Before I begin this piece, I have to offer a confession: I’ve always had a very soft spot for Breguet’s watches, because it was one of the first high watchmaking brands I encountered as a young man writing about watches around 14 years ago. It’s difficult to put a value on an impression (as digital agencies will know), but the impact the brand had on my opinions of what constituted artistic and high watchmaking was immeasurable.
Today, Breguet is a different company, with the same values as it possessed over a dozen years ago, but communicated in vastly different ways as it did before. As the media scene has evolved and transformed, the social space and presence Breguet now possesses have encouraged it to modernise in ways we’ve never seen. It’s always a big challenge for a traditional business, with an entire eco-system dedicated to a legacy style of business, to remake itself while keeping its historic milestones in mind. With Breguet, that’s an even greater challenge given that Abraham-Louis Breguet is the Father of Tourbillons, the watchmaking Daenerys Targaryen (in Game of Thrones terms for those of you unfamiliar) of what’s now considered an essential in watchmaking.
When Breguet invented the tourbillon in 1795 and properly patented it in 1801 (on 7 Messidor in the ninth year of the French republic calendar, hence its marking on each tourbillon, “Brevet du 7 Messidor An 9”), one doubts he expected that it would become a transformative creation in high watchmaking today. After all, he only produced 35 in his lifetime. But as the tourbillon became a more popular invention in historic watchmaking circles, it broadly expanded its reach in the post-quartz era. This was unsurprising. Watch brands trying to recover from the devastating impact of the quartz crisis sought to demonstrate their savoir faire and quality of work was the defining attribute of Swiss watchmaking that a battery and circuit board could not out-perform. The tourbillon was a perfect example of this skill.
The rotating escapement soon became an extraordinaire as watch brands all sought to create one to demonstrate their ability to construct this icon. It went from the back of the watch to the front, on display, which further enhanced its image. Throughout all this, Breguet’s work in tourbillons persisted, and it remains one of the most prolific makers of tourbillons in the world.
Breguet’s Tourbillons Today
For a long time, Breguet’s ideas of what constituted an appropriate style for its icon was firmly rooted in the classic. It didn’t veer far from this rule, with rare occasions when tourbillon watches that broke from the pack popped up. The references 7047 and 7087 are great examples of these deviations, with impressive success. The Tradition series, based off Breguet’s subscription pocket watches and modernised to great impact through an exposed movement construction, with three-dimensional movements and dials that gave it depth, worked marvelously with an exposed tourbillon carriage on the dial.
The 5347 Double Tourbillon housed in the Classique line was a good example of how Breguet imagined the tourbillon should stand, represented among the crafts that were present at the time when the device was invented. An engine turned dial, upon which the two tourbillons resided and turned, emphasised its classical heritage while pushing the brand’s limits in the innovation of the tourbillon. But in the context of modern design, the latest timepiece from the watchmaker hits the sweet spot.
I’m referring to the reference 5395, a piece that continues the development of the 5377 and 5367 into the 21st century. The latter, in particular was modelled off a quarter repeater pocket watch by Breguet, the No. 15 and a great representative of the watchmaker’s excellent style. But all three watches are a continuation of Breguet’s expertise in ultra-thin timepieces.
In 1831, Breguet presented one of the slimmest pocket watches — also a quarter repeater — to Lord Henry Conway. The thin watch featured an equation of time complication, moon phase, calendar and power reserve, and was a slim 7.7mm timepiece, with rose engine engraving on the dial, inner bezel and sides of the case. That timepiece, no. 4691, set the style for Breguet’s new ultra-thin watches, with a legitimacy handed down from the brand’s leaders. Following that, the brand continued to develop ultra-thin movements such as the calibre 2100 and the 502, both of which were under 3mm in thickness.
These pieces were what helped drive Breguet to combine two of its legitimacies to develop an ultra-thin tourbillon calibre, the 581, with a generous 80-hour power reserve and a speedy 4Hz escapement. At 3mm thick, it’s the thinnest automatic tourbillon around, and between the three references, particularly the 5377 and 5395, one can see just how much the latest watch reflects a modern aesthetic. The entire movement, which was crafted in gold, has been skeletonised thoroughly, with every surface polished, angled and chamfered to fully accentuate the beauty of each part from the bridges to the wheels. In addition, the words on every part of the movement are hand-engraved. The minute track and hour indexes are shown on a transparent sapphire crystal, with the area under the indexes tinted so as to show the time better — a thoughtful act on Breguet’s part.
What’s most striking about the watch is how much it differs from even Breguet’s past skeleton watches such as the reference 5335 Tourbillon Messidor, which bears a touch of romanticism in its movement construction. Instead, the 5395’s stronger adherence to structured lines gives it a neo-modern flavour, one that closely aligns the supporting bridges with the gear train itself, rather than elaborating on the movement. The freeing up of space in the skeleton movement (I say skeleton rather than skeletonised, because it seems unjust to describe such a thorough effort to reconstruct the entire movement) gives it a completely different experience, both on display and on the wrist. If the 5377 and 5335 are the classics of today for Breguet, reflecting on the past of the brand, the 5395 is the classic of tomorrow for the brand, reflecting on its present.
Styling: Yong Wei Jian
Digital Artist: KH Koh
Assisted by Nathaniel Wong