Breguet, inventor of the tourbillon
Tourbillon watches from the Breguet brand deserve special attention, not least because the brand’s founder, Abraham-Louis Breguet, is one of the most prolific watch designers and inventors in watchmaking history. Most notably, he has the honour of having invented the tourbillon, a complication mechanism with balance, hairspring and escapement parts installed in a rotating carriage. This was invented in 1795, with a French patent being granted to Breguet in 1801. During the master’s lifetime, a total of 35 tourbillons were made. The aim of this invention was to improve the accuracy of the pocket watch by averaging the positional error via the rotation of the tourbillon. In the modern era, the tourbillon has acquired legendary status in high watchmaking and is one of the most beautiful mechanical complications.
During the master’s lifetime, a total of 35 tourbillons were made.
Breguet tourbillon wristwatches are a product of modern times, and unfortunately it can be argued that they are seriously underestimated by the community of collectors, despite the fact that from our point of view they are excellent collectibles and intriguing topics for research. Here, we’ll aim to show why this is the case.
Breguet Ref. 3350/3357 and 3355, early and long-living tourbillon wristwatches
The Breguet brand was one of the first to undertake the development of serial production wristwatches with a tourbillon; this work was started by Daniel Roth, now a famous independent watchmaker in his own right. He worked for the brand in the 1970s and 1980s and under his leadership the design of the tourbillon caliber 558 (Nouvelle Lémania 397) was carried out at the Nouvelle Lémania manufacturer of watch movements. The manual-wound caliber has a one-minute tourbillon and characteristic design with upward-shifted hour and minute hands. Another of Daniel Roth’s design features that survives in Breguet tourbillon watches up to the current collection is the three-pointed small seconds hand, mounted on the tourbillon shaft to indicate the seconds on the 120-degree sector scale. In 1993, the range of wristwatch tourbillons was expanded, in particular with the launch of watches with a skeletonized movement – namely reference 3355, the subject of this study.
The early reference 3350, a classic guilloché dial version, and the 3355 reference, a skeleton version with an open-worked dial, have strong collectible potential. These two references are unique in that they appear to be among the longest-lived tourbillon wristwatch references in the history of watchmaking. Ref. 3350, due to a minor modernisation of the caliber, was renamed at the turn of the 2000s to 3357, while Ref. 3355, which underwent the same modernisation, was not renamed – such are the quirks of fate in the world of watches. Ref. 3350/3357 was launched in 1988 or 1989, while Ref. 3355 came along a few years later, in 1993. Both of these references are produced by the brand to this day, judging by the collection presented on the official website of the brand as of autumn 2022. Lengths of 33 and 29 years, respectively, represent a very long life for a reference that has not undergone any significant changes either in the caliber installed in the watch or in its external execution. This appears to be an unprecedented amount of time for a tourbillon wristwatch.
The early reference 3350, a classic guilloché dial version, and the 3355 reference, a skeleton version with an open-worked dial, have strong collectible potential. These two references are unique in that they appear to be among the longest-lived tourbillon wristwatch references in the history of watchmaking.
The collector’s appeal of these references is further enhanced by the presence of a dated history of generations, differing in execution details and caliber versions. Unfortunately, this process has not attracted the interest of the collector community and as far as open sources available to us go, systemised information has not been published. This study is dedicated to filling this gap.
Breguet Tourbillon Squelette Ref. 3355, the study
Ref. 3355 was launched in 1993 in two basic versions, featuring either a yellow gold (3355BA) or platinum (3355PT) case. The diameter of the case is 35mm, with a thickness of 9mm and fitted with a sapphire caseback. The solid gold open-worked dial is silver-plated, and is embellished by a hand-worked ‘filet sauté’ guilloché decoration. The manual-wound caliber 558 SQ, since 2002–2003 in a modernised 558 SQ1 version, is skeletonized and hand-engraved. The single barrel provides a power reserve of up to 50 hours. The functions of the watch include displays for the hours and minutes, as well as a tourbillon with a three-pointed small seconds hand on its shaft. The brand also released a skeletonized version of the exotic reference 3450, featuring a case made of platinum and rose gold. Reference 3450 was designated as a model with a conventional, non-skeleton movement, though rare specimens with a skeleton movement were also released.
On the secondary market, examples also appear that are identified by the seller as being made from white or rose gold. We assume that white gold models may have been produced, albeit in extremely small quantities. As we have not been able to unequivocally identify them due to the absence of documents in available sources confirming that these watches were indeed made of white gold, from hereon in we will assume that all ‘white’ non-jewellery pieces are made of platinum. Regarding the attribution of Ref. 3355 in pink gold, we tend to be of the opinion that these are patinated yellow gold pieces that have now acquired a colour close to rose gold – something which often happens with yellow gold watches made in the 1990s. We have not found reliable confirmation of the existence of Ref. 3355 in pink gold, although such watches may have been produced – again, in very small quantities.
