The Breguet Legacy

Part I

by Carlos Perez

December 5, 2002

“When one has finished building one’s house,
one suddenly realizes that in the process one has
learned something that one really needed to know in the
worst way – before one began.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche

In the more than five centuries of watchmaking history,
there is one watchmaker whose renown exceeds all
others, whose influence remains omnipresent. While we
must credit John Harrison with what is likely the
greatest historical significance to the science of
horology, no where did the high art and craft of watch
and clock making receive greater advancement than in
the hands of Abraham-Louis Breguet. If Harrison is our
Galileo, then Breguet is our Leonardo.

Unlike the work of Harrison which ended with his death
in 1776, the legacy of AL Breguet’s watchmaking was
handed down and continued by subsequent generations.
The house of Breguet has operated continuously since
1775, excepting perhaps only the short period of AL
Breguet’s self-exile during the Terror (1793-5). In the
decades after his death in 1823, Breguet et Fils became
more of an engineering firm than a watchmaking concern,
as the scions of the Breguet line sought exploits in
other, newer technologies. Due to their success, the
small watchmaking element of the company was spun off
in 1870, sold to the English watchmaker that headed the
boutique watchmaking operation.

Under Edward Brown and his descendants, Breguet
remained a Parisian boutique for the next century,
producing only a few hundred watches per year. During
the era of grande complication pocket watches and
observatory competitions, it utilized the famed
ateliers in the Valle de Joux just like the elite
brands of Geneva and Saxony. As the age of wristwatches
dawned, Breguet followed fellow Parisian Cartier into
the new mode. The aesthetic of Breguet-branded pocket
watches and wristwatches evolved with the times, and
were rarely distinguishable from their contemporaries,
other than for the unique pieces made-to-order for
special clients.

On
the threshold of the quartz revolution in 1970, the
Brown family sold the Breguet boutique to the now
infamous Chaumet brothers. These Parisian jewelers
attempted to re-expand the Breguet brand, and revive
the signature aesthetic which we now think of as the
Breguet
look.
” While it largely continued to rely on
etablissage, Breguet SA also opened its own atelier in
Le Brassus in 1976 as part of its expansion. Production
was increased, but the company lost money every year.
Alas, the Chaumets went bankrupt in 1987, and the
Republic of France sold its patrimony to the
international investment firm Investcorp.

Nouvelle Lemania and Valdar were also acquired a few
years later (1991) and united into a “Groupe
Horloger Breguet.” At the time Nouvelle Lemania
only supplied Montres Breguet with 9% of its movements
– just the high horology repeaters, tourbillons, etc.,
while the majority were provided by Jaeger-LeCoultre
and Frederic Piguet. Nouvelle Lemania was itself losing
money and this was generally deemed a poor acquisition
by the industry. The Breguet atelier was transferred to
L’Abbaye
in 1994, as production expanded to nearly 5,000
watches a year (1995). Montres Breguet began to use
Nouvelle Lemania’s lesser legacy movements as well,
transferring watchmakers and additional watch
production to Lemania beginning in 1997, thereby
increasing its workforce nearly 50%.

By that time watch production was at a new high of
6,000 per annum, but the company was still losing
money, and retailers were dumping watches far below
their inflated list prices. After more than ten years
of heavy investment and profitless growth, Investcorp
finally extracted a profit from the Breguet Group when
it was sold to the Swatch Group in 1999. There Montres
Breguet would become steel to be forged, to spearhead
Swatch’s planned conquest of the exclusive world of
haute horlogerie, to become the Swatch Group’s crown
jewel and the world leader of haut couture watchmaking.
Or so they have said.

The real state of the union is otherwise: The forced
growth of Chaumet-Investcorp’s post-boutique era of
mass production had undermined the quality and
credibility of the Breguet product and brand in many
ways. Throughout the industry the long centuries of
quiet etablissage were coming to a close as the new age
of the manufacture was dawning: An age of the marketing
of the ‘manufacture,’ and the display-back showcased
in-house movement specially dressed for viewing. Of
exclusive products which were creating a new sense of
‘value’ amongst collectors.

As this in-house obsession was taking hold, a large
problem lay in the fact that Montres Breguet priced its
watches substantially higher than those of these
manufactures, which had put extensive capital
investment in the manufacturing of their own movements.
This is a large part of the reason why the high
prices of these manufactures were and are considered
justified by collectors,
and why their unique products were considered
especially desirable. To illustrate the point, the
Breguet ref. 3130 is a semi-complicated dress watch
featuring a moonphase, date subdial, and power reserve
display. It is closely comparable to the Patek Philippe
ref. 5054 which has all of the same features.

