16 December 2021

How Daniel Roth Brought Breguet to the Wrist

An introduction to early Breguet wristwatches and the chronograph that started it all. 

by Tony Traina

Breguet. The name is synonymous with watches. It describes a style of hand, of numerals, a balance spring. He patented the natural escapement in 1789; the tourbillon in 1801. The list of bonafides goes on. But Abraham-Louis Breguet was from an era in which the wristwatch was not even a seed of an idea. He built standing clocks or ornate pocket watches, but he never had the opportunity to adapt his techniques, style, or watchmaking to the wristwatch form. Breguet was born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, in 1747, but spent much of his life in Paris, forming his business there in 1775. Breguet’s history is intertwined with that of France, the horologist counting some of the country’s most important figures — Marie Antoinette, King Louis XVI, and Napoleon Bonaparte — as his clients.

The famous Breguet no. 5 pocket watch | Breguet

Breguet wasn’t the only artisan making a name for himself during this time. Just five years after Breguet formed his company at the age of 28, the House of Chaumet, the famed jeweler, was founded across Paris, on historic Place Vendôme. Like Breguet, Chaumet’s history is linked to that of its home country, it serving as the official jeweler to the likes of Marie Antoinette and Napoleon. Is it coincidence that two of France’s most famous (and enduring) purveyors of luxury were founded in the decade leading up to the French Revolution? Perhaps not, but an analysis of the socio-political milieu in which Breguet and Chaumet were founded is a topic for another day. 

The House of Chaumet’s historic home on Place Vendôme | Chaumet/LVMH

Regardless, it seems only fitting that the histories of Breguet and Chaumet, those esteemed purveyors of luxury, might also eventually be intertwined. 

And so it finally was in 1970. After a century owned by the Breguet family, and then another century owned by Edward Brown, the trusted head of the Breguet workshop, and his family, Chaumet acquired Breguet. In the midst of the quartz crisis, Chaumet brothers Jacques and Pierre had a vision for restoring Breguet (and traditional watchmaking at large, for that matter).

Soon after, Chaumet enlisted master watchmaker Daniel Roth to lead the direction of the newly revived Breguet brand. To Roth fell the enviable, if immense, task of adapting the legacy of Breguet into a wristwatch form that made sense given the weight of history. 

Roth even went back to school — voluntarily — to further study the watchmaking techniques of Breguet. After his year of study, he produced a perpetual calendar pocket watch using what he’d learned.

But Roth and Chaumet realized if they were to bring Breguet back to its former glory, they’d need to move out of Paris and into Switzerland’s Valle de Joux, the beating heart of historic Swiss watchmaking. So in 1976, they established a workshop in Le Brassus.

There, Roth worked for the next decade-plus to establish Breguet as a maker of high-end wristwatches. Unfortunately, the Chaumet brothers made some poor (i.e., fraudulent) business decisions and were forced to exit the business in 1987, selling to a group of private equity investors. A year later, Roth left the company to establish his own eponymous brand.

A Daniel Roth chronograph from Roth’s later years as an independent watchmaker

Still, the Breguet experiment was largely successful, establishing the brand as a maker of high-end, complicated wristwatches employing traditional watchmaking techniques pioneered by the company’s namesake. 

Classical watchmaking and the chronograph

During the fourteen years Roth was at Breguet, he helped define a new aesthetic for the brand’s wristwatches, while also introducing a variety of complications that Abraham-Louis himself would have recognized. There were perpetual calendars and tourbillons, sure. But in an effort to meet modern customers where they were, there was also the market’s most popular complication, the chronograph.

Aesthetically, these wristwatches were defined by their engine-turned (guilloche) dials, frequently employing Breguet’s signature Clous de Paris pattern. The revived Breguet also used classical stylings like heat-treated blue steel Breguet hands and Roman numerals to emphasize the traditional inspiration for its timepieces. The newly re-launched Breguet’s first chronograph is perhaps most emblematic of the brand’s ability to mix old and new, something collectors might now refer to as “neo-vintage.” Take a simple, contemporary idea — a chronograph powered by an ebauche caliber, for example — but make it luxurious using traditional techniques.

Two wristwatches from the Daniel Roth era of Breguet | Baruch Coutts on WatchProSite

To build their chronograph, Breguet and Roth, like Omega, Patek, and others before them, turned to Lemania for an ebauche engine (ironically, Breguet’s new workshop in Le Brassus was housed in a former Lemania building).

