The passage of time is a concept that has captivated the attention of mankind since the Stone Age. Throughout history, our attempts to measure and define the time of day has constantly and repeatedly collided with the powerful influences of art and culture, in the process creating a magnificent spread of inventive timekeeping formats from the sundial to the modern wristwatch. What’s equally fascinating is how culture and styles of timekeeping across vast continents and empires, many of which would never have even known of each other, wound up (pun intended) developing timekeeping simultaneously, with a similar use of techniques. In Time Tamed, the latest in a long line of excellent volumes by the illustrious Nick Foulkes, whose pen has on occasion graced the pages of Revolution, he examines how timekeeping has not only found itself intertwined with historical monuments and cultural landmarks, but also how it’s shaped the modern world and continues to do so. For any watch-loving geek, this is a book that should definitely be on your reading list. The following is a chapter reproduced with permission from Time Tamed, that speaks about one of the greatest timepieces in historical watchmaking: Breguet’s pocket watch No. 160, commissioned for Marie Antoinette:
Parking his small Simca 1000 hatchback, the hollow-cheeked, sharp-featured man turned the engine off and waited for a moment, his intelligent eyes taking in his surroundings. Getting out of the car, he went to the boot, lifted out a tool box and strolled towards a large building of honey-coloured stone.
Working quickly and quietly, he used a car jack to part the bars of a gate and then wriggled through.
It was the evening of Friday 15 April 1983; the building of honey-coloured stone was Jerusalem’s L.A. Mayer Memorial Institute for Islamic Art; and the biggest burglary in the history of Israel had just begun.
The museum had been opened nine years earlier. Founded by the late Vera Salomons and named in honour of her friend, scholar and archaeologist Professor Leo Ari Mayer, it houses one of the world’s most significant collections of Islamic Art.
But, as well as the jewellery, glassware, carpets and ancient pages of the Qur’an, the museum is home to a collection of unique timepieces, many made in France during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century by the horological genius often regarded as the finest watchmaker ever. One in particular, known dramatically, if not inaccurately, as ‘the Mona Lisa of timepieces’, was the most celebrated watch in the world. Its importance, its value and its complexity were belied by the name, or, rather, the number assigned by its maker: 160.
The 160th entry in the pages of an eighteenth-century watchmaker’s order book, this watch is better known by the name of its intended recipient: Marie Antoinette.
To understand what a watch made for the most famous queen of France was doing in a museum of Islamic art in Jerusalem, it is necessary to travel back to 1762, to the lakeside town of Neuchâtel in what today is modern Switzerland, where a 15-year-old boy was boarding the stagecoach to Paris. His father had recently died, and his mother had remarried. Her new husband was a watchmaker and, after a year as his apprentice, her son demonstrated such gifts that he headed for Paris, where he would make his name, his fortune and history.
There are some individuals so important to human development that they mark a watershed: Copernicus and Galileo did with astronomy, Columbus with exploration, Shakespeare with the English language, Picasso with painting and Abraham Louis Breguet, the teenager on the stagecoach travelling the rutted roads towards Paris with the watch.
Breguet changed the personal timepiece more profoundly than any single individual before or since. In short, he either invented or improved most parts of the mechanical watch as we know it today.
Even the most cursory survey of Breguet’s main achievements is impressive: in 1780, he brought out his first self-winding watches; three years later, he invented the gong spring for repeater watches; in 1790, he came up with the pare-chute shock-absorption system; in 1796, he brought out the first carriage clock; and, of course, he is best known for his 1801 patent, the tourbillon. Within watchmaking, he is remembered countless times on a daily basis in the adjectival use of his name to describe various aesthetic and technical aspects of the craft: there are Breguet hands, Breguet numerals and the Breguet overcoil. More than a gifted horologist, he had a taste for flamboyant marketing. Once, in order to show off his new shock-absorption system, he took out his watch in front of Talleyrand and threw it on the ground.
Needless to say, he was the darling of French Court circles. However, Breguet also liked to live dangerously, and when the seething discontent of the French people exploded into the orgy of bloodletting that was the French Revolution, he was caught up in the excitement of the liberation of the Bastille and the publication of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. He joined the Society of the Friends of the Constitution, which soon became known by the name of the former Jacobin monastery, near the Tuileries, where its members gathered.
Only the massacres of September 1792 finally tempered Breguet’s radicalism and, becoming more moderate, he fell foul of Robespierre. Fearing for his life, he asked his old friend Jean-Paul Marat, who had also come to Paris from Neuchâtel, to help him leave the country. On 24 June 1793, the National Convention Committee for General Security and Surveillance heard the case of Citizen Breguet and agreed to grant him and his immediate family a passport. It was just in time. A few days later, on 13 July, Marat was killed in his bath.
Breguet spent some tense weeks waiting for his papers, but they came through and on 11 August he left the business he had spent thirty years building. Among the things he packed and took with him into exile was the unfinished project referred to as ‘No. 160’. Not knowing what would happen to him or whether he would ever return to Paris, he must have looked at the assemblage of components with mixed emotions.
The order had entered his heavy ledgers exactly a decade earlier under very mysterious conditions: placed by an unknown officer of the Queen’s Guard. Whether Her Majesty was aware of the order and on whose behalf the officer was acting are unknown. This mystery is all the more frustrating because what Breguet had been asked to design was the definitive portable timepiece, encyclopaedic in its scope, incorporating the full range of functions known at the time: ‘a minute repeating perpetuelle watch, with complete perpetual calendar, equation of time, power-reserve indicator, metallic thermometer, large optionally independent seconds-hand and small sweep seconds-hand, lever escapement, gold Breguet overcoil, double parechute, all points of friction, holes and rollers, without exception, in sapphire, gold case, rock crystal dial and gold and steel hands.’
