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The Inventor’s Adventure

Amid tumultuous politics, watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet, founder of the Breguet brand, developed the tourbillon and other timekeeping innovations. A new timepiece pays tribute to Breguet’s daring and elegant aesthetic.

SLIDESHOW

Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat Automatique 5367 in platinum, $161,800 by Breguet at Neiman Marcus, Stanford Shopping Center.

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Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat Automatique 5367 in rose gold, $147,500, both by Breguet at Neiman Marcus, Stanford Shopping Center.

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A vintage Breguet timepiece.

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Abraham-Louis.

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A certain masterly nine-lives social agility allowed 18th-century Swiss innovator Abraham-Louis Breguet to flourish as favored watchmaker to King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, but also to forge a friendship with revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat that helped him escape certain guillotine death and flee to Switzerland during the better part of the Reign of Terror. Abraham-Louis’ invention of the self-winding, or “perpétuelle,” watch was wildly popular with the court, and his “para-chute,” the first shock-protection device, made watches sturdier, all while adhering to an elegantly austere aesthetic that prefigured neoclassicism. But, says Breguet historian and seventh-generation descendent Emmanuel Breguet, we might thank his two years in Switzerland for Abraham-Louis’ creative renaissance. “When he returned to Paris, a number of exceptional inventions quickly took shape.”

Notably, Abraham-Louis hit on a solution to the most vexing problem for watchmakers at the time: how to compensate for errors in a watch’s functioning caused by changes in the timepiece’s positioning. The constant rotation of a tourbillon regulator, which he patented in 1801, “cancels out the effects of the Earth’s gravity, which is the enemy of regularity in timekeeping,” says Emmanuel. Upstairs at the Breguet boutique on Place Vendôme in Paris, you can find the third ever made—Abraham-Louis’ very first four-minute—tourbillon, along with letters from clients and handrecorded notes of every sale made since 1787 (earlier archives were destroyed by revolutionaries). As Breguet continues to reacquire its history, more than 100 pieces attest to Abraham-Louis’ inventiveness, from the oldest travel clocks to marine chronometers; a tact (or touch) watch made for Empress Josephine; and watches sold to Turkish, Russian and British royalty and militaries around the world. At the nearby Musée des Arts et Métiers, five generations of Breguet inventions attest to Abraham-Louis’ legacy of innovation, from early telegraphs to timepieces to the Breguet biplane built by relative Louis Charles Breguet in 1911.

This year, Breguet adds a tourbillon on an enamel dial (a first for the brand) to its Grandes Complications collection. The new Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat Automatique 5367, measuring 7.45 mm thick with a 3 mm movement, pays tribute to Abraham-Louis’ early designs, with trademark Breguet blue hands in striking contrast to the simple Grand Feu white enamel, belying the richness of its movement with handengraved bridges, and barrel and oscillating platinum weight visible through sapphire crystal caseback. A perfect balance of fanciful Breguet innovation with classic looks, the timepiece pays beautiful homage to Breguet’s first tourbillon, patented 217 years ago. Breguet Museum, 6 Place Vendôme

 

Originally published in the October/November issue of Silicon Valley

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