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Abraham-Louis Breguet: The Father of Modern Watchmaking

Renowned brands were a rarity in the 18th and 19th centuries, but Abraham-Louis Breguet, who thanks to his cutting edge inventions is considered the father of modern watchmaking, has managed to become one. He was a walking, talking, clock brand who became a legend in his own time. The rare clock collection of Sir David Salomons is exhibited at the Museum for Islamic Art, incorporating 55 unique centuries-old Breguet clocks. It is the largest collection of Breguet clocks in the world.

The Beginning

Abraham-Louis Breguet was born in 1747, to French parents, at Neuchatel in Switzerland. He lived in Paris until his death in 1823. His father died when he was 10, and he was forced to leave school 2 years later. His mother remarried to Joseph Tattet, who came from a family of watchmakers. Tattet convinced Breguet to take up watchmaking, and when he was 15 he travelled to Versailles - at the time the best watchmakers worked there – in order to learn the trade, and became an apprentice.

The exercise went well. Breguet had a wonderfully developed technical gift and high level of intelligence, and he greatly impressed the artist who worked with him, and the teacher who taught him mathematics in the evenings. Because of his results, the teacher proudly presented him to King of France, Louis XVI. It was an encounter that led to a glorious career, and the king ordered many clocks from him in the years to come.

Breguet founded the company that bears his name together with his wife Cécile. He devoted great efforts to inventing innovative mechanical clock mechanisms and, in 1780, he developed the automatic winding mechanism, which had been invented back in 1765 but failed in a mass production format. Breguet, who was gifted with a deep understanding of mechanical principles, studied the way the mechanism worked, developed it and manufactured a very reliable and popular mechanism.

The Queen Marie Antoinette Watch

Breguet quickly gained a reputation among French aristocratic families and in the royal court, and became a key figure in the evolving clock industry. In 1783, an officer in the guard of Queen Marie Antoinette ordered a magnificent watch which bore her name. The work on the watch lasted more than 30 years, and had only been completed in 1820, several years after the queen’s death.

The Queen’s watch, which is one of the most valuable watches in the world – some call it the Smartphone of the 18th century – is a masterpiece and superb specimen of Breguet’s sophistication and genius. What, today, looks like just a regular list of applets was created in his workshop by hand, through precise design of panels, springs and tiny gearwheels, and incorporates a calendar with an adjustment for leap years, a thermometer and time comparison, and that is only a partial list.

The watch is outstandingly majestic. It is completely made of gold, except for the essential steel parts. The case of the watch is also gold, and the panels are covered with sapphires. The front and rear covers are made of rock crystal through which the whole of the mechanism can be seen. The watch panel, which is also made of rock crystal, has Roman numerals engraved into it, next to the signature Breguet & Son.

Groundbreaking Mechanisms

For most of his life, Breguet worked on inventing groundbreaking mechanisms designed solely to overcome technical limitations. As a renowned specialist in precision mechanics, the clock mechanisms he created were the epitome of perfection and logic. They set the standards for the clock industry that are still relevant to this very day. No one has yet managed to improve or upgrade them.

Over the years, Breguet began to manufacture and sell pendulum and standard clocks to the aristocracy of Europe, including kings, princes and noblemen from France, Russia and England. His success was fueled by his ability to invent original mechanism for simple and sophisticated clocks, which offered high reliability couple with a functional design.

In 1815 Breguet was appointed to the position of official watchmaker of the French Navy, and he began to produce a series of marine chronometers (highly precise clocks which were also used in sea navigation). He also invented the carriage clock, a sophisticated model of which is the sympathetique clock. It got its name due to the sympathy that exists between it and the small pocket watch it carries on its shoulders. It was made by Louis Rabie, Breguet’s student. It is a mechanical clock, which is wound up for a week, and has a chimer mechanism, winding length meter and alarm clock. The pocket watch was made by Breguet himself, and he designed it so that it could be placed in a sort of cradle which allows winding and setting by winding up the carriage clock.

Breguet’s most significant contribution to the world of watchmaking was the self-winding clocks, although their manufacture was halted due to their high cost and the difficulties involved in assembling them. His clocks embody a sense of the romantic, of 19th century Europe. One look at them conjures up images of careening around Europe by train, or crossing an ocean on a steamboat, and they are a delicious remnant of a world in which gentlemen pull out from their pockets a watch with a golden chain, and coolly check the time.