Once upon a time, there was a queen who harboured an immense desire for all things that tick, most especially those that bore the insignia of Abraham-Louis Breguet, the founding father of luxury timepiece manufacturer Breguet. A keen collector of auspicious novelties, the queen had acquired a number of Breguet timepieces, including the perpétuel watch embellished with a self-winding device.
One day, in 1783, an affluent admirer of the queen – rumoured to be the queen’s alleged lover Count Hans Axel von Fersen of the Royal Swedish Army – went out of his way to capture her affections. He put in an exorbitant order to the watchmaker himself at his workshops in the Quai de l’Horloge, and commissioned Monsieur Breguet the most challenging task to date: to create the most spectacular timepiece possible with an embodiment of the entire science of time in its horological form.
Monsieur Breguet had full freedom in the creation of this timepiece, with all the time in the world, and without the constraints of cost, but on two conditions: the timepiece was to use gold for the auxiliary mechanisms instead of other metals, and the complications were to be multiple and varied.
The queen in this said story is the last queen of France, Marie Antoinette, and the timepiece was that of her namesake, the Breguet Marie-Antoinette n°160.
Unfortunately, Marie Antoinette never received this extravagant gift from her admirer, for the French Revolution had broken out, and her 37-year-old self was sentenced to death by guillotine on 1793, some nine months after the execution of her husband King Louis XVI.
In fact, the Breguet Marie-Antoinette n°160 only reached its completion – 34 years after Marie Antoinette’s death, 44 years after the anonymous admirer put in his order, and four years after Monsieur Breguet’s death – overseen in the ending days by his son, Antoine-Louis Breguet.
The legacy of the exquisite timepiece survived the people that had a hand in its making, and haunted the minds of many collectors for more than two centuries in the watchmaking landscape with its extreme complexity, as it sat demurely in the L.A Mayer Institute for Islamic Art in Jerusalem despite its remarkable backstory. (The timepiece, along with 56 other Breguet timepieces, was bequeathed to the museum by Breguet expert and collector Sir David Lionel Salomons on his death in 1925.)
That is, until that unfortunate day in 1983, when it was stolen, and subsequently, seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth for decades.
However, the story was far from over at that point.
In 2005, Nicolas George Hayek, the late founder of the Swatch Group, had heard that Marie Antoinette’s favourite oak tree at the Domaine de Versailles was to be felled, following a long dry spell and a tumultuous storm. He had taken it upon himself to commission an exact replica of the Breguet n°160, presented in a case fashioned from the wood trunk of said oak tree, which the Versailles had gifted to him as a birthday gift.
Breguet went to work on the replica for the next three years, going through intensive researches based solely on the original drawings of the timepiece from the Breguet Museum and other high institutions. The rigorous studies revealed new factors concerning the styling and watchmaking techniques of the 18th century, including those that have vanished in today’s watch manufacturing, and the very complication that moved the original watch, known as “jumping hours.”
Despite the abovementioned hard work, little did Montres Breguet know that nearing its completion in 2007, the original timepiece that was stolen 25 years ago resurfaced once again!
As it turned out, it had been in the possession of a serial burglar named Naaman Diller all along, stashed in safety deposit boxes across Europe and the United States. His wife, Nili Shamrat had inherited the spoils, (amongst the 200 items was the Breguet n°160 pocket watch), upon his death in 2006. She had later commissioned a Tel Aviv lawyer to sell the antiques back to the very same museum with an original asking price of USD2 million, and that was when her jig was up.
The story finally comes to a close in Basel, Switzerland, where the replica in its equally prim form, but with a story now richer than its predecessor, sits within the precious presentation box made of more than 3,500 pieces of the royal oak wood sculpted from the queen’s favourite tree in Versailles. Upon the intricate box features the faithful reproduction of the parquet flooring at the Petit Trianon, a small chateau on the grounds of the Versailles, which King Louis XVI gifted to Marie Antoinette upon their ascension to the throne.
Inside, next to the enclosure of an inlay wood work depicting the hand of Marie-Antoinette holding a rose – inspired by the famous portrait of the queen – crafted lavishly from more than a thousand pieces of wood, is the Breguet Marie-Antoinette n°1160 with all its immaculate complications.
Dubbed as “a poem in clockwork”, the pocket watch holds a self-winding movement, (known as perpétuel back in Monsieur Breguet’s day), comprising of an outstanding 823 finished component, with a minute-repeater striking the hours, quarters and minutes on demand. A full perpetual calendar displays the days and the months respectively at the 2 o’clock, 6 o’clock and 8 o’clock positions, whereas the equation of time at 10 o’clock tells the daily difference between the solar time and the mean time.
In the centre of its ticking heart sits Monsieur Breguet’s invention of the “jumping hours”, joined with the minutes by a long independent seconds hand, shown at the 6 o’clock position, before finishing off with a 48-hour power reserve indicator 10:30 that balances a bimetallic thermometer at 01:30.
The timepiece is also fitted with a particular type of natural-life escapement, a helical balance-spring in gold and a bimetallic balance-wheel. Not to mention, the double pare chute, another of Monsieur Breguet’s invention, acts as an anti-shock device that gives protection against blows and shocks to the balance staff and to the shafts of the winding weights.
Faithful to the centuries-old delegation from the secret admirer, the baseplates and bridges, the smallest gear wheels in the trains for the under dial, the dates and the repeater are fashioned in pink gold, polished with wood. The screws are in polished blued steel, whilst the points of friction, holes and bearings, set with sapphires.
All these masterly and unprecedented mechanisms are in full display under a rock crystal glass, held together with a 63mm yellow gold case, cast in a special and more coppery alloy that matches the hue of the olden period.
The recreation of the Breguet Marie-Antoinette n°1160 has not only came off as a monument to the glory of 18th century horology, but also achieved an unbelievable feat by breathing life into a yesteryear legend, and anchoring it in the modern times. Thus, more than 200 years later, Breguet finally gets its happily ever after.