It’s rare — extremely rare — to get the opportunity to photograph some of the most expensive watches in the world, especially out of their display cases. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to get up close and personal with some of the most interesting designs from horologists including Audemars-Piguet, Patek Philippe, TAG-Heuer and most recently Montblanc.
September 2017 found me at Hampton Court Palace for the Concours of Elegance. A few years ago, Patek had a presence at the event and I got to shoot the most expensive watch I’ve ever photographed. This time, another celebrated watchmaker was there: Breguet.
Now Breguet is a brand I’ve long admired, but in truth knew little about. That was about to change when I sat down with retail manager Stuart Kerr who explained quite how influential the company’s founder Abraham-Louis Breguet had been to watchmaking. The fact he formed the company in 1775 shows how long its history is.
Today, Breguet is part of the Swatch group, who acquired the Swiss watchmaker in 1999, and the Breguet family are still involved in the company. Emmanuel Breguet is both Vice President of Manufacturing and Breguet’s archivist. As well as having a history full of innovations, what’s even more remarkable is so many of them are still evident in today’s watches. Indeed, many of their current models are based on historic designs.
Way back in 1801, Breguet invented the gravity-defying tourbillon — a device whose constant rotation cancels out the effects of earth’s gravity. He was also responsible for the watch crown. Before its introduction, all watches had to be wound with a separate key. But for me, more than the mechanical innovation, what I most admire about Breguet is he also went against the fancy ornamentation common at the time, and instead created elegant and refined designs for his cases and dials. His numeral typography, for example, used slender and elegant Arabic numbers, a font designed by Breguet and named after him.
In terms of horological art, in 1783 he introduced narrow pointed pomme hands with an apple-shaped hole at their tips. Now universally referred to as Breguet hands, they were designed so you could still tell the time when both hands were in exactly the same place.
As well as the numbers and the hands, Abraham-Louis Breguet was also responsible for two design features that are still the brand’s signature aesthetic: the guilloché dial and the vertically fluted caseband. Guilloché is a decorative technique in which an intricate and repetitive pattern is mechanically engraved using an engine turning machine.
Those Breguet watches, especially the Classique model with its plain white enamel face, sunken sub dial and simple Breguet lettering, still look as elegant and modern today, a perfect example of minimal design.
During my time on the stand, I was able to shoot two watches and one very special chronograph as well as a gorgeous fountain pen, something I hadn’t realised Breguet even made.
Now shooting watches is never easy: they’re small so you need to get in close and they’re constructed with highly polished reflective materials which makes getting in close a big problem. Doing that without the benefit of a studio where you can control the lighting and the reflections makes the challenge even greater, especially when you only have a couple of minutes with each timepiece.
I started with a very special watch, the 2023, a dashboard chronograph created for Bugatti in 1932.
Personally I didn’t like the mix of fonts used. The italic Breguet font for the main face looks great, but around it the smaller, non-italic font just didn’t sit that well. Compare this with the new Classique and you’ll notice that whilst similar, every numeral is actually different.
The next watch I shot was a skeleton watch, a version of the Tradition. Usually by definition, skeleton watches have no dial, but this one had a small black dial at 12 o’clock. The rest of the watch was finished in rose gold, although to my eyes it looked more coppery than gold.
Living up to its name, like most Breguet’s, the Tradition featured guilloché and Breguet hands.
The last watch, a Tourbillon Extra-Plat, owed its appearance to one of Breguet’s earliest models. I really liked the off-centre dial and blued-steel Breguet hands, although I wasn’t keen on its awkwardly positioned triangular power reserve display or use of Roman numerals.
However, it was only when you got really close that you could appreciate its impressive detailing. The movement, especially the back, was absolutely beautiful. Encrusted with jewels, the back had a distinct art deco feel to it.
I also got to shoot the Tradition, Breguet’s latest fountain pen. To be honest, I didn’t even know they made writing instruments.
Launched in 2016, this was a beautifully crafted and weighted pen made of matt titanium. Its barrel featured the same engine turned guilloché that adorns the brand’s watch dials.
It was decorated with a border on the sides and engraved with the Breguet signature.
The 18-carat white gold clip was in the shape of a Breguet hand and its 18-carat white gold nib featured a hand-engraved sun and the year 1775.
Behind the image: All these images were shot entirely handheld with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 using the 12–40 2.8 Pro lens and the E-M1’s in-camera macro function. Bearing in mind the difficulty of shooting something as small and reflective as a watch or pen, I’m impressed at the sharpness and detail I was able to get without any addition al lighting or requiring a tripod. I was never going to just create a straight image of the watches — I leave that to others — instead I chose a monochrome look that I feel give all the shots a visual cohesion regardless of the actual finish of each item. Given the circumstances, I have to say I’m very pleased with the results. Shot at Hampton Court Palace on 4 September 2017.