Most of us dream of having love that will last a lifetime. The story of the Breguet No. 160, more popularly known as the “Marie Antoinette” watch serves as a symbol of love across the ages.
During her lifetime, Queen of France Marie Antoinette made a point of surrounding herself with luxury. Her palace at Versailles attracted both nationwide admiration and condemnation due to its vast riches. Her lack of concern for her suffering people and wasteful spending sparked so much anger that in 1793 both Marie and her husband King Louis were executed by guillotine.
Although she was married, Marie’s charm and beauty attracted a number of admirers including the Count Hans Axel von Fersen. Her admirer was faced with a dilemma. How do you impress a woman who already has it all in looks, wealth and power? The Count’s answer was to commission Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet to make a watch that in his own words was to be “…as spectacular as possible.”
The level of intricacy and beauty of the end result was astounding: the 60mm watch incorporated 23 different functions and was made up of no less than 823 separate parts. As per the Count’s instructions, the casing itself was made of 18K gold and where possible every other component was made of precious metals too.
Counting the seconds
The Count must have realized that Marie-Antoinette wouldn’t be interested in mere form, so he instructed the Swiss watchmaker to make sure the timepiece contained every function available at the time. The Breguet No. 160’s features include:
- Perpetual Calendar
- Minute repeater
- Pare-Chute shock protection system (Breguet’s own invention)
- Independent seconds hand
Despite the huge number of features, all information such as temperature and the date is displayed along just one side of the watch, so Marie wouldn’t need to turn it over.
In order to emphasize the complexity of the watch, the face is clear allowing the holder to view the complex movement of gears inside. The Count’s pockets were seemingly as deep as his love, so Brequet actually used sapphires in the watch mechanism to decrease friction between moving parts.
Indeed, it’s clear that no expense was spared: company records indicate that factory costs for the Marie Antoinette eventually came to 30,000 Francs. This was a colossal sum for the time – six times greater than the price of Breguet’s other major work ‘No. 92’ which was sold to the Duc De Praslin for 4,800 Francs.
No Time For Love
Marie’s admirer gave no fixed deadline for completion. This was fortunate as watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet was forced to flee the uprising in France to continue work on the watch in Switzerland. After he died, his son Louis-Antoine Breguet finally completed the timepiece in 1827. Sadly, this meant that Queen Marie-Antoinette herself was never able to admire her present. The watch was only completed 34 years after her death.
The watch was still widely admired by master craftsmen of the time and was moved between various collectors and museums before coming to the Mayer Institute of Islamic Art in Jerusalem in 1960. 23 years later tragedy struck: the timepiece was stolen from the Museum.
Replica 1160 – Rewinding a Masterpiece
The loss of the Marie-Antoinette watch was a huge blow both to French culture and clock lovers around the world. In 2004, Swatch President Nicolas G. Hayek decided to challenge the modern-day watch company Breguet to produce an exact replica of the Breguet No. 160.
The company accepted the challenge but given the lack of detailed manuscripts of the original design, they had a mammoth task before them. Every component of the timepiece had to be constructed from scratch, without being able to examine the original Breguet’s master watchmakers used historic drawings combined with the few annotations Abraham-Louis and his son and jotted down on them in the 18th and 19th Centuries.
The replica was given the designation ‘1160’ to set it apart from the original watch commissioned by Marie’s lovesick admirer Count Hans Axel von Fersen. In total it took 44 months to complete: the same number of years it took Breguet to construct the original timepiece.
In tribute to Marie herself, who had long admired Breguet’s work, the company fashioned a case for the watch made from the Queen’s favorite oak tree in Versailles. The box’s construction was almost as painstaking as the watch itself. It’s made from 3,500 separate carved pieces. The exterior was even designed to mimic the parquet floor inside the Petit Trianon.
The main box opens to reveal a second, smaller box, on top of which is handcrafted marquetry made of over one thousand pieces depicting Marie Antoinette’s hand holding a rose.
Hayek kept the development of the watch a secret until it was complete, finally unveiling at the Basel Watch and Jewelry Exhibition 2007 to worldwide astonishment.
A thief of time
Much as the world was overjoyed to discover the Marie-Antoinette wasn’t lost to history, the mystery remained over the fate of the original. Investigators discovered that the widow of master thief Neiman Deller had attempted to sell some stolen items through an LA firm. During their inquiries, she claimed that her husband had confessed to the famous theft on his deathbed. This finally solved a case that had eluded and obsessed criminal investigators and collectors for years.
The watch was ultimately returned to the Mayer Museum. Its current market value is estimated at over $30 million although thieves will now have to deal with the fact the Marie-Antoinette has been placed in a secure, bullet-proof case in the museum.
The watch is regularly polished and is even said to glow under the museum’s LED lamps. It remains a testament to Marie-Antoinette, her mysterious admirer and the genius watchmaker who embodied their love in gold, crystal and endlessly ticking gears.
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