For all his devotion to timekeeping, the 18th-century master watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet created watches best known for their timelessness. Between pocket watches built in the late 1700s by Breguet himself, wristwatches manufactured 50 years ago by the company he founded, and contemporary dress styles bearing the name of the brand that is furthering his legacy, timepieces produced by Breguet are synonymous with elegant models for the sophisticated gentleman.
And yet when the French horologist opened his shop on the Quai de l’Horloge in Paris in 1775, he was considered a maverick.
“Breguet was not only a watchmaker and inventor who revolutionized watchmaking, he was also an artist who introduced a style that ended the tradition of baroque exuberance of the 18th century,” says historian Emmanuel Breguet, a seventh-generation descendant of the Breguet founder and the head of patrimony for Montres Breguet. “At the time this design was seen as completely new and disruptive. Today we could call it ‘minimalist’ and ‘functional,’ and also timeless and iconic. Every element of it was chosen not only for its beauty, but also to better serve the readability of the watch, its reliability and the comfort of the owner.”
More remarkable than Breguet’s unconventional ideas about 18th-century watchmaking is the fact that his inimitable style has endured nearly 250 years of trends, fads, and fickle tastes. The visual continuity that links Breguet timepieces past and present is a testament to the watchmaker’s monumental reputation as history’s finest watchmaker.
Consider the yellow gold Breguet wristwatch (Ref. 3229), manufactured in 1957, that sold in November, at Phillips’ Geneva Watch Auction X, for $40,500. Not counting its dainty (for modern wrists) 34 mm case or its seductive yellow gold dial, the piece has a doppelgänger in the current collection: the 38 mm Classique 5157, an extra-thin yellow gold dress watch with a silvered gold guilloché dial that retails for $17,800.
“The similarities are very clearly visible,” says Emmanuel Breguet. “The main difference would be that today we equip our watches with escapements using the latest silicon technology that makes them anti-magnetic, and we introduced sapphire crystal casebacks to showcase the beautifully crafted movements. We also tend to use white or rose gold for the cases and silvered gold dials instead of yellow gold dials.”
Besides these modern-day flourishes, the 1957 piece—which, according to the auction notes, was sold in 1962 “to a French gentleman for the sum of 1,600 new French Francs,” and returned to Breguet in 1970, when its owner, Monsieur Combescot, wanted to replace the silver guilloché dial originally fitted to the watch, with a flashier gold guilloché version—has all the hallmarks of a Breguet original: an engine-turned dial, satin-brushed hour chapters with Roman numerals, a fluted case, and hollowed out hands made of gold or blued steel (arguably the watchmaker’s most recognizable and widely borrowed feature).
Not visible but equally as important are all the features that distinguish the interior of a Breguet timepiece, such as a balance spring endowed with what’s known as a “Breguet overcoil,” a 1795 innovation that continues to be used today. (A.L. Breguet was responsible for no fewer than ten horological inventions, from the gong springs that give striking watches their harmonious tones to the showy tourbillon mechanism, a staple of high-end watchmaking.)
Alex Ghotbi, head of watches for Continental Europe and the Middle East at Phillips, says the Ref. 3229 is unusual for two reasons: One, it was manufactured at a time when Breguet was still a French firm (the Biel, Switzerland-based Swatch Group acquired the watchmaker in 1999), lending the watch “a very cool, Parisian design,” he says. And two: “It has an amazing Peseux observatory movement: It’s like having a Formula 1 engine in your car. The best, most accurate movement you could hope for.”
The vintage wristwatch also boasts another, harder-to-pinpoint allure: “It’s the rarity,” says Ghotbi. “They were hardly making any wristwatches around that time, just a few handfuls every year. They were mostly doing repair work on older pocket watches. So Breguet wristwatches from the 1920s to the ’60s are ultra-rare. When they pop up, you have to pay the price.”