In the world of watchmaking, Breguet has its own realm. Few can match the impact the founding father of the brand, Abraham-Louis Breguet, had on the history of timekeeping. Best known for his invention of the tourbillon, Breguet was nothing short of a visionary who knew the past, lived in the present but was always thinking of the future. This unique frame of mind is still present in the Breguet Manufacture. While they are proud of their past, they don’t dwell on it, because they know that it is the future that needs to be conquered. They achieve this by combining cutting-edge technology and innovative technical solutions with craftsmanship and decorative techniques, many of which date back to the era of Abraham-Louis Breguet himself. Haute Time’s U.S. editor, Martin Green, spoke with Marc A. Hayek, Breguet’s president & CEO, about the brand’s unique position in the marketplace, and how it achieves to have the past, present and future are united in their watches.
You took over from your grandfather, and a lot has changed in the industry and the market since. What kind of impact does this have on Breguet?
The Chinese market has played an important role in the last few years. Not only regarding sales but also in a different way of viewing watches. There is definitely more interest in mechanical watches, which aligned of course with the brand values of Breguet. The most important thing is to make sure that the spirit of the brand stays alive, and not solely focus on commercial success. That is how I feel, that you not only stay relevant but also continue the legacy. Of course, you always keep an eye on the market, and at certain points, you adapt slightly, but regarding development and research, you really stay on the same course.
Do you see an increase in demand for more complicated ladies’ watches?
A bit, but not really the complications. Overall, the segment of ladies’ watches with Breguet increased from 20% of the overall sales to 35% today, in the last three to four years. Mainly Reine de Naples, but not only, but also the traditional watches are in demand. But for me, we had seen before in many markets where we had customers who said, “I love the watch, but I would like a quartz.” I think that is part of the change we see. China was actually the country where they said the opposite: “I like the watch, but it needs to be mechanical.” This is for me what really invoked the change because we saw the same effect and also increase on the side of Blancpain. The mechanical movement in women’s watches gets accepted wider and even demanded. For me, that is quite an important part of this increase, as it is not one or two markets anymore, but it is more general.
Innovation never happens by chance. How do you nurture a culture of innovation within Breguet?
I think you have to really keep the spirit alive; you need to take certain risks. What is very important to me at Breguet is that the reason why you do research and development is not to find something innovative to say that we are the first, but rather that you have a problem, you have something that you want to improve and work on that. So take on the base problems of the movement: friction, outside influences, gravity, for which we developed the tourbillon 200 years ago. Stay with those base problems, and let’s see what we can improve. That invokes a free spirit and goes quite far out of any boundaries, while you will still make sense and stay close to the spirit of Breguet. That is what I am trying to do regarding the research and development team. We always go back to the question: What are we searching for? But then come with the craziest ideas, and we don’t limit ourselves by saying maybe this is too wild of an idea.
So they really have that freedom to search for any solution, no matter how out-there is it may seem at first?
Yes, because when you limit them in the process of creating, you are missing out on way too many things and limit your options. This freedom is something that we really try to keep alive. It is not always easy, and of course not all the ideas make it into production, but that is the risk, and if you are not willing to take this risk I think that it is hard to get to the innovation. Who knows what tomorrow is? You can’t plan innovation. That is the nice part, but also the frustrating aspect of it.
Innovation means doing things for the first time, yet Breguet is at the top of the market, so your customers have, rightfully so, very high expectations regarding reliability. How do you balance that?
We have a very large team and very strong guidelines when it comes to research and development. We don’t want clients to get watches that are not yet ready for the market. It can happen, and unfortunately has happened that you are very close and you have the watch, but it can simply not meet all the reliability standards that make it a Breguet. So these products will not be launched. For me, this is a very important point. It is a mechanical movement, it is hand-done, so you cannot prevent everything from happening, as there is still a certain percentage on which Murphy’s Law applies. That is part of our business. Unfortunately, we cannot prevent this 100%. With research and development there is a maximum risk on creativity and trying things out, but before the first piece is delivered and sold, there is really a long series of tests to ensure optimum reliability. When this cannot be achieved, I won’t release the product to the market.
There is quite a legacy behind Breguet. Where would you like to take the brand in the next 20 years?
You never know where you are really going regarding achievements and marks you are setting. For me, the biggest dream, and most important, is keeping the spirit of Abraham-Louis Breguet alive. It is the thought: “What would he have done, or in which way?” that motivates. The biggest compliment that could happen is what happened to Breguet with the tourbillon and the Breguet hands, they became industry standards. I probably won’t be around to witness this, as it takes time to achieve this, but my son hopefully will. This is not something that you can plan, but you have to put all your effort in. Perhaps it will be something with the silicium escapement, the magnetic pivot or the magnetic regulator. Perhaps one of them becomes larger than Breguet and more widely used in the industry. I would like to keep Breguet on this track, more than anything. Of course, you want growth and being well-represented around the world, but it is this what you put all the heart in, and all the time, effort and money in research and development.
If you look back, at what accomplishment at Breguet are you most proud of?
Nothing yet! (laughing) There are so many projects going on, some even date back to when I took over after my grandfather passed away, that are still not out. Of others, like the magnetic pivot was back then not even thought of, and it was released already three years ago. That is difficult to deal with and the beauty as well: Things take time, but you never know how much beforehand. If it continues in this way, the magnetic regulator is probably one of the things that I am most proud of, as it changed how you do things. Developments like these open doors for other pieces. These are things of which I think, “That is cool, we did something that really made a difference, and of which I am proud of.”
When we look at design, the heritage of Breguet is incredible. How do you get that synergy in design?
This is the beauty and the headache at Breguet. On one side you have dogmatic rules, because it is Breguet, and at the same time still a lot of room to also break some rules and innovate on design. Abraham-Louis Breguet was not only technical―if you look that watches before and after his time you see that he changed quite a bit. I also give this as input to the team. I am very happy that Vincent Laucella, vice president, creative director, is part of Breguet for over a quarter of a century, and he really is somebody who is extremely creative and sensitive to details. It’s a pleasure to work with somebody who has on one side the history and on the other side is at heart Italian, knowing fashion and design, so that we sometimes have to say, “Slow down.” The design is I think a personal thing. That is why it is in this field so important to have strong personalities and work with a long-term team. That is why we never outsource anything to a design agency. You have to be inside Breguet to be able to create, otherwise you repeat. If you were at a design agency, you get your briefing and all the specifications that you need to meet, and we end up with just another color of the dial, or they change aspects we don’t want them to change. That is especially vital when it comes to design, to have that Breguet spirit alive combined with the knowledge of the brand and still have the craziness and openness to change things and propose new things.