Buyer's Guide

The Resurgence of the Iconic Breguet

Younger collectors see something special in Breguet, even though it’s been there all along.
By Maya Garabedian
Sep 17, 2022
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Of the many surprises unveiled at Frieze New York City this year, there was one particularly unlikely partnership, that of the art fair and a heritage luxury watch brand: Breguet. At first thought, a three-year collaborative commission agreement between Frieze, a resource for contemporary art, and Breguet, a nearly 250-year-old watch brand, may seem unusual. But for those familiar with Breguet, this is an exciting debut, maybe even expected. After all, Breguet timepieces are a classic, a work of wearable art.

Tradition Watch Nº 5139Courtesy of Breguet

Breguet was founded in 1775, taking the namesake of creator Abraham-Louis Breguet, a Swiss French horologist-turned-watchmaker. Their watches have been highly valued for centuries as one of the oldest surviving watchmaking brands today, known for making history in the industry: inventing the tourbillon technology that increased watch accuracy, the world’s first self-winding watch, and the first-ever wristwatch, made for Caroline Bonaparte, Queen of Naples and sister of Napoléon I, a Breguet owner himself. Among the brand’s patrons are a number of historical figures, from King George III and Queen Victoria to Ettore Bugatti, Winston Churchill, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. However, their timepieces have experienced a well-deserved resurgence as of late, piquing the interest of a new generation.

Marie-Antoinette Nº1160, reproduction of watch no. 160 called “Marie-Antoinette.” Courtesy of Breguet

Younger collectors, who are practical yet fashion-conscious, with an appreciation of individualism and nostalgia for a slower, simpler time, unencumbered by the superfluous developments of our internet era, see something special in Breguet, even though it’s been there all along. Fascinated by the brand’s history, timeless designs, and unique craftsmanship, Breguet is becoming a symbol of a new generation, in addition to the older ones. What’s unique about Breguet’s design is that it’s somewhat simple, but strong, intentional, detailed, recognizable, a one-of-a-kind artistry. The key elements, which have remained over time, are that of a Neoclassical style, moving away from the Baroque look which was common in his day.

Engine-Turned DialsCourtesy of Breguet

The decorative technique used in the watch design phase is also an invention of Breguet himself. Called guilloché, the technique uses a rose turning engine to make precise, complex geometrical patterns which are cut into a surface, such as the precious materials of a watch face. For Breguet watches, the engine-turning process is seldom automated, done by hand by a team of artists, using antique machines that have been restored and modernized. While Breguet didn’t invent this technique himself, he developed and applied it to jewelry and watchmaking, which in turn inspired others to do the same. It is likely that Breguet first saw the engine-turning technique at Versailles and had a stroke of inspiration. At the time, such an innovation was particularly impressive and defined the brand’s artistry early on, setting a precedent for the kind of work Breguet, as a brand, would continue to produce into the present. Engine-turning has remained crucial and is often referred to as the brand’s key artistic craft, nearly as important as the entire watchmaking process itself.  

Breguet Historical Pocket WatchCourtesy of Breguet

By far one of the most well-known, universally recognizable stylistic features of Breguet watches is their numerals. Breguet numerals are historically significant. There are two types of Arabic numerals, one originated in the eastern part of West Asia and North Africa, and one that originated in the western part, the latter being the numerals we use today. The slanted cursive shape used in Breguet watches, despite being attributed to his work in contemporary society, actually pre-existed his inventions and would’ve been a standard formal script at the time – proven by European manuscripts in the 11th and 12th centuries. Part of the charm of Breguet numerals is that they adhere to the brand focus on legibility while not compromising aesthetics, which strikes a sweet spot between form and function, despite prioritizing function over form in practice. Many modern watches use a harsher, more pragmatic up-and-down script that achieves the same level of legibility but without the soft, stylish touch of Breguet. The advantage of a stylized dated script is that it looks handwritten rather than machine-printed, giving the watch a warmer, more personal feel.

Classique Calendrier Nº 7337Courtesy of Breguet

The sentiment of Breguet numerals is felt even without knowing the context behind their origination, simply by comparing its presentation to other watches of similar stature. Another example of a noticeable difference in contrast to more modern luxury watches, again in regard to simplicity, is the balancing of decorative elements. The guilloché technique creates a sense of motion, helping move the eye between each element, and the off-centered dials, which first appeared around 1810, places the time off the central axis, allowing more space for interplay between the primary feature and more secondary ones. When the time indication is moved off-center, it is balanced with the date complication, a signature, or a moon phase. While lesser known than the numerals, the moon phase and Breguet signature are both subtle yet crucial elements to the watch style today.

Breguet’s sleek and delicate watch hand design first appeared in 1780, with what is now referred to as a moon tip. The hands have tapered design that leads the eye outwards, clearly presenting the time with a circular moon shape occurring just before the numeral and then continuing outward in a short, tapered shape that ends in a precise point. In Breguet’s era, he discovered that many of his watches were being counterfeited and came up with the secret signature featured on his watches today. His name is almost invisible and can only be seen in low, angled light and with the assistance of a loupe.

The brand itself credits Nicolas Hayek, a Lebanese businessman who went on to be the co-founder of the Swatch Group, for breathing new life into Breguet in 1999. Hayek took the Breguet brand, “which was lying somewhat dormant at the time [and] revived the cultural and emotional dimension of the brand.” Bringing the craftsmanship, material, and technical resources needed to match the ambitions of one of the finest names in watchmaking allowed Breguet to return to its roots, preserve its heritage, and build upon the achievements of its past to elevate itself into the future. Breguet’s rich history and iconic craftsmanship made the first resurgence possible and is certainly strong enough to propel the brand further to contemporary prominence.