From the workbench Monday, December 12th 2011
Extended once in 2001/2002, Breguet's production facilities in L'Orient, at the heart of Swiss watchmaking in La Vallée de Joux, are embarking on their next transformation: two years of work to further extend the site on a par with its ambitions.
Breguet's production facilities in L'Orient, La Vallée de Joux © Breguet
No doubt one of the most inventive master watchmakers ever, Abraham-Louis Breguet is rooted in the history of time measurement. He is remembered for the patent he filed in 1801 for a "tourbillon regulator," as the maker of one of the earliest bracelet-watches, for the Queen of Naples in 1810, and of course for the consummate "Marie-Antoinette" watch whose sole specification was to include every known complication of the era. And yet the Manufacture that bears this prestigious name has seen its fortunes chop and change.
The company passed to Abraham-Louis' heirs, then to the head of the watchmaking ateliers. In 1970 it became the property of Chaumet. In 1987 it was sold to the Investcorp investment firm. "Oil used to run down the windows of the workshop where the blanks were made," recalls Walter Uebelhart, head of technical assistance at Breguet where he has worked since 1992. "Back then we were using Imoberdorf Type 168 machines. That was twenty years ago, now it's all changed." Indeed, since Breguet became part of the Swatch Group in 1999, a new broom has swept through the workshops in L'Orient (Vallée de Joux). And for good reason: the late Nicolas G. Hayek made the firm his "pet project" and personally oversaw its big-bucks transformation.
"A technological spearhead for the Group"
No more oil-streaked windows; no more Imoberdorfs, replaced by the latest CNC machines in modern workshops filled with equipment developed for Breguet's specific requirements, such as a patented hand-setting tool. Swatch Group has given Breguet the means to an ambitious new end. Of Breguet's one thousand staff, some 600 are employed at the new production facilities, which were extended in 2001/2002. A second expansion project was launched this year and is slated for completion in 2013. At the same time, Breguet is pressing ahead with its Maison du Patrimoine in L'Abbaye, a few miles away. It will house the brand's collection of 250 historically significant timepieces.
Nicolas G. Hayek was determined to make Breguet a full-fledged, fully integrated Manufacture that would benefit from the synergies the Swatch Group has skilfully put into place. "The Group's technological spearhead," in Walter Uebelhart's words. Accordingly then, the manufacture has its own research department which is behind the breakthroughs in overcoming the effects of magnetism, presented earlier this year at Baselworld. It also boasts a laboratory where it tests the long-term reliability of its timepieces with emphasis on lubrication, an engineering studio, and an after-sales division whose 30 staff know to immediately alert the movement designers in the event of an unusual influx of returns for servicing.
"Flirting with the limits of what can be done"
Breguet manufactures its movements and certain external components in L'Orient. The company's in-house resources are backed by Favre et Perret and François Golay, two other Swatch Group companies which supply cases and wheels. Add to this a dedicated workshop at Nivarox-FAR, a specialist in the production of balances and balance springs, and the laboratory at ETA which works hand-in-hand with Breguet's watchmakers. The Manufacture, which also makes movements for the "moon watch," the legendary Omega Speedmaster Professional, is the perfect example of the might of Swatch Group when it decides to position one of its brands on the market. Not least a name such as Breguet, "a watchmaker behind 80% of modern watchmaking whose name represents a unique heritage," according to Walter Uebelhart.
The timepieces that leave the workshops continue to "flirt with the limits of what can be done," says Uebelhart. "We advance step by step, making one small improvement after another with the constant aim of increasing the reliability of our watches. Hence why we are always looking for new competencies, and why we place so much emphasis on transferring knowledge, bearing in mind it will be five to ten years before it takes effect within our workshops." The recent Type XXII is just one example of this quest for performance. Its movement, which beats at 72,000 vph (10 Hz), is yet another Breguet achievement, twenty-first-century style. ■