final hammer price was CHF3.245 million, making it the most expensive watch sold during the season and the second most expensive Breguet watch ever sold at auction (more on that later), according to Christie’s.

However, Emmanuel feels no remorse for having lost out. “There’s a certain elegance in not buying everything!” he says with a laugh. The important thing is that the museum’s collection continues to grow, bit by bit. “It’s a source of inspiration for designers today and a very good tool to promote and explain the specificities of Breguet to the customer. When clients come to the boutique in the Place Vendôme and see the museum and then the boutique or vice versa, they immediately understand the brand.”

A streamlined portfolio
Singapore, Sept 13, 2016. Options is in the Breguet boutique in Marina Bay Sands. With just days to go before the F1 Night Race weekend, many high-profile collectors are in town to partake of the festivities. Breguet has no affiliation to F1, but the opportunity to wine and dine these collectors is too good to pass up. As such, Emmanuel has timed his Asian market visit to coincide with the occasion.

Emmanuel was last in Singapore in 2014. Back then, his portfolio was slightly different: He was general manager of Breguet France and Curator of the Breguet Museum. He says this role was no walk in the park. “It was difficult to be a good brand manager and a good curator at the same time.” So, when Marc Hayek, CEO of Breguet, Blancpain and Jaquet Droz (all brands under the Swatch Group), decided to streamline Emmanuel’s role to that of head of patrimony, he welcomed the move with open arms.

“I was happy to be general manager because it was very interesting to be involved in the business,” he says. “But my first love is history. So, now, I’m very happy to have a full-time job that deals with history and patrimony.” The new role has freed up his time to focus on his research, write articles for Breguet’s annual corporate magazine — Le Quai de l’Horloge — and prepare for exhibitions, such as the one held at San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museum from September 2015 to January 2016: Breguet: Art and Innovation in Watchmaking.

In what was billed as the largest showcase of antique Breguet pieces in the Americas, 77 pieces were exhibited, including three from New York’s Frick Collection. Of these, one was a tourbillon, another a travel clock, and the third an experimental piece with a double calendar — Gregorian and French Republican. Emmanuel explains: “During the French Revolution, France had a new calendar that started in 1792, the first year of the Republic. This calendar was active for 12 years. Watchmakers had to adapt to this crazy new system.”

Such pieces gave visitors an insight into the long, uninterrupted history of the company — 2015 marked the 240th year of the founding of Breguet’s workshop in Paris. Holding the exhibition in San Francisco was especially pertinent: in a city perched on the doorstep of Silicon Valley, there was a heightened contrast between old and new technology.

“The results were good,” says Emmanuel. “The average age of visitors was much lower than other exhibitions, which is very interesting. It meant that there are young people interested in technology. I had many interesting discussions with young engineers and technicians, all of whom were very eager to understand watchmaking.”

A growing collection
Apart from organising retrospectives, Emmanuel also spends his time scouring museums in search of missing pieces in the Breguet puzzle. Each year, he uncovers new institutions that have Breguet pieces in their collections, in places as far-flung as Portugal, Russia and Mexico. While he is unable to procure them for the Breguet Collection — which now counts more than 200 items — they add to his understanding of Breguet’s work, his network and the relationship he had with his clients.

Being one of the foremost watchmakers of his time, Breguet had a client list that read like a who’s who of European high society. Ledgers dating back to 1787 document this roll call: Marie Antoinette (Queen of France), Caroline Murat (Queen of Naples), Alexander I (Tsar of Russia), Arthur Wellesley (Duke of Wellington) and Napoléon Bonaparte, among others. “He had a close relationship with so many personalities,” says Emmanuel. “I discovered during my studies and investigations that Breguet was not only an artist and a technician, but he also organised a true international network [in Russia, Turkey, England and Spain] to circulate his creations.”

Such discoveries excite Emmanuel “because it’s not only the history of the company, but also my own family history”. The most surprising thing that he learnt about his forefather is how he lived through the French Revolution. “During the revolution, he left Paris to survive, but continued to maintain the workshop in Paris. We have one of the letters between him and one of his watchmakers. It was a very difficult period for him, and it was so interesting to see the sense of organisation.”