The 5054 is based on the much beloved in-house calibre
240 PS, while the 3130 is based on the elegant Frederic
Piguet calibre 71, also used by Blancpain (and likely
others). Granting there is more craft in the 3130′s
dial, it is balanced against the more complex
double-backed case construction of the 5054. The MSRP
of the 5054 is a substantial $19,300, while up until
this year the Breguet 3130 was priced at $31,500 – more
than a 60% premium. I await any explanation that would
have justified this price premium, keeping in mind that
this comparison is against what was, even then,
unquestionably the strongest brand in fine watchmaking.

This emerging concept of in-house value had negative
impact throughout their collections as none of the base
movements used by Montres Breguet were exclusive.
Indeed its most prized haute horlogerie ebauches were
often showcased to better effect and at lower prices by
innumerable brands, including its prime competitors at
rival groups, to smaller independent makers. Equally
damaging to the Breguet brand image and its optimistic
price point was the similar commonness of its entry
level movements, the most accessible of which did not
in truth really qualify for the appellation of ‘fine,’
much less ‘high-grade.”

Specifically only the Nouvelle Lemania calibres 387,
389, 2320, and the new 1050 are really at the level of
quality that one would potentially associate with the
Breguet name, and all but the last were as widely sold
as ebauches, and thus are as common, as such expensive
calibres could be. Profitable for Nouvelle Lemania, but
ruinous for Montres Breguet. During the Investcorp
years Breguet had also began to utilize the merely
passable calibre 8815, and the calibre 1352 which I and
some others feel is frankly inappropriate. For some time
the latter clogged Breguet’s service channels
with malfunctioning Type XX chronographs, soiling the
Breguet name at the crucial entry level. It goes
without argument that a Breguet Type 20 re-issue could
only be appropriately fitted with the calibre 2320, but
this would have elevated it to an elite, special
product, not an entry-level one; in the midst of a
market feeding frenzy of entry level sports watches.

Aside
from the Type XX, Montres Breguet had attempted to
enter the lucrative sports watch market with the Marine
collection. In no way demonstrating any of the
characteristics or qualities of Breguet’s Marine
chronometer heritage (example shown right), the
collection was essentially a series of overly fussy
braceletted
watches, lacking the elegance of its dress watches and
the stolid clarity, presence, and performance envelope
expected of sports watches. We conceed some admiration
for the Cottier-style Hora Mundi worldtimer, which carries
off an opulent elegance despite its derivation from the
Marine line.

Prior to its adoption of the lesser Lemanias, Breguet
was far more dependent upon Jaeger-LeCoultre and
Frederic Piguet, extensively using Piguet calibres 71
and 21, and Jaeger-LeCoultre calibres 889 and 818. All
but the last were fine movements of impeccable craft.
Yet at the time, both manufactures were a part of the
enemy camp: F. Piguet an adjunct to Blancpain which SMH
was attempting to build into a major haute horlogerie
player, and Jaeger-LeCoultre belonged to Mannessman’s
LMH. Both served the market at large, and Montres
Breguet was only one of a number of customers. Thus
these movements too were widely available in the
watches of other brands, and at much lower prices. Here
especially the new values being established in the
collector mindset played particularly in the favor of
manufactures like Patek Philippe, Lange Uhren, and
Jaeger-LeCoultre.

This, in sum, is what Swatch inherited when it purchased
the Groupe Horloger Breguet. Many would argue that the
strongest element of the purchase was the Lemania
manufacture, which by that time was the primary Breguet
manufactory, and the most important supplier of haute
horlogerie and high grade chronograph ebauches to the
market. Montres Breguet itself if anything, appeared to
be the red-headed stepchild in a Group well represented
in haute horlogerie by Blancpain.

However, despite years of investment, Blancpain had
never gained the cache of the eld Great Three in the
auction or collectors markets – undermined no doubt by
its dubious history and the often mediocre quality of
extant
vintage Blancpains. Breguet had the history, the real
history, and a legacy of watches in the vintage market
only rivaled by auction darling Patek Philippe. What it
lacked was credibility in the modern marketplace in the
wake of Chaumet and Investcorp. As mechanical
wristwatches are a traditional product marketed and
sold on the perception of authenticity, it is the
creation of this perception in the mind of the
collector which has necessarily become priority one at
Swatch and Montres Breguet.

