Sure, Breguet Invented The Tourbillon, But He Also Had Other Tricks Up His Sleeve
On the 218th birthday of the Tourbillon, a look at Breguet's lesser-known mechanical firsts.
Master of Inventions
Abraham-Louis Breguet was indisputably one of the best watchmakers of all time. You’d be hard-pressed to find a book on the history of watchmaking where he is not hailed as one of the greats. The Swiss watchmaker, who opened his workshop in Paris in 1775, built a world-renowned watchmaking manufacture in less than a decade, and his early clients were a veritable who’s who in royal and noble circles, including the Queen of Naples and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Breguet is best known for his invention of the tourbillon. Pocket watches, the only portable timekeepers at the time, were worn in the pocket (obviously) in a vertical position. This consistent orientation caused a constant downwards gravitational pull that adversely affected the watch’s accuracy. To remedy this, Breguet invented the tourbillon, a continuously rotating cage that houses the watch’s escapement and balance wheel. By rotating at a fixed rate, the tourbillon negates the force of gravity on a watch’s movement, thus vastly improving accurate timekeeping and reliability. Although patented exactly 218 years ago, the gravity-defying tourbillon is still very much in use in today’s luxury mechanical wristwatches and is still a highly sought-after (not to mention pricey) complication.
Yet, while most watch aficionados are aware of the oft-written about tourbillon, some of Breguet’s other extraordinary innovations have been overshadowed by his gravity-defying feat. In truth, Breguet achieved many other watchmaking firsts with inventions that continue to be as relevant to modern-day watchmaking as the tourbillon. Let’s take a look.
Innovations in Repeater Watches
Repeating (chiming) watches were invaluable in the days before electricity, enabling their owners to tell time in the dark. The watches chimed at hourly, quarter-hourly, and, as craftmanship advanced, minute intervals. On the battlefield, repeaters were vital tools for coordinating soldiers’ activities at night. (Now, glowing Luminova solves the problem, but that’s another story for another day.) And though repeaters were in use before Breguet’s time, he took them a step further.
Before Breguet, chiming watches were made two ways. The first method utilized actual small bells built into the watch, making it bulky and cumbersome. The second method employed miniature hammers that struck the watch’s case to generate sound. Creating a whole new method to create chimes, Breguet invented a striking gong mechanism which incorporated tiny gongs hitting a metal coil, called a gong spring, that wrapped around the movement. Breguet’s repeaters offered not only a clearer sound but were lighter and less bulky, thus more easily portable.
Other watchmakers of the time promptly adopted Breguet’s gongs, and even to this day, the striking gong mechanism has been chiming nearly all repeating watches. Then, not content to rest on the laurels of its founder, the eponymous brand raised the bar again for repeater watches. In 2008, Breguet replaced the steel gongs and gong rings with gold to better synchronize the sound with the gold cases of its watches, thus offering up a richer resonance.
Fit for a Queen - The First Wristwatch
Breguet’s early clients were the crème de la crème of European nobility and royalty. Queen Caroline Murat of Naples, Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, was an avid client who purchased at least 34 watches and clocks from Breguet during her lifetime. One, in particular, stands out: she ordered a watch to be worn as a bracelet. It was a first.
According to Breguet’s register of commissions, as quoted in the book Le Quai de L’Horloge, “The Queen of Naples placed an order on June 8th 1810 for two unusual timepieces: a grande complication carriage watch for the sum of 100 Louis, in addition to a repeater watch for bracelet for which we shall charge 5,000 Francs.” The book further states that “this astonishing order reappears in the manufacturing register, which presents each watch's detailed identity and a complete summary of every stage in the making of the piece.”
Guillochage - Precise Decoration, Practical Benefit
Guillochage is a form of hand engraving that utilizes a manually-turned machine to engrave designs on a variety of materials. Breguet first encountered the engraving technique in London where it was often used to decorate wooden furniture. Breguet didn’t actually invent guillochage, indeed it was used in many decorative arts in Breguet’s time. However, after having seen the technique in London, Breguet was inspired to engrave his watch dials in the same way, becoming the first to create a guilloché dial.
The designs served two functions. First, they were beautiful, paralleling the elegant intricacies of his watches’ movements. The carvings also served to visually delineate one part of the dial from another. For instance, a sub-seconds dial could have a grain d'orge pattern with the rest of the dial being etched with a clous de Paris pattern.
Against Breguet’s new guilloché dials, watch hands were much more easily seen, allowing for hands that could be very thin, yet remain clearly visible. Taking advantage of this new-found design freedom, Breguet fashioned his now-iconic blued steel hands to accompany his new dials, and they’re still in use today.
We have Breguet to thank for many mechanical watch features that have literally stood the test of time and are as relevant now as they were in his lifetime. Tourbillon, anyone?