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Abraham-Louis Breguet, Keeper of Time

by: C.D. Unninayar

breg4.gif (18584 bytes)During the religious wars in France, the Protestant Breguet family left its native Picardie in 1685 to find refuge in the western part of Switzerland. The Breguet name was thus destined to become famous in both countries, each claiming its famous son, Abraham-Louis Breguet. The future watchmaker was born in Neuchâtel, a village of 3500 inhabitants, on January 10, 1747. His father, Jonas-Louis Breguet, was a merchant who belonged to the local bourgeoisie. In 1752, he became proprietor of an inn in Les Verrières, a small village near Neuchâtel, which was a stopover point for travelers on their way to Burgundy and Paris.



Abraham-Louis spent a rather normal childhood although in school he was considered a bit of a dreamer who did not really apply himself.

In 1758, tragedy struck. Jonas-Louis died, leaving his wife, Suzanne-Marguerite, alone with their two young daughters and the 11-year old Abraham-Louis. Sometime later, Suzanne-Marguerite married her late husband's cousin, Joseph Tattet, a watchmaker who had business contacts with France.

Learning his craft

In 1762, Tattet found his 15-year old stepson an apprenticeship with a watchmaker friend in Versailles. Three years later, the young Breguet was in Paris, and would study with famous artistic watchmakers such as Ferdinand Berthoud (1727-1807), watchmaker-mechanic to the King and Navy, and Jean-Antoine Lépine (1720-1814), watchmaker to the King. Breguet also took classes in physics, optics, astronomy, mechanics and mathematics at the College Mazarin where he met the Abbot Joseph-François Marie (1738-1801). This generous man would later take the young apprentice under his wing and provide protection and support for him and his younger sisters. During these early years, Breguet learned his craft well.

The love of his life

Love came into the young watchmaker's life with Cécile L'huillier, the daughter of a wealthy family. The young couple married in 1775. As a wedding present, Cécile's father helped Breguet and his bride settle into an apartment at 39 Quai de l'Horloge on the Ile de la Cité in Paris. This neighborhood was already the home of many of the most prestigious watchmakers in Paris. At 28 years of age, Breguet now launched his own business, and was about to launch his own family. A son, Antoine-Louis, was born the next year. Business was prospering and his life's dreams seemed fulfilled.

But tragedy struck again. In 1780, during the fifth year of their marriage, Cécile died. Grief-stricken, Breguet plunged himself into his work and his inventions. He never remarried.

The watchmaker of reference

On a commercial level, Breguet was becoming well known and highly regarded. His brother-in-law and the Abbot Marie introduced him to the aristocracy. His first major customer, the Duke of Orleans, bought one of his "perpétuelle" watches in 1780. Two years later, the House of Breguet gained an even greater client, Marie-Antoinette. With the queen's support, his reputation grew not only in France but all over the Continent. In 1784 he earned the title of Master Watchmaker. Soon Breguet became the watchmaker of reference for the scientific, diplomatic, military and financial elite Europe. His understanding of technical mechanics as well as human character and talent allowed him to attract the best craftsmen and train them in order to realize the many products which emerged from his abundantly fertile imagination. In addition, Breguet possessed that unique combination of intuition and intelligence so necessary to provide for the skillful marketing of his products. He built up an international sales network through his personal contacts and his prestigious client base that, over the years, would be constantly renewed by the changing political picture.

From perpétuelles to politics

Concerned with social reform, Breguet was sympathetic to the political ideas that were gaining ground at the time in France. He joined the Jacobins, a revolutionary group under the leadership of the radical Jean-Paul Marat, whose sister made watch hands for Breguet. The threads of the lives of these two men were to become closely intertwined on at least two other occasions. In the 1780s, Paris was a boiling cauldron of political unrest. By the early 1790s, the situation was so dangerous that Breguet sent his son, Antoine-Louis to England for safety. Early in 1793, the Jacobins split into two groups, the moderate Girondins and the radical Montagnards. They began fighting not only the royalists, but also each other. The rabble-rousing radical Marat allied with the Montagnards.

Marat and the Reign of Terror

Despite their political differences, Breguet and Marat remained friends. In April 1793, while the two men were visiting a mutual acquaintance in Paris, a royalist crowd gathered outside demanding Marat's head. He was trapped. To save his friend, Breguet dressed him up as a woman, complete with powdered face and reddened cheeks. They waited until evening and then calmly walked out arm in arm, mingling with the crowd until Marat could flee to safety. The revolutionary had the opportunity to return the favor two months later. Hearing that Breguet, because of his royalist connections, had been placed on a death list by the Revolutionary Committee, Marat urged him to leave France. He arranged for safe-conduct passes for Breguet and his son, who had returned from England, to get across the Swiss border. It was the last time that the watchmaker would see his friend. On July 13, the eve of the Fête Nationale, Jean-Paul Marat was stabbed to death in his bathtub by a young member of the Girondins, Charlotte Corday.

A month later under the blazing August sun, Breguet and his son fled Paris for Switzerland. Because of his escape, Breguet was condemned as a traitor. The Committee of Public Safety confiscated his factory and shot one of his workers. His home and workshops were ransacked. His tools and equipment were destroyed. France's Reign of Terror had begun.

Sanctuary in Switzerland

In the relative calm of Switzerland, Breguet first went to Geneva and then in November returned to the village of his birth. By the end of the year, the inventor had settled in Le Locle, a village near Neuchâtel, where he set up a small workshop. Breguet used his two-year exile to perfect many of his ideas and innovative techniques in watchmaking.

The House of Breguet

The Terror passed. Calm returned to France. In May 1795, Breguet returned to Paris, reclaimed his house and obtained the restoration of his workshops from the new government. But the city was emotionally and economically exhausted. The Reign of Terror had decimated the aristocracy, the main clients of the House of Breguet. In their stead, though, new social classes were forming. This rich bourgeoisie, along with the new Napoleonic aristocracy became Breguet's new clients. The economic difficulties which still plagued the watch industry caused Breguet to create a unique system of "souscription". A buyer could pay 25% down for a watch of a limited series, with the balance due upon delivery. In this manner, Breguet watches became more accessible and the payments in advance helped finance the development of other projects.

The latter part of Abraham-Louis' life was amply marked by recognition. Clients of the House of Breguet included the Empress Josephine (1806), the King of England (1810) and many other crowned heads of Europe. Breguet was appointed to the Board of Longitude in 1814 and a year later was named as Watchmaker to the Royal Navy. In 1819, he was nominated to the prestigious Academy of Sciences by decree of King Louis XVIII. That same year, he was awarded the Legion of Honor. At the 1819 Paris Exhibition, the master watchmaker proudly presented a resume of his life's scientific achievements.

Time claims the keeper

The aging Breguet remained professionally active and enjoyed good health, except for a hearing loss. Tuesday September 17, 1823 found the inventor at his workshop as usual. As the morning sun filtered in through the half-shuttered window, the hands on his beloved pocket watch stopped. It was 8:37. Time claimed its keeper.

According to his wishes, Abraham-Louis Breguet's body was laid to rest in Père Lachaise in Paris. His spirit and legend live on.

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