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Time Traveling

Breguet mines its history—including a watch made for Marie Antoinette—to connect with a new generation

Images courtesy of Breguet

The Breguet boutique in Tokyo’s futuristic Ginza district, the famed shopping destination featuring buildings with jagged asymmetrical windows and 10-story LED video displays, seems to straddle two worlds. Accessible only via two glass-walled hydraulic elevators—one of which prominently features a portrait of Marie Antoinette, a patron of founder Abraham-Louis Breguet—the space contrasts the history of the Swiss watch brand with Japanese modernism. It naturally followed, then, that the company would sign on as a cosponsor of “Marie Antoinette: A Queen in Versailles,” an exhibit at Tokyo’s Mori Arts Center Gallery that ran from November 2016 until February 2017.

The show was Japan’s first retrospective devoted to the French queen—notable when you consider that the country, despite its tendency to embrace the new, has long been fascinated with the woman and her era. She’s been immortalized in a popular animé series, The Rose of Versailles, while Japanese hime gyaru, or princess girls, are fond of dressing in opulent pink, floral-laden fashions evocative of 18th-century France.

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“By supporting the exhibition, we pay tribute to a legendary personality whose artistic and aesthetic influence goes beyond generations and cultures,” said Breguet vice president Jean-Charles Zufferey at a reception for the exhibition in November.

Breguet’s Tokyo boutique

Breguet’s support for the show was part of a broader effort to keep the brand relevant that began in 2000 with the opening of the Breguet Museum next to Breguet’s Place Vendôme boutique in Paris, an establishment dedicated to the history of haute horology. The following year, Breguet threw a 200th-anniversary bash at the Versailles palace to highlight the company’s signature invention, the tourbillon, which resulted in a dramatic spike in sales of the movement. And in addition to the Marie Antoinette show, Breguet recently sponsored an exhibit in San Francisco’s Legion of Honor that showcased the company’s advances. The result has been heightened brand awareness and soaring auction prices for its historic pieces: an 1817 No. 217 pocket watch sold at Christie’s Geneva in May 2016 for more than $3.3 million—the second most expensive Breguet sold at auction.

The Breguet No. 1160

For the Tokyo show on Marie Antoinette, composed of roughly 200 works of art and antiquities that trace her life from Versailles, various museums and private collectors, Breguet lent perhaps the most iconic piece from its archives for just two days: the 1160 pocket watch, a faithful reproduction of the No. 160 grand complication created by Abraham-Louis for her. Rechristened the “Marie Antoinette,” the 160 boasts a history almost as storied as the woman for which it was intended. Completed 34 years after Marie Antoinette’s execution and four years after Abraham-Louis Breguet’s own death, the watch found its way into the hands of various collectors until it was bequeathed to a Jerusalem museum, where it was stolen in 1983. The piece was recovered in 2007.

By then, Nicolas Hayek, former head of the Swatch Group, which owns Breguet, had asked watchmakers to craft an exact reproduction of the 160 based on the original technical drawings housed in the Breguet Museum. Dubbed the 1160, the piece debuted in 2008 and remains one of the most valuable grand complications in existence, composed of 823 parts. It includes a minute repeater, perpetual calendar, jumping-hour display and an equation-of-time indicator, which displays solar time vs. clock time.

At a dinner at the official residence of the French ambassador to Japan, where Tokyo VIPs enjoyed an up-close look at the 1160 prior to the piece’s brief installation at the Mori Art Gallery, Breguet VP Zufferey summed up the synergy between the brand’s past and present. “The last queen of France formerly helped Breguet to push the growth of this company,” he said. “Breguet keeps her memory alive by dedicating in her name masterful pieces.”

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