With Desoutter box numbered 217 containing a spare crystal, photocopy of Breguet Certificate No. 2385 dated 10 March 1896, photocopies of the 1965 catalogue entry and Daily Telegraph article.
According to the Archives of Montres Breguet, watch No. 217, a “montre perpétuelle à répétition à quantième de mois et dates et équation, échappement libre à ancre” was first sold during Germinal An 8 to Général Moreau for 3,600 Francs; taken back and refurbished with the latest style of case and dial; resold on 31st December 1817 to Mr. Havas for 4,800 Francs.
"This watch represents Breguet’s highest level of workmanship with considerable complications” – Cecil Clutton and George Daniels
Regarded as one of Breguet’s masterpieces and in superbly well preserved and original condition, the reappearance of this exceptional "perpétuelle" watch after decades in an important private European collection provides collectors and devotees of Breguet watches with the increasingly rare opportunity to obtain one of the most complicated and desirable watches ever made by the famed house, furthermore with impeccable provenance. In addition to being from the self-winding perpetuelle 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. Within Breguet’s total production between 1790 and 1830, only fifteen watches with equation of time were made. Of these fifteen, only two are known to have been from the perpetuélle series, the present watch No. 217 and the legendary ultra-complicated watch No. 160 known as the “Marie Antoinette”, now in the collection of the L. A. Mayer Museum in Jerusalem.
Since it was first sold in 1800 to the distinguished French Général Jean Victor Marie Moreau, watch No. 217 has, unsurprisingly, had some very illustrious owners, not least its second owner Charles-Louis Havas. Before the watch’s resale to Havas at the end of December 1817, Breguet, as was his recognized custom particularly with the perpetuélle watches, bought it back, presumably from the family of Général Moreau after his death in 1813. Breguet then made some aesthetic improvements to it in the form of a new case and stunning new guilloché silver dial by Tavernier in the very latest style. This replaced the original white enamel dial which by 1817 would have been regarded as very old-fashioned. Breguet’s repurchasing, updating and resale of his watches made great business sense as he could often resell the same watch again after updating for a much higher price. The perpetuélles in particular were very expensive, selling for upwards of 3,000 Francs, and Breguet was always keen to buy them back, bring them up to date and resell them.
When Breguet watch No. 217 was sold at Sotheby’s in London in July 1965 it was held in such high regard that it was described in the catalogue as “probably the finest Breguet watch to be offered for sale since well before the war”. It sold to the famous Portuguese collector and art connoisseur Antonio Medeiros e Almeida for the then enormous sum of £8500. This event was sensational enough for the Daily Telegraph in London to report the story the next day under the heading “£8500 PAID FOR BREGUET LEVER WATCH” – “A Breguet self-winding lever watch was sold yesterday at Sotheby’s for £8500. It went to Mr. A. M. Almeida, a private buyer from Lisbon.”
Breguet’s Perpetuelle Watches
In the words of the inimitable George Daniels “Breguet’s early work on the self-winding watch or “perpetuelle” as he called it, laid the foundations of his future success”.
It was a sure sign of great things to come and very typical of Breguet’s commercial instinct that at the very beginning of his career he seized upon the idea that a successfully working self-winding watch could bring him fame and fortune. In his treatise on horology he writes that he made in 1780 a ‘perpetuelle’ watch for the Duc d’Orléans. Indeed, he claims that by 1780 both the Duc d’Orleans and Marie Antoinette were already in possession of his perpetuelle watches. Breguet did not invent the self-winding watch himself but perfected it – something which no other watchmaker had achieved. He succeeded in this by paying particular attention to the action of the heavy platinum weight so that it responded to even the slightest movement of the watch. The platinum weight winds two mainspring barrels simultaneously, fully wound this provides about 60 hours of running time which is indicated on the left-hand sector of the present watch. The weight can be locked stationary if required so as to prevent any possible damage during vigorous activity for instance when riding a horse. Breguet brilliantly conceived the two barrel system with a ratio so that only four turns of the barrels gives sixty turns of the centre wheel - providing not only long duration but a more uniform performance. The two-barrel system also increased consistency of power and reduced friction.
Amongst Breguet’s other technical triumphs is one which played a vital role in the success of the perpetuelles - the use of the lever escapement. Even by 1786 the lever escapement was not widely known and then only in London where just a handful of examples had been made by John Leroux and Josiah Emery. This is particularly interesting because by 1787 Breguet had entered the first 31 watches in the registers and all but one had been fitted with a jeweled lever escapement. Therefore as with the self-winding “perpetuelle” mechanism, Breguet had not actually invented the lever escapement but, presumably on a visit to London, had immediately recognized its potential and produced his own version superior in every detail to the English escapements. The essential feature of the escapement is that, except during impulse, the balance oscillates quite freely. This made for vastly superior timekeeping particularly when used in combination with the compensation balance and helical steel spring with terminal curves. The movements of the perpetuelles were deliberately fixed into cases that could not be opened by the casual observer, this was to exclude dust and inquisitive fingers, Breguet declaring that cased in this way they would run for eight years without attention.
Equation of Time
With an equation mechanism an indication of the date is always required because the equation varies continuously throughout the year. In the present watch the months are shown on the subsidiary dial concentric to the seconds and the date in an aperture in the dial.
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 divided a day in 24 hours. The equation of time varies from one day to another, its value swings between around -16 to +16 seconds per day. By cumulating these differences, we obtain a variation between the real noon and the mean noon of more or less 15 minutes. The most important differences are, function of the years, toward February 12 (+14 minutes and 59 seconds) and November 3 (-16 minutes and 15 seconds). The difference is zero toward April 15, June 15, September 1 and December 24. It should be known that today, due to the summer time and the winter time, we live with a difference of two or three hours relative to the sun; our daily noon corresponding to the solar noon of Central Europe.
The equation of time also gives information about the equinoxes of spring (21 - 22 March) and autumn (22 - 23 September), as well as the solstices of summer (toward 21 June 21) and winter (toward 21 December). The equinox is the moment when the sun is on the plane of the equator, thus leading to days equal to nights. The solstice is the moment when the sun is in the farthest position from the equator, resulting in the longest day and the longest night. These dates determine the seasons of the year.
The equation indications used by Breguet are fully explained and illustrated by George Daniels in his The Art of Breguet (1975), pp. 347-350, ill. 422, 423a-c.
Xavier Baron, Le Monde en Direct – De Charles-Louis Havas à l’AFP, deux siècles d’histoire, Editions la Découverte, Paris, 2014
Pierre Frédérix, Un siècle de chasse aux nouvelles: de l'Agence d'information Havas à l'AFP (1835-1957), Flammarion,? 1954
Antoine Lefébure, Havas : les arcanes du pouvoir, Bernard Grasset,? 1992
Michael Palmer, Des petits journaux aux grandes agences. Naissance du journalisme moderne, Aubier Montaigne,? 1983
Armand Mattelart, L'invention de la communication, Editions la Découverte, Paris, 1997
Mark Tungate, Adland: A Global History of Advertising, Kogan Page, 2007 (Chapter “Havas: Child of the Information Age”)
K. M. Shrivastava, News Agencies from Pigeon to Internet, New Dawn Press, Inc., 2007