The Legend called A.L. Breguet

The Legend called A.L. Breguet

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Place : Paris Date : 1790
Venue : Home of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand
Occasion : A get together of French high society

Among the audience was the famous watch maker A.-L. Breguet. Seeing a chance to create maximum impact with one of his recent inventions, he took his watch from his pocket and, with the assorted guests gathered to see, tossed it on the floor in front of him. He then picked the watch up and passed it around for the spectators to examine.

Breguet’s latest invention, the pare-chute – a shock resistant device that protected the watch’s balance from knocks and jolts was simply unaffected by the fall leaving the audience shocked.

That was A.-L. Breguet, the master craftsman who raised the bar of watch maKing again and again with his path breaKing innovations. Breguet’s watchmaKing skills were so great that they transcended across the politically torn Europe, allowing him to build a customer base that was simply unparalleled – Jean-Paul Marat to Marie-Antoinette, Thomas Paine to Pope Pius VII, Napoleon Bonaparte to Czar Alexander I.

His personal life too was no less awe-inspiring, filled with colourful and gripping adventures with Kings and Queens, encompassing the French Revolution, the age of Napoleon, and remaKing of Europe after Napoleon.

Far removed from the French aristocracy, Breguet was born in 1747 in Neuchâtel, now in Switzerland but then a part of Prussia. The craft of watch maKing was just at a nascent stage. A first generation watchmaker, Breguet soon shifted to the intellectually stimulating Paris with the help of his stepfather Joseph Tattet. Paris was slowly becoming the capital of watch maKing, replacing London from its position.

Breguet set up his own shop in Paris in 1775 on the Quai de l’Horloge, known for its many watch and clock-maKing establishments. His son Antoine-Louis would grow into a skilled watchmaker himself.

Breguet was already displaying a penchant for innovation, worKing on the problem of the self-winding watch. It was an interest he shared with Abraham-Louis Perrelet, a well-known watchmaker from Le Locle, with whom, Breguet studied watchmaKing. Perrelet, in early 1770s, introduced a system of self-winding. Breguet improved upon Perrelet’s invention between 1775 and 1780, to introduce perpétuelle, named because the watch would run forever without needing to be wound by hand.

In the meantime, Breguet was expanding his network of influential customers. In 1782, he was introduced at court and received an order from the Queen, Marie-Antoinette, who asked him to make her a perpétuelle repeating watch. A year later, an officer of her guard asked Breguet to make the most complicated watch of that time, which took 44 years to get ready, long after the death of the Queen. Then it was the King, Louis XVI who ordered a new watch in 1784, followed by his sister and sister-in-law. By the end of the decade, he won orders from England’s George III and the 1780s also introduced his work to Talleyrand, the famous statesmen, who remained a loyal customer of Breguet throughout his life.

As his circle of friends and admirers grew, he kept them enthralled with one timekeeping treat after another. They included, in 1783, the first striKing repeater that was operated by a gong instead of a bell, improving the quality of sound and allowing the watch to be thinner than other repeaters. His designs were as attention grabbing as his technical wizardry. While other watches of the era were stodgy and ornate, Breguet watches were simple and understated. Furthermore, due to use of single plate, slender caliber, the watches were delightfully thin.

However, his business model was simply not worKing as his output was extremely low. In 1787, he inducted a business partner, Xavier Gide, who infused cash into the ailing business. Breguet was the toast of the French aristocracy as the triumphant 1780s came to an end. However, destiny had in store for him some bigger surprises, but he would get to see them not before experiencing the nightmares of the French Revolution.

The Revolution began soon after his return to Paris from England in the summer of 1798. Even amidst the bloody chaos of the Revolution, Breguet worked diligently, devising new horological inventions in his Quai de l’Horloge shop & visiting England repeatedly. He continued to do business with members of the French court, including the imprisoned Marie-Antoinette, who in 1792 ordered a simple repeating watch. She kept it with her till her execution in 1793, bequeathing it to Charles X.

However, the political struggle surrounding him was getting more and more intense and it was clearly time to leave France. In August 1793 he, his son and his sister-in-law left France for Switzerland leaving the business in the hands of a loyal but stressed manager named Boulanger. Breguet first went to Geneva visiting his suppliers and pondering how best to continue his career, then moved back to his hometown, Neuchâtel. Though he stayed in Neuchâtel for about a year, maKing movements and inventing new horological devices, his only obsession was to return to Paris and his workshop in Quai de l’Horloge. Boulanger meanwhile faced a lot of problems, including clashes with the revolutionary government. Given the failing fortunes of Breguet’s customers, the shop’s output reached an all time low of 19 timepieces in 1794.

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