Breguet: Celebrated Patrons

The House of Breguet was privileged to create timepieces for the diplomatic, scientific, military and financial elite.

Among its clients, Queen Marie-Antoinette, Napoleon Bonaparte, Talleyrand, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Caroline Murat, Tsar Alexander I of Russia, Queen Victoria, Sir Winston Churchill and Arthur Rubinstein who put their confidence in the taste and artistry of Breguet.

Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France (1872)

On October 16th 1793, Queen Marie-Antoinette stepped onto the guillotine to meet the same fate her husband King Louis XVI had undergone a few months previously. She was to be one of the first and most fervent admirers of the timekeepers produced by Breguet's talented hands. If one can imagine the court life of the 1780s, who better than Marie-Antoinette to 'advertise' Breguet? As a matter of fact, she owned quite a few of the Maestro's creations and transmitted her enthusiasm to the whole court of France and to its most eminent guests. Thanks to her, a number of kings, emperors, diplomats - amongst whom was a certain Axel Von Fersen - came to appreciate Breguet's works and spread the word all over Europe and beyond. A loyal customer of the watchmaker's shop on the Quai de l'Horloge until the bitter end, in September 1792 - while already imprisoned in the Temple - she asked for, and obtained, a simple Breguet watch. Kept like a precious relic in spite of its simplicity, the watch became part of Sir David Salomons' collection along with Breguet's masterpiece, the famous watch No. 160 called Marie-Antoinette, which the Queen never actually saw in its finished form. Ordered in 1783 by an Officer of the Queen's Guard whose name is not known, this watch was to comprise all the latest refinements and sophistications, with no limit on either time or price. A.-L. Breguet completed the model many years after the Revolution and kept it safely as an act of loyalty to the Queen. The piece, now missing due to a theft, continues more than ever to fascinate collectors from all the world. It is still known under the name of Marie-Antoinette, as a tribute to the Queen of France and in memory of the extraordinary support she provided to the great Breguet at the dawn of his career.

Napoleon Bonaparte (1798)

Napoleon Bonaparte was one of A.-L. Breguet's most faithful clients. His interest in the latter's art of measuring time also influenced several close acquaintances and many members of his family.

It was almost certainly through General Leclerc and his own companions in arms Berthier and Dessolle, all three regular clients of Breguet, that General Bonaparte first heard of the establishment on the Quai de l'Horloge.

In April 1798, a month before setting out on his Egyptian campaign, General Bonaparte bought three pieces which were particularly representative of Breguet's output: a repeating watch, 'garde-temps with insulated escapement'
n° 38; a travelling calendar and repeating clock n° 178 (the first of its kind); and a perpétuelle repeating watch n° 216. These purchases answered a dual purpose: first and foremost, on his meteoric rise through the ranks of both social and political life, Napoleon sought to possess objects of refinement to stand as symbols of his power and social status; and secondly, for purely practical reasons, he needed to take with him on his campaigns timepieces which were solid and reliable.

Talleyrand, Prince of Benevento (1787)

A fascinating figure of 18th and 19th century France and for some years the country’s minister of foreign affairs, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand was an enthusiastic admirer of Breguet’s timepieces. Testifying to his solid friendship with the master watchmaker, he provided the latter with a good number of his customers. It was most likely thanks to Talleyrand that Breguet was able to make the acquaintance of Esseid Ali Effendi, the ambassador of the Ottoman Empire in France, and measure the country’s impressive commercial potential, as well as of Prince Joseph of Monaco and his spouse, Princess Thérèse.

Talleyrand greatly prized the stylishness and exceptional quality of Breguet’s work. So close were the two men that whenever necessary Breguet’s commercial correspondence and even his timepieces travelled courtesy of the postal service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the ancestor of the diplomatic pouch.

Talleyrand’s receptions, staged at the Ministry until 1807 as well as at his private homes, ranked among the most dazzling in all of Paris. It was in fact at one of Talleyrand’s numerous parties that Breguet was asked to demonstrate the practical aspects of an invention of his, the “pare-chute”, whose principle he had been describing. Breguet simply pulled out his watch and threw it on the floor. He then proposed that someone pick it up and pass it around. All present had to admit that it was in good running order despite the shock it had just experienced. Talleyrand could only complain “That confounded Breguet never stops improving on perfection!”.

Talleyrand shared his admiration for Breguet watches with his family and with the
diplomatic community at large. Delivered between 1798 and 1823, his own purchases, those of his wife, nephews, illegitimate son Charles de Flahaut and his entourage numbered not far from thirty.

Empress Josephine (1798)

The Bonaparte family is an extraordinary example of loyalty to Breguet's watches. Indeed, beginning with Napoleon, almost all members of the family were keen collectors of his creations.

Napoleon was followed by Josephine in 1798 and 1800. She was to renew contact with the firm in 1806 and herself to be followed by her daughter, Queen Hortense in 1810 and 1812.

