(Modern) Breguet, as ironic as it might seem, was always a conservative brand – its opulent cases, the traditionalist style and above all the elaborate dial decoration finished in carefully hand-made guillochage.
The style was always distinctive, and apart from being adapted to the form factor of a wristwatch, essentially has changed little in the last two centuries. Breguet watches are font fide classics, and herein lies the foundation of both its success as well as its problems.
While I think the success story is well known, the (potential) challenge to stay attractive for an ever changing clientele is a problem that many brands married to a certain aesthetic such as Breguet face, and therefore I think it warrants a few thoughts. The recently refreshed Breguet Marine Collection is a good study subject.
The Generational Problem of a Traditional Manufacture
Although Breguet, destined as the innovative powerhouse within Swatch Group by the late patron Nicholas G. Hayek, has developed and industrialised a considerable amount of technical innovations (including groundbreaking ones such as the 10Hz escapement, magnetic bearings of the balance wheel, innovative chronograph and minute repeater mechanisms, or small but nonetheless important improvements such as a general adoption of silicon escapement assortments or a really cleverly devised solution of the jumping chronograph seconds hand issue), the brand has not seen off its conservative image.
This is a pity in two ways: it all to easily makes people overlook the innovative potential at work in Le Sentier, and also, maybe even more crucial, limits its attraction to a new generation of affluent people who are just entering the watch collecting hobby. And these budding collectors, many of them in Asia, crave for finest watchmaking quality, but presented entirely differently from ‘their dad’s watches’.
This generational change has proven to be a fundamental challenge for the established brands. Several of them have released sporty, youthful lines (e.g. the Blancpain L’Evolution), sometimes at odds with the brand identity (note example). Some have refreshed their best suitable collection (note new colour at Glashütte Original, or one of the talking points in the corridors of Baselworld 2018, the refreshed Patek Philippe Aquanaut Chronograph 5968A), while others went all into rejuvenation mode (best example is the tone traditional Genevan manufacturer Roger Dubuis).
Breguet went for something like a mix between Blancpain and Glashütte, offering a sporty collection, called Marine, which so far however still was a decidedly conservative incarnation of a ‘sports’ watch. Watertight and robust steel cases – yes – but with all the typical and expected design cues of a Breguet.
How Breguet Responds
While the watch was appreciated but great a number of aficionados (including our own Luxe 178 member Robin Wong), it looked a bit dated of late. The brand recognised this and reworked the design a little bit – to the quite interesting effect that the modifications were largely overlooked when first presented in a technical tour de force, the Breguet Marine Équation Marchante Ref. 5887. One year later, in 2018, when Breguet carried the new design language over to the more simple watches in the Marine collection, everybody noticed – and many were irritated!
For the first time in the collection, Breguet offers a titanium version. This one is of course not only the most affordable, but also it is aesthetically a bit set apart from the rest, with a plainer dial. I chose this version of the essential time-only Breguet Marine Ref. 5517 to delve deeper into the new collection.
The new Marine line came with a redesigned case whose characteristic features is the integrated, central lug, bolder and at the same time simpler dials, and numerals and other details which are inspired by maritime symbols, e.g. reminiscent of the marine alphabet.
The case is slightly enlarged from 39 to 40mm compared to the predecessor Ref. 5817, the fluted caseband has been redesigned to appear flatter, with a finely detailed Breguet crown with wave-form crown protectors. The overall appearance is that of a compact, sturdy, but yet refined object:
And then, there is this characteristic new central lug! Again, this is a sturdy design which combines robustness with a sporty appearance and technical sophistication: note the superb design of the screws, with their heads resembling cardinal marks used in maritime pilotage to indicate the position of a hazard and the direction of safe water (here: both marks point inwards = west).
A Breeze of Fresh Air on the Dial
The refreshed maritime theme continues on the dial: The new bold indices, fashioned like a ballot of marine flags, dominate the dial, and this in an interesting way. A boldness of numeral indices generally comes with a problem Breguet cleverly mastered: the 12 roman indices are composed with up to four elements, which might cause some very different optical weight between the indices. Breguet however designed them such that are reasonably similar while still easily discernible, using minuscule differences in how the individual components are modeled.
The hands are largely iterations of the classical Breguet ‘Pomme’ hands used on the existing Marine, or better, a sporty re-interpretation of those, yet still caused quite heated discussions. Still generously filled with luminous material, but now with an arch dividing the circle in two halves – just like if William Tell had a go on them… I appreciate the new design as a dynamic advancement of the proverbial namesake hand design, well done!
