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Breguet - The aesthetic codes of Breguet

Breguet The aesthetic codes of Breguet

An in-depth look at some of the salient features of Breguet watches that owe their existence to the founder.

In many settings one often speaks of designs that are “timeless”. Of course, that would be an unfortunate choice of words if the setting happens to be timepieces. That aside, it can safely be said that, to a greater degree than any other watchmaker who has ever lived, founder Abraham-Louis Breguet’s eye for refined aesthetics led him to create designs that have withstood the test of 200 years to remain as vibrant and vital as when they debuted. More than that, his aesthetic codes have been honored by countless trainees from his workshop and competitors who have adopted, imitated and copied them. Indeed, in many cases the design language which he pioneered speaks so powerfully that others who have followed with their imitations, far from disguising that which they have copied, call out the name “Breguet” in describing what they have done. Watchmaking parlance, thus, speaks of “Breguet numerals”, “Breguet hands” and “Breguet dials”.

Unfortunately, we are deprived of essays, notes or even design trials that would expressly reveal Breguet’s thought processes as he developed his many signature elements. However, there are insights which appeared in 1822 in what almost certainly was the first watch catalog ever produced. Entitled “Horlogerie pour l’usage civil, Chronomètres Portatifs, Horloges Marines et Astronomiques, et Autres Instruments d’Observation” (“Watchmaking For Civil Use, Portable Chronometers, Marine Clocks and Astronomic and Other Observatory Instruments”), the catalog set out options which were then being offered to Breguet’s clients. We have a glimpse into his design philosophy from the preamble:

“The elegance of the forms, the choice and the proportions of the case side fluting, the effect of the rounding of the case sides and the slightly bombe crystal, the delicacy of the guilloché on the dials and the refinement of the hands, the mixing of matt and polished metal, which distinguishes our pieces, cannot be well shown with the printing of lines and a geometric drawing which is hardly flattering.” “Elegance”, “proportions”, “delicacy”, “refinement” all play key roles in his designs.

Breguet hands

What is extraordinary is how his sensibilities led him to revolutionize completely and depart radically from what were the norms of his time. Consider for a moment his signature “pomme” hands. Today, of course, everybody refers to this hand design as “Breguet hands”. At the time, the practice was to outfit timepieces with ornate, heavy, baroque hands. Finely drawn, either blued steel or gold hands, with a delicate, slightly off-centered orb near the tip represented no less than a sweeping aside of the standards of his day and, once Breguet created this design, neither he nor, thereafter, his son departed from it.

Classique Chronométrie Ref. 7727

Classique Chronométrie Ref. 7727 © Breguet

Guilloché

It is true that Breguet did not invent guilloché decoration which enjoyed popularity as means of embellishing a wide variety of objects, including wooden pieces. He was, however, the first to bring guilloché to the face of a timepiece. As he described it in his catalog, there was “delicacy” in the way guilloché was applied and he used it both on silver and gold dials.

Breguet No. 3448, sold on July 12th, 1820.

Breguet No. 3448, sold on July 12th, 1820. © Breguet

There were two practical sides to his adoption of guilloché decoration: first, enhanced legibility and second, with variation in the patterns, definition of different zones or sectors on the dials delineating the indications offered by the timepiece. As well, the delicacy of the guilloché patterns enabled his use of the thin, understated Breguet hands as there was no need for bolder contrast between dial and hands.

Breguet dial and numerals

Not all of Breguet’s dials were guilloché, as white enamel was employed for many of his uncomplicated pieces; naturally, as fine guilloché carving served not only to decorate a dial but to define the zones for complicated indications, enamel was not generally employed for those watches that offered functions extending beyond time display. Often with his use of enamel came another signature element: Breguet numerals. Generally, for his guilloché dials, Breguet favored pairing with Roman numerals. With enamel dials, however, his practice was to use Arabic numerals, done with a deft touch. Inclined slightly, neither squared nor script in shape, slightly fanciful but purposeful at the same time, his design was easily legible without being overbearing. There are no wordy descriptions used in the modern watchmaking world for these numerals; today they are universally called “Breguet”.

Breguet windows and off-centred time display

To avoid cluttering the appearance of the watch face with too many hands, Abraham-Louis Breguet had the idea, both inspirational and novel, to use small windows (“guichets”) for some of the indications on a watch dial. Even though some large clocks had employed windows to show the phase of the moon and certain other astronomical indications, Abraham- Louis Breguet was a pioneer in bringing this style to the smaller dimensions of watches. Certainly, the moon phase was one indication implemented with a window in Breguet’s watches, but, as well, he used small windows for dates, months, days of the week, even the adjustment of the running rate of the watch.

Breguet No. 3833, sold on May 12th, 1823.

Breguet No. 3833, sold on May 12th, 1823. © Breguet

Abraham-Louis Breguet was partial to one other aesthetic dimension of dial design: off centered display of the time. The first timepiece with an off-center display debuted in 1812. It was followed by many of his most celebrated creations and, as well, those of his son. Breguet created several variations of the theme with the time display located above, below or to the side of the center of the dial. By moving the time display off center, Abraham-Louis’ innovation not only achieved an harmonious arrangement of indications and added visual interest, it opened the door to new arrangements of the watch’s functions. Inheriting this DNA are many models of the modern Breguet collections.

Classique Ref. 7337

Classique Ref. 7337 © Breguet

Proportion and fluting

Perhaps not properly called a design element as such, but certainly characteristic of his approach and sensibilities, Abraham-Louis Breguet departed from convention in the manner in which dial and case were proportioned. His watches maximized the diameter of the dial and minimized the thickness of the surrounding bezel. Not only did this enhance legibility in that greater room was created for the indications, but it lightened the overall appearance of the timepiece. Today’s Classique Collection adopts the same philosophy for the identical reasons, which remain as valid as they were two centuries ago.

Classique Ref. 5157

Classique Ref. 5157 © Breguet

The cases themselves, naturally, did not escape his studied eye. Both guilloché and fluting were commonly bestowed upon case sides and covers of his timepieces. Of course, these designs enhanced the visual appeal, but there were deeper reasons lying behind his thinking. These embellishments im- proved grip on the surface of the watch, making it less likely that the owner would drop his precious timepiece. At the same time, the guilloché motif was effective in hiding fingerprints, inevitably resulting from handling by the owner. Although few pieces in the modern Breguet collection are fitted with covers, guilloché patterns adorn them following the philosophy of the founder. Perhaps it would seem less important to reduce the likelihood of losing surface grip upon the case for a wristwatch, but the coin edge fluting of cases broadly used throughout the modern collections does serve to hide fingerprints while at the same time bringing an aesthetic appeal and subtle refinement.

Breguet No. 3537, sold on July 17th, 1821.

Breguet No. 3537, sold on July 17th, 1821. © Breguet

Could Abraham-Louis Breguet ever have imagined that his designs would endure as they have? The rationales behind them remain valid and what was delicate and refined two centuries ago carries those same virtues today. But there is more. The visual power of Breguet’s aesthetic codes is such that even the briefest of glances at a timepiece on the wrist forcefully communicates “Breguet”.

Breguet No. 4691, sold on October 13th, 1831.

Breguet No. 4691, sold on October 13th, 1831. © Breguet

The brand

Breguet’s archives, kept in Switzerland and in Paris, record the developments that have sustained Breguet watchmaking for more than two centuries. The firm is committed to remaining ahead of its time with a flow of inventions and improvements.

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