As you might have noted, Breguet is one of the bigger names that is not yet listed in our WatchBase database and I briefly pointed out why over here. However, the crown-jewel of the Swatch Group has a long and interesting history that could easily make for a book or two – after all, the Breguet name has been gracing watches since 1775. And while it would make much more sense to post this after adding a big load of Breguet watches to our database, my fingers are itching to write about a part of their history that is arguably put under the rug and not often talked about: the Chaumet and Investcorp years, finally resulting in the sale to the Swatch Group in 1999. So rather than the stories often found featuring kings, queens and emperors, we’ll take a look at the history of Breguet as it unfolded in the last 40 years.
In 1973, the Brown family -who acquired the Breguet watchmaking business from his direct descendants a hundred years earlier- sold of the company to the Chaumet brothers, Jacques and Pierre, stemming from a family of Parisian jewelers. While their name was highly respected for their jewelry creations, the brothers were inexperienced when it came to watches. They nonetheless had great plans for Breguet, for which they needed only two things: a talented watchmaker and for the brand to move to Switzerland.
The watchmaker that came to the rescue was a young guy by the name of Daniel Roth. After graduating from a watchmaking school in Nice, Mr. Roth had worked for some seven years at the prestigious Audemars Piguet where he learned the ropes of high-end watchmaking. However, after seeing the job offering by the Chaumet brothers and being intrigued by the Breguet name, he agreed to join them as master watchmaker – but not after he’d polish his skills at complicated watchmaking in school in Le Sentier. After this one year study, he started making watches for Breguet, based in Le Brassus.
At this time, Daniel Roth focused on two things: aesthetics and complications. Out of a number of styles that A.-L. Breguet employed during his days, it is often said that Roth picked the one that is emblematic for Breguet as it is known today, with its signature guilloche dials and pomme hands. Complication-wise, Roth introduced the perpetual calendar and the tourbillon to the collection – the first of the former being in fact based on a pocket watch that he had made during his time at the Le Sentier watchmaking course. For simpler models, movements were acquired from third parties such as Jaeger-LeCoultre, Nouvelle Lemania and Frederic Piguet.
Despite their good intentions, the plans didn’t work out quite that well for the Chaumet brothers. With severe tax issues they went bankrupt in 1987 and the Breguet company was sold to Investcorp. For Daniel Roth, this was a sign to leave the company and go on his own adventure – he’d start his own Daniel Roth brand (now incorporated to Bulgari) two years later.
Under the reign of Investcorp, the Breguet name would go through what many consider to be not the best of its years. While the investment company acquired both a movement maker (Nouvelle Lemania) and a supplier of micromechanics (Valdar) to its portfolio in 1991, Breguet struggled to uphold the great name that many felt it was owed due to its long and impressive history. High-end movements now came from an in-house supplier, yet they were equally supplied to other brands. At the same time, more pedestrian (in terms of complications) movements were obtained from third parties. With its clientele becoming increasingly knowledgeable, many of Breguets offerings seemed like poor choices compared to its competitors- mainly Patek and later on also Lange & Söhne. Little, if not none, of its movements were exclusive to the brand and they could be had from other manufacturers at substantially lower prices, not helping the prestige and perceived value of Breguet. In turn, a substantial part of Breguet’s production was dumped and sold grey market.
Then there was the Type XX. Based on a model that Breguet had made for the French airforce, it was powered by a movement by Nouvelle Lemania that was deemed by many to be sub-par for the Breguet name. It was housed in stainless steel and destined to become the entry-level watch for the brand, yet its early days were clouded by movement issues and a skeptical reception by cognoscenti. How things can change: the Type XX is still part of the Breguet collection today and earlier perceptions do not seem to have any effect on its status as a luxury sports watch today.
Enter the Swatch Group. With Blancpain, SG had already tried to climb to the top of the watchmaking hill – with disputable success. While the watches boasted impressive (and sometimes unseen) complications, the brand lacked a certain cachet. Blancpain was founded in 1735, yet there were major gaps in its history that did not give it the credibility of Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet. Do you know of a vintage Blancpain that sold for crazy money? Breguet was seen as the gateway to haute horlogerie fame and succes when it was acquired (together with Nouvelle Lemania and Valdar) in 1999.
With the financial backing of the Swatch Group and the personal interest of the late Nicolas Hayek, Breguet set out on a new path: a restoration of the Breguet philosophy, much inline with the watches manufactured by the master himself. Nouvelle Lemania ebauches would no longer be delivered to third parties, creating an air of a true manufacture as had become de rigueur in the post 1990’s era. Original Breguet watches were scooped up to be on display in the Breguet Museum. At the same time, many of the Chaumet and Investcorp models slowly seemed to disappear from the market as if the brand itself was erasing part of its history.
And today? For many collectors, the Breguet name still lacks a certain charm that is very much present in the family-owned Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet companies. Lange & Söhne has proved to be a serious contender on this stage in recent years, while high-end independent watchmaking has also taken a huge flight. Recent introductions such as the Tradition collection however seem to be received quite well among collectors and past mistakes are quickly forgotten (and erased?). I for one applaud the modern Breguet for its distinct, recognizable and unique style.