The museum, inaugurated in 2000 by the late Nicolas G Hayek (Marc Hayek’s father), is split into three locations around the world. Paris has the lion’s share with about 100 pieces, followed by 60 in Zurich and 30 in Shanghai. The museums are typically housed within the brand’s flagship boutiques, such as in Paris’ Place Vendôme. The timepieces showcase Breguet’s myriad contributions to horology. As one of the most prolific watchmakers of all time, with a multitude of inventions, how does Emmanuel go about deciding which ones to exhibit?

“We try to illustrate the different facets of Breguet’s art,” he says. “We have some self-winding watches, tact watches that tell the time by touch, complicated watches, travel clocks, tourbillons and so on. Breguet No 5 is a very classical pocket watch with a moon phase and power reserve. This piece inspired some pieces in the [contemporary] collection. Another emblematic piece is the Empress Joséphine [wife of Napoleon] watch, which we bought some years ago at Christie’s. Another watch belonged to [Russia’s] Tsar Alexander I at the beginning of the 19th century.”

Auction fever
Emmanuel acquires pieces at auction rather than through private dealers or collectors, as he believes this is the fairest and most transparent way to manage the transaction. This system is not without its flaws, however. Antique Breguet pieces are highly sought after by collectors, so rarely is Emmanuel alone in his bidding; competitors are aplenty.

And while pieces such as No 217 do not come on the market very often — and therefore would have made an excellent addition to the collection — Emmanuel says the pieces bought a few years ago were even more spectacular. In May 2014, Marc Hayek scooped up two pocket watches for CHF750,000 at a Christie’s sale in Geneva. No 4039 was a quarter repeater with an excentric dial and date indicator; No 1176 was Breguet’s very first four-minute tourbillon, that is, the cage rotates once every four minutes. Formerly owned by Poland’s Count Potocki, it features an échappement naturel, a natural or lubrication-free escapement that Breguet invented in 1789. It is a rare mechanism that equipped fewer than 30 of his models.

In November 2013, three more exemplary pieces were picked up at Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions in Geneva for almost CHF1.5 million in total. No 5015 was one of the very first watches to feature a keyless stem-winding and hour-setting system. This system can be considered the ancestor of all modern winding mechanisms. No 4420 was an 18K gold and silver pocket watch with excentric hour and minute dials and gold Breguet hands. Originally the property of Britain’s King George IV, this piece allowed Breguet to repossess one of its Holy Grails: a royal watch, which rarely comes to market. But the pièce de résistance was No 4691, one of the most complicated watches ever made by Breguet in a slim, 7.7mm case. The watch packed in a repeating mechanism, calendar, moon phase, equation of time and power reserve indicator.

Despite this achievement, No 4691, which sold for more than CHF1 million, was not the most expensive antique Breguet the company ever purchased, nor was it the most expensive Breguet watch ever sold at auction. That honour goes to No 2667, a thin, 18K yellow gold pocket watch dating from 1814 that fetched more than CHF4.3 million at Christie’s in May 2012. It was the first known watch with two distinct movements, and one that successfully demonstrated the principle of resonance. This was Breguet’s theory that two oscillating bodies in proximity would influence each other.

As custodian of the company’s heritage — and by extension, French patrimony — Emmanuel’s work is never done. There are still a few Holy Grails left to acquire. “We have no Sympathique clock yet,” he says. “It’s a clock with a watch at the top, and a system that resets and rewinds the watch. Breguet made six or seven such clocks. [Britain’s] Queen Elizabeth has one, bought by her ancestor [King George IV] more than 200 years ago. She loaned it to the Louvre for an exhibition in 2009.”

Seated as we are in Marina Bay Sands, just steps away from the ArtScience Museum, we venture whether Singapore will ever play host to an exhibition. “Maybe in future we will organise an exhibition,” says Emmanuel. “It’s possible because there are a lot of connoisseurs in Singapore. It’s good to educate our clients. But [at the same time,] people in Singapore are already so educated, it’s not as necessary as [say] in China.” Nevertheless, we have our fingers crossed.

Besides chronicling developments in the luxury watch industry, Aaron De Silva also runs The Time Traveller SG on Instagram (@thetimetravellersg) and Facebook (

This article appeared in the Options of Issue 755 (Nov 21) of The Edge Singapore.

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