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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.

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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.

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  • A_watches

    What I don’t like is the marketing machine makes a big thing of its links all the way back to Abraham breguet etc but the connection is actually tentative given the patchy last 150years.

    • ??????

      There is a brand called “Perrelet” and they claim themselves to be 240-year old watch manufacture with history going back to 1777 and being founded by Abraham-Louis Perrelet himself. When I see their watches I always get a bit disgusted to see them shout “1777” on the dials of their watches. In fact their history goes back to 1995… They’ve mistaken by just 218 years 🙂

      • Sheez Gagoo

        Perrelet is a sad example of a very interresting brand managed so horribly that it hurts. Like Eterna or Zenith.

        • ??????

          Sorry, and what is wrong with Eterna and Zenith?

          • Re Eterna, I think one criticism is that they saturated their portfolio with forgettable designs and many of them housed quartz movements much less their own calibres. The good news is that they have a new CEO, someone I have spent some time with, and it is clear that the focus for the next few years is going to be consolidation and core quality/aesthetic/price.

          • Coincidentally, I’m wearing an Eterna-Matic Kon Tiki Super while I read these comments. Outside of the hour hand being too subtle (OK for diving but not so good for desk diving), I really like this watch a lot.

          • Solid solid choice sir. I am likely to pick up their pulsometer shortly.
            When I met with Robert Dreyfuss I managed to get him to agree to consider reviving this puppy and dropping a Cal.39 into it!
            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/5c5f12d7f28557c9d712022ac3b271b646e0231f7325e9698a6ae0e392c5bc21.png

          • Looks like it would take a module to make a caliber 39 accommodate the pulsometer you showed (time of day to a subdial at 12 and running seconds moved from 9 to 6). I assume the pulsometer is a monopusher chrongraph and has chronograph seconds only – so very much a short duration timer (3 minute max on that snailed tachymeter scale). Interesting watch for sure. Thanks for showing it.

          • This one would need a module for sure, but the calibre is fit for such antics and I was very insistent!
            It’s actually just a tachy, a hardcore vintage beauty. The pulsometer I refer to is here:
            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/9c4488e8aadc1fa563d3c3df8852cf69369883ad522ff5e9a435b21b7ae801ca.png

          • Very nice – I’m much into vintage, so the pulsometer is more my style visually.

          • Sheez Gagoo

            1. Zenith: A brand known for it`s excellent El Primero movement never was able to be that succesfull as a watch manufacturer as a movement supplier even when times were best. Always under potential. Then, the worst decision was to hire T. Nataf as CEO to change that. Stupid watches were released at a ridiulous pricelevel. The financial crisis of 2008/2009 made Nataf disappear and a bunch of cobranded stuff came out, like the cohiba Zenith or the Range Rover Zenith. They build very nice watches like the pilot with the black dial and the cobranded (!) Hodinkee watch (just lovely, sorry abtw). I think Biver really has to take a look at Zenith. And I don`t like the fact, that Zenith advertises in one of the most racist, right wing, Putin loving magazines in Switzerland.
            2. Eterna: A brand with a very rich heritage underperformed during boom times as well with an offering of very mediocre ETA powered collection and the Porsche watches. Almost unknown as a brand. Then, Porsche decided to make Eterna a manufature. The former CEO of Eterna (P.Kury) seemed to be a better watch engineer than a business man and I think costs went out of control and sales were horrible. At least they offered some ery interresting and beautifull watches. The financial crisis made Porsche sell Eterna to Chinese Haidian Group (now Citichamp) and troubling strategy changes occured until the new CEO was hired, but times are bad for the Industry and brand recognition is hard to create. Watches are nice. Love the Kontiki.

    • David Bredan

      The last 150 years they can’t help, but since the brand’s modern revival they have objectively made some commendable efforts (which go way beyond mere marketing) at paying homage to the original heritage. The Marie-Antoinette remake that took years of research and engineering work to do in itself, or any of the numerous truly novel high-complication pieces released year after year are, I’d say, anything but tentative. With this mind I think you’ll wish – I sure do – that many other revived brands could do at least half this much.

  • Shawn Lavigne

    nice article. it was educational. thnx.

  • Thanks for the informative article David. While they have deep roots in terms of years and a legacy to protect and promote, I admire the modern Breguet as they see themselves as having an obligation to continue to innovate (which they do) in the spirit of their namesake.

  • Marius

    What I find extremely surprising is that this article didn`t mention the name and the huge importance of Daniel Roth for modern-day Breguet. allow me to explain.

    In 1973, when the Chaumet brother owned Breguet, they hired the young Daniel Roth to re-start the brand. Daniel Roth was the one who re-designed and brought back to life the typical Breguet style: pomme hands, guilloche dials, and the characteristic case design. Daniel Roth was also responsible for introducing complications such as the tourbillon and perpetual calendar in the collection. The more simple references used, as today, outsourced F. Piguet and JLC movements (not the case today).

    In conclusion, one could easily argue that Daniel Roth probably was the most important figure for modern-day Breguet, so it`s rather strange that he wasn`t even mentioned.

