Métiers d'art

Each Breguet movement presents a combination of different finishes.

Movement Finishing
Throughout his incomparable career, Abraham-Louis Breguet viewed the finishing of his movements through the lens of functionality. Yes, they are wondrous to behold, but the motifs he employed were chosen for purpose. For most of his finishes, the principal criterion was impeding oxidation and corrosion.

Thus, for his brass plates and bridges, his consistent style featured fine graining (“grenaillage”). Striking in its understatement and purity, the grenaillage finish served not only Breguet’s anti-oxidation goals, but fit his distaste for artificial decoration. For similar anti-oxidation reasons, he chose a highly polished mirror finish (“poli mirroir”) for the steel hammers of his repeaters. The bluing of screws, at first blush seemingly mere decorative color design (which regrettably is the case with some present day manufacturers who blue screws with paint), actually was completely functional as the color was the result of heat treatment done to harden the steel. The aesthetic finishing flourishes that today are the mark of a timepiece of distinction were simply not within the umbrella of his philosophy.

There has been an evolution in the thinking of watchmakers in the nearly two hundred years that have followed Breguet’s lifetime. Strict adherence to an ethic of applying only finishes that have functional properties has been broadened by notions that the beauty of the movement represents a substantial part of the value of fine watch. In turn, the grenaillage finish employed by Breguet in his workshops two centuries ago has been largely displaced by a rich palate of aesthetic finishes that display the talent and craft of the watchmakers who create them. Both business and technical reasons underlie the change in philosophy that has transpired. During the 1800’s and well into the 1900’s there was a great divide in the way many watches were built. The Vallée de Joux, seen by most as cradle of Swiss watchmaking, was dominated by movement builders. The end product of their labors was most often largely undecorated movements containing all the principal plates, wheels and bridge, and, as well, the complications, but lacking the balance and escapement. These were then sold to watch companies in Geneva who added the escapement, and in order to distinguish their offerings, lavished newly created a esthetic forms of decoration on the components. At the same time, the genaillage finish favored by Breguet fell into disfavor because of its reliance on mercury. In order to produce the finish, Breguet brushed the surface with aluminum powder which reacted with the brass of the part transforming the previously smooth surface into one with a finely powdered mat appearance. There following, mercury was mixed with gold transforming the gold into a slurry that could be used for coating the component. Finally, the part would be heated to evaporate the mercury, leaving the gold coating on the surface. Although the results were unusually robust— watches able to resist corrosion for well over a hundred years—the reliance on mercury gave abundant incentive to migrate to other finishing approaches.

The transition to new finishes did not happen all at once. There was a period during which watch companies proposed different grades of finishes to their clients. A given timepiece was, thus, offered with “normal” finish, which addressed all of the functional needs or, at a higher price, you saw that coming, a fine finish (termed “soignée”) which added a full range of motifs to enhance the appearance of the movement. Indeed, in some cases, a third grade, extra soignée was offered. While this “would you like an economy ticket” or “would you like to fly first class” approach to marketing may have had a certain appeal during an era when watches were largely bespoke, today not only would it clash with the sensibilities of collectors, but it would corrode the standing of a grand marque. Who today would lust for an haute horlogerie timepiece lacking aesthetic finishes on the movement, done in the name of economy?

Today’s ethic of a full range of finishes bestowed upon the movement, some done for functional reasons, some purely for beauty, is not only thoroughly and inextricably interwoven with quality and value, but has become a celebrated part of watchmaking tradition. For each one of the finish motifs, historically well rooted rules now govern the particular components upon which it may be used, the techniques and tools for creation, and the notions of what is and is not an acceptable final appearance.