Famous for its enamel dials and the invention of the tourbillon, Revolution takes a look at another founding pillar for one of watchmaking’s oldest brands: guilloché.
Like a tiger’s stripes or a leopard’s spots, guilloché is the traditional pattern that is unmistakably linked to Breguet. Not necessarily because Breguet started it (the origins of traditional guillochage is a little muddled), but because Abraham-Louis Breguet made this traditional engraving into a functional design and elevated it to an art form that, today, only few trained in the art can really do and do well.
Dedicated to the Craft
In the heart of the watchmaking Mecca in the Vallée de Joux in Switzerland, surrounded by sprawling pine woods and green valleys, sits the Manufacture de l’Orient, where Breguet has heavily invested in a workshop solely dedicated to guilloché. Twenty artisans continuously hone their skills in precision engraving in a room full of rose engine machines, perfecting smooth and meticulous movements to create symmetrical patterns on delicate dials. If you think that the tourbillon, invented by Breguet in 1801, is one of the strands making up the double helix that is Breguet’s DNA, then traditional guilloché is the other.
Devoted custodians of the craft for the past 230 years, Breguet has spent several years acquiring rose engine machines and restoring them in-house to their former glory. Most of these machines are either used in the Breguet manufacture or are dispatched throughout the world for educational purposes – the oldest of which, dating back to the 1820s, sits in Breguet’s boutique on Place Vendôme in Paris, France. Breguet has also invested in producing new guilloché machines for their craftsmen, enhancing the traditional machine’s designs with better ergonomics, improved lighting and a lens with a binocular magnifier to help improve a watchmaker’s precision. But while guilloché is a technique done with a machine, it isn’t done by a machine – it takes years for an artisan to perfect the movements on these machines, all controlled by hand, and to develop a keen eye for the circular and linear patterns to make sure nothing is out of place.
But don’t just take it from me. During an interview with Revolution published earlier this year, actor and self-taught watchmaker Aldis Hodge cited Breguet’s guilloché as one of the eminent pillars of watch design to study when looking into watchmaking: “[Breguet’s guilloché] is like you’re writing a coded language. It is, to me, like coding is today in terms of zeroes and ones – the guilloché is the mechanical version of coding. It’s such a specific and iconic look and no one else has done it in a way, and I don’t mean to down anybody, but in a superior way. It’s absolutely an art form.”
“I own a straight-line mill machine and I also own a rose and guilloché machine with the same Breguet setup as their tables,” he continued. “It’s all touch and sensitivity, if you put a little too much pressure on one notch, then the whole thing is messed up, and you’re sitting there looking at a week’s worth of work, and you’re like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ When it comes to the guilloché, when you know that it’s hand-done and it’s not stamped by a machine, the symmetry of everything – you have to ask yourself, first of all, how did they do that? And then you look at a Breguet dial and you have on average three to five different guilloché patterns on there, like, who sat here and did this?”
The answer to Hodge’s question above is, simply, Abraham-Louis Breguet. While guilloché is often looked at from a purely aesthetic aspect of a watch, A.-L. Breguet used different patterns of guilloché to not only give his dials texture but also help visually differentiate zones on the dial, such as the chapter ring, small seconds or power-reserve indicator. The patterns also helped watches become more legible, as the grooves of either the curved or straight-line patterns caught the light differently than from polished surfaces. Beginning as a functional aesthetic code, A.-L. Breguet’s use of guilloché became his stamp on his creations, quickly outnumbering the amount of enamel dials in his yearly production by the start of the 19th century. Today, engine-turned silvered gold dials show up in the majority of Breguet’s collections, all signed with “Swiss Guilloché Main” so you know you’re getting the real deal.
To really see the full breadth that guilloché can provide on one dial, we turn to the Breguet Classique Chronométrie 7727. The 41mm silvered gold dial boasts five different guilloché patterns, all hand-engraved on a rose engine: vagues de Genève (Geneva waves) on the central section, clous de Paris for the small seconds, soleil (sunburst) for the tenths of seconds counter, chevrons for the power reserve, a liseret pattern for the hours chapter and a grain d’orge (barleycorn) pattern for the outer border. The watch is a stunning show of Breguet’s mastery of the art of guilloche – beautifully executed, the watch remains legible, no matter the angle, and subtly blends from polished surface to guilloché pattern.
More recently, during the Swatch Group’s week-long “Time To Move” event where the Group’s brands exclusively unveiled its novelties for 2019, Breguet introduced 10 new references, two of which feature the brand’s legendary use of guilloché.
The first piece is the Classique Tourbillon SQ 5395. Breguet’s innovation and mastery of mechanics and aesthetics is amply demonstrated here in this slim, skeletonised tourbillon offering unobstructed views of splendid hand decoration with the convenience of a self-winding movement. The stunning skeletonised movement is complemented by clous de Paris hobnailing on what remains of the plate surface – a pattern created using a diamond-tipped guilloché tool that leaves no room for error.
The second piece, the Breguet Marine Dame 9518, showcases Breguet’s original motif design: a flow of waves, also known as a “marea” pattern, which are engine-turned on a mother-of-pearl dial, making the surface of the dial look undulated with curves. An ode to the seas for women who explore, the Breguet Marine Dame 9581 is a beautiful show of the evolution of guilloché. In the hands of the most steadfast of guardians, the centuries-old art of guilloché remains cultivated and relevant, a symbol of A.-L. Breguet’s lasting impact on watchmaking.