An Excerpt From Marie Antoinette’s Watch

An excerpt from my upcoming book, Marie Antoinette’s Watch. Sign up for more information here.


A walker in 18th-century Paris, his boots caked with mud and much worse, would not come upon the Place Dauphine by chance. To find the quiet triangle one has to traverse Pont Neuf, or the New Bridge (this, the oldest bridge in the city, was also the first one not covered in houses and shops) onto the island where Paris began: the Île de la Cité. A jog to the left, between two four-story buildings, brings him to a small park with a few stunted trees and perhaps a bench or two where men spoke furiously over plans and scraps of polished metal. The walker, however, could do no better than to sit listening to the quiet susurration of the the trees and the gentle ting-ting of jewelers hammers. It was in this courtyard, he would quickly discover, where the mechanical heart of Paris ticked. It was, in fact, the home to most of France’s most illustrious horologers.

To look at the neighborhood today is to glimpse Paris as it was in the 18th century, when the city was “the mother and mistress of all cities.”[1] From the far bank of the Seine, standing by the crate-shaped kiosks selling postcards and books and gazing across the river at the northwestern cusp of the Île de la Cité, you see the dark uneven teeth of the housetops and the white stone faces of buildings that have changed little over the centuries. Crossing the bridge you are suddenly in a much older France.

Looming to your left are the once-forbidding walls of the Palais de Justice, the Conciergerie (the palace prison once known as the antechamber to the guillotine), the pepperpot-roofed Bonbec Tower, which served as a torture chamber during the middle ages, and the square, soaring Tour d’Horloge. These fortifications, built in 1215, connect the old part of the Quai d’Horloge, at the towers, to the more modern 15th and 16th century homes along the bank. Quai d’Horloge means Clock Dock.

All of Paris’ bureaucratic work has been done here for centuries, and the handsome if overly dramatic clock at the tower’s base – built in 1370 by German horologist Henri de Vic and decorated with weather-faded fleurs-de-lis, figures symbolizing justice and piety, and two cherubic angels – would have marked the time for vassals coming to their King and, later, for revolutionaries coming to unseat that selfsame royalty. Today it is stopped, due to disrepair, at sixteen minutes past twelve. Further down the island, however, things changed. The stomping of judges through empty halls was replaced by the ting ting of hammers. Couriers carrying dockets were replaced by boys carrying small paper packages of glass. Visiting potentates let their care fall away as they entered the warren of houses on the western tip of the Quai. For it was here that the clockwork heart of Paris – and the world – ticked.

Paris had its quarters dedicated to specific branches of manufacture and commerce. Just as Le Sentier in the 2nd Arrondissement was dedicated to clothing and Place Pigalle, Paris’ storied red light district, was dedicated to its removal, so the Clock Dock was home to almost all of Paris’s master watchmakers, opticians, and makers of precision instruments, including pedometers and thermometers. From the front, only a few shops were visible, but the open rectangle the buildings backed onto, the Place Dauphine, was a bustle of activity. Inside the buildings enamelists stoked their forges, goldsmiths hammered their precious metal, and casemakers worked alongside artisans who specialized in the smallest movement components, while runners – apprentices to the watchmakers – darted from shop to shop and factory to factory, picking up parts and placing nearly finished pieces in front of various experts.

The workshops were a maze of machinery, with drill presses and mechanical cutters sitting cheek by jowl beside older machines for toothing gears and polishing the fine parts that made up a fine watch. There were places on the Quai where a clockmaker could have a bit of gold shaped into a fine curlicue and where a goldsmith could get advice on how best to repair a customer’s shattered crystal. This was a site of constant, percolating exploration where, unlike among the jealous members of warring guilds and most scientific salons, communication and sharing were the norm. If one watchmaker was unable to perform some feat of clockwork daring, a ready team of experts was willing to take up the cause and perhaps throw a commission back to the original workshop. The occupants of the Quai were in such close quarters that they had no other choice.

At the height of the late 18th century, Paris’s golden era of watchmaking, thousands of craftsmen plied their trade here. They were led by a small constellation of masters and among these some of the masters were considered good enough for the King.

For nearly a century, the French monarchy had been appointing various watchmakers as Horloger du Roi – official watchmaker to the king – and most of these men kept a shop on the Quai or sourced their material there. For most of the century successive watchmakers maintained the clocks at the various royal residences, making the rounds to wind and clean the timepieces that graced countless mantles and salon walls. By the 1780s, however, these royal watchmakers were more than just common clock-winders. They were skilled with metal, enamel, glass, and crystal, and were making some of the most complex artifacts of their day. The Quai was also famous for glasswork and lenses, and the watchmakers often consulted with the astronomers who frequented the other shops, discussing methods for calculating various important days and hours using only clockwork. The watchmakers spent hours together, mulling the problems of the era, from how to achieve perpetual motion (many thought it had something to do with friction, although few could pin down the true meaning of entropy) to understanding the nature of time itself. After all, it was impossible to tell time if it could not be codified and defined, and the horologists of the Clock Dock were more interested in advancing science and industry than supplying simple watches to petty nobles – although their royal commissions were always the most lucrative.

