Antique French enamel pocket watches marry fine craftsmanship and mechanical precision with classical beauty. They rank among the most magnificent miniature works of art ever created. They are also treasured for the rich histories they represent and the stories they tell.
Wearable watches with works shielded in enameled metal cases first appeared in the early 1600s in Blois, France, where a group of skilled watchmakers served the French court. Although the pocket-sized timepieces merely indicated the hours, they gave Blois goldsmiths, engravers, jewelers and enamelers a canvas for their artistry.
Primarily valued as pieces of jewelry, enameled pocket watches were extraordinarily costly to produce. Only European royalty and the elite could afford to commission them. Nevertheless, a second French watchmaking center soon emerged in Paris. Initially, Parisian single-hand pocket watches featured internal bells known as “dumb” repeater complications, which chimed the hour in muffled tones. According to the Patek Philippe website, the sounds “could only be detected if the watch was held in the hand, [thus] allowing people such as courtiers, amongst whom they were popular, to discreetly check the time in their pocket during tedious levees and royal councils, without offending the monarch.”
Makers of enamel pocket watches added functions that indicated the time of day and showed phases of the moon and even astrological elements. But it was not until 1675, when traditional balance wheel mechanisms were replaced with more advanced balance springs, that pocket watches became reliable timekeepers. That technological upgrade coincided with the appearance of watches fitted with two hands and dials capable of measuring minutes.
The flourishing trade came under threat a decade later when King Louis XIV formally revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had granted a measure of religious freedom to his Protestant subjects. Scores of Huguenot watchmakers, goldsmiths, engravers and enamelers left for the more tolerant environment in Switzerland.
Back in France, however, a watch-making dynasty of sorts was emerging. Ferdinand Berthoud, a master horologist who served Louis XV, wrote extensively about timekeeping and created a variety of extravagant, technically complex timepieces, including a two-body gold pocket watch he signed “Berthoud, Louis XVI.”
Jean-Antoine Lepine, who also served Louis XVI, signed his works until around 1790, when references to the Crown became highly impolitic. The excesses of the French Revolution prompted Abraham-Louis Breguet, Lepine’s exceptionally talented student, to flee to Switzerland.
Fortunately, Breguet did not stay away permanently. Upon returning to France in 1795, he founded the Breguet et Fils company, which eventually created thousands of luxurious enamel pocket watches. Their amazing mechanical innovations include a perpetual calendar, an anti-shock device, a so-called “blind man’s watch” that was readable by touch, and repeater-watch gongs, which struck hours, quarters and minutes in differing tones.
Breguet earned numerable prizes and honors throughout his life and after his death. He was among the 71 French notables whose names were engraved on the Eiffel Tower. Breguet’s design for sleek, eminently readable watch hands outlives him as well. Watchmakers still use the term “Breguet hands” to describe the style he introduced.
Many of Breguet’s watchmaker contemporaries, such as Barbier le Jeune, Chevalier & Cochet, and Esquivillon & DeChoudens, proudly applied their signatures to their enamel pocket watches. Others crafted theirs anonymously. Regardless, their jaw-dropping creations both keep time and transcend it.