The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

Any noteworthy watch company will have excellent watchmakers, designers, engineers, innovators, marketing gurus, and executives in its staff… However, throughout the history of horology there was but one person, who was all of these at the same time: his name is Abraham-Louis Breguet and his heritage is an unrivaled mix of ambition, confidence, entrepreneurial thinking, and an ingenious understanding of his craft. Today, we take a hands-on look at the remarkable past and present of the Breguet brand and every important and cool detail you ever wanted to know about it.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

One could easily write a several-hundred-page-long book about Breguet – but one would be late to the party, as there are multiple fine publications about his awe-inspiring achievements. Hence, it would be highly irresponsible of us to try and bring all that accumulated historical knowledge into this article, but – as we said – we will cover all the important historical highlights and innovations, as well as what the brand has been up to since its Swatch Group-driven revival in 1999. Page 1 and Page 2 will discuss history of Breguet, while Page 3 is our look inside the manufacture. Here we go!

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The Abraham-Louis Breguet Era

Abraham-Louis Breguet was born in 1747, in Neuchâtel, a little town that retains its high significance in the Swiss watch industry to this day. In his teens, he left the family home to first move to Versailles and then to Paris to pursue his studies as a watchmaker’s apprentice. In 1775, at the age of 28, he opened his workshop in the Ile de la Cité neighborhood of Paris – only a stone’s throw away from prestigious areas around the Louvre and Place Vendôme – with the assistance of a certain Abbot Joseph-François Marie, who helped the young watchmaker to not only get started under his own name but also to gain access to the French Court. Although the French aristocracy shortly began supporting the young watchmaker and entrepreneur, Breguet had to leave Paris during the French Revolution, only to return a few years later in 1795.

This short summary may appear to be but a brief chapter in Breguet’s career, but we’d be awfully wrong to suggest that: let us take a quick look behind the scenes to better understand how early it was that his genius started to show in his work.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The First Automatic Winding Watch Caliber

It was in 1780, only five years into owning his workshop, that he developed the world’s first automatically wound watch caliber. Yes, the very basics of modern automatic watches were laid down by Breguet’s invention. His goal was to create a pocket watch that would need not be wound by a key (since winding a watch movement through the crown was not yet possible at the time), but that would rewind its mainsprings all by itself. His “perpétuelle” caliber featured an oscillating weight that would respond to the wearer’s hand gestures when holding the watch, as well as his movement when walking.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The oscillating weight was spring-loaded so that it returned to its original position after each movement, hence pushing up two going-barrels and stopping when the springs were fully depressed. In other words, we must not imagine today’s bi-directional, centrally mounted winding rotors but rather a hammer-like piece crafted from heavy metal. Thanks to the incredibly detailed Breguet archives (more on those a bit later on in the article), we know that the first fully functional automatic Breguet watch was sold to the Duc d’Orléans in 1780.

Breguet records say that, from the 1780s, his “self-winding watches” were to bring him considerable fame both at the court of Versailles and throughout Europe, and that A.-L. Breguet made and sold some sixty examples from 1787 to 1823 and, it is assumed, another twenty or thirty in the years between 1780 and 1787 (documentary records are largely absent from this early seven-year period).

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The First Minute Repeater Gong

Automatic winding added to the list, let’s keep on going in chronological order: in 1783 followed the gong that has been used in nearly all minute repeater watches since. Around a century after the first hour repeater watches had been invented, Breguet was fascinated by the idea of improving the chiming sound and effectiveness of these musical mechanisms. His studies and experiments came to fruition in 1783 when he created the first striking repeating watch to be operated not by a bell but by a gong spring.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

His first designs were based on a rectilinear form and mounted crosswise on the back plate, but soon enough started using a coiled-up spring that would wrap around the movement, resulting in a longer and hence louder gong. This also yielded the advantage of considerably reducing the thickness of striking watches, while at the same time making the tone more harmonious and discreet. Breguet (the brand) calls it “an exceptionally useful invention that was adopted immediately by most contemporary watchmakers. Breguet also invented multiple striking mechanisms, or cadraturs, for repeating watches, notably for the quarters, half-quarters and minutes.”