The master watchmakers here included members of the Jaquet-Droz family, from which sprang Pierre Jaquet-Droz, creator of miniature and full-sized automata so fine and esoteric that they would one day be credited as the precursors to modern robots. Each was made from some 6,000 parts. Jaquet-Droz built a singing bird that worked using a series of tiny bellows that blew air into small pipes. When the bird was wound, the clever clockwork blew each pipe in a jaunty sequence, creating a random song. The roboticist’s collection also included erotic timekeepers showing rapturous parties making love in various positions. The most popular with the young men at court often featured staid, religious animations featuring Moses and other Biblical figures on the front and considerably more bawdy animations hidden on the back. He was so accomplished at recreating living motion that he was often accused of witchcraft.

In one particularly fanciful tale, it was said that Jacquet-Droz made a unique clock for the king of Spain that featured a shepherd and a dog under and apple tree. When the clock struck “the shepherd played six tunes on his flute, and the dog approached and fawned on him.”

Droz said: “The gentleness of my dog is his least merit. If your majesty touch one of the apples which you see in the shepherd’s basket, you will admire the fidelity of this animal.”

When the King touched one of the apples the dog turned and barked so loud that the King’s own – living – dog took to his master’s defense.[2]

Another prominent watchmaker was Ferdinand Berthoud. A portly businessman who wore his hair in a short powdered bob, his stern eyes hid a mischievous love of horological debate. Like Jaquet-Droz, Berthoud also came from Switzerland but instead of automata he focused on some of the more mundane, yet most important, aspects of watchmaking, including the management of friction, shock, and environmental effects. He penned the watchmaking entries in the great Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert, and had become horloger du roi when he began his work on the marine chronometer, an accurate clock that could survive rough treatment on the high seas. Making clocks for sailors was a particularly lucrative and difficult undertaking given the harsh conditions, including salt spray and violent rocking in storms, faced by the navies of the age.

Berthoud invented the compensated balance, a small wheel made of multiple metals that would grow and shrink, at equal, countervailing rates, in the heat. This mixture of materials would keep a watch from running more slowly in the tropics, and Berthoud sold his technology to the French Navy, giving France the upper hand at sea. While many manufacturers tried to build similar clocks, sea captains knew that “a bad chronometer is worse than none”[3] and Berthoud’s were some of the best simply by dint of their precision and sturdy construction.

Here, too, on the Quai was Jean-Antoine Lepine, a dour, long-faced man with a prominent Roman nose, began as a prodigy from Geneva who had married into watchmaking royalty when he wed the daughter of an horloger du roi named Pierre Augustin Caron, himself noted for creating a ring-mounted watch for Madame de Pompadour (and, later, for writing The Marriage of Figaro under the name Beaumarchais). Lepine devised a series of aesthetic improvements to pocket watches including a thinner case with a hidden hinge, pioneered a keyless winding mechanism, and invented a movement that used considerably less metal for the bridge, the part of the watch that kept everything else in place, thereby reducing the weight and size of the movement. Called the Lepine caliber, it looked like a set of piano keys under which were connected the power train, escapement, and the rest of the transmission system. One had only to see watches from a few decades before Lepine’s reign – lumpen and onion-shaped – to understand the allure of his work.

Together, on this small triangle of land in the middle of the Seine, men like Lepine and Berthoud brought about a golden age of horology in France. The Quai became the country’s engineering hub, and its watchmakers trained others in their art, spreading their techniques throughout Europe and the New World. Every major watch company still in existence owes a debt to the small fraternity of men at the quiet end of the Île de la Cité.

Orders for the military, the monarchy, and well-appointed nobles came in daily, and the Quai’s watchmakers, renowned for inventing new complications, attracted an international clientele. Lepine, in fact, was tasked with creating a watch for America’s first President. In a November, 1788 letter to Gouverneur Morris, the co-author of the U.S. Constitution who was then in Paris, George Washington would write:[4]

Dear Sir,

I had the pleasure to receive by the last mail your letter dated the 12th of this month. I am much obliged by your offer of executing commissions for me in Europe, and shall take the liberty of charging you with one only. I wish to have a good gold watch procured for my own use; not a small, trifling, nor finically ornamented one, but a watch well executed in point of workmanship, and of about the size and kind of that which was procured by Mr. Jefferson for Mr. Madison, which was large and flat. I imagine Mr. Jefferson can give you the best advice on the subject, as I am told this species of watches, which I have described, can be found cheaper and better fabricated in Paris than in London. To defray the cost I enclose a bill for twenty-five guineas on London, payable at sight. Should the expense be greater, for I would have a good watch, I will take care to reimburse it to you. I want nothing more with it than a handsome key.

