Roman Silver and Breuguet Watches at the Legion of Honor

Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville Breguet: Art and Innovation in Watchmaking

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Emily S. Mendel
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Two new exhibits at the impressive Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco displaying luxury goods are worthy of note. One is a retrospective of the work of the innovative watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet and his successors displaying more than 70 pocket watches, clocks and other similar instruments.


The more important exhibit is “Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville.” Elaborate ancient Roman silver objects, found buried in northern France 185 years ago, and newly restored by the J. Paul Getty Museum in collaboration with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, are fascinating in their beauty and detail. Also included in the exhibition are about 70 other precious Roman and Greek examples from the ancient and late antiquity periods.


A farmer plowing his fields in Berthouville, Normandy in 1830 accidentally discovered a cache of about 90 ancient silver statuettes, cups and other ornamental pieces that appeared to have been buried deliberately in the first or second century AD. Later surveys of the area showed the foundations of a Gallo-Roman sanctuary, with a square of columns and two temples, but, strangely, no other settlement of any kind. It is surmised that the area may have been intended for pilgrimages and festivals.


The finest items are dedicated to the Roman god, Mercury, and have Latin inscriptions showing that they are from a Roman citizen named Quintus Domitius Tutus. Unfortunately, the farmer being superstitious about touching the objects, used his hoe to retrieve them, causing much damage, in addition to what their long burial had caused. Although the collection was repaired in the 19th century by the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the J. Paul Getty Museum recently spent four years restoring them using its state-of-the-art techniques. The results are stunning.


It is difficult to fathom that the ornate, high relief, complex silver and gold platters, cameos, intaglios, gold coins and jewelry, and marble and bronze sculptures are about two thousand years old. In fact, they might have seemed even more impressive if they had looked older, although I’m not complaining.


Of the Berthouville silver, the three statues of Mercury, from silver, gold, copper and bronze are meticulous in their detail and condition. The two-handed silver and gilt cups, decorated with bas relief centaurs, masks and literary figures will seem even more impressive if you watch the short film that explains how they were created.


I confess that I was desirous of the very contemporary-looking Roman gold and jewel necklaces, bracelets and rings, particularly, the “Seven necklaces (Treasure of Naix)” in gold, glass, amethyst, pearl and emerald from 175–225 AD. I also coveted the simple yet elegantly sculpted Greek bronze cow from 100 BC–AD 79. I’m sure that you will find your own favorites to admire.


The founder of the Breguet watch company, Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823), was a genius at watchmaking and invented the stopwatch, calendar watch, self-winding watch, thermometer watch, automatic watch (referred to as a perpétuelle), and the first watch shock-absorber device. He also was the first to use jewels in watch movements to reduce friction. His clients included King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette, Napoleon, Empress Josephine, King Georges IV of England and Tsar Alexander I of Russia.


Yet, I was a bit disappointed with the Breguet exhibition. Not being intimately familiar with horology, I didn’t appreciate the subtleties of all the watches on display. Many are pocket-watches that are in the simple neo-classical style, thin, understated, without extra ornamentation.


However, Josephine’s blue enamel “touch watch” was both unique and eye-catching.

Designed to be “read” while in her pocket so as not to appear rude, she would have pushed the large diamond arrow until it stopped at the correct time. The hours are indicated by diamond solitaires, with larger ones at three, six, nine and twelve. Having bought the watch before she became empress, she traded in the solitaires for larger ones after she was crowned.


The Breguet company was sold by the founding family in 1870 and continues to operate. It is now owned by the Swatch Group. Prices for new Breguet wristwatches range from approximately $10,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars. So, why did the Legion of Honor decide to exhibit Breguet watches? Perhaps if you wander to the main floor of the museum to the newly and beautifully restored Salon Doré from the Hotels de La Trémoille, you will deduce an answer. The Salon Doré restoration was sponsored by Breguet.








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