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

Refinements In Design & Legibility

Relatively early in his career, Abraham-Louis Breguet started perfecting the legibility and recognizability of his designs by perfecting his guilloché engraved dials and, more importantly, by finalizing what today are called Breguet hands and Breguet numerals. The combination of elegantly swirling Arabic numerals (preferably in blue over off-white enamel) and always perfectly sized minute and hour hands with small circles near their ends for easier visual distinction when used over heavily engraved dials made complete a truly timeless aesthetic that has been generally used up to this day, often completely unaltered.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

Listening to minute repeaters chiming away and perfecting legibility may imply that all was well with mechanical watches of the late 18th century – but we all know that could not be further from the truth. Consequently, Breguet’s next invention from 1790 was to deal with one of the most common issues with finicky watch calibers of the time: their extremely low resistance to shocks and impact. Specifically, Breguet found a way to make the balance pivot – an axel whose two ends are held in place by a jewel above and below the balance wheel – more resistant by adding a so-called “pare-chute” shock-resistance system to the jewels.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The First Pare-Chute Shock Absorption Device

The pare-chute, clearly one of Breguet’s most important inventions, was a concave cap-jewel held on a blade spring holding the pivot. Sounds simple enough, but this clever combination of small dishes of matching shape and a strip spring allowed for the extremely fine (and fragile) balance shaft to stay intact by providing some spring-dampened room for movement, as opposed to being exposed to a direct shock transmitted from the case through the jewels and onto this thin axle.

From 1792, his “perpétuelle” watches were all equipped with it – a good sales move, comparable to how luxury brands of today maintain some of their more important innovations (special materials such as ceramic or silicon, as well as unique color combinations) exclusively for their more high-end collections. Later on, all his watches were equipped with a pare-chute system and he presented the definitive version of it at the national exhibition of 1806. Also sometimes called elastic suspension of the balance wheel, the pare-chute is the forerunner of the modern “Incabloc” and all other shock protection mechanisms – but it is quite something to think that it dates back to the 1700s.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

Breguet And A New Business Model: The Subscription Watch

Like any good businessman, Breguet wanted to keep his business expanding, but to do that, he had to make his products available to a (very slightly) wider audience. To do this, he had to make Breguet watches available at a lower price, and so he created a new type of watch that could be produced at lower costs: the so-called souscription montre or “subscription watch.”

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture
Breguet subscription watch. Image source: Antiquorum

The easiest way to tell apart a subscription Breguet watch from the rest is that it has only one hour hand and no minute hand, running over what most of the time is a more simple-looking enamel dial with a 5-minute track on its periphery. Breguet did not simply omit the minute hand but designed a completely new type of movement just for these subscription watches. Thoughtfully engineered to be more simple, the movement did away with the motion work required by the minute hand (every single gear, movement bridge, and plate that had to be manufactured in this era required incomparably more time and effort than they do today, hence making a much greater difference in cost and final price to the customer).

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture
Breguet subscription watch movement. Image source: Antiquorum

The more simple movement had the mainspring barrel in its center with a symmetrical going train wrapped around it, with the caliber more often than not being fitted into a larger case – small cases with complicated movements meant greater refinement and hence were in a different category altogether from subscription watches. The simple movement construction allowed for the watch to be repaired by any trained watchmaker and not exclusively those at Breguet, further reducing maintenance costs. The subscription watch in essence served as a great and hitherto largely unprecedented way of increasing production output (and hence sales) through a combination of simplifying manufacturing, lowering costs, and hence offering the product at more attainable prices (mind you, still the equivalent of a smaller home in Paris, probably).

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

Breguet Patents His Perpetual Calendar Mechanism

It was Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 who commissioned what we today know as the Gregorian calendar and consider the internationally accepted civil calendar to this day. I’ll leave a drop of cool information that I found out about here: when the new calendar was instituted by the papal bull Inter Gravissimas of February 24, 1582, the necessary correction was accepted that the day after Thursday, October 4, 1582, would be not Friday, October 5, but Friday, October 15, 1582. This new calendar duly replaced the Julian calendar that had been in use since 45 BC, and it has since come into near universal use.