    • Ariel Adams

      I agree. Daniel Roth should be mentioned as his importance to the modern Breguet brand is not insignificant. If anything, what we picture in our minds when we think of a Breguet wrist watch is mostly thanks to Mr. Roth’s seminal efforts.

      • David Bredan

        Good point and I agree I should have clarified that I’m still in the process of conducting research on the “forgotten years” of the Breguet manufacture. Over the solid ~150 years between A-L’s death and the end of Roth’s involvement a lot of very interesting things have happened. That said, I also felt that these three pages (which, at near 6k words, would be around 20 pages if printed in a magazine) were already pushing the limit. We will get back to covering those 1.5 centuries soon enough so stay tuned!

    • Dinkee, H. O.

      Hear, hear!

  • john coleman

    Great article. One of my grails is to own a Breguet. The only thing l wish is that on many of their watches the lug ends would slope slightly more downwards.

  • Lovely Sunday reading guys

  • Nick Harrell

    Nice article! Curious, where did you pull that drawing of the escapement from? I’d love a print of that or his other drawings.

  • SuperStrapper

    Great Sunday article. Breguet is one of very (very) few brands that can produce truly classical and truly modern mechanical wonders, aesthetically. They really do have something for everyone.

  • David Williams

    Great article about a great company with a great heritage! Breguet is truly one of the – er – greats!

  • word-merchant

    Genius, like Designer, is a word so over and badly used as to become almost meaningless. Yet, here I am about to use it again: Abraham-Louis Breguet was clearly a horological genius, a man so ahead of his time, that we are still catching up with him.

    But what I don’t see is any real connection between Abraham-Louis Breguet and the Breguet of today – just another name in the huge overbearing Swatch conglomerate. In our drive to globalise, all the local genius has been subsumed. Breguet today means very little – yet another facet of a major Swiss brand turning out expensive CAD designed watches. Not so different to ETA really but with much more gold. Whereas Abraham-Louis Breguet still means a lot, because he did it largely on his own, and he did it first.

    Thank-you ABTW for the very illuminating and well written article. As ever, David Bredan has done his subject proud. But I felt a bit sadder at the end of it than I did at the beginning.

    • I feel that if Abe-Louie, were alive today, he’d use the best tools available to him. If he was state-of-the-art a couple centuries ago, then logically, one could expect he’d use cutting edge techniques today. I feel that a reincarnated Breguet would be intrigued by silicon, micro machining, and all the precision afforded by computer aided design and computer aided manufacturing. You appear to spit “CAD” like it’s an evil curse or something. Turn on a computer and it won’t design a watch for you.There is no “make watch” button. Contemporary horologists simply use engineering software as it’s the most appropriate design tool. In Abraham’s day, that was a pencil and a file. Today it’s not.

      • I very much agree with this argument, although I guess we will never know!

    • Omegaboy

      Curious, your comment infers that CAD is bad (rhyme somewhat intentional). Why? I’m a mechanical engineer and have used CAD (PTC’s “Creo”) for 25 years. It does not stifle ingenuity or the creative process, it enhances it. I almost always have ideas floating around in my head, and CAD allows me to very quickly model them, most often to extremely tight tolerances. If the idea looks good, I can export the file to a prototype shop and can have the thing in hand in a matter of days.

      Yes, there is an art to making beautiful movements and watches, but in the end, we want watches that can very accurately tell time. CAD allows this to happen, and almost seamlessly.

    • There is barely a watchmaker in existence that does not rely on CAD. Even the Naissance D’Une Montre project used CAD for drawings so they could get to work without using CNC. Actually I suspect you are thinking of CNC when you refer to CAD.

      It’s a very interesting area of debate though – when you think of ‘traditional’ do you only think of it in terms of honest quality or do you also consider the limitations imposed upon that era, which acted to reduce quality. I believe that the soul of a watch exists somewhere in that spectrum, and perfect quality is somewhat diminished by the lack of barely perceptible inconsistencies that remind us of our own humanity.

      Blimey, you can tell it’s a Sunday…

  • Omegaboy

    David, love your blue and red shirt. Where did you pick it up? Great article, too, btw.

  • Dinkee, H. O.

    Abraham-Louis Breguet is to watches what I am to watch blogs.

    • SuperStrapper

      Long dead?

      • Dinkee, H. O.

        Strength to strength! Every time I appear on here it even boosts ABTW’s views! But I’m okay with that as my own blog has become so all-powerful in the world of horology that I can spread a little of the spotlight around. You’re welcome, Ariel.

        • SuperStrapper

          You don’t have a watch blog, nor do you have any actual facts to back up these, or any of your other laughable claims.

          The thanking should be from you to Ariel for giving prepubescent chronic nosepickers that otherwise always have their hands in their pockets like yourself a soapbox to failtroll from on such a regular basis.

  • Marius

    Breguet is one of my favourite brands, but in my opinion, there is a lot of watch-enthusiast hype surrounding this brand.

    Firstly, there is absolutely no connection between Breguet the man and the modern Breguet brand. There might be some great great greatson of Breguet working for the brand, but there is ZERO real connection. The same applies to brands such as Arnold & Son, Lange, Jaquet Droz, etc.

