Cogs of war: Napoleon’s timepieces
Bonaparte and his extended family not only ruled Europe — they were also great watch lovers
As Ridley Scott’s epic Napoleon hits the big screen this week, there’s a surfeit of Bony baloney about. With a still hotly contested legacy — despotic ruler, warmonger, administrative reformer, military genius, megalomaniac — Napoleon’s rap sheet divides opinion. But it appears that he was borderline obsessive about timekeeping.
In 1798, a month before the 29-year-old General Bonaparte would set out on his Egyptian campaign to consolidate his power, he visited the Breguet establishment on the Quai de l’Horloge in Paris. There he purchased three timekeepers: a repeating pocket watch (with which you could hear the hours chime and therefore know what the time was in the dark); a travelling calendar and repeating clock, the first of its kind; and a perpétuelle (early automatic) repeating pocket watch. Napoleon’s interest in Breguet watches was shared with his great enemy, the Duke of Wellington, who bought a montre à tact (tactile watch) in 1814, when he became ambassador to Paris, and another celebrating his victory at the Battle of Waterloo, given as a gift to a close friend on his staff.
But this wasn’t just about being on time for battle. Napoleon was a bit of a parvenu, on a meteoric rise through the ranks of social and political life, requiring objects that semaphored social status. Likewise, the rest of the Bonaparte family were keen acquirers of classy timepieces. Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, whom he had appointed King of Spain, commissioned a pocket watch decorated with a map of Spain from Breguet. When the British Army, under Wellington’s command, drove the French out of the Iberian peninsula in 1813, Joseph churlishly refused to buy the timepiece, which was now a reminder of French failure. (The story goes that Wellington bought it in 1815, enjoying the irony that a watch made for Napoleon’s brother ended up as a symbol of British victory.)
Meanwhile, Joséphine, Napoleon’s first wife, ordered a number of watches from Breguet, including a “small medallion timepiece”.
Caroline Murat, Napoleon’s younger sister and the queen of Naples, reigning from 1808 until 1815 with her husband the king, Joachim Murat, had a special relationship with Abraham-Louis Breguet, the founder of the watchmaking company. This resulted in the creation of the very first wristwatch. At the time men wore their pocket watches tucked into a waistcoat or other pocket. They were fiddly, requiring both hands to open them to view the hour. Women wore daintier, ornamental versions, often as brooches. Breguet came up with the revolutionary idea of a watch designed specifically for Caroline to wear on the wrist. Commissioned in 1810, it was delivered two years later, when Queen Caroline was in Naples, having taken over the affairs of state while the king had gone on the Russian campaign alongside her brother, Emperor Napoleon. Costing 5,000 francs, it was a slim repeating oblong-shaped watch, interestingly equipped with a thermometer (an early example of wearable tech) and secured on a slender bracelet of hair entwined with gold thread as a functional, decorative strap.
We know all this because Breguet documented and still maintains details of its clients in its registers and archives, and Napoleon was one of the most famous (along with Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, as well as King George IV and Czar Alexander I).
Queen Caroline continued to support Breguet, particularly during the years when Europe was in turmoil (and he had lost some of his best clients), acquiring a total of 34 pieces — some intended as gifts — during her lifetime.
Caroline’s original wristwatch inspired a luxurious feminine collection that’s still going strong today. The Reine de Naples features an oval-shaped dial (said to echo the contour of the Bay of Naples) and manages to feel simultaneously modern and traditional. The collection offers a wide range of refined dial designs and materials, some with intricate moon faces, fashioned from seashell or crafted as a cameo, others made in muted colours from mother-of-pearl. Each is equipped with a self-winding mechanical movement but none, sadly, has an inbuilt thermometer.
Reine de Naples from £21,100, breguet.com. Napoleon is released on November 22