As you can see, the Gregorian calendar got off to a strong start by adjusting by a whopping 11 days, but the following centuries, complete with months of varying length as well as leap years, meant that clock- and watchmakers had to find a solution if they wanted a timepiece that could follow the track of this challenging pattern.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

In 1795, Breguet patented a perpetual calendar mechanism that would allow for the pocket watch to display the day of the week, the day of the month, as well as the name of the month. Perpetual calendar watches have become much more common since then, but they still remain a rather luxurious and highly complex mechanism when it comes to offerings by major Swiss brands. Here you’ll find all our articles about perpetual calendar watches.

It may be time for that (second?) cup of espresso, because the list of important innovations by Breguet is just so long… That said, there are two more technical innovations that are still very much present in today’s high-end watches and that we absolutely cannot ignore.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The Breguet Overcoil Balance Spring

First, and also dating back to 1795, is the Breguet balance spring, today commonly known (by watchnerds) as the Breguet overcoil. As you know, the balance spring is the small spring installed onto the balance wheel. This little spring is attached at its inner extremity to the axis of the balance and at its outer extremity to the cock and, through its elasticity, regulates the oscillations of the balance. The flat balance spring, invented by the Dutch mathematician Huygens in 1675, had established a degree of isochronism which still left something to be desired. The flat balance spring was made of copper or iron and had only a few coils. Though imperfect, it gave the balance what it needed to become as accurate as the pendulum of a clock.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

In 1795, Abraham-Louis Breguet solved the shortcomings of the flat spring by raising its last, outermost coil over the plane of the otherwise flat spring, hence reducing its curvature and ensuring the concentric development of the balance spring.

With this “Breguet overcoil,” the balance spring became concentric in form, watches gained in precision, the balance staff eroded less quickly – and, for a moment, all was well in the world. Breguet also perfected a bimetallic compensation bar in order to cancel out the effects of changes in temperature on the balance spring, but not even this several-thousand-word writeup will allow us to get into the details of that. What matters more is that the Breguet balance spring was adopted by all the great watchmaking firms, many of whom continue to use it to this day for high precision pieces.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture
Actual drawing from Breguet’s 1798 patent for his constant force escapement design
Breguet Patents The Constant Force Escapement

Moving on to yet another technical invention of Breguet that is still used today – although exclusively reserved for haute horlogerie watches with at least 5-figure price tags – is the constant force escapement. Breguet patented it in 1798 and… that is all we’ll say about it now since we have written so much about this complication here on aBlogtoWatch that we won’t explain it all over again – but you can read about it more detail here and here.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The First “Tact Watch,” Made For The Empress Of France

Back to smart business decisions meeting technical innovation, we look at the “Tact watch.” Breguet knew his clientele very well, and his endeavor to offer yet newer timepieces to them was reflected not only in high-tech solutions but also ones that helped create demand that had previously not existed. What made the tact or tactile watch unique is that it had a hand protruding from its front cover lid that would rotate together with the hour hand on the inside dial, while the case’s periphery was fitted with diamonds to act as hour indicators.

The way it functioned was simple: the resulting timepiece was one that could be “read” relatively accurately through touch (accurately enough for the norms of the time, that is, when meetings were never ever arranged with to-the-minute accuracy), making for a most discreet way of checking time, where the company of the wearer would not notice her checking the time as she discreetly touched the location of the hand and indices. The watch could be placed in a pocket or even worn around a necklace as a pendant – it looked every bit as beautiful as a piece of jewelry, so fondling it people would not know that it actually functioned as a watch that was secretly telling the time.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture
The first tact watch by Breguet, made for Josephine Bonaparte in 1800, presently on display at the Breguet Boutique’s Museum on Place Vendôme

The first ever tact watch was created by Breguet for Josephine Bonaparte, Empress of France, that came in an 18K gold case with a stunning guilloché, blue enamel lid, and diamond-set periphery to function as hour indices. It was sold by Christie’s in 2007 for a whopping sum of 1,505,000 CHF, and at the time of my visit was actually on display in the Breguet museum, located on the second floor of the Breguet boutique on Place Vendôme (more on that in a bit).

