Left brain. Right brain. Sensible and functional or artistic and emotional? How often do objects or designs fall into one box or the other? Almost always. This is why absolutely nobody waxes poetic on the subject of minivans or plans flower arrangements for a Navy Seals training exercise.
Patterns shown above: Grain d'orge ("barleycorn") on main dial; panier alterné (inner chapter ring); soleil radiant (small seconds); liséré (outer chapter ring); panier (moon phase); filet (border number).
But if there is to be an exception that proves the rule, guilloche decoration is the perfect example. If a watch dial is a tableau upon which the watchmaker paints, is there a more radiant, refined, elegant expression of watchmaking art than a guilloche design? Scant historical probing is required to arrive at the firm conclusion that when Abraham-Louis Breguet introduced guilloche design to the dials of his watches more than two centuries ago, the first watchmaker to bring this art form to timepieces, aesthetics were certainly in the forefront of his thinking.
However, terminating the inquiry at this point is to perceive only a fraction of Breguet’s motivations in his adoption of the motif. Scholarly examination of his career plainly shows that Breguet never departed from his convictions of function in every element of watch design. Left brain. Right brain. For Breguet guilloche decoration was both beautiful and functional.
Pattern shown above: vagues ("waves") on main dial.
Decorative engraving as an art form dates back centuries before Breguet’s lifetime to ancient Greece. There is some uncertainty as to precisely when mechanical tech- niques to produce it were introduced. According to one school of thought it was a French engineer, Guillot, who invented the engine turning machine to engrave patterns on metal. An alternate account gives credit to a German, Hans Schwanhardt. Regardless of the origin of the machines to produce the designs, it seems that Breguet encountered guilloche engraving on a trip to London where this form of decoration was widely adopted to adorn wooden furniture.
Pattern shown above: flinqué alterné on main dial.
Inspired by what he observed in London, Breguet returned to Paris and began experimenting with the technique for watch dials. What is clear, however, is that he perceived important functional benefits that could be achieved with this fine form of engraving. First, placing the fine guilloche pattern behind the hands greatly improved visibility of the hands and, thus, the readability of the watch. At the time, baroque was the prevalent aesthetic for hand design. Large and ornate, baroque hands, of course, would stand out against any background. Guilloche opened up the way for a far more refined hand aesthetic. With a fine contrasting texture beneath them, the now classic blued steel “pomme” hands—or in what is now universally accepted watch parlance, “Breguet hands”—became a possibility.
Patterns shown above: clou de Paris (main dial), liseré (border chapter ring), filet (border number)
A second functional purpose emerged from Breguet’s early experiments. By varying the pattern of the fine engraving on the surface of the dial, Breguet found that he could delineate, highlight and define different zones on the dial within which to locate individual complications and indications. Thus, almost from the outset, pattern variety was a fixture in Breguet’s implementation of guilloche decoration as his a single dial could incorporate multiple pat- terns for each of its different zones.
Pattern shown above: panier circulaire (cadran principal), liseré (bordure du tour d'heures)
The same artistic and functional purposes which led Breguet to adopt guilloche decoration for his watches leaving the workshops at 39 Quai de l’Horloge are respected today, 200 years later. There have been, however, two respects in which the designs have evolved in the intervening two centuries. First, Breguet himself did not plate his guilloche dials. Fashioned out of either gold or silver— Breguet used both—the dials would bear the color of the material unaltered. Today, modern Breguet metal dials are either fashioned out of solid gold or, for some of the women’s collection, out of mother of pearl. The gold dials are now given a subtle plating of silver, not done in Breguet’s time, to confer an even greater visual depth. Second, still engraved using the same general type of rose engine tool— completely hand powered and controlled as it was in the past—new patterns have been added to the repertoire offer- ing an ever richer visual diversity than ever before.
Patterns shown above: flinqué alterné (inner chapter ring), drapé moiré (main dial), filet (border number)
Think of the photos in this story as paintings in an art exhibition. Each turn of the page will take you into a new display room in the Breguet guilloche gallery.
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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