For more than two centuries, numerous references in French and other literature have borne witness to the scope and depth of Breguet''s international influence. Breguet has become such an intrinsic part of European culture that his name inevitably springs to mind when one is seeking to depict the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, or simply a luxurious, refined environment characterized by high standards. What greater proof of his reputation -- and what more truly disinterested and free publicity -- could one imagine, than an allusion to Breguet in the Comédie Humaine by Balzac, or in works by Alexandre Dumas, Stendhal, Jules Verne, or even the great Pushkin.
Other less universally known authors such as Mérimée, Siraudin or the Russians Karamzin and Kuprin also celebrate the father of modern watchmaking, while numerous works in popular literature intended for the education of youth give Breguet as an example, often colorful and embroidered biographies. There were even exercise books bearing Breguet''s effigy!
Breguet was founded in 1775 by Abraham-Louis Breguet, following his marriage to the daughter of a prosperous French bourgeois; her dowry provided the "financing" which allowed him to open his own workshop. The connections Breguet had made with scholarly people during his apprenticeship as a watchmaker and as a student of mathematics soon paid off with spectacular results. Following his introduction to the court, whereupon Queen Marie-Antoinette is said to have grown fascinated by Breguet's unique self-winding watch, Louis XVI bought several watches. He gave one of them to the mariner Bougainville, who was just organizing his great expedition to the North Pole.
Two requirements for the further development of the workshop had been achieved: Breguet found access to the powerful and wealthy aristocracy, and proved himself to be a technical genius. In short order, Breguet perfected the self-winding movement invented by Perrelet; invented shock resistance for balance bearings (prior to this, most pocket watches were badly damaged if they fell to the ground); and developed la repetition, a repeating pocket watch that chimed on demand (which was necessary to tell time in the dark).
Perhaps the invention Breguet is most famous for is the tourbillon. Even with today's advanced technology, the tourbillon can only be built by the most skilled watchmakers. Breguet began with the theory that the gravity of a pocket watch (that was almost always carried vertically) led to deviations in timekeeping. He wanted to rule out all differences of position with the tourbillon.
Consequently, he developed a small "clock within a clock", meaning that the balance and escapement turned on a common axle within the movement, for example, once a minute. This eliminated most deviations caused by differences in position and allowed many watches to attain chronometer-like accuracy.
These inventions of Breguet ensured the success of his firm under the rule of two Bourbon kings, three governments of the First Republic and the reign of Napoleon. In fact, Napoleon was one of Breguet's most loyal customers.
An amusing story is told in which Napoleon, while in the heat of battle, wanted to see the time on his pocket watch right away, without sacrificing the benefits of the cover. So, right then and there, Napoleon unceremoniously cut a small viewing hole in the front cover. This afforded him an unobstructed view of the face and hands! And so the half-hunter was born.
No matter who was in power in Europe, he wore a Breguet. The master, who built the first watches with perpetual calendar and moonphase indication as early as 1795, was not only a technical visionary, but a pioneer in the business world as well. Aside from considering (and executing) special requests from royalty and wealthy patrons, Breguet also cased his movements in gold and silver, created lavish carrying cases of Morocco leather, provided spare parts, and was perhaps the first watchmaker to encounter counterfeit examples of his work.
To combat this problem, Breguet and engraver Jean Pierre Droz invented the "secret signature" on the dial. An impossibly small marking, the signature could be only be read by holding the watch to a light source and looking through a loupe. To further ensure authenticity, all watches that left the factory were given a serial number and registered in thick books, so that authenticity could always be verified. (And in fact, these books are still kept as part of Breguet's archives. Thus, for a small fee, one can learn the date of sale, original sales price and original purchaser of even the most ancient timepieces!)
Unfortunately, Breguet was ultimately forced to seek refuge in Switzerland beginning in 1807. Many timepieces from this time period that are signed "Breguet et Fils" were actually built by other watchmakers and merely retailed by the Master. As a result, many collectors consider the only "true" Breguets to be the watches sold prior to Breguet's exile from France.
Following Breguet's death, the company changed hands several times. The "modern" chapter of the Breguet saga begins in 1970, five years prior to its 200th anniversary, when the company was bought by Parisian jewelers Jacques and Pierre Chaumet. By restoring the prestige and exclusivity associated with Breguet watches, the Chaumet brothers accomplished a minor miracle.
Modern Breguet watches, which are built by hand by the most talented Swiss watchmakers, boast hand-engraved ("guilloche") silver dials, exquisitely finished cases with reeded edges, and of course, the famous Breguet signature. Although Breguet also offers such sporty, casual models as the "Transatlantique" and "Marine" lines, they are best known for their elegant dress watches, many of which sell for five figures and up.
In sum, while a Breguet may not be in everyone's price range, collectors with the means to acquire one of these mechanical masterpieces should not hesitate. The history, romance, high quality, and exclusivity of this brand ensure that it will be a worthwhile investment indeed.