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

Breguet Invents The Tourbillon

1700s over, Breguet marked the new century in a grandiose way: by obtaining the patent for the tourbillon in 1801. Contrary to common belief, this is not the date when he invented the tourbillon – he started working on it as early as 1795. Interestingly, Breguet did not patent the majority of his inventions, for they took so long to develop and were so challenging to manufacture, that he did not have to worry about the (at most) handful of other watchmakers in Europe who could ever come close to copying his innovations.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

Still, patent the tourbillon he did, on the 26th of June in 1801. The tourbillon will need no introduction to any serious (or beginner) watch enthusiast, but it is true that the Breguet brand has been serious about paying homage to this complication in their modern offerings – just check out the 5349 Double Tourbillon or the 5377 Extra Plat for some stellar examples.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture
Breguets original hand-written notes on the Tourbillon – seen in the archives of the Breguet Boutique on Place Vendôme

So far, we have discussed Breguet balance springs, Breguet numerals, Breguet indices, Breguet’s tourbillon, automatic winding, perpetual calendar, and constant force escapement, as well as his “subscription” business model. Yet, his greatest contribution to the world is yet to come…

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture
Caroline Bonaparte, the Queen of Naples, who ordered from Breguet the first wristwatch ever made. Today Breguet’s ladies watch collection is called Queen of Naples to mark this landmark in the history of horology.
The First Wristwatch Ever Made

According to Breguet’s hand-written archives, on June 8, 1810, the Queen of Naples – specifically, Caroline Bonaparte, a younger sister of Napoleon I of France – placed an order with Breguet for “a repeater watch for bracelet for which we shall charge 5,000 Francs.” Yes, a watch for bracelet means a wristwatch, the very first of its kind. To fulfill the Queen’s unusual order, Breguet imagined a timepiece of unprecedented construction and extraordinary refinement, namely an exceptionally thin, oval repeater watch with complications, mounted on a wristlet of hair and gold thread.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture
Sneak peak behind the safe door that guards some of the Breguet historical archives inside the Breguet flagship Boutique on Place Vendôme

Delivered as Breguet watch No. 2639 for a sum of 4,800 francs, the first wristwatch ever made according to any archive, possessed a lever escapement called a “free escapement” as well as a thermometer. To make it required 34 different operations involving 17 persons. In early December 1811, the watch seemed ready and was billed at 4,800 francs. However, according to Breguet archives, the system of the minutes had to be changed and the guilloché dial replaced – presumably at the Queen’s request – with a dial in guilloché-worked silver with Arabic numerals. The piece was finally completed on 21st December 1812.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

Unfortunately, there are no sketches in the archives to indicate its exact exterior; what is known, though, is that the watch appears in 1849 in a register of repairs carried out on Breguet watches (technically, an after-sales service): dating March 8, 1849, Countess Rasponi, “residing in Paris at 63, Rue d’Anjou,” had sent watch number 2639 for repair. The repair, costing 80 francs, was recorded as such: “We have re-polished the pivots, reset the thermometer, restored the repeater to working order, restored the dial, inspected and cleaned every part of the watch and regulated it.”

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture
The shape of the minute repeater movement follows the shape of the Queen of Naples women’s watch – a tribute to the first wristwatch ever created, made by Breguet as a minute repeater in 1812.

