A mechanical watch that shows the time and maybe even has a complication. Nothing too strange for you and me. But it’s only because of generations of innovative master watchmakers who consistently sought to break through barriers that the time on your wrist has become commonplace. We present to you a number of old and more recent inventions and inventors. Today Part I.
Time started out big and became smaller over time. Over the past few centuries huge clock movements have evolved into small, delicate watch movements. Responsible for this evolution: visionary master watchmakers. The history of the pocket and wristwatch is a rich one. The number of master watchmakers with minor and major innovations to their name is large. A complete overview would take hundreds of pages, which is why we are limiting ourselves to a number of special inventors and inventions from the far and recent past.
Of physics and marketing
However concise a story about watch inventions may be, Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823), genius and multitalented in diverse areas like physics and marketing, can never be left out. He succeeded in making ground-breaking improvements and inventions and selling his creations throughout Europe. Breguet is the man who conceived the tourbillon, a mechanism that revolves the regulating escapement to negate the constant negative effect of gravity on the movement. A revolutionary concept in an era when an accurate movement was the ultimate goal. The tourbillon (French for whirlwind – ed.) was originally devised for pocket watches that were worn consistently in an upright position. In a wristwatch that changes position frequently a tourbillon has mostly become a technical tour de force. The tourbillon in the modern Breguet Tourbillon Extra-Plat 5377 is small and sophisticated and fits perfectly in the automatic movement that uses a peripheral rotor to keep it as thin as possible.
Breguet was also the Royal watchmaker to French King Louis XVI and his wife Queen Marie-Antoinette. Legend has it that in 1783 Swedish Count Axel von Fersen placed an order with Breguet for the most complicated pocket watch the world had ever seen; a gift that the Count wanted to use to impress his beloved Queen and that drove Breguet to the brink. The ‘Marie-Antoinette’ (No. 160) was finished in 1827 – 34 years after the death of the Queen, four years after Breguet’s death and 44 years after the watch was ordered – and even by today’s standards the watch was a miracle of technology. The automatic movement consisting of 823 components featured, among other things, minute repetition, a perpetual calendar – a system that may be considered the predecessor to the chronograph – a power reserve indicator and a thermometer, plus Breguet’s invention, the pare-chute shock absorption system that protects the escapement against shocks.
After floating around for a while the original pocket watch unfortunately disappeared. Reason for Nicolas G. Hayek (1928-2010), head honcho of the Swatch Group, owner of the Breguet watch house and curator of Abraham-Louis’ life’s work, to reconstruct a ‘Marie-Antoinette’ based on the few remaining drawings. In April 2008, after four years of research and construction, the pocket watch was revealed at Le Petit Trianon, Marie-Antoinette’s palace in Versailles that was restored with Breguet funds. The new ‘Marie-Antoinette’ Grande Complication No. 1160 astonished the watch world all over again.
More complications to come
Tomorrow in Part II we will take you to a remote valley in the Swiss Jura, famous for its complicated movements. Tomorrow we will show you some of the technical wonders coming from the Vallée de Joux but we will also travel to a remote watch valley in Germany with a similar history and to the Swiss town of Le Locle to witness the birth of nouvelle horlogerie.