In 2002–2003 Breguet upgraded the caliber. The new 558 SQ1 version was used to equip watches of the same reference. The watches have since been produced only in platinum; the gold version has been discounted. The platinum Ref. 3355 is produced to this day in two versions, one on a strap and the other on a platinum bracelet, with the latter version being extremely rare – it is not difficult to assume that the platinum bracelet makes the watch very heavy (and expensive).
Throughout its production span, the watch has received an elegant 35mm case. At the launch of the reference this was perceived as the best size for a classic complication watch, while in keeping this size the brand seems to be following customers with traditional tastes. The yellow gold or platinum Empire-style case is typical of the brand’s wristwatches, with a ribbed case ring (described as carrure cannelée) and thin straight lugs. The silver-plated solid gold and open-worked dial is decorated with ‘filet sauté’ guilloche outlines. The chapter ring and small seconds arc are circularly brushed, with black pad-printed scales, inscriptions and Roman numerals complemented by blued steel ‘pomme de Breguet’ hour and minute hands. The three-pointed and blued-steel small seconds hand on the shaft of the tourbillon is one of the design elements brought into Breguet’s classic style by watchmaker Daniel Roth, an element which remains in the collection to this very day.
The watches have since been produced only in platinum; the gold version has been discounted. The platinum Ref. 3355 is produced to this day in two versions, one on a strap and the other on a platinum bracelet, with the latter version being extremely rare
The skeletonized calibers 558 SQ (early version) and 558 SQ1 (late version), manually-wound, are finished to a high standard with skeletonization, hand finishing of all parts (including chamfering and polishing), meticulous finishing of the sharp inner and outer corners, and engraving.
We want to especially highlight the finishing of the sharp inner and outer corners, a technique which requires attention, skill and a lot of time. Accordingly, watches with numerous properly finished sharp inner and outer corners have a higher price, but also a higher perceived value, which the collector must take into account. Reference 3355 is one of the best in this indicator among serially produced tourbillon wristwatches of any brand.
Reference 3355, Type1.1
The entire production period of reference 3355 is divided into two main intervals. The first interval, which we refer to as Type1, lasted from its launch in 1993 to 1998–1999. The brand then suspended production of the reference – such an assumption we make having analysed the availability of timepieces on the secondary market by year of release. The 3355 Type1 was equipped with an early version of the skeleton caliber, which was designated as 558 SQ. The main feature of this caliber version was the shape of the tourbillon carriage from the dial side, with two straight radial spokes and a third U-shaped spoke, which is used as a regulator index bridge. The traditional Genevan-style fixing cap of the hairspring outer coil, equipped with a lateral fixing screw, is clearly visible.
There are several other features that help the identification of the 558 SQ caliber and, accordingly, a Type1 watch. Firstly, the movement itself is not marked with the inscription ‘558 SQ’, at least not so that it can be seen from an external examination of the watch. In Type2 watches, the ‘Cal. 558 SQ1’ inscription is engraved to the left and below the tourbillon on the caliber dial side. Instead, caliber 558 SQ of the earliest Type1.1 period has the case number engraved on the dial side to the left of the tourbillon, without the series letter. The case number with the series designation letter is engraved on all versions of the 3355 on the bottom of the caseback rim; the case number is also repeated on the dial, found on the plate at the top of the hours and minutes sub-dial.
It is known that early examples of the non-skeleton reference 3350 did not have the reference engraved on the rim of the caseback. However, we have not seen a reference 3357 with such a feature.
The second mandatory feature of Type1.1 pieces is that the parts of the skeleton plate in which the barrel is installed, both on the dial side and on the back side, are given the shape of a double circle with two arc bars – we designate this design as ‘H.O.’. Meanwhile, the barrel and its ratchet wheel (winding wheel) are skeletonized in the shape of dragonfly legs (though it would be much easier to look at a photo than to technically describe this shape). The third feature common to Type1.1 watches is the full ring of the skeleton mainplate surrounding the tourbillon. The figure-of-eight skeleton cannon wheel (hour wheel) is a feature that Type1.1 shares with some later types. The fixed tourbillon wheel of a Type1.1 appears to be made of nickel silver. This is suggested by the fact that nickel silver exhibits a characteristic patina, very similar to the hue we found on the available images. The same material is used for the minute wheel, also skeletonized with a figure-of-eight as in the cannon wheel. This feature seems to be shared with Type1.2 and Type1.4 examples.
