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Just as Abraham-Louis Breguet intended to make the Marie-Antoinette into a monument to the glory of 18th century horology, the Breguet brand under Nicolas G Hayek in 2008 performed a feat of prowess by bringing a legend to life and anchoring it in the 21st century
By Roger Alexander
Only a man like Swatch chairman Nicolas G Hayek, driven by passion for art and a sense of history, could have dared to make a replica of the Breguet watch No. 160, better known as the Marie-Antoinette after the last Queen of France for whom it had been ordered by an admirer in 1783.
Marie Antoinette was driven by a truly passionate desire for Breguet watches. Keen to possess any auspicious novelty, she had acquired a number of timepieces, including a perpetuel watch embellished with a self-winding device developed by Abraham-Louis Breguet at the Quai de l’Horloge on the Ile de la Cite in Paris.
According to Hayek, Marie Antoinette was a true admirer of Breguet’s work, “So much so that she mounted the scaffold in 1793 with one of his watches in her hand.”
So whilst commissioning the watch ordered from the workshops in the Quai de 1’Horloge, the admirer wanted a watch incorporating the entire body of horological science of the time – perpetual calendar, repeater, thermometer, chronograph, power reserve and pare-chute – as a gift to the queen.
The order specified that gold should, wherever possible, be used instead of other metals, and that the complications should be both multiple and varied. There were to be no limits to the original price;
Breguet was simply told to make the “most spectacular” watch possible. Unconstrained by limitations of cost or time, Breguet had a free hand.
However, neither he nor the queen would see it in its final glory. The Marie-Antoinette pocket watch was completed in 1827, 34 years after the queen was guillotined and four years after Breguet’s death.
Owing to its origin and complicated engineering, the watch quickly became a legend. Indeed, its roots and story, as fabulous as its epic, have haunted the watchmaking world and the minds of collectors for more than two centuries.
It finally ended up in a museum in Jerusalem as a donation from someone who bought it years earlier. In 1983, the watch was stolen from the museum. Hayek says he wanted to advertise and pay for the watch, but was advised against it, as the museum would seek its return. Therefore, in 2005, he decided to make a new one.
(In the meanwhile, even as the new Marie-Antoinette was being created, the stolen watch reappeared under dramatic circumstances and was offered to Hayek who refused to buy stolen property. It is now back in the Jerusalem museum. Hayek retells this story with relish in his accompanying interview to Mitrajit Bhattacharya of Watch World.)
Three years later he unveiled only the second example of the gold pocket watch (Ref 1160BA/40) at the Baselworld watch fair earlier this year. “When we decided to make this watch ourselves, it was a hell of a challenge,” Hayek told Watch World. After all, none among the watchmakers at Breguet had even seen the original when the team embarked on the task of recreating the watch!
All they had were drawings and technical details archived in museums including Breguet’s own. Comparative examinations of contemporary antique watches, notably the Due de Praslin watch, revealed new factors concerning the styling and watchmaking techniques of the period.
With only a few rare documents, which gave no details of the complications, to guide them, Breguet’s watchmakers spent long months reproducing this exceptional timepiece’s ultra-complicated movement. The research also brought to light skills that have vanished and enabled the watchmakers to produce a timepiece that is in every respect faithful to its predecessor.
Indeed, Breguet’s watchmakers pulled off an extraordinary feat to create an exact replica of the original watch, which is proof of their immense talent. Their research even uncovered a complication that had never before been mentioned in relation to the Marie Antoinette, namely the jumping hours, yet another of Breguet’s inventions.
The Hayek Marie-Antoinette stands out as an extraordinary work of art in every way true to the original with its myriad complications including jumping hours, full perpetual calendar, minute-repeater, thermometer and equation of time and reveals a host of complications.
Each function and every decorative feature was minutely analysed. In the coachwork of the watch for example, the yellow gold of the 63mm-diameter case was cast in a special, more coppery alloy in order to match the period hue. The glasses for the dial and the case, made of rock crystal, allow the movement to display its finery and the marvels of its finish.
As a self-winding watch with a minute-repeater striking the hours, quarters and minutes on demand, the Hayek Marie-Antoinette has all the makings of a work of art. A full perpetual calendar displays the dates, the day and the months respectively at 2 o’clock, 6 o’clock and 8 o’clock. The equation of time at 10 o’clock proclaims the daily difference between solar time and the mean time told by watches.
In the centre, the jumping hours – invented by Breguet – and the minutes are joined by a long independent seconds hand, while the small seconds are shown at 6 o’clock. The 48-hour power-reserve indicator at 10:30 balances a bimetallic thermometer at 01:30.
The self-winding, ‘perpetuel’ movement comprises 823 outstandingly finished components. The baseplates and bridges, the smallest gear-wheels in the trains for the underdial work, the dates and the repeater are fashioned in pink gold polished with wood. The screws are in polished blued steel, the points of friction, holes and bearings, set with sapphires.
The smallest details demonstrate perfect execution and have been finished by hand. This masterly and unprecedented mechanism is furthermore fitted with a particular type of natural-lift escapement, a helical balance-spring in gold and a bimetallic balance-wheel. The anti-shock device – a double pare-chute, another Breguet invention – gives protection against blows and shocks to the balance staff and to the shafts of the winding weights.
Even as the Hayek Marie-Antoinette was getting ready, Hayek learnt that the queen’s favourite oak tree in the royal palace of Versailles outside Paris was about to be felled. He offered to buy the wood to make the box for the pocket watch but Versailles offered the tree at no cost. In appreciation, Breguet donated five million euros ($7.85 million) for the restoration of a section of the palace called Petit Trianon where Marie Antoinette spent most of her time.
For Hayek, to take wood from the queen’s favourite oak tree in Versailles to make a box that houses the replica watch is an ultimate tribute to her.
The box is a composition of 3500 pieces, sculpted from the royal oak’s wood. The exterior is an exact reproduction of the parquet floor inside the Petit Trianon.
It opens to reveal a second, smaller box, the top of which could be mistaken for a masterpiece in oils. It is in fact a handcrafted marquetry of over a thousand pieces depicting Marie Antoinette’s hand holding a rose, inspired by a famous portrait of the queen. As for the watch itself, nestled inside, it is as imposing for its size as for its myriad complications and, of course, for all that it represents for eighteenth-century French culture.
As much as in those days Breguet intended to make this watch into a monument to the glory of 18th century horology, the brand has in 2008 performed a feat of prowess by bringing a legend to life and anchoring it in the 21st century. Nicolas Hayek insists it is a piece of art and not for sale, upping the desirability quotient of the most awaited watch even more.