Selim III, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire (1806)

In 1804, Ali Effendi, then Minister for the Navy, commissioned the finest possible repeating watch for the Ottoman Emperor, Selim III, to whom he referred only – according to Turkish custom – as 'the greatest person in our country… so great and so eminent that I may not utter his name'. The project was a success: the emperor demanded a second watch identical to the first, and Ali Effendi wrote to Breguet the following year: 'Your reputation in Constantinople could not be higher. All the great princes admire your works.'

Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples (1808)

With the acquisition of thirty-four clocks and watches from 1808 up to 1814, the ambitious and very beautiful Queen of Naples easily took pride of place among Breguet's best clients.

The younger sister of Napoleon reigned with her husband the king, Joachim Murat, from 1808 to 1815, and the special relationship which she fostered with Breguet during this time was to give rise to the first watch specially designed to be worn on the wrist. Commissioned in 1810, paid for in 1811 and delivered in 1812, it was revolutionary in conception: an ultra-thin repeating watch, oblong in shape, equipped with a thermometer and mounted on a wristlet of hair entwined with gold thread. No difficulty was too great for Breguet to overcome in his determination to satisfy Queen Caroline, and he was to be duly rewarded.

During the summer of 1813, when the European crisis was at its most acute and the firm had lost its best clients, Queen Caroline bought a further twelve watches (eight repeating and four simple) from her favourite watchmaker, thus providing a much-needed boost to the firm's funds at a moment when it was the least expected.

Caroline Murat also completed her collection with a number of thermometers and barometers and several dozen commercial watches: modestly priced pieces intended as gifts.

Tsar Alexander of Russia (1809)

Dismayed as Breguet and his son were by the brutal loss of their Russian market, they were to find unexpected consolation in the spring of 1814. On April 2nd, a mysterious visitor to the premises on the Quai de l'Horloge proved to be none other than the Tsar of All the Russias, travelling incognito and accompanied only by a manservant.

The ledgers confirm that on that day, the tsar bought a repeating watch and one other. According to family tradition, Breguet received his illustrious visitor in his small first-floor office, where the two men enjoyed a long discussion about watchmaking before sharing a modest meal. This memorable encounter provided the opportunity for the tsar to place an order for a series of 'pedometers' – metronomes for regulating military marching times – of which he was to receive eight between 1820 and 1822. In response to the impetus given by the tsar, Russian sales, which had fallen to nothing in 1813, quickly picked up again.

Michel Ney, Marshal of France (1813)

The army, an indissociable element of the regime, provided Breguet with a strong contingent of devoted clients, including imperial generals and marshals such as Michel Ney. All subjected their watches to rough treatment on the battlefield and described their campaigns in letters to Breguet. Whenever they returned to Paris on leave they made a ritual pilgrimage to Breguet, who duly expunged the traces of Austerlitz, Friedland, Wagram and other great battles from their timepieces.

Count Axel von Fersen (1835)

In 1835 Count Axel von Fersen, the nephew of Axel von Fersen the younger (1755-1810), who was the closest of companions to Marie-Antoinette, bought a miniature and very slim gold hunting pair-cased and skeletonised keyless watch. Without question the smallest watch with keyless winding and hand-setting produced by any manufacture before the advent of the wristwatch in the late 19th century, it represents an important achievement in thedevelopment of the modern wristwatch, and would appear to confirm that the firm of Breguet were the inventors of the combined keyless winding and hand-setting through the crown. Their appearance must have caused a sensation amongst the firm's clientele, since virtually all were sold to his most prestigious customers.

Queen Victoria (1838)

Queen Victoria of England purchased a Breguet watch one year after her ascent to the throne in 1837 (history, however, does not tell us whether she wore it until her death in 1901).

Sir Winston Churchill (1901)

Sir Winston Churchill remained a familiar figure at Breguet's throughout his life - occasionally coming in to buy a watch, as he did in 1928, but more usually to have the timepiece he wore all his life attended to: Breguet watch no 765, an admirable minute repeater chronograph with fly-back seconds hand acquired in 1890 by the Duke of Marlborough.

Throughout most of his political career, not only was he inseparable from his favourite Cuban cigars, his timekeepers can be considered as integral to Churchill's image as his cigars.

Arthur Rubinstein (1930)

Arthur Rubinstein, probably the most distinguished pianist of our century, frequently visited the Breguet shop when passing through Paris. He owned a small collection of Breguets. The watch no 1682 with date and thermometer that he wore was exceptional on account of its extremely rare oval shape. It has a curious history: in fact, the case was manufactured by Breguet in 1822 for a Russian aristocrat, Count Panin; at the time it was an 'imitation watch', in other words a case intended simply to hold a portrait. Then, much later in 1884, the case returned to Breguet and the company was commissioned to fit a movement, thereby giving the watch its present configuration.