Journe, Bridgerton and Breguet: The thrilling efforts to keep 2 Breguet pocket watches in public collections
The wild, evolving tale of the Breguet pocket watches that inspired Journe and King George
My story about the lawsuit brought against a Chicago Rolex AD got something like 30k views in the first 24 hours, which is… more than the average article about stuff no one cares about (see White Star). Because of that, this weekend’s newsletter is a bit shorter. But, since a legal thriller brought you here, it’s another legal thriller you’ll get.
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This pair of stories was originally brought to my attention by Budge Coutts.
“With the nation captivated by Bridgerton, there is no better time for this watch owned by George III to come to light. This rare specimen is beautifully crafted and would make an excellent addition to a UK collection. I hope that a buyer can be found so that the public can continue to be inspired by this exciting period of our history.”
What if I told you this quote was about a pocket watch; and not just any pocket watch, but one of only a handful of tourbillons created by Abraham Louis Breguet himself?
In July 2020, Sotheby’s London auctioned off the “Collection of a Connoisseur”, including Breguet pocket watch no. 1297, featuring a four-minute tourbillon. While Ms. Daphne Bridgerton and the dreamy duke were galavanting around the balls of The Season and philandering across his estate, this pocket watch was delivered to King George III in the summer of 1808 — potentially making it, as Jack Forster detailed, the first tourbillon commercially sold by Breguet.1 George III was quite the horophile, having also owned, for example, the first-known lever escapement.
The watch sold at that Sotheby’s sale for a sexy £1.58 million. But, that’s when the fun started.
On January 29, 2021, the UK government put up a post explaining that a temporary export ban had been placed on the tourbillon pocket watch post-sale to prevent it from leaving the country. As the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport explained, it’s thought to be one of only 10 known watches of its kind remaining, and no other watches of its style are currently represented in a public collection in the UK. The ban, effective until April, is meant to allow time for a UK institution to raise the required £2.4m of funds (lot price plus VAT) to keep it in the UK.
In a fine bit of British wit, the government’s post explaining the decision literally credits Bridgerton for making the watch of such cultural interest, with the above quote attributed to Culture Minister Caroline Dinenage. The decision came after a recommendation from an advisory committee, one member saying, “this watch is a tour-de-force of the art of horology. Its loss from Britain would be a misfortune”, going on to explain that it also includes a thermometer and a state of wind indicator. It’s one of 35 tourbillons made by Breguet from 1805-1823.
In a story that’s perhaps relatable to those who try to smuggle their new watch acquisitions past peeping significant others, King George had to smuggle this French-made pocket watch into Britain at the height of the Napoleonic wars. As evidence of this, there’s nary a “Breguet” signature on it (save one on the tourbillon’s cage). Instead, the dial is signed Recordon, the name of Breguet’s agent in London.
So, if you happen to be a fan of Breguet watches and dread the day an important pocket watch is no longer on public display in the UK, apparently, you have the sexual escapades of a dreamy duke and duchess to thank for (temporarily) saving the watch from leaving the Crown’s realm. God Save the Queen. According to The Telegraph, the UK’s Worshipful Company of Clockmakers is considering its options to acquire the pocket watch.
The Resonance resonantes
But pocket watch no. 1297 isn’t even the only Breguet pocket watch that’s the subject of an ongoing dispute. In October 2020, Sotheby’s was set to auction off select items from the LA Mayer Museum in Jerusalem. To be included in the auction was a Breguet Resonance pocket watch, no. 2788. The Mayer Museum’s collection of watches comes from the David Salomons collection, an important Breguet collector in the 20th century (for example, he owned Breguet no. 160, the most complicated pocket watch Breguet ever produced, for Marie Antoinette). Dr. Andrew Hildreth has done some excellent reporting on this story, best summarizing the facts here.
Once the property of British royalty (this one delivered to George IV), Breguet’s resonance inspired the modern Resonance of F.P. Journe. Only three Breguet resonance watches are known to have survived. Reducing two millennia of physics into a sentence, the theory behind resonance goes something like this: two escapements in close proximity will have better stability than a single one beating in isolation, creating (in theory) a more accurate ticker.
However, before the October sale, the auctioneer announced the auction had been temporarily postponed (“we’ll do it in November, we promise!”). Four months later, the sale still hasn’t happened.
As Hildreth details, the last time a Breguet resonance came up for auction, it sold for CHF 4.3m. So, when the estimate for this particular watch was put at just a tenth of that price, something seemed a bit off.
As it turns out, after the auction was announced, a lawsuit was filed in Israel to prevent their sale. The President of Israel even jumped into the fray, saying “We must find the means available to the State of Israel in the legal and international spheres to prevent the sale of these cultural assets from the region as a whole.”
According to The Art Newspaper, the sale of a portion of the Mayer Musuem’s collection was to address the tenuous financial position of the museum. That rationale has since been called into question, though other legal questions about the collection and certain items in it have since been raised. But even when financial considerations initially seemed to drive the sale, some raised ethical issues with it, fearing it could set a dangerous precedent for other museums to sell one-of-a-kind items that should remain in public collections.2
Breguet, the Duke, and I
For watch collectors, the resonance is of particular interest, since it has inspired modern watchmakers like Journe and George Daniels. To me, even if I’ll never make the pilgrimage to the Mayer Museum to see it, it’s nice to know that I could. It’s kind of like me and olives: olives repulse me; but, if you told me I could never have one again, all of the sudden I want one.
It’s also exciting to see such interest in keeping two Breguet watches in public collections, from two different countries. While we think of this as an obscure and niche hobby, governments and institutions are recognizing the cultural importance and significance of some of these pieces, pulling the levers at their disposal to keep them in public collections.3 Even the little details of the tourbillon pocket watch — illustrating how it was essentially smuggled from France into England — help tell the story of nations at war, a horophile with an itchy trigger finger at the helm of one, unable to contain his acquisitional urges.
And if these two pocket watches end up disappearing into private collections anyway, at least we’ll always have Bridgerton.
Through the Wire
With Hodinkee going deeper into ecommerce this week by acquiring Crown & Caliber, I thought it’d be a good time to zoom out on the company. For that, a post from Clayton Chambers on how a Tumblr-turned-ecommerce business became the darling of linear commerce:
We’re witnessing the fruits of an entire era of online communities, blogs, and media outlets that started with humble beginnings, grew organically, and leveraged their audiences to launch products.
He points out that Hodinkee has more in common with Goop or Glossier than, say, G-Shock or JLC. As the internet evolves, will more media brands emulate the Hodinkee playbook?
Rescapement is a weekly newsletter about watches, mostly vintage. Subscribe now to get it delivered to your inbox every Sunday. Follow us on IG too.
Yes, I know Bridgerton was set in 1813. Don’t let facts get in the way of a good joke.