Breguet Movement decoration
A detailed article on the numerous types of movement decoration that can be found in a Breguet watch.
Throughout his incomparable career, Abraham-Louis Breguet viewed the finishing of his movements through the lens of functionality. Yes, they are wondrous to behold, but the motifs he employed were chosen for purpose. For most of his finishes, the principal criterion was impeding oxidation and corrosion.
Thus, for his brass plates and bridges, his consistent style featured fine graining (“grenaillage”). Striking in its understatement and purity, the grenaillage finish served not only Breguet’s anti-oxidation goals, but fit his distaste for artificial decoration. For similar anti-oxidation reasons, he chose a highly polished mirror finish (“poli miroir”) for the steel hammers of his repeaters. The bluing of screws, at first blush seemingly mere decorative color design (which regrettably is the case with some present day manufacturers who blue screws with paint), actually was completely functional as the color was the result of heat treatment done to harden the steel. The aesthetic finishing flourishes that today are the mark of a timepiece of distinction were simply not within the umbrella of his philosophy.
There has been an evolution in the thinking of watchmakers in the nearly two hundred years that have followed Breguet’s lifetime. Strict adherence to an ethic of applying only finishes that have functional properties has been broadened by notions that the beauty of the movement represents a substantial part of the value of fine watch. In turn, the grenaillage finish employed by Breguet in his workshops two centuries ago has been largely displaced by a rich palate of aesthetic finishes that display the talent and craft of the watchmakers who create them. Both business and technical reasons underlie the change in philosophy that has transpired. During the 1800’s and well into the 1900’s there was a great divide in the way many watches were built. The Vallée de Joux, seen by most as cradle of Swiss watch making, was dominated by movement builders. The end product of their labors was most often largely undecorated movements containing all the principal plates, wheels and bridge, and, as well, the complications, but lacking the balance and escapement. These were then sold to watch companies in Geneva who added the escapement, and in order to distinguish their offerings, lavished newly created aesthetic forms of decoration on the components. At the same time, the genaillage finish favored by Breguet fell into disfavor because of its reliance on mercury. In order to produce the finish, Breguet brushed the surface with aluminum powder which reacted with the brass of the part transforming the previously smooth surface into one with a finely powdered mat appearance. Therefollowing, mercury was mixed with gold transforming the gold into a slurry that could be used for coating the component. Finally, the part would be heated to evaporate the mercury, leaving the gold coating on the surface. Although the results were unusually robust— watches able to resist corrosion for well over a hundred years—the reliance on mercury gave abundant incentive to migrate to other finishing approaches.
The transition to new finishes did not happen all at once. There was a period during which watch companies proposed different grades of finishes to their clients. A given timepiece was, thus, offered with “normal” finish, which addressed all of the functional needs or, at a higher price, you saw that coming, a fine finish (termed “soignée”) which added a full range of motifs to enhance the appearance of the movement. Indeed, in some cases, a third grade, extra soignée was offered. While this “would you like an economy ticket” or “would you like to fly first class” approach to marketing may have had a certain appeal during an era when watches were largely bespoke, today not only would it clash with the sensibilities of collectors, but it would corrode the standing of a grand marque. Who today would lust for an haute horlogerie timepiece lacking aesthetic finishes on the movement, done in the name of economy?
Today’s ethic of a full range of finishes bestowed upon the movement, some done for functional reasons, some purely for beauty, is not only thoroughly and inextricably interwoven with quality and value, but has become a celebrated part of watchmaking tradition. For each one of the finish motifs, historically well rooted rules now govern the particular components upon which it may be used, the techniques and tools for creation, and the notions of what is and is not an acceptable final appearance. Let us examine some of the many motifs now a part of Breguet’s finishing palate.
This is a motif that links modern Breguet with Abraham-Louis Breguet. The finely grained surface treatment of plates and bridges follows that used two hundred years ago and is reserved for Breguet’s La Tradition Collection. Of course, today modern Breguet has developed methods for producing grenaillage that do not rely upon mercury evaporation.
CÔTES DE GENÈVE
Côtes de Genève (Geneva ribs) is actually known by several additional names, including vagues de Genève (Geneva waves) and côtes droites (straight ribs). It consists of ribs or stripes placed upon a flat surface, separated by lightly brushed areas. Strikingly beautiful, côtes de Genève is a purely decorative finish which is suitable generally for bridges. It is seldom applied to components upon which other parts are mounted as the surface treatment can be slightly uneven, risking a reduction in the precision of the placement of any added components. On the other hand, as it is an embellishment meant to be seen, why should it be hidden under other components?
At Breguet, côtes de Genève are applied by pulling a wooden burnisher multiple times across the top surface of the bridge component. Each pass with the burnisher creates a stripe. The sharpness of the stripe and the width, angle, depth, and fineness of the brushed areas are all determined by the wood which is used, the abrasive material applied to the burnisher, and, of course, the skill of the watchmaker hand applying the finish.
Breguet is known for its hand guilloche dials. Indeed, it was Abraham-Louis Breguet who was the first to introduce guilloche decoration to watch dials. Today, Breguet produces its dials as they were done historically, hand turning the gold dials on rose engine. All of Breguet’s guilloche dials, without exception, are created in this fashion respecting the finest hand craft traditions. The identical hand technique is used to bring guilloche motifs to Breguet’s movements. The majority of the gold winding rotors on Breguet’s automatic calibers are hand guilloched following the same artisanal methods as the dials.
