Arnold and A.-L. Breguet A tale of two watchmakers


Abraham-Louis Breguet left his native Switzerland for Paris at the age of 15 to pursue his dream of becoming a watchmaker. Unlike Arnold, whose only real teacher had been his father, Breguet was trained by two watchmakers who were exceptional in their own right: Ferdinand Berthoud and Jean-Antoine Lépine. 

When Breguet arrived in Paris in 1775, he - like Arnold in London - quickly attracted a wealthy clientele from all over Europe. His success was due mainly to his self-winding "perpetual" watches. One of his first customers was the King's cousin, the Duke of Orléans, a great connoisseur of horology and friend of John Arnold. It was he who arranged for the two great inventors to meet:

"The Duke of Orléans had given Arnold a watch designed by Breguet. Arnold was so stunned by its perfection that he made the spontaneous decision to travel to Paris to see the craftsman who had created it. Arnold arrived in Paris, where he received a fitting welcome from our famous watchmaker. The art of watchmaking became all the richer for this relationship between two men whose meeting could be described as destiny."3

So deep was their mutual respect that they entrusted the training of their sons to each other, John Roger spending two years as an apprentice in Paris and Breguet's son, Antoine-Louis, doing his training in London under Arnold. The friendship between the two never waned. In 1789, Breguet went to London to visit Arnold. He wrote to his partner, Xavier Gide, telling him how much he enjoyed his discussions with the inventor of the helical balance spring. They even exchanged trade secrets, as this letter from Arnold's son, John Roger, to Breguet in 1796 reveals:

"If you want to make the metal for expansion you must take two parts of silver and one of zinc. Melt the silver thoroughly, and when it is melted add the zinc and don't forget to stir it with a stick. As to the hair-springs, it has been found that platinum is not satisfactory; there are impurities in it and it often breaks. Nowadays, only hair-springs made of gold are used."4

John Arnold's death in 1799 affected Breguet profoundly. As a sign of his esteem, Breguet modified one of Arnold's pocket chronometers by adding the first tourbillon escapement ever designed. Today, this exceptional watch, given as a present to John Arnold's son in 1808, is a highlight of the British Museum's collection in London, and bears the following inscription on a tiny plate in the movement:

"Breguet's first tourbillon regulator, united with one of Arnold's earliest movements; a tribute by Breguet to the revered memory of Arnold and presented to his son in the year 1808."5


3 Breguet, Emmanuel, Breguet:Watchmakers since 1775 [English trans. ofBreguet: Horloger depuis 1775], ed. Alain de Gourcuff (Paris, 1997)

4 Le Globe. Journal littéraire, vol. 3/1 (Paris, 24 December 1825)

5 Mercer, Vaudrey,John Arnold & Son, supplement (London, 1975).

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