About tourbillons produced by Breguet during his lifetime, there should be at this point no surprises – they are, in general and for obvious reasons, quite well-known and well-documented. This one, however, is a new one for me: a four-minute Breguet tourbillon, which appears to be the only one he ever made with a Robin escapement, and which moreover was sold by the French watchmaker to the King of England at a time when the two countries were fighting one of the bitterest military campaigns of the 19th century. Breguet only completed 35 tourbillons during his lifetime; four-minute Breguet tourbillons are rare and unusual, and this one, while not exactly unknown, certainly seems to have evaded general public attention for many years. The watch is being offered at Sotheby’s, on July 14, as part of the auction, “Collection Of A Connoisseur.”
Though the standard rotational speed for tourbillons is one revolution of the cage per minute, this is merely a convention. Other rotational speeds are possible and can be chosen for various reasons. The famous Omega caliber 30 I wristwatch tourbillon movements, for example, rotated at one revolution every 7.5 minutes. Breguet’s first tourbillons had one-minute carriages – these are no. 282, finished in 1800 (his patent for the invention was granted in 1801) and no. 169. No. 282 was apparently a prototype and not intended for sale (it was not cased up and sold until 1836, by Breguet’s son). No. 169 began life as a pocket chronometer made by Breguet’s very close friend, the English watchmaker John Arnold (Arnold’s and Breguet’s sons apprenticed in each other’s workshops). No. 169 was made by Breguet as an homage to the friendship between the two men, and bears an inscription on the movement to that effect: “1er REGULATEUR A TOURBILLON DE BREGUET RÉUNI A UN DES PREMIERS OUVRAGES D’ARNOLD. HOMMAGE DE BREGUET, A LA MÉMOIRE RÉVÉRÉE D’ARNOLD, OFFERT A SON FILS AN 1808.” The watch is now in the British Museum. Breguet did not show his tourbillon to the general public until 1806, when a tourbillon was exhibited at the National Exhibition of Industrial Products, at the Esplanade Les Invalides in Paris.
Between 1808 and 1815, however, Breguet produced a small number of four-minute and six-minute tourbillons, which were fitted with sophisticated, somewhat experimental escapements. The four-minute tourbillons had a very high frequency for watches of the era – 21,600 vph, which would ordinarily require a more powerful mainspring. This in turn would be apt to produce more wear in the going train; Breguet sought to avoid this problem by reducing the speed at which the tourbillon rotated. In The Art Of Breguet, George Daniels notes, “The faster the balance vibrates, the less likelihood there is of the watch being moved at the same speed [at which the balance is oscillating] and consequently the rate will be more stable. This is a distinct advantage in principle but a stronger mainspring is required … in order to avoid using a stronger spring, Breguet slowed the carriage from one minute to four minutes. In that way, the acceleration is proportionately reduced, and the surplus power available is utilised to maintain the amplitude of the increased vibrations.” Daniels mentions two specific four-minute tourbillons – numbers 1188 (sold to Don Antonio de Bourbon, Infante of Spain, in 1808) and 2980, and there is also the famous no. 1176, which was acquired by the Breguet Museum from Christie’s in 2014, for CHF 821,000
A Royal Secret: Breguet No. 1297
The watch being offered at Sotheby’s on July 14 is lot no. 28 – Breguet no. 1297, which is a four-minute Breguet tourbillon, similar in some technical respects to no. 1176. However, no. 1297 has a thermometer and uses, instead of Breguet’s échappement naturel, a Robin escapement (for a brief discussion of the Robin escapement in a different context, see our Introducing post for the new Grand Seiko Hi-Beat escapement).
This would be a fascinating watch under any circumstances, but it has a most interesting original owner. The watch was apparently purchased by none other than King George III of England and delivered via Recordon, Breguet’s agent in London (Louis Recordon was a Swiss-born watchmaker, whose workshop was in Greek Street, SoHo, and who took over Josiah Emery’s workshop in 1805). The watch was sent to Recordon on June 29, 1808 (per the Breguet archives) with a price of 4,800 francs. This means that the sale of no. 1279 predates the sale of 1176 by one year. The date of sale also predates that of no. 1180, but not by much: the date of sale of that watch is August 1 of 1808 (that watch was the subject of a Deconstruction over at The Naked Watchmaker). No. 1279 may, therefore, be the first tourbillon ever sold commercially by Breguet. George III, you may recall, took a great deal of interest in horology; he owned the first known lever escapement watch (made by Thomas Mudge), and it was he who finally interceded on behalf of John Harrison with the Board of Longitude and compelled them to pay him the full Longitude Prize.