The first wrist watch makes one last appearance in Breguet documents when, in August 1855, Countess Rasponi brought her watch to Breguet to get new keys: one male key for winding, and one female key for setting the time. This mention is the very last trace that Breguet has of watch N° 2639.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

According to the brand, “Today the watch is untraceable, and unknown to collectors and specialists. No sketch of the watch has been found in the archives. Nevertheless, we know that Abraham-Louis Breguet made the world’s first known wristwatch for the Queen of Naples. A piece with unique architecture and extreme refinement since it was a repeating watch with complications, oval, exceptionally fine, and worn with a wristlet of hair entwined with gold thread.” This is the story of the first wristwatch ever made – and it may have been lost forever throughout the countless tumultuous chapters of the last 160 years of history.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The Marie-Antoinette Pocket Watch

What better way of closing our time travel through the Abraham-Louis Breguet era than to look at the Marie-Antoinette pocket watch, arguably the most valuable timepiece ever made. It is the absolute pinnacle that stands as the perfect testament to Breguet’s genius as a watchmaker, to a craftsman who preceded his time by a century or two, and to his reputation as a highly successful businessman.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The Marie-Antoinette watch took 44 (that’s right, forty-four) years to make after it had been consigned by a “mysterious admirer” of the Queen to be the most complicated watch ever made at the time of its creation – and, as it expectedly turned out, for over a century more to come. According to Breguet, “the order, placed in 1783, stipulated that wherever possible gold should replace other metals and that auxiliary mecha­nisms, i.e. complications, should be as numerous and varied as possible. No time or financial limits were imposed.”

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture
Nicolas G. Hayek Sr. holding the modern replica of the Breguet Marie-Antoinette pocket watch

Breguet, unsurprisingly, dared to dream big – maybe a bit too big, in fact: the Marie-Antoinette watch was finished 34 years after the Queen’s death, and four years after Abraham-Louis Breguet’s death. The caliber comprised 823 parts, all of which were crafted with genuinely incredible attention to detail, and it allowed the watch to feature functions such as automatic winding, chiming mechanisms, full perpetual calendar, equation of time, jumping hours, seconds indication (a rare treat at the time), a bi-metallic thermometer, and an indication for the 48 hours of power reserve.

The Marie-Antoinette watch has an incredible story to it – yes, there’s even more to it than its simply fabulous origin and level of complication – and we even went hands-on with its original Breguet replica. Read Ariel’s hands-on with the Marie-Antoinette watch here.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The Breguet Manufacture After The Death Of Abraham-Louis Breguet

In 1823, Abraham-Louis Breguet, at the age of 76, passed away. It was the only son of the founder, Antoine-Louis Breguet who took over the company in 1824: having been immersed in watchmaking since his earliest childhood, Antoine-Louis pursued the work of his famous father. With that said, it was Antoine-Louis’ son, Louis-Clément, who breathed a new dynamism into Breguet, understanding that watchmaking from that point on had spread through all social classes. This led him to extend his activities by diversifying, particularly in telecommunications.

That “new dynamism,” though, led subsequent generations of Breguets to lose more and more interest in watchmaking in favor of other sectors like electricity or, later on, aviation – there is definitely some interesting stuff here that we’ll discuss in a separate article for lack of space here. These “distractions” were so serious that, in 1870, Louis-Clément ended up selling the watchmaking branch to the head of the workshop, Edward Brown. The Brown family, aware of the historical importance of Breguet and of the patrimony it represents, led the Breguet manufacture for the next century.

The sale to the Brown family happened a couple of months before the Franco-German war and the fall of the Second French Empire. This political instability had a direct effect on the Parisian business and the Breguet brand was disheartened to observe sales falling. We’d have to wait until 1900-1914 and the Belle Epoque to reverse this downturn and to see again an evolution of the demand. Breguet changed hands another time in 1970 to the Chaumet brothers, inheritors of the Parisian jewelry house. Then, in 1987, the Breguet name was bought by Investcorp, with a favorable context that allowed Breguet another evolution: for one, the production was moved to the Vallée de Joux in Switzerland; and second, there had been a substantial emergence of new markets in Asia and North America.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

Breguet Manufacture In The 21st Century

We have looked at Breguet’s key contributions and absolutely remarkable inventions in the realm of horology. With that done, let us know take a quantum leap into the 21st century – we shall discuss the turbulent, but no less successful times of the Breguet manufacture after Abraham-Louis’ death in 1823 in a separate article – as there is so much to be said. For now, we’ll say that there can be no doubt whatsoever as to the invaluable contributions of Breguet to the world of horology. However, as plain and simple as that may sound, it nevertheless took a very long time for this legacy to fall into hands that could do something with it, make a venerable effort at paying homage to it, and – this being more difficult – to try and continue this legacy in the 21st century.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

