GENEVA - With timepieces worn by the likes of Sir Winston Churchill, Napoleon, George Washington and the crowned heads of Europe and Asia, the enduring attraction and on-going influence of Abraham Louis Breguet continues to inspire modern watchmakers. Watches by Breguet and others will be offered at the Important Watches sale at Sotheby’s Geneva on 12 November.

Abraham Louis Breguet was a genius. Had the concept of time not existed, he would have invented it. Even though he has long departed this earth, he lives on – and not just in the brand that bears his name.

Breguet is credited with such innovations as the self-winding watch, the shock absorption system, the gong within the minute repeater and, of course, the tourbillon. Numerous horological terms still in use are prefixed by his name: a particularly elegant set of numerals known as Breguet numerals and the Breguet overcoil, a way of bending the balance spring over itself that improves the regular concentric “breathing” of the spring

(left) Ultra Slim F.P. Journe Répétition Souveraine. (centre) Breguet N° 4691, circa 1831. (right) Breguet Classique Grande Complication. Photograph by Andreas Achmann

Moreover, Breguet continues to inspire those regarded as the master watchmakers of our own age, much in the way great artists use their knowledge of art history to re-imagine or re-invent the work of the great masters of the past. F.P. Journe, whose work is a continuing homage to the greats of the 18th and early 19th centuries, is unafraid to acknowledge the debt that he, and anyone who has made a tourbillon for that matter, owes Breguet. Journe’s mentor, another great horological polymath, the late George Daniels, was first renowned as a great Breguet scholar.

But Breguet was more than technically brilliant, he was also a marketing genius. He established an identifiable style, with what today would be known as “design cues” or “style signatures” that came together to create the Breguet look. In short, he built a brand that became a powerful status symbol – both Napoleon and Marie Antoinette, whose watch is one of the world’s most legendary supercomplications, were customers. Breguet even managed to bridge the traditional Franco-British antipathy, the Prince Regent, later King George IV, was a customer and indeed a Breguet was a rite of passage for any fashionable young blade from London who found himself in Paris, which appears to be the story of the pocket watch appearing for sale in Geneva this November. 

Described as the property of Lord Henry Seymour and appearing at auction via the descendants of Sir Richard Wallace of the eponymous gallery in London, the watch was worn by Henry, the younger brother of Richard Seymour Conway, the fourth Marquess of Hertford, whose illegitimate son was Sir Richard Wallace. Henry predeceased his brother and the watch went to the Marquess.

Hertford, whose father was the model for the Marquess of Steyne in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, may have been born English, but was by inclination French. He settled in Paris in 1829 and, in later life, hung out with Napoleon III and assembled one of the greatest collections of French art. As a Frenchman by adoption, he was, I imagine, happy to inherit his younger brother’s timepiece. However, I wonder if, as the greatest Francophile of his age, the Marquess of Hertford minded that, although he made his name in Paris and took French citizenship, Breguet was in fact born Swiss.

Nick Foulkes is a contributing editor of The Financial Times’ How to Spend It magazine and a regular contributor to GQ.