Morris swiftly replied:[5]

Paris 23 Feb 1789

Dear General,

Upon my arrival at this Place I spoke to Mr. Jefferson on the Subject of your Watch. He told me that the man who had made Maddison’s [sic] was a Rogue and recommended me to another, Romilly. But as it might happen that this also was a Rogue I enquired at a very honest Man’s Shop, not a Watch Maker, and he recommended Gregson. A Gentleman with me assured me that Gregson was a Rogue and both of them agreed that Romilly is of the old School and he and his Watches out of Fashion. And to say that of a Man in Paris, is like saying he is an ordinary Man among the Friends of Philadelphia. I found at last that Mr. [Lepine] is at the head of his Profession here, and in Consequence asks more for this Work than any Body else. I therefore waited on Mr. Lepine and agreed with him for two watches exactly alike, one of which be for you and the other for me.

Even with Lepine’s momentous commissions, in 1775 a precocious young watchmaker prepared to take his place among the luminaries on the Quai. His name was Abraham-Louis Breguet and he was just 28. He was five feet tall. His hair was curly at the sides, and beneath a high forehead he had a beetled, clinched brow topped with short but bushy eyebrows. His mouth was prim and closed over a prominent chin. His nose was not delicate, looking almost broken, and his eyes had the narrow focus of a man accustomed to looking at the world through a loupe. He was given to wearing a dark frock with a delicately tied cravat, a seashell-like knot at his throat.

Although technically not yet a master, Breguet showed ability far beyond his years, was already a favored watchmaker at court, and had begun to earn a considerable income. After ten years of apprenticeship, including stints under both Berthoud and Lepine, he was intent on starting his own business.

The launch of the Breguet business in Paris was painstakingly well-executed. The young Breguet, while a prodigy, was a relative unknown in Paris, having plied most his trade in Versailles. His step-father had invested a good deal in the boy, and he expected great things. But before opening his own shop, Breguet had a matter of the heart to attend to. That August 28, he wed Cecile-Marie-Louise, a beautiful counterpoint to her smaller, gnomic husband.

Hunting for a shop in the city proper, Abraham-Louis inevitably ended up on the Clock Dock, where the very men from whom he had learned so much were concentrated. And he eventually decided on Number 51, at the northern tip of the Quai, where boats coming down Seine would stop to leave shipments for the artisans clustered there.

The four-story building, owned by the well-connected Polignac family, was large and imposing, made of brick and gray stone, with finely wrought decoration around the window of alternating brick in a sunburst pattern. Front windows would allow the watchmaker to show his wares to passersby. But the kind of customer Breguet expected at his shop would not spend much time window-browsing, so he also made sure it was a space that, as he expanded, would be able to accommodate a comfortable office and showroom where he could discuss potential commissions with the lights of Paris society. When Breguet climbed the stairs to the atelier on the floor above, he was delighted to find broad windows facing both the Seine, in the front, and the triangular Place in the rear. They made the room bright and sunny – perfect for putting together tiny gears and screws. One floor above that, tall windows in the attic would make excellent additional workspaces for the watchmakers. This would be Breguet’s new home in Paris, and although at first he was to rent only the attic and ground floor, he would soon own the entire building, along with a smaller apartment next door.

Because Breguet was officially still an apprentice in 1775, he needed to receive a special dispensation to open his own business without the supervision of a master. It was an unusual move. The watchmaking guild was powerful; membership was necessary to begin building movements and cases for sale in France. The guild had only 72 French masters in the horological arts, and each could have just one apprentice at a time. The only way to open a shop was to be either the son of a Master or to be married to a Master’s widow. Breguet, who met neither of these requirements, likely received the favor to do so thanks to his close relationship with the French court. Gabrielle de Polastron, Duchesse de Polignac, was his landlord and one of royal family’s closest friends.

It was here, in this beautiful building with a view on Place Dauphine, that the measure of time with true fidelity − and a beguiling love story whose fire would eventually engulf the whole of Europe – began.

[1] . Jones, C. Paris: biography of a city /. 1st American ed.. New York: Viking, 2005. p.63

[2] . Howe, H., 1847. Memoirs of the most eminent American mechanics: also, lives of distinguished European mechanics; together with a collection of anecdotes, descriptions, &c. &c., relating to the mechanic arts. New York: Harper & brothers. P. 384

[3] . “Nautical magazine and journal of the Royal Naval Reserve.” Chronometers and Their Makers In England and France 27 (1858): 136. Print.

[4] . Washington, G., 1835. The writings of George Washington: being his correspondence, addresses, messages, and other papers, official and private. Boston: Ferdinand Andrews. P 449.

[5] . Morris, G. & Morris, G., 1971. A diary of the French Revolution. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press. P. 35.

Want to read more? Click here!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.