When a teenage Abraham-Louis Breguet left his home for a watchmaking apprenticeship in Versailles and Paris, then opened his first workshop in 1775, few could have guessed that he would one day be heralded as the most influential watchmaker the world has ever known. And yet, the list of inventions credited to him and Breguet, the company he founded, reads like a history of watchmaking itself. This is just a partial list of the contributions Breguet has made to watch design through the centuries.
The very first watches had a problem: gravity. Each time the position of the watch changed, gravity affected the timing adjustment. In 1801 Abraham-Louis Breguet earned a patent for a revolutionary new regulator, the tourbillon. This ingenious invention overcame the gravity problem by compensating for it with a rotating mobile carriage that held the entire escapement. While newer technological innovations have since improved regularity, the tourbillion regulator was a true horological milestone.
World’s first wristwatch
In 1810 Breguet designed and created the world’s first wristwatch, a commission for the Queen of Naples. A document in the archives of Maison Breguet describes this historic timepiece as a thin oval repeater watch with complications, mounted on a wristlet of hair and gold thread. The cost of the world’s first wristwatch was also recorded: 5,000 Francs.
The equation of time
This one is a little complicated and requires some science, but basically, the equation of time is the difference between mean solar time (our conventional twenty-four-hour period) and true solar time (which varies thanks to the earth’s irregular orbit). That difference can be as much as 16 minutes. Breguet was appointed chronometer-maker to the French Royal Navy in 1815, and produced for them the most accurate equation of time models created up to that point.
Guilloche is a decorating technique where geometric patterns, often intricate and complex, are engraved on watch dials and cases. Breguet is justly celebrated for introducing the guilloche technique (also called engine-turning) to watch dials. To this day, Breguet carries on this ornate tradition by hand-turning gold dials on rose engines. A heritage of exquisite beauty, it is incredible to watch one of Breguet’s trained watchmakers using the minute controls of a rose-engine to produce an masterpiece dial.
Silicon balance spring, lever and escape-wheel
Question for the class—what is our planet’s second-most common substance after oxygen? Anyone? The answer is silicon! The question you may be asking yourself now is, “What does that have to do with contributions to watch design?” Glad you asked! Silicon is non-magnetic and resistant to wear and corrosion. It’s lighter and yet harder than steel. Most importantly, when used to create mechanical watch components, it reduces inertia and requires no lubricant. Not only was Breguet the first company to begin using silicon in watch production, they patented a special thermal oxidation process that made the silicon more impervious to temperature changes. It also makes unprecedented precision possible, allowing the movement to vibrate at a higher frequency of 72,000 vibrations per hour.
Watch hands, in the beginning at least, were functional at best. Like any emerging technology, these first watch hands were imperfect – overly broad, clumsy, sometimes heavily decorated, and lacking any sort of elegance. Breguet changed all that with the invention of what came to be known, ubiquitously, as “Breguet hands.” They are thin, delicate, crafted of gold or blued steel and resembling, at the point, a crescent moon. Classic, easy to read—form and function in an elegant, thrilling union.
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