One of the most complex watches assembled at the time, the recovered Breguet 160 was fit for a queen.

Damned beauty: The mystery that shrouds Marie Antoinette and her Breguet 160

Believed to be cursed, it was nonetheless a spectacular thing of beauty
Rheea Hermoso-Prudente | Dec 26 2018

If there were a timepiece that came close to the legendary cursedness of the Hope Diamond, then that would be the Breguet 160, commissioned for the French queen Marie Antoinette.

The Hope Diamond, of course, is said to have brought death to its owners, including King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette.

The Breguet 160, on the other hand, while not as lethal as that infamous blue diamond, has had its share of bad luck. First of all, its intended recipient was ruthlessly beheaded even before the watch was finished. Then, the man who supposedly commissioned it, Count Axel von Fersen, an admirer (and rumored lover) of the Queen, was beaten to death in Stockholm, almost two decades after the death of his paramour. Even the great Abraham-Louis Breguet did not live to see the watch; his son finished the watch four years after Breguet's death in 1823.

After changing hands over the years, the Queen, as the Breguet 160 is known, became part of the collection of Sir David Lionel Salomons, and, upon his death, was donated by his daughter Vera to the LA Mayer Islamic Art Museum in Jerusalem, Israel. It was then stolen by the master thief Na'aman Diller in April of 1983.

Despite attempts by the Israeli police Mossad and the Interpol, the Queen disappeared for a quarter of a century. The Breguet 160 made a reappearance when Diller's widow Nili Shomrat sold the watch back to the museum for a pittance (she reportedly received USD 30,000 for the Queen and a bunch of other watches; the Queen alone is estimated to be worth at least USD 30 million) in late 2007. Surprisingly, the museum did not allow the Breguet manufacturer to service—or even see—the watch. It was perhaps due to various insurance issues that had yet to be ironed out (the museum had received the insurance payout for the stolen collection). There are also theories that revolve around the watch's slightly less-than-legal reappearance.

Whatever the reason, Breguet has been unable to assess the watch, despite its having gone back on display at the LA Mayer Museum.

What makes the watch so special, intrigues aside? At its creation, it was the pinnacle of watchmaking technology. When Count von Fersen commissioned the piece, there was no budget or timetable set; the only stipulation was that it had to be "the most spectacular watch the world has ever seen." And that it was. After 44 years, the Breguet 160 was finally presented, featuring a minute repeater that chimed the hour, quarter-hour, and minute on demand; the equation of time; perpetual calendar; jumping hour display; thermometer; chronograph; an independent second hand; and the Para-Chute, the shock absorber invented by Breguet. All possible parts were made of 18-karat gold, even inner components which were normally made of brass. At 60 mm in diameter, it wasn't a dainty ladies watch but, rather, a culmination of Breguet's expertise. It was fit for a queen.

The Breguet 1160’s creation was a recreation inspired by the original.

Now, Marie Antoinette was no stranger to watches and was a fan of Abraham-Louis Breguet. In 1782, she was the first to order Breguet's new invention, a self-winding watch called the perpetuelle. Through her enthusiasm and passion for the brand, her husband King Louis XVI, his courtiers, family, diplomats in the court of Versailles, and other members of royalty around the world became Breguet clients as well, including Count von Fersen. The support of the country's nobility sealed Breguet's reputation as the master watchmaker to royalty. Marie Antoinette owned several Breguet watches, the last a simple watch she received in 1793 while imprisoned, just weeks before her beheading.

Despite her sudden death, the legend of Queen Marie Antoinette continues, immortalized in each passing second marked by the Breguet 160 Queen.


This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 17 2014.