Thursday, December 1, 2011

My Tenuous Connection to Marie Antoinette

This lovely painting of a young Marie Antoinette comes from the blog of Catherine Delors, who writes extensively on the life and times of the tragic queen. For more information about the painting, and to explore Catherine's fine blog, click here.

We're still intrigued, sometimes morbidly so, by Marie Antoinette's spiraling life, by the tumultuous time in which she lived, and even by those who crossed her path in good times or bad.

One such person was an ancestor of mine, Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823), considered by many to be the greatest watchmaker of all time.

Abraham-Louis Breguet

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were enthusiasts of Breguet (pronounced Bray-gay) because in their time, he revolutionized everything that had to do with watches and timekeeping. Breguet's inventions made watches shock-proof, balanced and self-winding (perpétuelles). Breguet developed the tourbillon, which allowed watches to counter the effects of gravity. He invented gongs for repeating watches, the Breguet key (which could only be turned in one direction), and the very first wristwatch (designed for Queen Caroline Murat of Naples).

Other patrons included George Washington, Talleyrand, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Tsar Alexander I of Russia, King George III, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dumas, Queen Victoria and Sir Winston Churchill. At the Battle of Waterloo, both Napoleon and Wellington were wearing Breguet watches.

Sotheby Parke Bernet

Besides taking the mechanics of watchmaking to new heights, Abraham-Louis Breguet was responsible for a new aesthetics — the high-tech look of his time — and a look which is still very contemporary. Breguet's attention to detail included guilloche faces and his distinctive watch hand design, a trademark of the company to this day. The above image is a carriage clock sold in 1826. It's an eight-day clock and calendar that repeats on the quarter hour.

Breguet's most famous watch was one he created for Marie Antoinette, and today it's known simply as "The Marie Antoinette." This handsome piece was designed to include every conceivable watch function known at the time, and was not completed until years after the queen's death. Today it is valued at $30 million.

Breguet made numerous marine chronometers, and in 1815 was named official chronometer maker to the French navy. He was admitted to the Academy of Sciences in 1816, was awarded the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by Louis XVIII in 1819, and in 1888, 65 years after his death, Breguet's name was one of 72 inscribed on the Eiffel Tower.

I'll end this posting with a little family story. My grandfather Breguet was a psychiatrist, and when I was about five, he gave me a cheap alarm clock to play with. "Go ahead and do anything you want with it," he said. "You can even open it up and take it apart." Many years later I remembered getting the clock, and I realized that he was of course trying to determine whether an aptitude for horology could be genetic. I told the story to my mother, and she said, "Oh, yes, he gave me a clock when I was that age, too."

We must have disappointed him sorely because we both dutifully took apart our clocks, and then seeing piles of loose parts, moved on to more gratifying entertainment!



  1. This is where the blogosphere wins, because you have now recorded this lovely and interesting family story for posterity - thank you.
    I have seen Breguet's tomb in Pėre Lachaise cemetry, Paris - a favourite haunt of mine.

  2. And thank you, Rosemary — I did not know where Breguet was buried.

  3. Fascinating! So the question now is, was your grandfather able to put an alarm clock back together?

  4. Hi, Stefan!

    If there is indeed a watchmaking gene, my grandfather Breguet did not inherit it, though he was an extremely meticulous man.

    However, his father and brother (my great uncle) were both watchmakers in Switzerland.

  5. Quite an remarkable ancestor you have. Those complicated watches and clocks are all the more astonishing considering not only the metallurgy back then, but the fact that each tiny part was hand forged.

    (On another note, your forebear was perhaps also the spiritual antecedent of those craftspeople who seem to feel that the delivery date is sometime after the client's death.)

    Breguet was operating around the same time as the English James Cox, who produced inventive jeweled timepieces, and about whom I plan to write eventually. Although Cox was more of a jeweler than a watchmaker, some of the same motivations infuse their work and originality.
    --Road to Parnassus

  6. Dear Road to Parnassus -

    Not only was the "Marie Antoinette" finished after the queen's death, it was finished after Breguet's death, as well! I suppose the pressure of a deadline just fell away.

    I have read that Breguet was aware of changes in metallurgy, but chose to concentrate on design instead. It is indeed amazing that the pieces of all those miniature masterpieces were handmade. There is a watch within my family that was the apprentice piece of my great-grandfather, Jules-Henri Breguet. To pass his apprenticeship, he had to make an entire pocketwatch by hand. I believe the watch still works, though my grandfather was the last to wear it.

    Incidentally, the finest book on Abraham Louis Breguet is a large tome, "The Art of Breguet," by master watchmaker George Daniels. I will be the first in line to get a copy of your book on James Cox.


  7. What intriguing family history, Mark. Just last week we were talking about Marie Antoinette in relation to the paintings done of her by Elizabeth Louise Vigee leBrun (the Queen's court painter) and now her names turns up again connected with your family.

  8. Hi, Yvette - I notice M.A. pops up often in the blogosphere. I think it's the same impulse that keeps stories of the Titanic alive - we have a certain empathy that attracts us to disaster, particularly the type which in retrospect can be averted!

  9. Mark, what a fabulous story. I take it you do not own a Breguet? It is amazing how we do become morbidly fascinated with women/men who seem to have it all and then spiral out of control. Maybe if Marie was alive today she might have had her own reality show?

  10. Alas, David, I do not own a Breguet. C'est domage.

    As a side note, I've read of the death of Marie Antoinette, who faced the guillotine with dignity, and the death of Madame DuBarry, who faced the guillotine hysterically. The women in the crowd who witnessed Madame DuBarry's end showed empathy, and one witness suggested that if more aristocrats had acted naturally to such terror, the Reign of Terror might have ended much sooner.

    Incidentally, Breguet fled France during that time, and stayed in his native Switzerland until he was again welcome in France, during the reign of Napoleon.

  11. This is such a fascinating post Mark! I am now very intrigued with the Breguet watches. Thanks for giving me a new passion to follow.

  12. Hi, Theresa - And that's only part of the story. There's another branch of the family that made airplanes, most notably during WWI.

  13. Marvelous story---all my questions have been asked and answered by others in previous comments, so here I rest.

  14. Thank you, Dilettante and Gaye. Upon the 100th anniversary of Abraham-Louis' death, in 1923, family members received a commemorative medal and book to mark the occasion. One brother, who bears the name, still has these marvelous antiques.

  15. What a charming and interesting post. I'd call it a perfect post.

    I've often admired Breuget watches in magazine ads. With their milled edges, fine enamel work, and moon dials, they have an exquisite antique look so different from the digital and electronic devices one sees today.

    Cute story about determining inherited mechanical aptitude.

  16. Thank you, Terry. High praise, indeed. I've often thought about my grandfather's test and how much excitement it would have stirred if I'd only laid out those parts in neat rows!