Feature: £2,000 Frederique Constant vs £20,000 Breguet
If you want a timepiece that echoes the classic British and French pocket watches of the 18th century, then it’s to Breguet that you’ll need to turn your attention. Simple, yet beautifully executed, plain, yet immediately recognisable, Breguet’s nod to masters like John Harrison, Thomas Mudge and John Arnold has become a style of its own within the wristwatch community. But there’s a new kid in town offering that same look for just a tenth of the price, one Frederique Constant. Should Breguet be worried?
The reason Breguet watches are so recognisable against a backdrop of Switzerland’s finest is because of the close partnership founder Abraham-Louis Breguet had with his heroes. Breguet actually worked alongside Brit John Arnold, who had himself assumed the mantle from pioneer of the marine chronometer John Harrison, and together the two men defined the basis for the modern timekeeper in a form that continues to be used to this day.
Even as Switzerland grew as formidable competition to the dominant British and French watchmakers, Swiss-born Breguet continued to honour the classic, functional style of watchmaking as it had been taught to him, preferring to live and work in Paris, visiting Arnold in London from time to time—and even exchanging sons as apprentices. When the French Revolution kicked off in 1789, Breguet chose England as his home, working for King George III—one of many high-profile customers.
Breguet may have been born in Switzerland, but England was his inspiration and France was his home, the place he masterminded the balance spring overcoil and, of course, the tourbillon. He manufactured chronometers for the French Navy, became a member of the French Academy of Sciences, received the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour from King Louis XVIII himself and even had his name inscribed on the Eiffel Tower.
As the era of Swiss watchmaking rose to overtake the weakening French and English industries, and with the establishment of prominent Swiss brands like Patek Philippe, a new style emerged. But, by this point, Abraham-Louis Breguet was already several decades passed on; he did not live to see the rise of his birth nation in the field he so adored.
It may be that, now, Patek Philippe is considered to have defined the Swiss watch as we envision it today, but it was upon Breguet’s work that this was achieved. It is in honour of this achievement, as Breguet honoured the watchmakers before him, that the 18th century style lives on in Breguet watches—only now, thanks to Frederique Constant, a Breguet isn’t the only way to relive that era.
At a tenth of the price, the Frederique Constant Slimline Classic can be excused for offering little more than the time and the date, because it’s the way it displays them that pays homage to Breguet and its contemporaries. The Breguet style hands are the most obvious starting point, slender forms broken by hollow circles near the tips, capped at the pinion to keep things tidy.
These hover over a guilloche dial that, like the Breguet’s, demonstrates a number of different techniques in the division of the otherwise monochromatic silver colouring. Roman numerals are on timekeeping duty, and even the raised plinth for the branding can be seen on both watches. And the similarities continue beyond the dial, both featuring slender, coin-edge cases stacked with straight lugs.
It’s an impressive effort from the Frederique Constant, with a casual inspection presenting a rather admirable interpretation of Breguet’s classic techniques for a fraction of the price. If you didn’t have the two watches side by side, and you were asked to guess where the extra money in the Breguet went, you might even be hard-pushed to say.
When it is side-by-side with the Breguet 7727, however, it’s a different story, especially under magnification. Let’s start over, back at the hands. First off, on the Breguet, they’re off-centre. Doesn’t seem like much, but that’s only an option if you’re willing to make your own movement. The Frederique Constant makes do with the perfectly capable Sellita SW300-1, but is constrained by its layout.
And then there’s the hands themselves: on the Frederique Constant they’re pressed from sheet metal and uniformly rounded; on the Breguet, they’re flat at the tips and rounded on the shaft. This is done by hand filing; there’s no other way. Then they’re blued by heating them up slowly and evenly—a split second too long and the hand must be polished back to bare metal and the blueing starts over.
The guilloche on the silver dial is a trademark of classic Breguet, and it’s a process done by hand with a rose engine, resulting in crisp, clean engraving with strong contrast and definition, separating each pattern such that it’s hard to believe they’re even formed from the same material. The Frederique Constant, by comparison, appears washed out and flat.
But Breguet was known primarily for his innovations, not his style, and that’s where this watch really shines. You’ll notice the dial is badged ‘10Hz’, and that’s in reference to the beat rate of the watch. The Frederique Constant, like most watches, beats 8 times per second, 28,800 times per hour. The Breguet, however, beats faster, 20 times per second. That’s twice what the El Primero achieves. This is made possible through a lightweight, skeletonised silicon escapement, demonstrated by the sub-sub-dial that reels off a scarcely believable two seconds per rotation. It’s so fast that the hand has had to be skeletonised to be light enough.
There’s one last trick up the Breguet’s sleeve that can’t actually be seen; you’ll just have to believe it’s there. Having an all-silicon escapement allows for a rather interesting new development; where the balance wheel might normally be held in place at its pivots—the tips of the axle, if you like—this Breguet uses magnets to seat one pivot against its endstone jewel, while the other simply floats free, suspended in a magnetic field. This not only allows for more precise and efficient operation, it also provides exceptional shock resistance. When knocked, the floating pivot merely wobbles in free space, the magnets settling it true again almost immediately. It’s exactly the kind of thing Abraham-Louis Breguet would have thought of himself.
The chasm in price between the Frederique Constant and the Breguet is expansive, but the Breguet does work very hard to justify its worth. What you get from the Frederique Constant is a fantastic taste of what Breguet as a brand is like, but with the 7727 you’re given the full flavour of Abraham-Louis Breguet the watchmaker. After all, the style is ultimately superficial—it’s the innovation that got his name on the Eiffel Tower.
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