The Breguet reference 3237 chronograph was the result, powered by Lemania’s caliber 2310. The movement was finely finished, befitting of its positioning as a new kind of luxury watch, also giving Roth an opportunity to show off his extensive skill. The reference 3237 was one of the first models released by Roth and Chaumet’s revived Breguet, a testament to their vision for the future of Breguet as a maker of wristwatches. That is: a modern manufacturer making fine wristwatches inspired by the traditional watchmaking of the company’s original founder.

The Lemania cal. 2310 in the ref. 3237

The reference 3237 became a popular model, but by no means was it “mass-produced.” This fact lends to the modern collectability of these watches: rare, but not unbearably so. Yellow gold examples seem to be the most common, a traditional execution for a traditional wristwatch. Still, known examples of certain case metal and dial combinations can be counted on one hand. As with all things watches, one can always go a level deeper.

While the Lemania-based movement was born out of necessity, the finishing and aesthetics of the watch were born from tradition. The dial features fine, hand-finished guilloche, heavily using the Clous de Paris pattern that Breguet used on his watches destined for the pockets of royalty. True guilloche is a time-intensive and hands-on process, just the type of technique that was at risk of extinction in the wake of the quartz crisis. The process involves using a hand-operated rose engine machine, which slowly rotates to engrave the dial in the pattern chosen by its operator. Apply too much or too little pressure — all gauged by the touch and feel of the watchmaker’s hands, of course — and the pattern is ruined, the dial blank scrapped, and the watchmaker back at square one.

A rose engine machine used for guilloche work | Horological Society of New York

Roth became a proud steward for these techniques too, notably at a time when another master watchmaker, George Daniels, had published a tome about Abraham-Louis Breguet, which served as an impetus for a renewed appreciation for Breguet and his many watchmaking techniques (a book that was thankfully re-published in 2021).

Abraham-Louis himself might also recognize other aesthetic flourishes on the new Breguet’s dial (and feel flattered that some now bear his name): those blue steel Breguet hands, beautifully structured precious metal cases, even the watch’s unique number proudly printed on the front of the dial (and not hidden away, engraved on a case back or between the lugs).

A closer look at the guilloche dial on the ref. 3237 showing different types of engine-turning on the main portion of the dial as well as the subdials.

The reference 3237 became emblematic of Breguet’s approach to producing new models and bringing complications to its lineup. Start with the chronograph, then introduce an automatic perpetual calendar (a decade before Patek Philippe would introduce one in series, for good measure), then a tourbillon. The brand relied on ebauche movements from proud manufacturers like Lemania and Frederic Piguet, focusing its efforts on finishing these movements within an inch of perfection with traditional techniques pioneered by Breguet and learned by Roth in his years studying the watchmaker.

Neo-vintage, tradition, and Breguet

Nowadays, this era of Breguet comfortably fits into the category of wristwatches we call “neo-vintage.” Roughly defined, this era of watches, produced in the wake of the quartz crisis through the turn of the century, is a transitional period of watchmaking, drawing elements from both vintage and modern watchmaking. In aesthetic, in technique, in materials, these neo-vintage timepieces draw from the worlds of both modern and vintage.

As the quartz crisis threatened to make obsolete the entirety of mechanical watchmaking, manufacturers new and old looked towards old-school techniques for inspiration. Neo-vintage is also exciting because it encompasses the work of both established manufacturers (like Breguet) and of independent upstarts (like Roth). 

This era of Breguet is interesting because it sits at the intersection of both of these: a young Daniel Roth (lured away from Audemars Piguet, no less) realizing his vision for a revived Breguet, a name practically synonymous with watchmaking. Roth would go on to make his name as an independent watchmaker, but it was at Breguet that he honed his skill in traditional techniques.

Unlike other manufacturers of the era though, Breguet and Roth weren’t drawing from the era of wristwatches we now call “vintage” (that is, watches made from World War II through the 1970s or so). No, they drew inspiration from a few centuries prior, from Breguet’s traditional, classical watchmaking of the late 18th century. Perhaps this era of Roth’s Breguet is more accurately described as “neo-traditional” for its emphasis on truly traditional watchmaking techniques.

Either way, it’s in Roth’s spirit at Breguet that we can also understand the attraction of these neo-vintage watches. Roth and Breguet were experimenting, not for fun, but out of necessity. When a crisis — in this case, the quartz crisis — threatens your very livelihood, it surely stokes a little fight in you. In Roth’s case, he came from a family of watchmakers. He wasn’t fighting just for an industry, or for his livelihood, but for his family’s legacy.

It’s this romantic, slightly Darwinian notion — out of crisis comes opportunity, and all that — that draws us to neo-vintage. Quite literally, the mechanical watch industry could have died. But, like those automatic perpetual calendars, it keeps ticking.

Tony is the editor of Rescapement. Sign up to his newsletter about important watches.