Abraham-Louis Breguet Souscription Pocket Watch No. 1836, dated 1807: Touched (Perhaps) By The Hand Of The Horological God – I’m Jaded No Longer
by Ian Skellern
My interest in high-end mechanical watches started a few decades ago on discovering what was then the ThePuristS Independent Forum (now WatchProSite), excellently moderated by Curtis Thomson. A watchmaker himself, Thomson’s knowledge and passion for independent watchmakers was one of the main drivers in getting independent watchmakers and boutique brands in front of early adopters and later an internationally influential audience.
ThePuristS Independent Forum fomented my nascent horological passion for watchmaking. And to me “watchmaking” was synonymous with “independent watchmaking.” I knew little about the big watch brands and cared less. Breguet was just another name to me.
When the news of the Swatch Group buyout of Breguet went viral on the then first buds of horological social media – i.e., niche watch discussion forums – the outcry largely washed over me.
A few years later, my near-maniacal interest in watches had spread in a low dose to my (Swiss) wife, Brigitte. She had shown little interest in my passion for watches but decided that she wanted a nice sports watch with a mechanical movement (ideally automatic) suitable for horse riding, the office, and going out.
And as I soon discovered, for Brigitte it wasn’t a question of which brand we should look at –that was a given: she wanted a Breguet.
In spite (or because) of my trickle-feed teaching, Brigitte didn’t know much about the world of fine mechanical wristwatches, but she knew one thing: in the world of fine watches, Breguet was the best. Therefore it was never a question of which brand to look for but rather which Breguet model. She opted for a small Breguet Marine.
Jaded by so many great watches
I had the great fortune and pleasure to have lived near Geneva in Switzerland for 25 years, and I spent much of that time meeting with many of the world’s greatest watchmakers and handling many of the world’s greatest watches. I was absolutely spoiled rotten. And loved it!
But a couple of years ago after a big international watch fair (remember those?) and taking thousands of photographs of hundreds of beautiful watches, I started to feel a bit jaded. Being immersed in fine watches and fine watchmaking had made me blasé; it began to feel more like work than the pleasurable hobby it once was.
Cure for feeling jaded: cold-turkey withdrawal and a holy grail
Then, after 25 years in Switzerland, Brigitte and I moved to central France, nearly five hours’ drive from Geneva: so no more of the world’s best horology on my doorstep. Then COVID-19, the closing of the big Swiss watch exhibitions, and travel restrictions in Europe (and the world): so no more me even traveling to see lots of watches and all of my watch-loving friends. I started to miss them both.
Then in the summer of 2020 there was a brief window of sunshine in the COVID-19 cloud: Europe opened up again (we are now paying for that) and Geneva Watch Days was on. And it was socially distanced fantastic! It was great being able to handle and appreciate superlative watches with friends again.
One watch above all others: Abraham-Louis Breguet Souscription Pocket Watch
I have a lifetime supply of smile-inducing memories from Geneva Watch Days 2020, but one stands head and shoulders above all others: at the Breguet boutique in Geneva Emmanuel Breguet handed me an absolutely stunning two-century-old Abraham-Louis Breguet Souscription Pocket Watch, a timepiece that the great master may have handled himself, and said, “Take it.”
I took it gently and gingerly in two gloved hands, with my foot underneath, just in case, and my jaw dropped open. I felt I was holding the Holy Grail.
Cognitive dissonance warning: while this was a watch that Abraham-Louis Breguet may have handled himself, in my mind both then and now Monsieur Breguet himself sweated over every part of this watch. I felt I was reaching out over time and touching the hand (or something touched by the hand) of (a horological) god: Abraham-Louis Breguet.
The sheer awe and wonder I felt in handling this original Abraham-Louis Breguet Souscription Pocket Watch, which was manufactured, assembled, and regulated at Breguet’s Quai de l’Horloge atelier in Paris, has remained with me even six months after our all-too-brief encounter.
Abraham-Louis Breguet Souscription Pocket Watch No. 1836, dated 1807
Pocket watch no. 1836 was from Abraham-Louis Breguet’s second souscription series. To help finance production of his watches (which were usually all unique pieces), Breguet conceived the idea of selling a series by souscription (subscription), with his clients paying 25 percent of the price up front.
That enabled Breguet to finance his production and offer a less expensive serially produced (as far as that can be called thus in its time) watch rather than his regular bespoke creations.
While still relatively expensive, these souscription-series watches were Breguet’s most affordable and were very successful. Around 700 souscription watches (with some technical variations) in both gold and silver cases were made, most between 1798 and 1805.
They were designed and built for reliable daily use.
The Breguet museum in Paris has all the records of this watch’s manufacture and sale.
This Breguet souscription pocket watch number 1836 was created just after the French Revolution in 1796 and was sold in 1807 for £600. And, as a testament to the quality of the movement’s design and the skill of its watchmaker, after more than 200 years it still runs perfectly today.
Abraham-Louis Breguet Souscription Pocket Watch No. 1836: a closer look
The Breguet No. 1836 is a gold souscription pocket watch with a slightly domed enamel dial in good condition. It has one hand (to keep prices down), which is nicely blued, and the five-minute markers around the chapter ring make it relatively easy to read the time fairly accurately.
At 61 mm in diameter, the pocket watch is relatively large (even for its time), but the large diameter allowed Breguet to simplify the movement to run only one hand, yet still very legibly display the time to the minute.
Abraham-Louis Breguet’s secret signature, which makes counterfeiting more difficult, is engraved on the dial between the numeral 12 and the blued screw (securing the dial) beneath. Even with a modern loupe and knowing it’s there, it’s still quite difficult to find. But once you have found it, it is clearly legible.
The movement features a basic shock protection system for the balance pinion, a ruby cylinder escapement, 36-hour power reserve, barrel with stop-work mechanism, a simple but original click barrel rachet, a bimetallic temperature compensation balance wheel, and a hardened steel escape wheel; all functional surfaces are mirror finished.
Not bad for an “entry-level” watch!
Breguet No. 1836 is a very beautiful and extremely well-made watch, and the architecture and style of the souscription movements played a significant role in the modern Breguet Tradition collection launched in 2005.
The resemblance between Abraham-Louis Breguet’s souscription pocket watches and the Tradition collection is striking.
Musée des Art Décoratifs de Paris: see for yourself
For those either in, or planning to visit, Paris next year (if only!), Abraham-Louis Breguet’s Souscription Pocket Watch No. 1836 will be on display at the Musée des Art Décoratifs de Paris in the Luxes exhibition. In partnership with the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the exhibition follows “10,000 years of luxury.”
The Musée des Art Décoratifs de Paris is presently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions but will hopefully open again soon. The Luxes exhibition is planned to run until May 2, 2021.
Further reading: I highly recommend you check out Peter Speake’s detailed Deconstruction with lots of excellent photos on The Naked Watchmaker at Deconstruction Breguet Souscription/Subscription.
Quick Facts Abraham-Louis Breguet Souscription Pocket Watch No. 1836
Case: 61 mm, yellow gold
Functions: hours/minutes with one hand
Dial: white enamel with engraved secret signature
Movement: balance shock protection system, ruby cylinder escapement, 36-hour power reserve, central barrel with stop-work mechanism, bimetallic temperature compensation balance wheel, hardened steel escape wheel, all functional surfaces mirror finished
Retail price in 1807: £600