Perlage consists of the small swirls or circles seen on the flat surfaces of plates and bridges. Of course it is decorative as there is great artistry in the placing of swirls, but perlage is also functional as it does help to prevent any corrosion. Indeed, it is Breguet’s practice to apply perlage not only to areas which are open to view through a clear case back, but as well to surfaces that the owner will never see such as the dial side of the main plate or the recessed areas of the plate which are covered by other parts, such as the barrel.
Great fineness and artistic talent are required to pro duce a perlage finish. Each swirl must be precisely placed so that the pattern is harmonious with the surface. A small rotating stem treated with a fine abrasive is manually placed over each location for the swirl. Enormous skill and a practiced eye are required to get each placement just right for the pattern to fit the surface. Close examination of fine perlage decoration shows that not only is placement critical, so is the size of the swirl. Certain components or areas call for extremely fine swirls, others for larger diameters.
CISELAGE AND GRAVAGE
Ciselage and Gravage (“carving” and "engraving”) are both art forms unto themselves. They consist of hand carving designs or engraving script, in the micro dimensions of a watch. Using different forms of awls and viewing the component through a microscope, the carver’s or engraver’s work is painstaking and exacting. The carving of designs, of course, is limited only by the imagination of the engraver. But in both cases unlike, for example, a painter, there is no possibility of painting over an error or expressing a change of heart with pentimenti. Every gesture applied to the metal must be perfect the first time. If an error is made, the component is discarded. It is not an exaggeration to say that Breguet’s carvers and engravers are artists working on metallic canvas.
Ciselage carving is reserved for Breguet’s rarest timepieces. This decoration can be seen on the back of the main plate of many tourbillons, on the bridges and winding rotors of certain complicated watches such as the minute repeater and the perpetual calendar, and selected other watches. Gravage engraving is widely found on many movements with the name “Breguet” engraved, by hand, onto the plate of the movement.
This is a surface treatment of steel components, which according to watchmaking tradition, is reserved for the rarest and finest haut de gamme timepieces. There are actually several names in use to describe this surface treatment: poli miroir, poli noir, poli bloc. It is interesting that two of the names are descriptions of the appearance and the third of the method for achieving it. Poli miroir captures the look of the surface when light is reflected off it at an angle, for the component shines much like a mirror. Poli noir, or “black polish” accurately describes the appearance when the surface is viewed from a directly perpendicular position, as the absence of reflected light from that angle transforms the look to that of highly polished black onyx. The name poli bloc connects with the traditional method of achieving the finish, which is painstaking hand polishing upon a zinc surface, lightly coated with fine abrasive.
At Breguet, poli miroir is the finish treatment for the hammers of sonneries such as the minute repeaters, the Réveil du Tsar and the bridges of the tourbillons. In order to achieve the perfect optical effects, mirror shine or black onyx, depending on the angle of light, a poli miroir finish requires a radiantly smooth, completely flat surface, utterly free of the slightest trace of blemishes or scratches.
Brossage, or brushing, is a finish that Breguet applies to the flat surfaces of steel arms, levers and cams within the movement. Applied with a rotating wheel, an extremely fine and clean brushing is given to the surface. The direction of the lines depends upon the shape of component. Of course, the edges are given an anglage finish.
This is a brushed design which is commonly applied to the cover of the winding barrel. The pattern is that of a fine spiral, radiating out from the center of the cover. It is applied by means of rotating buffing wheel that gently grinds the curved spiral onto the surface.
Soleillage is somewhat similar to colimaçonnage in that it is buffed onto flat surface by means of a rotating wheel. However, instead of producing a fine spiral radiating outwards, the finisher alters technique to achieve straight radial lines originating at the center. The soleillage motif is used at Breguet for decoration of certain bridges and the plate of the equation of time movement.
This is one of the most exacting and demanding finishes to apply. The description sounds simple: anglage consists of a rounding and polishing of the edge of a movement bridge or other component. There are multiple purposes that underlie application of anglage. First and foremost is the elimination of smudges and burs remaining after a part has been machined. Not only are these “left overs” from the cutting of the component unappealing in appearance, they are prime sites for corrosion to begin.
The challenges in creating a perfect anglage finish are many, even with the simplest of forms, but increase geometrically as the shape of the component becomes more complex. Consider for a moment the panoply of shapes at the disposal of watchmakers as they craft the bridges, plates, cams and levers of different movements: straight edges, sharp exterior corners, rounded bombée edges, sharp interior corners. The palate is essentially endless, limited only by the imaginations of the movement designers. And it is this boundless variety that calls up a broad repertoire of skills and talents for the watchmakers who practice the craft of anglage. Take, for example, an interior angle (“angle rentrant”). This is an interior corner or intersection, a shape found on many bridges. It is essentially impossible to form an interior corner perfectly when a part is machined. Careful hand filing with a parade of different metallic files (some coarse, some fine, different widths, etc.), followed by even finer polishing with diamond paste impregnated peg wood, are required to achieve a perfect form with gleaming rounded angles coming together cleanly at the interior intersection.
The requirements for finely done anglage are strict. Notwithstanding the variance in possible outside edge shapes of the component, the rounding should be even throughout. Irregularities, flat spots, distortion of curves are all unacceptable. Most of all the edges should display a clean bright polish, done in a way to maximize brilliance.
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.Find out more
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