Watch No. 217: A Breguet masterpiece
Owned by one of Napoleon’s most brilliant generals and then the founder of the world’s first news agency, the story of Breguet No. 217 — one of only two watches of its kind from the very rare perpétuelle series — is extraordinary
Regarded as one of Abraham-Louis Breguet’s masterpieces, the reappearance of this exceptional perpétuelle watch after decades in an important private collection provides devotees with the opportunity to obtain one of the most complicated and desirable watches ever made. Its remarkable provenance includes one of Napoleon’s generals — later a rival — and Charles-Louis Havas, the founder of Agence France-Presse (AFP), the world’s first news agency.
In addition to being from the self-winding or perpétuelle series, a great rarity in itself, Breguet No. 217 has the extra complications of both day and month calendar, power reserve and, most unusually and importantly, an equation of time indication. The equation of time in astronomy is the quantity that needs to be added or subtracted to switch from real time given by the sun, to the mean time: our time, which arbitrarily divides a day into 24 hours.
Within Breguet’s total production between 1790 and 1830, only 15 watches with equation of time were made. Of these 15, only two are known to have been from the perpétuelle series — No. 217, and the legendary ultra-complicated watch No. 160, known as the ‘Marie Antoinette’ and now in the L. A. Mayer Museum in Jerusalem.
Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823) was born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, but it was in Paris that he spent most of his career. His early breakthroughs included the development of the successful self-winding perpétuelle watches, the introduction of the gongs for repeating watches and the first shock-protection for balance pivots. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were among the early enthusiasts for his watchmaking.
During the French Revolution, Breguet took refuge in Switzerland. When he returned to Paris, it was with the ideas that led to the Breguet balance-spring, his first carriage clock (sold to Bonaparte), the ‘sympathique’ clock and its dependent watch, the tact watch, and finally the tourbillon, patented in 1801.
He became the watchmaker to the scientific, military, financial and diplomatic elites of the age. For his most celebrated clients Breguet designed exceptional timepieces, including the world’s very first wristwatch, conceived in 1810 for Caroline Murat, queen of Naples.
No. 217 was first sold in 1800 to Jean Victor Marie Moreau, who paid 3,600 francs for the watch. Moreau was a French general who served under Napoleon Bonaparte before later becoming a rival, and ultimately being exiled to the United States of America.
Moreau arrived in the USA in 1805. Seven years later President Madison offered him command of the U.S. troops, but Moreau decided instead to return to Europe, where he became involved with republican intriguers supporting the Prussians and Austrians in leading an army against Napoleon.
Moreau was mortally wounded at the Battle of Dresden in 1813 and died six days later from his injuries. His wife received a pension from Tsar Alexander I of Russia, and Moreau was posthumously given the rank of Marshal of France by Louis XVIII.
Breguet, as was his custom, particularly with the perpétuelle watches, bought back watch No. 217, presumably from Moreau's family. He made some aesthetic improvements to it in the form of a new case and a stunning new guilloché silver dial by Tavernier in the latest style. This replaced the original white enamel dial, which by 1817 would have been regarded as old-fashioned.
Breguet’s repurchasing, updating and resale of his watches made excellent business sense because he could often update the watch and resell it for a much higher price. The perpétuelles, in particular, were very expensive, selling for upwards of 3,000 francs.
Charles-Louis Havas became the second owner of watch No. 217, purchasing it on 31 December 1817 for 4,800 francs. Born in 1783 in Rouen, France, into a wealthy Jewish family of Hungarian descent, Havas was a merchant, banker and publisher who had learned a number of languages — a very useful tool for his future business exploits.
In August 1832 he opened his own office in Paris, supplying news about France to foreign customers and translating articles from foreign papers and selling the translations to bankers, businessmen and politicians. Three years later, he restructured his operation and launched the world’s first news agency, calling it Agence Havas, which was described as ‘the first information bureau for the press’.
Havas employed every form of information technology available at the time, including hundreds of carrier pigeons delivering daily information on London stock exchange prices and news on various wars and conflicts. He was the first to use Samuel Morse’s invention, installing electromagnetic telegraph machines as of 1845, and thereby revolutionising the distribution of news.
In July 1965, when Breguet watch No. 217 was sold in London, it was described as ‘probably the finest Breguet watch to be offered for sale since well before the war’
The growth of the agency saw correspondents reporting from Crimea, Italy, Mexico and the United States. To cover his growing costs, the pioneering Havas created an advertising division in 1852.
His concept of an agency distributing news to the media was quickly adopted in other countries, notably by his most prominent employees, Paul Julius Reuter and Bernhard Wolff, who went on to establish Reuters in the United Kingdom and Wolff in Germany, the forerunner of Deutsche Presse Agentur. The 1859 agreement between the three major agencies — Reuter, based in London, Wolff in Berlin, and Havas — divided the world between them for the collection and dissemination of information.
Charles-Louis Havas passed away on 21 May 1858, and in 1879 Agence Havas became a publicly limited company.
On 25 November 1940 the News section of Havas was nationalised and became a government agency. The advertising branch, which retains the name Havas, and the news branch, which was renamed Office Français d’Information (OFI), were legally separated. Less than four years later, a group of journalists seized the offices of the OFI and issued the first news dispatch from the liberated city under the name Agence France-Presse.
Breguet watch No. 217 was sold at Sotheby’s in London in July 1965, and was described in the catalogue as ‘probably the finest Breguet watch to be offered for sale since well before the war’. It was bought by the famous Portuguese collector and art connoisseur Antonio Medeiros e Almeida for the then enormous sum of £8,500, an event deemed worthy of a story in The Daily Telegraph in London.
Today, Agence France-Presse (AFP), the company built by Charles-Louis Havas and headquartered in Paris, is the world’s third largest international news agency after Associated Press and Reuters.