Buying a 4,800 franc watch from a Frenchman in 1808 is probably not the sort of thing George III would have wanted booted about in public. In 1808, France’s Napoleon Bonaparte and England’s George III were bitter enemies and were locked in one of the nastiest episodes of the Napoleonic Wars – the Peninsular Campaign, which took place, as the name implies, on the Iberian Penninsula. Napoleon had invaded Spain, with his troops committing numerous atrocities against civilians – this is remembered vividly in the works of Francisco Goya, in such paintings as The Third Of May 1808, which shows the summary execution of civilians in Madrid as the French troops put down a popular rebellion against the French occupation which had begun the day before. In the event, the campaign proved a disastrous one for Napoleon – by 1812 the Grand Armée had been destroyed in Russia and the French presence in Spain came to an end with a French defeat by the end of 1813 – but the fighting was brutal, with over a million casualties, and history paints a very bleak picture of the treatment of civilians by both sides.
Under the circumstances, then, I can’t imagine that popular sentiment would have favored the purchase of luxury goods from a French watchmaker, by the British monarch, in 1808. Apparently, the same thought occurred to Breguet – the watch at a casual glance could be mistaken for one of English make, as the dial is in English (the only Breguet four-minute tourbillon to have an English-language dial), and Breguet’s signature is found nowhere on the watch except on the tourbillon carriage, where it is placed discreetly enough that it would probably escape notice. Moreover, while the case does bear the mark of Breguet’s usual casemaker (Tavernier), it also has London hallmarks and the punch of Louis Comtesse, a case maker based in London, which the catalogue essay notes may have been intended to make the watch appear to be, if not of English manufacture, then at least not conspicuously French.
Provenance And Publicity
Characteristically for a monarch, George III seems to have had a somewhat casual attitude towards paying tradesmen. The Breguet archives reveal that the watch was not fully paid for on delivery, and in 1812, the firm actually had to send the King what one can only assume was a respectfully worded reminder that he was in arrears – not just for no. 1279, but for three other watches as well (indeed, it is an honor to be a maker to the Crown, but as many who have had nobility for clients discover, you can’t eat honor, and your family is apt to want something more substantial as well come suppertime). The bill was, however, settled the next year, and the catalogue article from Sotheby’s notes, “A letter written by Breguet’s agent Moreau to Colonel McMahon [the private secretary to the Prince of Wales, who by then was Prince Regent due to the King’s mental illness] on 29 March 1813 … pleads for the latter’s assistance in obtaining the outstanding balance of £700 due to Breguet from His Royal Highness. Indeed, Moreau continues ‘I hope Sir considering the time elapsed, and when you reflect that my departure from this country cannot possibly take place unless this affair is settled, all these reasons…will induce you to procure me the settlement of my account.'”
For a major work by a renowned master, no. 1279 has led a rather retiring life. It appears, for starters, in none of the three editions of The Art Of Breguet (1975, 1977, and 1986) by George Daniels, who I think would have been very likely to mention a one-off four-minute Breguet tourbillon with a Robin escapement. The watch was lent in 1955, by its then-owner Malcolm Gardner, to the “Five Centuries Of British Timekeeping” held in Goldsmith’s Hall, London (you had to be quick on your feet to see it; the exhibition ran for only five days). The next time it shows up is at Sotheby’s, at an auction held November 9, 1999, and the individual who acquired it then is, according to Sotheby’s, the current consignor.
As you may well imagine, the estimate for this watch runs into the seven figures on the high side – £700,000-1,000,000, €805,000-1,150,000, US$ 895,000-1,280,000. This seems merely reasonable given the performance of other Breguet four-minute tourbillons at auction (not that the sample size is very large), but I would not be surprised to see a stronger result, for obvious reasons. I strongly recommend the wonderful catalogue essay on the watch (uncredited, but it is a fine piece of work, and I hope whoever wrote it got an extra beer at lunch), and you can see lot no. 28 itself, right here.