The order included neither deadline nor maximum price; the only stipulation was for gold to be used wherever possible. In effect, Breguet was being asked to produce a cathedral clock of the sort that had been the most technically advanced objects of the Renaissance – only this time within the confines of a pocket watch. It was the ultimate horological high-wire act – a feat of unparalleled technical sophistication and mechanical miniaturisation destined to be worn and admired at the leading royal court in Europe.
It was not Marie Antionette’s first Breguet: in 1782, he made her the ‘perpétuelle’, a self-winding repeater watch fitted with a calendar. Her husband the king, known to be fascinated by mechanical objects and watchmaking, was also a Breguet customer. However, the man behind the commission of No. 160 was not her husband, but widely suspected to have been a Swedish count, Axel von Fersen, rumoured to be the queen’s lover. An alternative theory is that ‘the watch was intended as a present to one of the Queen’s favourites’ — perhaps Fersen.
Whatever the truth, it was a gift she would neither give nor receive. Only a matter of weeks after Breguet fled the French capital she went to her death at the guillotine, in front of the baying crowd in the blood-soaked Place de la Revolution (now the more peacefully named Place de la Concorde).
Breguet was luckier than his client. He would return to Paris and enjoy even greater glory as the watchmaker by appointment to the Napoleonic elite. Indeed, one of the earliest recorded wristwatches was made by him for Napoleon’s sister Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples. It was even speculated that the French emperor ‘frequently went incognito to the workshop and conversed upon the improvements which he was anxious to effect in cannon and fire-arms’. In all, Napoleon’s family accounted for around 100 pieces between 1797 and the derailment of the Bonaparte gravy train in 1814. But regime change just brought Breguet more customers, not least the Emperor Alexander of Russia and the Duke of Wellington; the latter is said to have paid 300 guineas for a repeater (around 30 times what a cavalry man in the Scots Greys was paid in one year).
Breguet’s extraordinary career spanned Bourbon, Revolutionary, Napoleonic and Restoration France, but, throughout this sprawling historical novel of a life, one thing remained constant: even in his final days, he was still working on No. 160. It was not completed until 1827 — thirty-four years after Marie Antoinette’s demise at the guillotine; 17 years after Fersen’s life ended at the hands of a lynch mob; and four years after Breguet himself died (he had left instructions in his will for his son to complete the work).
It was to retain the undisputed title of the world’s most complicated watch for a century, and its subsequent history was just as fascinating as the events surrounding its creation. Purchased by a Marquis de la Groye, who as a child had been one of Marie Antoinette’s pages, it was returned for repair in 1838, but never collected, and remained with Breguet in Paris until 1887, when it was sold to a British visitor, Sir Spencer Brunton. It passed to his brother and was then bought by collector and art dealer Murray Marks, whose clients included J. P. Morgan. He sold it to Louis Desoutter, a famous restorer of Breguet watches, and then, one rainy spring day in 1917, in the window of a shop in London’s West End, it caught the eye of Sir David Lionel Salomons: it was a coup de foudre.
My attention was attracted by a curious-looking watch differing from the usual display, and I saw a notice by its side, bearing the name “Marie Antoinette.” I then went up to the window to have a better look at the watch, and I saw that it had been made for that ill-fated Queen by Breguet, and was his masterpiece. A high price was put on it.’ But it was worth it. ‘It turned out to be a good purchase, judging from seducing offers made to me later on to part with it. Evening after evening, I studied this watch, which is most complex and interesting, with the result that I formed the opinion that no other maker of watches could approach such work.
On Salomons’ death, it passed to his daughter Vera, who died in 1969. Five years later it went on public display in the Museum of Islamic Art when the building was completed and opened in 1974. There it remained until that warm spring evening in 1983.
The same year as the enterprising thief squirmed through the gate and windows to steal this piece of horological history, the future of watchmaking was launched in Switzerland.
Where No. 160 had been the costliest, the Swatch played on its accessible price; where No. 160 had taken forty years to make, Swatch was designed to be made swiftly and easily; where there was just one No. 160, now vanished, Swatch could, and would, be churned out in millions. This plastic watch would become one of the most familiar objects on the planet. Indeed, so successful would it become that in 1999 Swatch would buy the storied old firm of Breguet.
The architect of Swatch’s success was a Lebanese-born management consultant called Nicolas G. Hayek, a man often described as the saviour of the Swiss watch industry. In later life he became so obsessed by Breguet that he was jocularly known in the industry as Abraham Louis Hayek.
Frustrated that, 21 years after the robbery, No. 160 remained lost to humanity, he put the formidable resources of the Swatch Group behind recreating the lost treasure. Even with the technology of the twenty-first century, the replica would take four years to build. But, in 2006, before it could be unveiled, the dramatic deathbed confession of the thief, Na’aman Diller, a former military pilot turned forger, burglar and criminal polymath, revealed that after the watches had been stolen, they were wrapped in newspaper, placed in boxes and consigned to a warehouse, where they had remained for 21 years. Among them was No. 160.
It has now been restored to the museum where, protected by rather more exigent security measures, it waits to see whether the coming centuries will be as eventful as its first two.