Horology’s Finest

The Lasting Influence of Breguet.

In the pantheon of horological greats, there is one man who stands above the rest: Abraham-Louis Breguet. His inventions are so widespread and diverse that you would be hard-pressed to find a single watch marque that hasn’t adopted a few of his techniques or inventions. Breguet is also the sole person who can claim that his work has been worn by historical figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Marie Antoinette, referenced in the literature of Alexander Pushkin, Alexandre Dumas, and Victor Hugo, and depicted visually in artwork by painters such as William Hogarth.

Breguet’s mechanical excellence and corresponding celebrity status is uncommon in today’s world. Is there a single watchmaker or engineer in 2016 who could rival the prestige and reputation that Breguet held in 18th-century France? The closest comparison nowadays would be someone like Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg. The same way Breguet revolutionized how we tell time, Zuckerberg changed how we communicate and Musk changed how we travel.

Portrait of Abraham-Louis Breguet
Portrait of Abraham-Louis Breguet

The Inventions of Breguet

In Breguet’s 40-year career, he produced countless horological innovations including the Breguet balance spring, the gong spring for the minute repeater, the first self-winding watch, among other unprecedented creations. His design elements are also worthy of acclaim and still appear on dials across the globe, whether or not the timepiece wears the signature of Breguet. Breguet numerals, dials, and hands are used throughout the entire industry and are noted for their unparalleled elegance and grace. The sobriety of Breguet’s style catapulted watch design from the Rococo directly into neoclassicism. Gone were the over-crowded dials, now replaced with a brand new, thin timepiece that was celebrated and popularized throughout the royal courts of France. However, looking over his long list of inventions, two stand out: the tourbillon and the wristwatch.

Quai de l'Horloge
Quai de l’Horloge

Breguet realized early on that gravity had an unavoidable effect on his timepieces. To solve this, he had the idea of positioning an entire escapement inside of a rotating carriage that would turn a complete rotation every minute, nulling any errors caused by gravity through mutual compensation. He registered for a 10-year patent in 1801, but the first tourbillon would not be put on the market until 1805, when it eventually received critical acclaim. Despite being regarded as Breguet’s signature invention, only 35 models were sold during his lifetime.

While some claim that the first bracelet-watch was developed by Patek Philippe for the Hungarian Countess Kocewicz in 1868, it was in fact created by Breguet himself between 1810 and 1812. According to the Breguet archives, the Queen of Naples placed an order for a repeater watch on a bracelet on June 8 of 1810 for the cost of 5,000 Francs (approximately $18,500 in today’s USD). The proof of this watch’s existence is found in Breguet’s order and manufacturing register, both of which present a complete summary of the making of a piece. After working for two months on its design, what eventually became watch No. 2639 went into production on Aug. 11 and was completed on Dec. 21, 1812. The wristwatch was a quarter-repeater and oval-shaped, which was uncommon at the time. It is also described as having a lever escapement and thermometer. The face was said to contain an excruciatingly detailed guilloché silver dial with Arabic numerals, another uncommon detail for gold and silver dials of the time. Unfortunately, no sketches have been found, and the wristwatch itself, although appearing twice for servicing in 1849 and 1855, has been lost to history.

The Patrons of Breguet

Nobles across all of Europe were enamored with Breguet because he wasn’t only creating the most accurate timepieces the world had ever seen, he was creating the most advanced form of engineering at the time. Breguet’s seemingly rapid-fire pace of mechanical innovations served as a direct predecessor to the Industrial Revolution, which began shortly after his death in 1823.

In 1798, before launching his Egyptian campaign, Napoleon purchased three Breguet timepieces that accompanied him throughout the journey: A repeating watch, a repeating carriage clock, and a perpétuelle repeater. The carriage clock is the most remarkable of these three noteworthy pieces as it was the first of its kind. It was purchased for 1,500 Francs (approximately $5,500 in today’s USD) and included a moonphase and calendar. Remarkably, the piece has survived to the present day in its complete original form.

Breguet's carriage clock for Napoleon.
Breguet’s carriage clock for Napoleon.

Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples and the younger sister of Napoleon, was perhaps Breguet’s finest client. In a nine-year period, Murat and her husband, Joachim, purchased over 34 timepieces from Breguet’s workshops. Murat’s place in watchmaking lore cannot be understated, but, funnily enough, her standing as the most frequent customer of the greatest watchmaker in history could be even more notable. Her brother’s offer to give her control over the Principality of Neuchâtel in 1806 would have given her control over Breguet’s birthplace and a country full of watchmakers. She declined as it was much too small for her liking.

