As we explained yesterday in a more technical/historical article, this year is special, being a leap year. As such, this is the perfect time to talk perpetual calendars, watches specifically designed to take into account this specificity of the Gregorian calendar, when February lasts 29 days instead of its usual 28 days. And today’s perpetual calendar watch is special… Not only because it looks absolutely stunning, but because it is one of the most historically important wristwatches, from one of the most important watchmakers (if not the most important of them all). This is the story of the Breguet no. 2516, possibly the first-ever, purpose-built perpetual calendar wristwatch.
A succinct history of the Perpetual Calendar
Man’s struggle to create a rational system that accurately reflects Earth’s rotations around the Sun and “fixed” astronomical events led to the creation of a rather complex calendar in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII, later named the Gregorian calendar – which is still in use today as the worldwide civilian calendar. Besides determining dates in the ecclesiastical calendar, the Gregorian reform perfected the rule for leap years. The Gregorian rule for determining leap years is even more precise than the Julian calendar and answers the question why years like 1700, 1800, 1900, 2100 and 2300 are not leap years, but why 1600, 2000 and 2400 are leap years.
As we know, early watchmakers were interested in science and especially astronomy. As watchmaking advanced during the 17th and 18th centuries, watchmakers soon tried to create watches that reflected the reality of the seasons and calendar indications by adding complications such as moon phases or multiple astronomical displays. And of course, then came the idea of making watches able to reflect the idiosyncrasies of the Gregorian calendar… And that meant mechanisms that could take into account months with 30 or 31 days, but also February and its 28 days and, last but not least, the occurrence every four years of a leap year with 29 days for the month of February.
Even though the history of watchmaking is a complex science, few doubts persist today on the authorship of this delicate and complex mechanism: Thomas Mudge. Born 1715, Mudge was an important watchmaker and horologist, an apprentice of George Graham, who invented the lever escapement in 1755, which can be considered one of the greatest improvements ever applied to pocket watches. He also created the first pocket watch to include an automatic device which compensated for changes in temperature, as well as a great influence on the minute repeater or the equation of time.
Though the perpetual calendar mechanism had been employed in clockwork as early as c.1695 by both Tompion and his successor Graham, Thomas Mudge is often credited as the first person to adapt it to a watch. He developed a miniaturized device to be fitted in two sister pocket watches, the nos. 525 & 574, completed respectively in 1762 and 1765. This first one, no. 525, was sold by Sotheby’s in 2016 for a surprisingly low price of GBP 62,500 – a bargain considering the historical importance of this watch – and is now in possession of the Patek Philippe Museum. The second one, no. 574, is now on display at the British Museum and has its original gold case.
For many years it was assumed that Abraham-Louis Breguet had been the first to incorporate a perpetual calendar in a pocket watch, as A.L. Breguet began to construct his famous no. 160 “Marie Antoinette”, which included a perpetual calendar, in 1783. Also important is the Breguet no. 92 or “Duc de Praslin”, a true masterpiece that is often considered the second most complicated watch of A.L. Breguet after the “Marie Antoinette” watch and that is now on display at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris. Even though Breguet cannot be credited as the inventor of the perpetual calendar, he was one of the few contemporary watchmakers to implement this complex mechanism in multiple pocket watches, as well as perfecting the concept.
1925 – Patek Philippe 97975 – The First Ever Wristwatch QP
Back in the 1920s, the concept of a watch for the wrist was still in its infancy. Certainly, some watchmakers – Cartier being the most well-known of the lot, with the 1904 Santos watch – were already selling wristwatches but the norm was still the pocket watch, especially when it came to complicated watches. However, some examples of early complicated wristwatches appeared as soon as the mid-1920s, but not as purpose-built objects. It was common for watchmakers to fit older pendant watch or pocket watch movements in a smaller case meant for the wrist.
This is exactly what happened with the first-ever perpetual calendar wristwatch. Completed in 1925, and sold to Thomas Emery, the earliest of all wrist QPs was a watch that used movement no. 97975, originally produced in the late 19th century as a ladies’ pendant watch movement. This watch is now owned by the Patek Philippe Museum.
In fact, the technology used for this early perpetual calendar is much older than the watch itself. In 1889, Patek Philippe filed a patent for a perpetual calendar mechanism, which was designed for pocket watches and provided immediate jumps of the days, dates, months and lunar phases. But this miniaturized technology was mainly used for ladies’ pocket and pendant watches until the trend for wristwatches created the need for smaller complicated mechanisms.