That leaves us now with the dial plate itself: on the titanium version, a rather plain but well executed affair, with a sunburst decoration centralling around the Breguet logo, in other words, something not-so-Breguet. And to pour oil into the fire, Breguet even inscribed ‘Guilloche Main’ at 6 o’clock – but where did all these lustrous guillochage patterns go?
The answer is subtle but in fact readily visible for the seasoned aficionado: What started already with the Équation Marchante Ref. 5887 (and in the same way the versions in precious metals are executed), Breguet sought to rejuvenate the art of guillochage and strip it of its oftentimes a bit too baroque appearance, such as to offer a future path of its characteristic decoration technique. Named complicated watch tickles the eye with is wave-like sparkle, evoking the notion of light reflecting on the seas, a fitting implementation for a maritime timepiece. With the even sportier titanium version only, Breguet reduced the guillochage to the max: On the dial, only the tiny frame around the Breguet logo is hand-engraved with a diamond tool. I personally like this reduction, it is in a way a connoisseurs’ detail: in most cases such a frame would be stamped, but the guillochage technique used be Breguet reveals itself to those who know through the bright and unmistakable shine of its groves.
But that is not all: turn the watch by 180° on its back: The decoration of the movement, called Cal. 777A is at first view unspectacular; in respect to decoration theme, but note the (excellent) execution….
…but this is deceiving: this is not the usual Côtes Genevoises – this is different:
Breguet hand-guilloches each bridges with a diamond-tipped graver to achieve a boat-deck-like pattern. :
The rotor designed like a ship’s wheel tops off the nautical theme.
Breguet’s Cal. 777A otherwise is equipped with pretty much all current technologies at the manufacture: inverted straight-line lever with silicon horns, flat silicon balance spring and a free-sprung balance with timing screws. The power reserve is 55 hours.
So, how does it wear? Very pleasant, for sure. The light, grade 5 titanium gives an excellent wrist comfort, with a light and warm appearance. The watch is very legible and offers a lot of details to marvel upon.
The comfort is further enhanced by the central lugs which afford considerable flex close to the case, thus ensuring a snug fit of the entire watch to the wrist, even smaller ones (something which as, due to the long and straight lugs of the classical Breguet watches, often been an issue of discomfort, at least for me). The ornamental deployment clasp in my opinion is at odds with the overall design of the watch, and might warrant a more fitting work-over.
Breguet aptly refreshed the Marine line with a number of considerate design choices opened a window to a future new design language of the brand, a language that I am sure will be met with a positive reception by a younger clientele.
The identity of the Marine line is intact and preserved, which is important for a brand with a century-spanning history. In this context I think it is encouraging for a brand to realise that a relatively simple watch in their collection triggers such emotional reaction when modified slightly.
It shows that people care for it!
Want to share your thoughts on the Breguet Marine Ref. 5517 with passionate watch collectors? Just follow the link to the discussion on collectors community at Luxe178.com
Dr. Magnus Bosse is co-founder and Managing Director of Alphaluxe’s community portal Luxe178.com
Dr. Bosse is both a Molecular Biologist and Diplomat by training, and served many years in the United Nations system. Being more fond of substance than protocol, he left international relations eventually and now concentrates, professionally, on select topics in network biology of complex microbial communities in areas such as bio-mining and bio-remediation.
Having missed a train as a student and being forced to waste some time waiting for the next, he ventured out of the ordinary (train station building) and sampled a flea market right in front. He went back with a solid gold mechanical wristwatch purchased at the frivolous amount of 1€ (it lacked the crown, ok?), and the rest is history: Dr. Bosse is a noted writer on horological themes, with a clear focus on technologies and independent watchmakers. His work has been featured extensively on online watch collector’s fora such as PuristS and now Luxe178, but also in print publications and newspapers globally. Most recently he published a book on the most complicated wristwatch in the world, a masterpiece known as the ‘Superbia Humanitatis’, created by Louis Élysée Piguet, Franck Muller and Paul Gerber.
All his in-depth knowledge about watchmaking and the namesake industry has not prevented him from exposing his masochistic soul, and thus he founded with a group of likeminded friends around noted theoretical physicist, business strategist and acclaimed photographer Ming Thein an independent watch brand MING, for which he serves as stakeholder and Director of Production (whatever ‘director’ means in a startup).