Breguet L'Héritage collection
An in-depth look at Breguet's L'Héritage collection, reproduced from the magazine Le Quai de l'Horloge with the kind permission of Breguet.
There is a temptation because of the overwhelming predominance of round cases to assume that wristwatches began that way and only later did variations in shape, often termed “form cases”, appear. Easy to glide to that belief, but wrong. In fact the very first wristwatch created was housed in a form case. That was Breguet No. 2639 ordered on June 8, 1810 by Caroline Murat, the Queen of Naples and completed on December 21, 1812 and priced at 5000 francs. According to the Breguet archives, this first wristwatch in the world was an “oblong repeater for bracelet”.
To be true, the Queen of Naples’ wristwatch was fully a century ahead of its time as wristwatches did not really become popular until after World War I. Almost immediately surpassing pocket watches in popularity, the dominant shape was round. Nonetheless, form cases made an almost immediate appearance, albeit in far smaller numbers, setting a pattern that persists today.
What is overlooked, even by connoisseurs, is that producing a form case wristwatch presents a unique set of challenges over the more common round form. This is Particularly true if the watches are to feature handmade guilloche dials in the Breguet style. The particular demands of crafting form guilloché dials are best understood by recognizing that there are, in fact, three distinct categories of shape: dials that may have a form other than round but are, nonetheless, flat; those that are curved in one direction only (normally from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock) and those curved in two directions (from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock and from 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock). The watches with dials curved in two directions are often described as having “spherical” or “bombé” forms. Of course, the latter two categories are the most complex and, as stands to reason, the most difficult to produce. It is there that Breguet’s Héritage Collection is found; fitted into tonneau shaped cases, all the models of the Héritage Collection feature bombé dials except for one model which is curved in a single direction.
Hand guilloché work as it is practiced at Breguet is one of watchmaking’s grand crafts. Fully respecting a tradition which dates back two centuries to the workshops of Breguet’s founder, Abraham-Louis Breguet, the artisan’s working in Breguet’s Vallée de Joux atelier, practice the métier as it was done historically, that is to say completely by hand. The cutting tool mounted on a classical rose engine machine is controlled by both hands of the guillocheur; one hand rotates the gold disk of the dial, the other hand applies the pressure so that the cutting tip, called a buren, will delicately carve the surface with the desired guilloche pattern. The pattern motif itself is created as rotating cams move the tip of the buren in different directions as the dial disk turns in front of it. There is no room for the slightest error. If the pressure applied to the cutting tip of the buren by one hand is not perfectly constant the pattern will be uneven and must be rejected as flawed. Similarly, if the rate of turn, controlled by the other hand, varies or worse still the rotation is stopped mid-pattern there is again a risk of uneven carving which likewise is a flaw. It should also be remembered that enormous precision is called for in the making of a dial. The placement of each and every pattern and its dimensions must conform to an exacting plan for the dial to fit the movement and its hands. Imagine, for example, if the pattern for a subdial, such as a date indication or power reserve, were not exactly where the movement design called for it to be. These demands are extreme and only the most talented and experienced guillocheurs are qualified to make a Breguet dial.
This description of the guilloché craft applies to all dial forms, flat and curved and the earliest efforts to craft a curved guilloché dial did not depart greatly from those used to carve flat dials. Indeed for the earliest single dimension curved models, the dial when placed on the guilloché machine was flat and the guillocheurs worked upon it as they would a traditional flat dial. To achieve the desired curved shape, the dial would be bent—one direction only—after it had been decorated. What followed was a delicate process to adjust the fit of the bent dial onto the movement and into the case.
Things become dramatically more complex with a spherical or bombé dial. Working on a flat dial and later bending it into a spherical shaped after decoration becomes out of the question. The required precision in the shape and its fi t into the case simply cannot be assured. So it falls upon the shoulders of the guillocheur to create by hand the guilloché pattern upon a spherical surface. To understand the enormously elevated level of craft required to decorate a bombé surface, put yourself in the shoes, so to speak, of a master guillocheur. As with a flat dial, one of your hands will be completely occupied turning the dial on the machine. Remember, as with a flat dial, that rate of turn must be perfectly steady. No room for hesitation or jiggles. Your other hand, the one that presses the tip of the buren onto the rotating surface, now has a far more difficult job to do than if the dial were flat. For as the surface turns, if you are holding your buren in one spot, the dial surface will be alternately approaching and receding from the tip (unless of course you are cutting a perfect radial circle on the dial). Worse still, since the tip is also being moved back and forth by the cams of the machine to produce a decorative pattern, there will be even more changes to the positions on the surface of the sphere, some closer others further away, presenting themselves to the contact point of the buren tip.
So how does the guillocheur delicately carve the pattern, always with a constant depth of the cuts, if the surface upon which he is working is constantly changing its distance from the tip of the cutting tool? The answer is two fold: sight and feel. Always watching the cutting through a microscope the guillocheur examines the fine filigrees of gold that are being cut away from the surface of the dial.
His trained eye can adjust the pressure on the buren tip to produce absolutely constant-neither bigger nor smaller threads of gold being cut from the surface. His second sense, feel, plays a large role as well. By touch he can sense the depth that the cutting tip is carving into the surface and adjust the pressure being applied by his hand to compensate as the spherical surface changes its position. Only a handful of craftsman in the entire world are capable of meeting this challenge. So few in fact that currently Breguet was the first and remains the only watch house that has ever offered watch collections with spherically shaped guilloché dials.
If you are a student of watchmaking art, you have no doubt called to mind curved, indeed slightly spherical in shape, pocket watch cases from the past that have featured guilloché decoration. As an aside, guilloché decoration upon a pocket watch case serves a useful purpose, as the design hides finger prints! However, there is an order of magnitude difference in the difficulty of placing a guilloche motif upon a watch case than upon a watch dial. Far higher precision is required for the realization of a dial than for a pocket watch case. Thus, it has taken nearly two hundred years since there were guilloché decorated cases being offered for there to be guilloché bombé dials.
The Héritage Collection is rich in its assortment of models. The single axis model is the reference 5480 which offers a clous de Paris motif on the main surface of its dial, which is curved from 12 to 6. Two models of the Héritage Collection feature not only spherical dials, but ones decorated with entirely original patterns created by Breguet’s guillocheurs. The reference 5497 tourbillon has an exclusive to Breguet drapé moiré pattern on the main surface and flinqué alterné pattern on the subdial. Drapé moiré, as well graces the outer portion of the dial of the reference 5400 chronograph. Rounding out the men’s collection is the reference 3660 which has a bombé guilloché dial decorated with the drape moiré pattern and a recessed small seconds subdial.
Women have not been forgotten in the collection. The reference 8661 offers a moon phase display and a central guilloché subdial. The pattern is the elaborate flinqué alterné with an additional twist as it is hand guilloched upon mother of pearl.
The physical and emotional sensations when trying on a piece from the Héritage collection are that of flow and fit as the curvature of the watch forms to the wrist. Intellectually, though, go a step further, to appreciate the unique talents of Breguet’s guillocheurs who made this shape possible.