I’ve never had to explain to someone why I write about watches for a living. People instantly get it. It’s an incredibly fascinating position to be in. However, I often find myself explaining how I’m able to write about watches without repeating myself. For whatever reason, people seem to think that at some point, you run out of things to say or watches to talk about. The truth is, there are plenty of watches I’ve never written a word about, and even more I’m yet to see. Even some of the big ones, like, until now, this.
That photo above is me holding Breguet’s Marie Antoinette Number 1160, a 63mm pocket watch crafted from gold, and one of the world’s most complicated pocket watches. Technically, it’s a replica of a watch made in 1783 that we thought was lost to history, until its miraculous recovery in 2007. And there’s a reason my left hand was a little shaky in that moment, besides the fact that it’s a pretty hefty timepiece. For a couple of years, Breguet thought this would be its only connection to the most important watch it had ever made, pocket watch number 160. More on that watch later.
Number 1160 is a big deal to Breguet. When Nicolas Hayek presented the watch back in 2008, the Swatch Group filled Hall 1 of Baselworld with seats and held a massive press conference. I didn’t attend the fair that year – I was halfway into my sophomore year of college – but I’m told by those who were there they’d seen nothing like it, and I’ve not witnessed an event like it since I’ve been going.
Breguet rarely brings the watch out these days. I’ve only seen it once before, and it was earlier this year actually. I walked past it during Baselworld, in between meetings, and I only saw it long enough enough to take a bad picture through its display case. It’s a watch I’ve been wanting to hold for many years, but which has eluded me despite visits to the Breguet manufacture and the Breguet museum. When it does come out, it’s only allowed in the hands of people who have received authorization all the way from the top. This week, they gave it to me. Don’t ask me why.
But first, let’s talk about the Perpétuelle, better known as pocket watch number 160. This is the original watch, on which the 1160 is based. A quick word though on the word "replica." It’s the most commonly used descriptor for the new Marie Antoinette watch, but it’s not the most accurate. Breguet has made several replicas of original pieces, the latest being a reproduction of Churchill’s Turnip, which will soon make an appearance in The Darkest Hour, starring Gary Oldman as Sir Winston Churchill and Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife, Clémentine. As I understand it, that watch will chime, just like the Turnip, but it’s technically a non-working rattrapante minute repeater. This watch, on the other hand, was built to replace the thought-to-be-lost number 160, and it behaves just like the original.
Number 160 is a pocket watch that many have obsessed over. Some, out of self-interest. Marie Antoinette’s admirer, an officer of the queen’s guards, thought that it would bring him love. Naaman Diller, the thief who stole it from the L.A. Mayer Institute for Islamic Art in Jerusalem in 1983, thought it would bring him wealth, or notoriety – no one knows his true motive, since he held onto the piece until his death.
In fact, the watch has only ever satisfied those who have approached it with pure and reasonable expectations. Men like Sir Spencer Brunton, who bought it from Breguet in 1887 after the first owner inexplicably returned the watch for a service and failed to collected it. Men like Sir David Salomons, who acquired the watch in 1920 and bequeathed the piece, along with 57 other Breguet timekeepers, to the Mayer Institute. And men like Nicholas Parsons.
Last year, the BBC followed the television veteran all the way back to Israel, where the watch was returned in 2007. In some ways, it’s thanks to Nicholas that I got to spend some alone time with the new Marie Antoinette, number 1160, since the watch was briefly loaned out to Breguet’s flagship boutique in London for a special evening hosted in honor of his documentary.
I’m aware that quite often on this site we say that a watch is special. What can I say, there are a lot of special pieces – but number 1160 is up there with Patek Philippe’s Calibre 89, George Daniels’s Space Traveler, and the Vacheron Constantin reference 57260 as one of the most important, and certainly most complex, timekeepers of the modern era. It’s very existence is fascinating.
Everything about the original piece was special. The fact that it was ordered by one of Marie Antoinette’s secret admirers. The fact that she didn’t know it was being made. The fact she never did receive it. The watch took 44 years to make, and both Marie Antoinette and Abraham-Louis Breguet were dead when it was completed. One of the reasons it took so long to make is because Breguet was given no deadline for finishing it. As long as it was a perpetual calendar, a symbol of his everlasting love for her, and that any part that could be made in gold would be made in gold, Breguet had, in watchmaking terms, carte blanche.
When Louis-Antoine Breguet finally completed this father’s work in 1827, number 160 was the most complex timekeeper in the world, and it held that title for 77 years. Nearly a dozen complications fit inside, all of them powered by a massive rotor. It displays central jumping hours and minutes, an independent central seconds hand (an early chronograph, of sorts), running seconds at six o’clock, a, full perpetual calendar with the month at eight o’clock, the day at six o’clock, and a date hand at two o’clock, plus equation of time at 10 o’clock, a 48-hour power reserve indicator at 11 o’clock, and a thermometer at one o’clock. Yeah, it’s a lot.
And I haven’t even mentioned what it tells you audibly yet. The watch also strikes on command the hours, quarters, and minutes. Making things even more impressive, everything is displayed on just one side, so you don’t have to turn the watch back and forth. The transparent dial lets you see everything at work, and is one of the most appealing things about this watch. Visually, it’s truly astonishing. It’s also a little overwhelming at first, which is one of the reasons number 1160 comes with an alternate grand feu enamel dial.
Every component was reconstructed from scratch by Breguet, based on historic drawings and the few words jotted down beside them. Once again, the Marie Antoinette became one man’s obsession, that of Nicolas G. Hayek. The Swatch Group CEO, who loved Breguet and bought the company in 1999, thought of it as the group’s crown jewel. Irritated by the absence of number 160, he ordered that an exact working replica be made using the techniques used during the 18th century.
I’ve never seen the original number 160. It was recovered, just one year before Breguet completed number 1160, under bizarre circumstances. When I run out of stories, I’ll always have that one. The watch is back in the hands of the L.A. Mayer Institute for Islamic Art, and I very much doubt it will leave during my lifetime. I’d be curious to see if there are any differences between the two watches, minus the obvious signs of number 160’s age. I’m told there aren’t, and even if there were, I’m sure they’re so small I wouldn’t be able to pick them up.
I hope to cross that watch off my list one day, but already I feel a little nearer to it thanks to my short encounter with number 1160, which is now back in its box and on its way out of London.
For more information, visit Breguet online.