It was in 1999 when Nicolas Hayek Sr. purchased the rights to the Breguet name through the Swatch Group, taking it over from its owner at the time, Investcorp S.A. With this step, a new chapter started in the history books of Breguet, as the name started to enjoy the unfailing financial and technical support of the Swatch Group.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

A key step in the transformation of the Breguet name came in September 2001 when the foundations for the new Breguet manufacture were laid. In truth, what happened was that the renowned watch movement maker Lémania had been acquired, remodeled, and largely expanded to now house the Breguet manufacture. Today, the factory is several stories high and covers thousands of square meters, capable of producing not only all major (and minor) movement components, but even the tools themselves which are needed to produce said components. No waiting for tool suppliers is necessary: the manufacture’s dedicated toolmaking facility can produce new ones and maintain old tools to keep manufacturing going.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

Probably the most important part of the manufacture is not the rather huge rooms packed with stratospherically expensive CNC machines, no, it is rather the room all the guilloché engraving work for Breguet dials, automatic winding rotors, and cases happens. The term guilloché refers both to the technique and the machines used: this several-hundred-year-old finishing/metal-decorating technique is made possible by large, hand-driven machines that weigh hundreds of pounds each, and the fine and remarkably intricate patterns they cut into the surfaces of watch dials simply cannot be reproduced by stamping or CNC machining.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The guilloché machines use large rosettes that look like oversized coins (at least 10-15 inches wide): these wheels have an uneven periphery which are traced by a series of cams and arms, only to be then translated into the back and forth movement of a tiny and very sharp engraving pin. This pin is what cuts into the surface of the dial, rotor, or case, removing varying amounts of material to create subtle (or not so subtle) grooves which reflect light in an inimitably intricate way.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The engraving pin is pressed onto the workpiece by one hand – applying a perfect amount of pressure is key, while the other hand is used to drive the machine by rotating an arm and, with it, the workpiece around its axis. As the pin moves back and forth and the workpiece rotates, the grooves are cut into the surface. As most often is the case: as simple as it sounds, as difficult it actually is to master.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

Having seen guilloché decoration be such a key design element in the majority of Breguet watch collections, I was curious to see if the brand actually produces these parts for itself, or outsources them. Frankly, I was expecting to see a few machines, enough to show off to visitors and to make the most complicated pieces… and so I was pleasantly surprised to see such a large room with a few dozen guillocheurs working on simpler and more complex dials and rotors. A guilloché dial is as essential a Breguet design element as are the serial numbers shown on the dial – and to see them made in-house was certainly both refreshing and reassuring.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

In all fairness, one thing to mention is that we wish the establishing of the manufacture did not come at a cost of killing off the Lémania name pretty much completely by now – we wish that Breguet could have become the super capable manufacture that it is today, while we continued to enjoy Lémania movements in a wider range of new watches. The case of the big shark and the small fish, for sure – but, to ease our minds, we’ll say that the remarkably capable Lémania manufacture has been expanded and put to good use by turning into the powerhouse that Breguet is today.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

Following traditional manufacturing techniques is one thing – and something that does suffice for a lot of traditional watchmaking brands with great heritage. Abraham-Louis Breguet, however, as we have seen, created and left behind a different kind of legacy: one fundamentally based on innovation. When I look at a new Breguet piece – speaking of the more high-end stuff where this is a more reasonable expectation, I look for innovation, and especially the kind that harnesses (and does not turn away from!) the latest technologies to create new mechanical solutions that in one way or another offer something totally new and technically awe-inspiring.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

These designs and technologies – as I see it, with Breguet’s history on my mind – have to be a bit crazy and unexpected, not your usual safe play of adding yet another axis or making it one tiny bit thinner. So far, the brand has done a commendable job at pushing the limits of what is possible, even if that usually, though not always, comes at a cost of six-figure prices. From recent years, a prime example would have to be Breguet Tradition 7077 Chronograph Independent (seen in images above and hands-on here). With two balance wheels, the right one for hours and minutes running at 3 Hertz, and the left one running at 5 Hertz for up to 20 minutes for the chronograph, it displays a movement design and functionality that is a nice follow-up to the historical pieces by the original creator.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