    Secondly, Breguet is really a two-tier brand. On the one hand, they have their highly-complicated watches which are fine. On the other hand, their “entry level” watches are elegant and full of character, but I wouldn’t describe them as stellar. Besides the fact that they are slightly underpowered, their overall quality level and finish is not quite up to Patek or Lange standards.

    Lastly, modern-day Breguet doesn’t even come close to the inventive spirit of AL Breguet. Keep in mind that Breguet manufactured some highly complicated watches and came up with some very innovative and modern solutions despite working with basic and rudimentary tools — the Millionomètre would be invented by Antoine LeCoultre only in 1884. Given that today we have CAD, advanced optics, laser precision, computer-assisted CNC, modern materials, you could say that the sky is the limit. Yet, most highly complicated modern Breguets are still using, more or less, the main concepts invented by Breguet hundreds of years ago. We are still talking about tourbillons, minute repeaters, perpetuals, etc — nothing really new has been invented. Sure, the Breguet 7727 (using magnetic pivots) and the 10 Hz movement are interesting, yet, given the level of technology available, I can’t really say that these are huge advancements that blow everything away.

    • You argue that the modern brand has no connection to A-LB and then you criticise their lack of ingenuity and their focus on the original inventions of A-LB.

      That IS the connection. Not sure what more anyone else should expect from a 21st Century brand carrying a 19th Century name?

      • egznyc

        And oh, boy, does Breguet have superlative dial finishing!

  • BRIAN

    I love any article that shows watchmaking and especially if it shows finely decorated components. Problem like me most people are being fooled by these Co’s into buying their watches on these well thought out images and ad campaigns.

    The higher end say $50k-$100k and up watches are truly one of a kind hand made pieces of wearable art. They have a real value in the precious stones or metals used and the skilled labor needed to decorate the pieces. Hard to put a price on a decorated hand carved component in the same way you do a fine piece of art. Actually I am wrong and you can and we do by pricing these pieces in relation to their being one off masterpieces.

    Now look at the Omega or Rolex that costs say $5k that should be selling for $1500 based on what is actually being delivered. No special materials or one off hand decorated components. You are buying the ad campaigns image. Modern engineering should be curing pricing not raising it for zero reason but greed the is now biting them in the ass.

    CAD is a modern tool used just as using a newer chisel vs a stone to carve something. It allows layering and accuracy. That said I like seeing the errors and mistakes such as brushstrokes on a cabinet vs a sprayed piece. Thats what makes it one off and not able to be duplicated by modern reverse engineering. You can replicate a Rolex down to being inspected with a lupe but you can’t replace a hand decorated piece from say RGM.

  • Raymond Wilkie

    Great article David. Interesting and super pictures thanks

  • speedy

    Very cool article! Just 2 things though:
    – I am not really sure in what way AL Breguet was the inventor of the self-winding watch. He was probably the inventor of the self-winding watch using a hammer, and Sarton was probably the inventor of the one using a rotor, but from what I read the rotor may well have preceded the hammer by a few years.
    – Your article reads as if the perpetual calendar was invented to take into account the irregularities introduced by the gregorian calendar, but actually most perpetual calendars (such as the ones by ALB) don’t take into account its centennial cycle, but only the 4-year cycle of the julian calendar, which is much older. However, this is no less impressive: the julian calendar was already centuries old, but one had to wait for him to implement it in a watch.

  • laup nomis

    Great article. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Keep the history pieces coming.

  • sfbaydawg221

    There was a Breguet exhibit at the San Francisco Legion of Honor in 2015 (?)- where I got see some of his handiwork. That was cool.

  • CKLT

    Amazing article, thank you David for taking the time to write such a detailed piece with so much information and research.

    To the many who say the current brand has nothing to do with AL-B, well yea the man has been dead for quite a while… So has Jules Audemars, Antoni Patek, JM Vacheron & co. For me what is important is that a brand stays true to its philosophy, design and desire for innovation, getting inspired by the past while looking to the future. Breguet has done this better than most, just looking at the 7727, or many of the pieces in the Tradition collection.

    Swatch group is viewed as the evil corporation that eats small watchmakers for breakfast and poops out their soulless remains, but I do not think that is true. Many of the smaller manufacturer could not have survived without Swatch, Richmont etc… And if anything they have improved many brands throughout the years. Panerai has become a proper manufacture, Vacheron is knocking it out of the park lately, whereas AP and Patek have made some pretty questionable choices in recent times.

    Breguet for me is one of the brands that still represents classic watchmaking the best, while not being afraid to innovate and I hope they continue making wonderful timepieces these difficult times.

  • egznyc

    Great article – I like these historical pieces a lot. Keep them coming!

  • Cuppa Joe

    I love Breguet (the man and the brand). I don’t even care about the bad years before Swatch. I’d love to own a dozen of them. But first: How does one become a Russian oligarch?

  • Razzcal

    I liked the article, but must point out one thing: unless I’m terribly mistaken, Thomas Mudge built the first ever perpetual calendar watch in 1764.