Watchmaker Emmanuel Breguet, a seventh-generation descendant of Abraham-Louis Breguet and the only family member still involved in the namesake business, dons white cotton gloves as we prepare to peruse the archives of the company that his ancestor founded in 1775 in Paris. “I’m the guardian of the grail,” says the 42-year-old Emmanuel as he removes antique leather-bound ledgers from the vault. The books reveal handwritten orders commissioning pieces for Napoléon Bonaparte, Marie Antoinette, and other famous patrons, and they include an operating manual for the world’s first tourbillon, Breguet’s most revered invention.
Dozens of ledgers and nearly 500 vintage Breguet timepieces recently were moved to the brand’s new Paris flagship store, which houses a public museum on the second floor. The late-17th-century building, designed by French architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart, is located on Place Vendôme, not far from the site of A.-L. Breguet’s original workshop on the Île de la Cité. Though the Breguet family sold the company in 1870, the brand still fervently pays homage to its patriarch.
After acquiring the company in 1999, billionaire Nicolas G. Hayek, chairman of Breguet’s parent company, the Swatch Group, poured countless Swiss francs into revitalizing the marque, enabling it to produce contemporary timepieces that reflect A.-L.’s progressive vision. Next year, Breguet will begin delivering one such watch, the Tradition Fusee Tourbillon ($146,800), the first high-complication piece in the Tradition collection and the result of five years of development. The hand-wound Breguet caliber 569 movement features a fusee-chain transmission system, a configuration derived from a late-1700s pocket watch design. The cone-shaped fusee, which is linked to the barrel by a chain, uses differential gears to transmit continuous force to the movement, ensuring constant torque whatever the winding tension of the mainspring. The design evokes A.-L.’s earliest renderings by blending a modern aesthetic with historic hallmarks, such as the large tourbillon cage with a bar that is shaped and angled like those found in his first tourbillons.
Another piece, the 1801 Tourbillon Messidor ($132,800 in pink gold and $178,650 in platinum), commemorates Breguet’s tourbillon patent, which, according to the French Revolutionary Calendar, was granted on 7 Messidor Year IX (June 26, 1801). The skeletonized movement showcases the mechanism’s sweeping bridges and bars. The watch has an ethereal quality; the tourbillon cage, which is showcased in a window at 6 o’clock, appears to float in air.
Next summer, Hayek expects to celebrate his greatest technical achievement: the reconstruction of the Marie Antoinette pocket watch, which was stolen from a Jerusalem museum in 1983 and never recovered. Considered the most complicated timepiece of its era, the watch was commissioned on behalf of the ill-fated queen in the late 1700s but not completed until 1827, 34 years after her death. Working from original sketches and notes, Breguet watchmakers have spent five years re-creating the timepiece, which will be unveiled at the reopening of the newly restored Petit Trianon, the queen’s palace at Versailles. Hayek donated close to $7 million for the restoration in tribute to the brand’s loyal patron.
Breguet, 866.458.7488, www.breguet.com