The Breguet Museum in Paris has just reopened its doors after extensive remodelling. The company that bears the watchmaker’s name is also celebrating the 270th anniversary of its founder’s birth. And, in a few days, Emmanuel Breguet will publish a new, updated edition of his illustrious ancestor’s official biography. So, we have three good reasons to take another look at Abraham-Louis Breguet, as a man, not just as a watchmaker.
Do we have all of Abraham-Louis Breguet’s official documents?
Emmanuel Breguet: That’s impossible to know for sure, but yes, we do have most of them, including his birth certificate, death certificate and baptism certificate. These are all private documents, and they’ve been taken good care of within the family. But I’d love to find more evidence of some of his honorary distinctions, such as the letter announcing his appointment as watchmaker to the navy. I’m currently researching the official journal entries announcing the appointment, but I fear we may never find the letter he was sent personally.
What do we know about the kind of person Abraham-Louis Breguet was?
Very little, alas. He was an orchestral conductor and an entrepreneur, but not the kind of man of letters who would have left volumes of correspondence. We do however have some interesting exchanges covering the period from 1793 to 1795, when he took refuge in Switzerland to escape the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.
We have uncovered some correspondence with his workshop supervisor, who informs Abraham-Louis that the company continues to thrive, and tells him about the work currently in progress. It helps us to better understand my ancestor as a business owner. Unfortunately, correspondence is two-sided by definition, and all too often we only have one side of the conversation.
Did the political upheavals have an effect on his career?
Undoubtedly. We have some evidence that Abraham-Louis Breguet was a member of the Jacobins, who represented the left wing of the French political spectrum just before the revolution. He enjoyed debate and liked to air his views. Like many of his contemporaries, he was generally in favour of the revolution. But he obviously could not condone the Reign of Terror, and that was what led to his exile in 1793. He felt under threat.
It can’t have been easy for him to leave.
Yes and no. My ancestor had friends in high places, who no doubt smoothed the way. Nevertheless, being a good Swiss, he didn’t want to leave the country without putting his affairs in order. He campaigned to leave with a valid passport so as not to be considered an exile, which would have meant forfeiting his property. It’s likely that he obtained this precious document with the personal help of Marat.
How was he able to return?
In more or less the same way. Even when the political situation had calmed down, he only made up his mind to return to France after receiving a written request explicitly demanding his return! It was probably as much about boosting his ego as it was about getting back on good terms with the authorities, after spending two years abroad.
Did his exile prevent him from travelling on business?
Abraham-Louis Breguet was a shrewd businessman. From what we know, he travelled very little himself, although he did make four or five trips to London lasting several months, to make the most of the economic development that the British capital would later experience. He stayed there several months at a time. But where other promising markets were concerned, he had agents to represent him.
Was this the beginning of a network?
Absolutely, and for two reasons. First, it wasn’t necessarily easy to travel to Russia, for example. It was an extremely long voyage, and one from which you weren’t guaranteed to return. Also, Abraham-Louis Breguet wanted to personally check most of the pieces that left the workshop under his name. He had a direct input into every one of them. He had no desire to leave his workshop to travel the world for commercial reasons.
What was he like to work for?
We have very few direct testimonies, but he appears to have been an extremely rigorous man who refused to compromise on the perfection he aimed to achieve. So he probably wasn’t the easiest man to work with! But he seems to have been committed to promoting the young watchmakers he trained. Abraham-Louis Breguet also had a natural talent for finding the best suppliers, particularly for his cases. Some of them worked with him for decades.
Did Breguet have a social life?
Yes, a very full one! As was common at the time, he held a salon. In most of the correspondence we have with his friends, their conversation goes well beyond that of a businessman with his clients. People also said that he was quite naive, and was always surprised to receive compliments, whether about himself or his watches. While Breguet was no social butterfly, he did love Paris, and never wanted to leave. It was a time when Paris was the centre of the world, and Breguet knew everyone: ambassadors, diplomats, politicians, etc.
Did he ever feel a desire to venture into other arts or sciences?
Not really, no. There is some interesting work, particularly on the thermometer, but Abraham-Louis Breguet always stayed with his first love, which was horology. Nor did he show any interest in specialising, as some watch and clockmakers did, for example in marine clocks. For him, it was a point of honour to explore the entire watchmaking universe, without limitation. I think that is what has made his legacy so valuable today.