A Piece Of Dream: Breguet Continues To Rewrite The History That Inspires It
Emmanuel Breguet, descendant of the founder of the Swiss luxury watch company that bears his name, recently blew into town bearing a trunkful of new watches and a new edition of his book Breguet Watchmakers Since 1775: The Life and Legacy of Abraham-Louis Breguet.
It’s a beautiful book, as thick as an unabridged dictionary and heavy as three bibles, and it has a breathlessly long title, but one must understand that Breguet has had a long and distinguished history, stretching back into a time when only the elite could afford watches, and watches represented, for the most part, elaborate mechanical leaps into the unexplored—largely taken by clients unencumbered by financial restraints.
Take for example, Marie Antoinette herself, whose fascination for Breguet watches prompted a wealthy admirer to ask Abraham-Louise himself to build a watch that he would offer to her as a gift. The admirer famously told the watchmaker to include every complication known at the time, to use gold in place of other metals, and to impose “no time or financial limits” in creating the timepiece.
Of course, every single condition was fulfilled, especially including the last: when the watch was finally completed—an extreme feat of engineering even by today’s standards—Marie Antoinette had sadly been dead for 34 years, and Abraham-Louise himself had passed away, four years prior.
But if there are lessons to be learned here, they are primarily lessons in history: that innovation is almost always part of a circular and repetitive cycle of immense patronage and boundless talent, and that true geniuses are often outlived by their most significant achievements.
Seven generations later, Emmanuel Breguet sits across me in a hotel suite, speaking to me about the emblems that adorn his signet ring—the sky, the sun, the water, and the mountains, images from his family’s place of origin in Switzerland—with only the thinnest intimation of the bezel of his own Breguet peeking out from under his cuff. He refers to himself as the “seventh generation of a family with many engineers and inventors” but himself is no engineer; instead, he is a Sorbonne-educated historian who has made a career out of studying his own lineage.
242 years, after all, is quite a stretch, and to keep doing the same thing over that entire time does make for a mind-blowing level of technical mastery—not to mention a lot of very nice watches. But the young and present Breguet chooses to speak instead of the invisible things.
“We have to maintain the Breguet spirit, the Breguet style, the Breguet touch,” he says, in a cool French accent, moving a hand as though to grasp only the most precise English words from the air with a pair of tweezers.
A brief acquaintance with the book he has recently completed validates his precise concerns. Every watch they have produced comes across as an extremely physical achievement, but the image that lingers, gathered across hundreds of years in the moments it takes to leaf through the pages, seems to deliver a single feeling. From classic Breguet elements such as its guilloche dials and its blue hands, to more audacious outings such as the use of gems and mother-of-pearl, to engineering achievements such as the tourbillon (yes, a Breguet invention), it is all there—the spirit, the style, and the touch. “Aesthetically, we are quite conservative,” Breguet articulates, “but inside our movements are innovative. During the last 15 years we obtained more than 100 patents—more than many other watch companies.”
But Breguet once again chooses to let the images in the book speak for themselves. After all, it is the result of a long investigation of the Breguet archives, obsessively plumbed by Breguet and transformed into what is acknowledged as the first real biography of Abraham-Louise Breguet, but with enough photographs of never-before shown pieces to excite even the most historically oblivious reader.
Still, Breguet the historian insists that Breguet the watchmaking company is not preoccupied by its past.
“We don’t copy the past,” he says. “We are just inspired.” Centuries of inspiration it seems, have worked out well for Breguet, whose manufacture today consistently produces novelties, innovations, and instant classics—even at an age where a watch may seem like a superfluous adornment.
“To wear a watch today is not useful anymore. It’s just”—and Emmanuel Breguet seems to grope for correct English word again, “—a dream.”
“It is a piece of dream,” the historian says again, firmly and with finality. It was the precise word, after all.