Other noteworthy pieces include the Breguet Tradition Minute Repeater Tourbillon 7087 (seen one above, hands-on here) or the 5349 Double Tourbillon (hands-on here), where the entire dial and with it the two tourbillons rotate once every 12 hours, with the blued tourbillon bridge serving as the hour hand. Yes, it’s dripping with diamonds and that may not be so appropriate – but Breguet himself often proved to not shy away from fulfilling special design requests.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The list goes on to include more special tourbillons, minute repeaters, chronographs, extra flat movements with peripheral winding rotors, high frequency escapements, and so on (pretty much all of which we have covered here on aBlogtoWatch). Since its revival in the early 2000s, the Breguet manufacture has been tirelessly trying to release both technically and aesthetically bold, but not inconsistent pieces – a challenge now is to maintain the momentum.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture
A larger showroom inside the Breguet Museum, at the Breguet Boutique on Place Vendôme
The Breguet Boutique & Museum You Really Have To Visit When In Paris Or Zürich

In select Breguet stores you will find Breguet Museums – sounds over the top, but the name actually is more than justified. Free to visit and open to the public, on this trip with Breguet we visited the Breguet Museums found on the upper levels of the flagship Breguet boutiques in Paris, on Place Vendôme, as well as the one in Zürich, on Bahnhofstrasse. Most of the images of archive pages and of historical pocket watches in this article were taken at the Museum on Place Vendôme.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture
Hand-written original Breguet archive to go with Pocket Watch No. 4111 (pictured directly above), featuring drawing in the center

The incredibly cool (and super rare) stuff you can find here includes a large portion of original Breguet archives – most of these are tucked away inside a safe, but some original segments you will find on display, as they go with the watches on show. A fantastic example would be this Breguet Pocket Watch No. 4111: visiting the Paris Breguet flagship boutique with a very special tour guide, Emmanuel Breguet – 7th generation, direct descendant of Abraham-Louis Breguet and the brand’s Historian – I randomly selected this pocket watch, and he kindly opened one of the archive books only to find in it the original hand-written page that described the piece, its functions, as well as to whom and when it was sold. If you have a keen eye for details, you’ll see that the following page has been cut from the book: that is because each entry was done twice, one page was to stay in the book, the other was handed over to the customer to serve as an “owner’s manual,” receipt, and letter of authenticity.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture
A portrait of Abraham-Louis Breguet overlooks the Breguet Museum on Place Vendôme – as his 7th generation direct descendant and Breguet historian Emmanuel Breguet checks something quickly in one of the archives

Both the Breguet flagship boutiques in Paris and in Zürich that we visited had a remarkable selection of invaluable and incredibly rare pieces from all eras of the company, including original Abraham-Louis Breguet pieces, watches from the company’s later years, as well as original pilot watches and complicated wristwatches from different times of the 20th century… plus, of course, you’ll find pretty much every modern high complication and a lot of grand complications (!) in stock. You really shouldn’t miss the free Breguet Museums when watch shopping in Paris or Zürich.

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

The Breguet Heritage: A Hands-On Look At History, Manufacturing & Watches Inside the Manufacture

Today, the Breguet name lives on in the brand’s manufacture in the Vallée de Joux, in the Museums and archives so safely guarded by Breguet’s present owners and leaders, and last but not least, also imprinted among the names of world renowned scientists, authors and noblemen on the side of the Eiffel Tower (though the name there is of Abraham-Louis’s grandson, Louis-Clément, who also worked at the Breguet manufacture in the 1800s). With so much history to respect, consider, and live up to, this broad and in-depth look into the past and present of the company hopefully helps the modern watch lover appreciate the manufacture’s dedication to preserving its past and to creating new pieces that can help perpetuate its name. Here’s to more crazy new inventions – and a few hundred years more Breguet! breguet.com

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