Breguet Is Having A Moment
With a dynamic CEO driving it forward, collaborations within the contemporary art world, and exciting new pieces in the pipeline, Breguet has never felt fresher.
Had you found yourself on the 4th floor of The Shed – the new, hypermodern, Rockwell-designed arts centre at the eastern edge of Manhattan’s Hudson Yards – between 18 and 22 May last year, you can’t have failed to notice a mural by the UK-based Argentinian artist, Pablo Bronstein.
The graphic, better described as a giant digital panoramic, stretched for 15 metres. Titled ‘Scenic Wallpaper with Important Machinery of the 18th Century’, the work featured elaborately-decorated antique instruments, a golden guillotine, and a blown-up depiction of a pocket watch presented to Britain’s King George IV by the then Paris-based watchmaker Breguet and Sons (only in 1976 did the company relocate to Switzerland).
In front of Bronstein’s mural, huddled over a workbench and peering through a magnifying glass, was Guillaume Braud. One of Breguet’s latter-day artisans, Braud was demonstrating the art of guilloché, a laborious technique of engraving ornate patterns into dials by hand.
The finishing touch was introduced to the brand in 1786 by company founder Abraham-Louis Breguet. As inventor of the self-winding pocket watch (1780), the curved hairspring (1795), the tourbillon (1801) and the first watch made for a wrist (1810), rather than a pocket, Breguet was to portable horology what Galileo was to observational astronomy. The brand has been decorating its dials by hand ever since.
The scene, it’s fair to say, was not the sort of thing you expect to stumble across at Frieze New York, the avant-garde art fair established to showcase the leading voices in modern art. The majority of works within The Shed last May were produced post 2000. Breguet – whose better-known clients have included Marie Antoinette, Napoléon Bonaparte, Sir Winston Churchill and a smorgasbord of emperors, tsars and sultans – was exhibiting pocket watches from the 18th and early 19th century.
And yet. If you’ve been keeping tabs on the mechanical watch industry, you could argue that Breguet’s partnership with Frieze – the watchmaker has signed up to sponsor the art fair’s four international editions until 2024 – is more symbiotic than it might first seem. The whole purpose of Frieze, according to its founders, Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover, is to platform the protagonists of contemporary culture, after all. And, while Breguet might be on the cusp of celebrating its 250th anniversary, the brand is enjoying something of a moment.
That momentum began shortly after Lionel a Marca was appointed CEO back in August 2021. Originally from the opposite side of Switzerland’s Jura Mountains, a Marca had already spent 30 years in the Vallée de Joux, the nucleus of the country’s watchmaking heartland. After cutting his teeth at movement maker ETA, a two-decade stint at Blancpain was followed by a shorter spell at Harry Winston.
A Marca joined the Breguet board in 2019 before nominating himself for the top job two years later. Marc A. Hayek, President of Breguet and Swatch Group sister brand Blancpain, and a vocal proponent of a Marca in previous years, was happy to oblige. Since then, the trained watchmaker has refocused Breguet’s crosshairs, locking on to a younger, more sports-orientated customer. It seems to be working.
In November 2021, after a Marca greenlit Breguet’s involvement in the bi-annual charity auction Only Watch, the gavel fell on Lot 12: a one-off Type XX pilot’s watch that Breguet had produced in support of the muscular dystrophy initiative. Estimated to achieve somewhere between $50,000 and $77,000, the piece sold for approx. $385,000 – a record for a Type XX chronograph and a sign, perhaps, of a bourgeoning appetite among collectors for Breguet’s brawnier, sportier models.
In the same year, Breguet bolstered its recently-rebooted, adventure-inspired Marine collection with three new watches, now available in material-of-the-moment – titanium. It also launched the thoroughly-athletic Type XXI 3815 – a vintage-inspired chronograph accented by hands, numerals and hour markers in very-now vivid orange.
A Marca has said that Breguet will not be launching any new product lines. Instead, the brand will modernise its six existing watch pillars in line with the younger, more contemporary-minded customer it intends to attract.
Last year, that shift in strategy gave us an updated Tradition Tourbillon, which, with an open-worked dial and electric-blue tourbillon cage, was ‘traditional’ only in name. There was also a new interpretation of the Marine Hora Mundi, a super-smart, snappily-styled second time zone watch that went o to claim various horological awards.
Breguet’s next big launch is slated for April. Despite some robust attempts at digging from Robb Report, embargo dates meant that a Marca remained tight-lipped as to what that launch might involve.
“Well, I can’t get into specifics, but I can tell you that we’ll continue to be guided by the fundamentals of the brand. That is to say, to pay the greatest attention to creating clean designs, legible dials and easy-to-use complications.” Which is a very Swiss fob off indeed.
Frieze will rolled into Los Angeles’ Santa Monica Airport the past month, before continuing its tour to New York, Seoul and London. At each fair, Breguet will be paired with a new artist, the watchmaker working with the illustrator to demonstrate how the brand, and mechanical watchmaking in general, remains as relevant to contemporary culture today, as it did two centuries ago.
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