1929 – Breguet no. 2516 “The Dollfus” – A Purpose-Built Perpetual Calendar Wristwatch
Without even trying to minimize the historical importance of the Patek Philippe “Emery” no. 97975, there’s another watch that surpasses it in terms of historical significance. It might not be the very first perpetual calendar wristwatch, however, it probably is the most important calendar wristwatch and one of the most important Breguet wristwatches. Why? Because this very watch was designed from scratch to be worn on the wrist, and as such, it is the oldest-known (and possibly the first) purpose-built perpetual calendar wristwatch.
First, let’s put things back into a historical perspective. The story of Breguet is, for most watch enthusiasts, separated into two main eras. First, is the brand created and run by Abraham-Louis Breguet – basically, from 1775 to 1823 (A.L. Breguet’s death). Second is the modern form of the brand, owned by the Swatch Group – since 1999. However, between these two dates, the name Breguet will remain synonymous with Haute Horlogerie and important watches were still manufactured by Abraham-Louis’ son Louis-Antoine Breguet (from 1823 to 1833) or by his grandson Louis Clément Francois (from 1833 to 1870). He will be the last of the Breguet family to run the business. From 1870 to 1970, Breguet was owned by the English Brown family. Under this direction, the brand “Breguet” produced important complicated pocket watches, as well as significant wristwatches such as the Type 20 and Type XX.
During the 1920s, Breguet’s production was still mostly focused on pocket watches. A perfect example to illustrate this is the no. 706 above, a timepiece sold on 15 June 1925 to M. Louis Dollfus (an important name for the rest of the story), for the sum of 7,000 Francs. In the years between the two Wars, Breguet adapts its traditional models – here a perpetual calendar – to contemporary aesthetics. This can be seen with the clear Art Deco references… but the signature hands and numerals were still present. What is important to keep in mind is how “extraordinary” a complicated wristwatch was for Breguet in the late-1920s – and also for the entire high-end watchmaking industry.
In early 1929, Breguet started manufacturing the watch that is our main topic today, the no. 2516. What is important here is that it is (in the current state of the research) the first perpetual calendar built with the intention to be a wristwatch – including its movement, which is the first instantaneous perpetual calendar movement specifically designed and produced for a wristwatch. The watch wasn’t commissioned but was an internal project… which came up for sale in the most terrible period, 1929 and the Great Depression.
The Breguet Perpetual Calendar no. 2516 is perfectly in line with the period. The 26mm x 29mm case, made of 18k white gold, has a typical art deco tonneau shape. The dial, in matte silver, features Breguet numerals and blued-steel hands. But the most important part is what is inside; a purpose-built, miniaturized 10 lines (approx. 22.5mm) rhodium-plated hand-wound calibre with 18 jewels, a straight-line lever escapement, a bimetallic balance with Breguet balance spring and, most importantly, an instantaneous perpetual calendar function with date, days, months and moon phases.
The back of the case gives a clear indication of the provenance of this watch “From Jean Dollfus to his Brother Louis in memory of his 500 hours of flight, December 1933“, hence the nickname “Dollfus” of this watch. Jean Dollfus and his brother Louis were descendants of the prominent Dollfus family of industrialists and founders of a textile manufacture specialized in needlework. Both were passionate watch collectors and some of the most important clients of Breguet – the brand’s archives list at least 10 watches sold between 1922 and 1934 to Jean and Louis Dollfus. Their collections included mostly highly complicated pocket watches – incl. a tourbillon or a repeater – with the exception of a unique wristwatch, the present Perpetual Calendar no. 2516.
Their collection includes, among others, the Breguet no. 1285 “montre à cadran tournant portant les heures sautantes dans un guichet” sold by Christie’s in May 2016, or the superb Breguet no. 986, a keyless one-minute tourbillon pocket watch with Guillaume balance, Breguet numerals, Neuchatel Bulletin d’Observatoire, sold by Christie’s in November 2011.
On 28 February 1934, and for the amount of 11,000 Francs, Jean Dollfus acquired the Breguet Perpetual Calendar no. 2516 – apparently for two reasons. First to congratulate his brother Louis after recording 500 hours of flight time and obtaining his flight license. Second, less certain but still highly possible, to help Breguet as the brand was facing difficult times after the Great Depression.
Later, the watch no. 2516 would turn up twice at auction, first with Antiquorum in 1994, later with Christie’s in 2011, where the watch was sold for CHF 423,000. The watch is now part of the Breguet Museum collection and is regularly exhibited at the Zurich boutique. And what remains is an extremely important watch, which we wanted to celebrate on this special leap year.