The greatest watchmaker of all came from France

Watches

TG looks back on the achievements of Abraham-Louis Breguet

Quiz question: which country produced the largest watchmaker in the world? No, not Switzerland, France – a gentleman by the name of Abraham-Louis Breguet. His diverse client list spanned high society from Marie-Antoinette to Napoleon, and Breguet was made a member of the French Academy of Sciences and knight in the Legion of Honor – the French equivalent of a knight. He is buried in the same cemetery as Edith Piaf and Marcel Marceau.

Breguet has done more than anyone to advance horological science. This science continues today, and the greatest living watchmaker is now an Englishman called Roger W Smith. But in Breguet’s time in the 18th and 19th centuries, watchmaking was life or death, helping competing empires navigate the seas and coordinate armies.

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Beyond improving the vital functions of watchmaking, Breguet recognized the need to blend art and science. He made many inventions that increased efficiency, like innovative springs and anti-shock mechanisms, but he also designed fancy transportation clocks for the global elite and even made the first wristwatch, commissioned in 1810 for the Queen of Naples.

Perhaps his greatest achievement was escaping the guillotine. Making expensive clocks for royalty while France sharpened the blades of revolution was dangerous, and Breguet wisely spent a few years in exile. But on his return to Paris, the new regime welcomed him home and he continued to perfect his craft until his death in 1823.

Breguet may have survived the French Revolution, but the watch industry in France did not last as well as Swiss factories began to dominate. In recent years, however, new French watch companies have emerged and some old names have been revived. These are small steps, however, and apart from a few boutique watchmakers, French companies still rely on the Swiss to make their watches.

But there’s nothing wrong with a little sharing between neighbors. Because while Breguet spent most of his professional life in Paris, he was actually born in Neuchâtel – then a Prussian principality, which later became part of Switzerland.

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Despite signs of recovery, the watch industry in France is still tiny compared to Switzerland, as all the Swiss-made watches below show. So in these circumstances the least we can do is let the French continue to claim Breguet as their own.

BELL & ROSS BR 03-92 DIVER

In Paris, at the start of the 1990s, two university friends, Bruno Belamich and Carlos Rosillo, decided to unite their minds – and their names – to form a watchmaking company. Everyone needs a USP and theirs were watches that looked like they had been pulled from the dashboard of an old airplane. People liked what they saw and the range has grown to include a whole range of styles, including divers like this. Automatic movement in a 42mm bronze case. Water resistant to 300m. The concept is French, but the watch is of course made in Switzerland.
£3,900; bellross.com

BREGUET CLASSIC

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The modern company bearing the name Breguet is now part of the Swiss giant Swatch Group. This Classique 5177 has a 38 mm white gold case and an automatic movement. It’s water resistant to 30 meters meaning ‘don’t go swimming in a gold dress watch costing over £20,000’.

£20,600; breguet.com

HERMES SLIM D’HERMES

Best known as a manufacturer of fancy leather goods and scarves, the French fashion house Hermès also offers a very nice range of automatic and quartz watches. This one has a 39.5mm steel case and an automatic movement with a 42 hour power reserve.

£5,360; hermes.com

YEMA SUPERMAN

In 1982 Yema became the first French watch in space,
on the wrist of the first Frenchman in space, Jean-Loup Chrétien. Also known for dive watches, like this one, which comes with a stainless steel bracelet and a vintage leather strap. Automatic movement, 38 mm case and water resistant to 300 m.

£820; yema.com