The story of Marie Antoinette’s Breguet pocket watch begins when Abraham-Louis Breguet, arrived from his native Switzerland in Paris. Breguet’s father had died and his mother remarried a watchmaker named Joseph Tattet. Tattet had a showroom in Paris and tried to get Breguet to take up watchmaking, but he resisted.
Eventually, however, Breguet decided to try watchmaking, and when he did, he astonished Tattet. Breguet’s watchmaking abilities also captured the attention of his mathematics teacher, Abbot Joseph-François Marie, who was also a tutor to the Count of Artois’ sons, the Dukes of Angoulême and Duke of Berry. In fact, it was through Abbot Marie that Breguet was introduced to King Louis XVI and eventually became a leading horologist and watchmaker of his time.
King Louis XVI’s interest in mechanics and the Abbot’s introduction of Breguet resulted in Louis XVI giving Breguet many commissions. Marie Antoinette also loved all the latest watch technology and was particularly transfixed by Breguet watches. In 1783, a secret admirer of the Queen’s placed an order with Breguet for an amazing pocket watch as a gift for the Queen. Breguet’s website notes:
“[The pocket watch was to be] as spectacular as possible, incorporating the fullest range of horological expertise known at the time. The order stipulated that wherever possible gold should replace other metals and that auxiliary mechanisms, i.e. complications, should be as numerous and varied as possible. No time or financial limits were imposed.”
As money was no object, the watch that came to be known as “Breguet No. 160” (also called “the Marie-Antoinette,” “the Queen,” or “the poem in clockwork”) would ultimately have 23 functions or complications. Among the complications the watch was to possess was a perpetual calendar, phases of the moon, minute repeater, thermometer, chronograph, power reserve, solar time versus mean time, chimes, independent second hands, and a double shock absorber known as a pare-chute. In addition, it was self-winding or as it was called in Breguet’s day, perpétuelle.
The person thought to be the Queen’s secret admirer and the person who likely commissioned the Breguet pocket watch was Count Hans Axel von Fersen. He was a dashing and suave Swedish count who became Marshal of the Realm of Sweden, a General of Horse in the Royal Swedish Army, and aide-de-camp to the Count of Rochambeau in the American Revolutionary War. In addition, some people claim he may have been Marie Antoinette’s lover (although there is no definitive proof).
Fersen first met Marie Antoinette in 1774 and noted after a third visit to the French court in 1778 that she had inquired about him and wished to see him in his Swedish uniform. He went to see her and wrote that she was beautiful, always courtesy, and treated him with much kindness. In addition, he added this tidbit in his diary, “She [the Queen] is the most amiable princess that I know.”
As Breguet was working on this amazing pocket watch the French Revolution broke out in 1789. The Bastille fell, the March on Versailles occurred, and the King and Queen were removed to the Palais of Tuileries. On 10 August 1792, the monarchy finally collapsed, and the royal family was imprisoned at the Temple. Several months later, on 21 January 1793, Louis XVI was guillotined, and Marie Antoinette followed him to her death on 16 October of the same year.
Interestingly, while imprisoned, Marie Antoinette commissioned a simple watch from Breguet. It was delivered to her at the Temple in September 1792. Legend has it that when she climbed the scaffolding to her death in October of 1793, she was holding this simple pocket watch in her hand. However, it’s doubtful the story’s true because her hands were tied behind her back before she entered the tumbril that took her to the place of her execution at the Place de la Révolution.
Marie Antoinette’s Breguet pocket watch No. 160 was worked on with enthusiasm by Breguet up until the time of his exile. That was between 1789–1795 and that is when he stopped work on the watch. Although the Queen had died, he resumed work on the watch in 1796 and incorporated the most valuable materials that he could find. These included gold, platinum, rubies, and sapphires. He also encased the watch in 18-carat gold and added a clear face so that the watch’s movements and its 823 parts and components could easily be seen.
Work on the watch continued even after Fersen’s death on 20 June 1810. He died at the hands of a Stockholm lynch mob in a dispute over royal succession. Breguet did not stop working on the watch until his death on 17 September 1823. Still, the watch was not forgotten. Others took over and it was ultimately completed in 1827, 4 years after Breguet’s death, 34 years after Marie Antoinette’s death, and 44 years after Fersen placed the order.
After Marie Antoinette’s Breguet pocket watch was completed, it sold to the Marquis de la Groye, who returned it for repairs in 1838 but then inexplicably failed to retrieve it. The Breguet Company retained the watch until they sold to an English collector named Sir Spencer Brunton in 1887. Eventually, in the 1920s, the watch fell into the possession of a Breguet expert and collector named Sir David Lionel Salomons who died in 1925. He bequeathed it to the L.A. Mayer Institute for Islamic Art in Jerusalem where it was stolen, along with many other watches, in 1983. “For decades, speculation persisted that the break-in must have been an inside job involving a museum functionary, or was commissioned by a collector.”
However, it was no inside job because it was eventually discovered that a notorious Israeli master thief of antiquities and ex-kibbutz member named Na’aman Diller, was the thief. In 2006, the museum secretly obtained Breguet No. 160* and several other watches taken in the 1983 heist. They paid $30,000 to Diller’s widow, who sold them back to the museum’s curator. Apparently, Diller was not interested in money when he stole the watches years earlier. His heist was because of an interest in how the watches worked. In fact, according to one newspaper:
“[H]idden inside each mechanism minuscule paper strips covered in diagrams and spidery handwriting, tightly rolled up in plastic. ‘They were instructions: how to take them apart, put them together, how to reset, oil, wind them, how to look after them.’ … Maybe taking watches apart gave him pleasure.”
*Breguet No. 160 was valued at $30 million in 2013. A reproduction of No. 160 was created in 2004 and is called No. 1160.
-  “Marie Antoinette Pocket Watch,” Breguet Depuis 1775, accessed January 1, 2018.
-  George Augustus Sala and Edmund Yates, Temple Bar: A London Magazine for Town and Country Readers v. 55 (London: Ward and Lock, 1879), p. 78.
-  Alix Kirsta, “Marie Antoinette: the queen, her watch and the master burglar,” The Telegraph, 24 April 2009.
-  Ibid.