Before Napoleon seized power, Breguet had attended to the horological fancies of one of history’s most famous and opulent couples, Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI. While he produced multiple timepieces for the two of them, only one piece has captivated the world since its construction began. A year after first meeting Breguet, the Queen of France requested the impossible: A timepiece that contained every single complication known at the time. The Breguet No. 1160 grande complication was produced with zero time or finance restrictions, and gold was meant to be used in its construction whenever and wherever possible. The piece included 10 functions and complications and costed over 17,000 gold francs (over $110,000 in today’s USD) to produce with the help of over 20 watchmakers. Unfortunately, progress on the watch was slow, and it took 45 years to complete, outliving both Breguet and the Queen. He would, however, spend the last month of his life working on what he felt was his masterpiece. It was finally finished under the direction of Antoine-Louis in 1827. The astonishing timepiece remained the most complicated watch in the world for nearly a century, and was valued at over $30 million in 2013. It’s currently on display at the L.A. Mayer Memorial Institute in Jerusalem.

The Marie-Antoinette timepiece.

Breguet’s remarkable clientele continued long after his death. Some of the most prominent figures of the 19th and 20th century wore Breguet pieces, including Queen Victoria, Sir Winston Churchill, King Fuad I of Egypt, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Ettore Bugatti, and the Duke of Windsor.

The Life of Breguet

Breguet had a remarkable life. His career changed the industry for the better more than any other watchmaker in history. He lived through the French Revolution, became the personal friend of royals across Europe, and spent as much time traveling abroad as he did behind his workbench. He also dealt with tragedy as a youth, when his father passed away unexpectedly, and then later in life mourned the loss of his young wife soon after the birth of their son. The following timeline touches on a few of the most important years of his life, both professionally and personally.

Breguet Timeline


Born in Neuchatel, Switzerland, on Jan. 10 to
Jean-Louis Breguet and Suzanne-Marguerite Bolle.


A 15-year-old Breguet begins his career by serving as a watchmaking apprentice to a clockmaker in Versailles.


Breguet sets up his own workshop on Quai de l’Horloge
on the Île de la Cité in Paris at the age of 28.
He also marries 23-year-old Cécile L’Huillier.


His son, and later apprentice, Antoine-Louis is born.


 Breguet’s first major success, the
perpétuelle, or automatic, watch is released.
Unfortunately, his wife passes away.


Invention of the gong spring for repeating watches.
Design of Breguet hands and numerals.


Invention of the Breguet Dial, engine-turned
by hand (guilloché).


Breguet invents the dead-seconds (or jump-seconds) hand.


Breguet flees Paris during the French Revolution
and lands in Switzerland with his family.


Breguet unveils the first sympathique
(synchronizing) clock and the musical chronometer.


The first montre à tact watch
developed by Breguet is sold.


The tourbillon regulator, Breguet’s most
famous invention, is patented.

A modern-day tourbillon.
A modern-day tourbillon.


The first wristwatch begins production
for Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples.


Breguet is named official horologist of the
French Royal Navy and develops the
double-barrelled marine chronometer.


Breguet is named a member of the Académie
des sciences by royal decree of Louis XVIII.


Breguet is inducted into the Legion of Honor with the
rank of Chevalier by Louis XVIII.


 Breguet passes away on Sept. 17 at the age of 76.
His son becomes head of the company.

The Legacy of Breguet

How do Breguet’s incredible innovations continue to impact today’s luxury watch industry? While there are no brands in today’s market where his work does not appear in some capacity, the brand that utilizes the purest form of his ideals is the manufacture that he began. Breguet, under the direction of the late Nicolas G. Hayek and then his grandson, Marc, has continued its founder’s legacy of innovation, filing and registering 115 patents since 2002.

Nicolas G. Hayek with the Marie-Antoinette timepiece
Nicolas G. Hayek with the Marie-Antoinette timepiece

This past year Manufacture Breguet released the Tradition 7087, the Classique 7147 and the Hora Mundi 5727, all of which maintain Breguet’s traditions in exemplary fashion.

Although Breguet did not invent the minute repeater some of his most popular models were repeaters. So, when Breguet unveiled the Tradition 7087 at BaselWorld earlier this year, it was no surprise to hear that the brand had tried something new by developing the repeater “around a predetermined sound.” Along with a tourbillon, Breguet hands, Breguet balance springs and his famous gong spring, the model embodies its Tradition title to the fullest.

The Breguet Tradition 7087

Breguet was noted for his thin timepieces, so releasing one of the manufacture’s most recognized lines in an ultra-thin model makes perfect sense. The Classique 7147 Extra-Thin uses a Breguet balance spring, Breguet blued hands, an escape-wheel and lever in silicon and is self-winding.

The Breguet Classique Extra-Thin 7147
The Breguet Classique Extra-Thin 7147

Also a part of the Classique collection, the Hora Mundi 5727 winds automatically and uses Breguet hands, an escape-wheel and lever in silicon. This timepiece is the follow up to 2011’s award-winning watch that became the first mechanical timepiece to claim an instant-jump time zone indicator synchronized with the rest of the dial’s indicators. – Logan R. Baker


The Breguet Classique Hora Mundi 5727
The Breguet Classique Hora Mundi 5727