Made for Empress Josephine Bonaparte and sold in 1800, a Breguet watch with a blue-enameled gold case and a diamond-set pointer

Made for Empress Josephine Bonaparte and sold in 1800, a Breguet watch with a blue-enameled gold case and a diamond-set pointer

80 Timepieces Gathered for Breguet Exhibit

New York Times, Sept. 7, 2015

SAN FRANCISCO — “Breguet: Art and Innovation in Watchmaking,” the largest collection of antique Breguet timepieces ever shown in the Americas, is scheduled to open Sept. 19.

The exhibition, at the Legion of Honor, part of San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums, will display 80 watches and acknowledge the life and work of Abraham-Louis Breguet, the 18th- century Paris-based watchmaker who has been called the greatest horologist of all time.

Breguet — whose clients included Napoleon Bonaparte and Czar Alexander I of Russia — was responsible for many innovations, including the winding crown; a number of striking mechanisms; and the tourbillon, the rotating device designed to counteract the effects of gravity on a pocket watch.

“We assume that’s what watches have always been,” said Martin Chapman, the museums’ curator in charge of decorative arts. “But it starts with Breguet.”

The exhibition, which will run through Jan. 10, will reflect all the major categories that the brand specialized in from the 1790s to the 1940s: repeating watches that chimed the hours and minutes, self-winding watches, travel clocks, marine chronometers, chronographs and touch watches equipped with tactile elements enabling wearers to feel the time.

The oldest item will be a 1798 subscription watch — so-called because Breguet sold the simple, single-hand timepieces on a subscription basis, requiring his customers to make down payments.

The only contemporary piece will be a 2008 reproduction of the famous Marie Antoinette watch. Brimming with 23 complications, including a perpetual calendar, moon phase display and thermometer, the original 18-karat gold pocket watch was completed in 1827, four years after Breguet’s death and 34 years after the queen’s beheading.

In 1983, the original was stolen from the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem; it was returned, anonymously, in 2007. According to the exhibition catalog, Naaman Diller, one of Israel’s best-known criminals, confessed to the theft on his deathbed.

Despite the great variety of Breguet’s work, all his timepieces share a respect for the austere lines of Neoclassicism.

“One of the interesting things about a Breguet watch: It isn’t a highly decorated object,” Mr. Chapman said. “Unlike the English watches, which depended on ornamentation for their prestige, the Breguet watch relied on its precision and accuracy.”