Authenticity in the case of the Breguet brand is
conceptually different than that of most other
established brands, which are heirs – at least in name
– to strong watchmaking dynasties. Breguet as a brand is
really representative of a single man and of his unique
vision. Without Abraham-Louis Breguet the watchmaking
house is not of any particular historical
significance, as most of its rather quiet history
demonstrates. The potential authenticity of Montres
Breguet products lies quite simply in a restoration of
that personal vision, not through replicas per se, but
in craftsmanship and design following the philosophy
which he set forth, in continuing a tradition begun by
the watches crafted in Paris during his
lifetime. It is a philosophy of watchmaking better
upheld by independent watchmaker http://www.watchmaking.com/daniels/>George Daniels
than by
the house of Breguet under any ownership in the last
150 years – including the Breguets themselves.

The task of restoring the Breguet brand has been
personally taken up by horological Caesar Nicolas
Hayek, the builder of the Swatch empire. While
remaining chairman, Hayek resigned his position as
president and CEO of the Swatch Group in June of 2002,
evidently to make Montres Breguet his primary priority,
where he now serves as Directeur Général. This is
akin to a king abdicating his throne to personally
captain a single company in his army, albeit an elite
one. If one were to undertake the transformation of a
boutique watchmaker to mass manufacturer today, one
would no doubt approach it differently – something more
akin to the recreation of A. Lange & Söhne. Hayek
instead is faced with some three decades of brand
mismanagement and a muddled legacy product line, both
of which require extensive repair to achieve the lofty
goals that have been set for Montres Breguet.

The loftiest goal stated publicly is to increase
production from the present sub-10,000 pieces per year,
to 25,000 pieces per year by 2010. This is comparable
to the mechanical watch production of Patek Philippe,
and Montres Breguet makes no quartz watches. By that
point in time the house also intends to have opened 30
Breguet boutiques in major cities around the world,
which will also sell exclusive Breguet branded luxury
products like the new Breguet fountain pens, as well as
jewelry. This would seem to indicate that Breguet will
be as targeted at Richemont’s Cartier as much as at the
haute horlogerie throne. Last, there has been hint of
the coming a Breguet school of watchmaking. The average
luxury watch consumer may never really learn who AL
Breguet was, and may be more interested in the
celebrity patrons of the past rather than in the great
horologer, but the “Breguet” brand is one
that they will no doubt know soon enough, assuming that
the market can absorb those 25,000 watches per year.

The action taken thus far by Montres Breguet under Hayek’s
captaincy have centered around the need to remove every
significant AL Breguet and Breguet et Fils watch from
the secondary market at any price, to make them the
exclusive province of the new Montres Breguet owned
museum at Place Vendome in Paris, and another museum to
be opened in Geneva by the Swatch Group. This has
limited the house’s ability to remove the abundance of
cheap Chaumet and Investcorp era Breguets from the
secondary market as well – legacy watches currently
undercutting the price credibility of new Breguet
wristwatches. In the short term Montres Breguet has
elected to take another hit to this critical element of
market perception by deeply cutting its prices across
the board. The aforementioned ref. 3130 has had its
price reduced to $22,700 – nearly a 28% reduction,
bringing it more in line with the comparable 5054,
though still likely considered at a premium for a
non-manufacture product.

This will hopefully bolster long term price
credibility, and reduce the deep discounting and
dumping which was undermining its overall credibility.
No doubt a prime motivator in creating Breguet
boutiques around the globe is to limit the discounting
which undercuts resale values – and there is little
that most luxury watch buyers like more than high
resale value.

The most significant step taken thus far by Swatch to
uplift the image of Breguet brand watches is the
termination of all sales of Nouvelle Lemania ebauches
outside of the Group. This has sent shockwaves through
an industry which was heavily dependent upon Lemania’s
chronographs, tourbillons, and repeaters. Within the
next year or two all remaining contracts will have been
satisfied, and Lemania calibres will be Breguet
calibres in truth. In some years time this may begin to
undo some of damage done by years of unrestrained
Lemania ebauche sales. A possible final stroke to
divide Breguet from the perception of etablissage would
be the renaming of Nouvelle Lemania, which on www.breguet.com
is – as of this writing – referred to as “Manufacture
Breguet.”

But while this begins to address some of the issues of
movement exclusivity and the modern cult of the
manufacture which many modern collectors are so
fascinated with, we wonder in the midst of all of these
grand plans and sweeping changes, has anything been
done to improve the watches themselves? This is a
question we will explore in Part II.


Image Credits

Breguet No. 23/647 perpetuelle (1788), Breguet No. 3247
(Chaumet) wristwatch (1980s), Breguet et Fils No. 3196
marine chronometer (1822), Breguet et Fils No. 4270
clockwatch (1825); courtesy of Antiquorum.


Copyright © Carlos A. Perez
 2002

All Rights Reserved

 

 

 
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