Among the different projects Breguet is involved in as a patron of the arts, perhaps the most meaningful is the one it undertook in 2009 to help restore the Department of Decorative Arts’ collection of 18th-century furniture and objets d’art. Located on the second floor of the Louvre’s Cour Carŕee, these rooms closed their doors to public 10 years ago as part of the museum’s grand renovation plans.
It was the late Nicolas G Hayek (1928-2010), chairman of Swatch Group and president and CEO of Breguet (until he retired in 2002), that inked this collaboration. Hayek always believed watchmaking belonged in a domain where science, technology and art coexisted harmoniously together. He was instrumental in the revival of Breguet’s cultural and emotional identity and, thanks to meaningful and prestigious patronage activities, positioned it as more than just an excellent watchmaker, but a brand that speaks of culture, art, refinement and tradition. The story of how Hayek swooped in on the ailing watch industry in the early 1980s and led it to a glorious turnaround remains forever lodged in the annals of fine watchmaking history.
Supporting the Louvre’s restoration efforts for its 18th-century French decorative art rooms was a natural decision for Hayek, for it was during the Age of Enlightenment, that the brand was birthed. Founder Abraham-Louis Breguet himself was born in 1747, and for the remainder of the century, introduced a series of important milestones, such as the invention of the minute repeater gong (1783) and the “pare-chute” anti-shock device (1790) among many others.
The Louvre also occupies a special place in the watchmaker’s heart, because of an intimate relationship forged by Abraham-Louis from as early as 1802, when he participated at the second industrial products exhibition held at the museum. Vivant Denon, the first director of the Louvre (and distant relative of current director Jean-Luc Martinez) and a member of the French gentry, was known to have acquired a Breguet minute repeater in 1810 and a ceramic bisque clock a year later.
It was only much later in 2009 that both cultural institutions forged a deeper commitment towards each other. In addition to coming on as a major partner for the restoration project, Breguet also held a retrospective exhibition called Breguet and the Louvre: An Apogee of European Watchmaking at the famed museum. Exceptional loans, portraits and archival documents traced the trailblazing career of one of haute horlogerie’s most brilliant inventors, while further cementing the brand’s legitimacy in the industry.
Earlier in June this year — five years since Breguet signed on as a dedicated partner — the US$33 million restoration project finally came to fruition, resulting in an entirely renovated 2,500-sq-m exhibition space housing more than 2,000 pieces of furniture and antiquities, as well as several entirely recreated interiors. Among them, the Louvre has faithfully reproduced the interiors of three rooms in the Dangé residence (a private home on the Place Vendôme), by painstakingly restoring its original wood panels. While period rooms are rare in France, this provided a literal window into the elegant homes of that time.
There are also two salons formerly used by the State Council, whose restoration was made possible because of the exclusive financial support of Breguet. These rooms are now dedicated to Louis XV and are decorated in a style typical of that period — with darker coloured tapestries and cabinets designed by André-Charles Boulle. They also feature one of the most exceptional pieces in the entire collection: A Boulle cabinet with the figure of Louis XV on bas relief, one of only two such designs in the world.
Along with other important creations from master craftsmen such as Jean-François Oeben, Martin Carlin and Jean-Henri Riesener, a significant number of Breguet timepieces also take their rightful place among the exhibits. A symbol of wealth and culture at that time, they were coveted, collected and adored by royalty and the elite. Breguet’s first self-winding watches, for example, were purchased by Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and other significant personalities at Versailles.
As the watchmaker to the French Court, his most famous creation was the one he made for Marie-Antoinette. The second queen of France — and a style icon in her time — was known to have commissioned a watch in 1783 that was known as the No 160, or “The Queen”. It contained every watch function known at that time, including a perpetual calendar, minute repeater, thermometer, chronograph, power reserve, equation of time and jumping hour. Neither the queen nor the watchmaker lived to witness its completion, but the legendary timepiece so greatly inspired today’s watchmakers at Breguet that they produced a replica of it, which took three years to create.
As the custodian of an illustrious heritage, Breguet’s creativity is constantly fed with countless muses and inspirations. But perhaps most endearing and enduring is the legacy of its founder Abraham-Louis Breguet, a brilliant technical whiz that touched the lives of those around him (both in the past and present) with his ground-breaking approach to watchmaking.
A retrospective look at Abraham-Louis Breguet’s 18th-century accomplishments
Improved the automatic winding mechanism and created his perpétuelle watch
Invented the minute repeater gongs and designed the Breguet hands and Breguet Arabic numerals
Produced the first guilloche dials
Invented the ratchet key, otherwise known as the Breguet key
Invented the “pare-chute” anti-shock device
Invented a retrograde display mechanism
Invented the Breguet spiral and the perpetual date calendar. First mention of the Sympathique (sympathetic) clock, a master carriage clock that rewinds and sets to time a detachable pocket watch
Developed the first single hand watch known as the Subscription
Invented the musical chronometer
Sold the first montre a tact, a tactile watch that allowed one to feel for the time in the dark
Patented the tourbillon escapement that was developed circa 1795