The 3355 Type1 was equipped with an early version of the skeleton caliber, which was designated as 558 SQ. The main feature of this caliber version was the shape of the tourbillon carriage from the dial side, with two straight radial spokes and a third U-shaped spoke
Additionally, in caliber 558 SQ the three screw holes on the back of the caliber, located under the transmission wheel (crown wheel), are arranged in a triangle pointing down. The tourbillon bridge on the dial side of the caliber is attached with blued screws and engraved. Finally, reference 3355 Type1.1 was equipped with an unsigned, ‘flat’ crown, while it should be remembered that when a watch was being serviced, a worn crown was sometimes replaced with a late crown signed with an embossed letter ‘B’ from the brand logo (a signed crown).
The cases of all the Type1.1 examples we studied are marked with the letters ‘C’, ‘D’ and ‘E’, and most likely they were produced in 1993, the year the reference was launched.
Reference 3355, Type1.2
Type1.2 is one of the rarer 3355 references – we have only been able to find one in yellow gold, sold by Christie’s. Its case is marked with the letter ‘E’, which allows it to be dated to 1993. It differs from Type1.1 in several ways – for brevity, we will highlight only those elements that distinguish this type from the previous one. In Type1.2, for the first time, a semi-circle of the skeleton mainplate surrounding the tourbillon appears. This gives the tourbillon an ‘airy’ look, seemingly suspended in air with an empty space below.
Part of the skeletonized plate, where the barrel is mounted on the dial side, is made very small. It is actually hidden under the hours and minutes sub-dial outline, enabling the barrel, skeletonized in the shape of ‘dragonfly legs’, to be almost completely visible. At the same time, the mainplate on the back side retains the ‘H.O.’ design.
Type1.2 is one of the rarer 3355 references – we have only been able to find one in yellow gold, sold by Christie’s.
Another difference concerns the engraving of the caliber on the dial side. To the left of the tourbillon cage, where the case number without the series letter is engraved in Type1.1, another number is engraved – in this example, ‘2’. Single-digit numbers, 1xx numbers, and 7xx (in the vast majority of instances), also appeared in Type1.3, Type1.4 and Type1.5 watches. We assume that this is the serial number of the movement, which in caliber 558 of the non-skeleton reference 3350/3357 is engraved on the reverse side. However, we cannot be absolutely certain about this.
Reference 3355, Type1.3
Type1.3 can only be described as ordinary to the extent that it is possible to describe a collector’s skeletonized tourbillon as ordinary. It differs from Type1.2 in two significant details. The parts of the skeleton plates in which the barrel is mounted, both on the dial side and on the back of the caliber, are made very small, so that the barrel and its ratchet wheel are both skeletonized in the form of ‘dragonfly legs’ and are almost completely visible. The fixed tourbillon wheel, which in the previous types appears to be made of nickel silver, in Type1.3 takes on a distinct yellow hue, apparently gold-plated. This yellow-toned wheel is especially noticeable in platinum models, where it gives the movement a piquant two-tone appearance.
In addition, Types1.3 and 1.4, apparently from the ‘i’ series, were equipped with a signed crown, while the examples marked with earlier letters are mainly equipped with ‘flat’ crowns.
The Type1.3 specimens we studied, as well as those of Type1.4, are marked with the letters ‘F’ to ‘i’ (yes, the ‘i’ is with a dot), which corresponds to the production period from 1994 to 1998, possibly until 1999.
Reference 3355, Type1.4
Type1.4 differs from Type1.3 in only one part – the fixed tourbillon wheel. This is made of white metal instead of being yellow gold-plated. As in Type1.1 and Type1.2, here the fixed tourbillon wheel may well be nickel silver.
We were only able to find Type1.4 watches in yellow gold.
Reference 3355, Type1.5
This type is extremely rare – we have only been able to find one example, in yellow gold, sold by Phillips, and marked with the letter ‘i’ (with a dot). Apparently, this is one of the last pieces of reference 3355 Type1 produced in 1998, or possibly in 1999. From Type1.4, this type is distinguished by a skeleton cannon wheel (hour wheel) with spokes to form a cross, instead of an eight, while the skeleton minute wheel retains the figure-of-eight shape. The cross-shaped hour wheel is typical of reference 3355 Type2, as we will see later, although the Type2 skeleton minute wheel is different, featuring four spiral bars.
Reference 3355, Type2.1
Reference 3355 Type2.1 was launched by the brand in 2002 or 2003, and only in platinum. The launch of this version coincided with the transition to a modernised caliber, which is designated by the brand as 558.1 in the non-skeletonized reference 3357 and as 558 SQ1 in the skeletonized reference 3355.
One of the main features of the modernised caliber is the new shape of the tourbillon carriage, featuring three equidistant radial spokes and a traditional Genevan-style fixing cap of the hairspring outer coil, with two screws and without a side fixing screw. The absence of the regulator index means the caliber received a free-sprung balance, and again the Breguet hairspring.
The transition to a new generation caliber also becomes apparent when looking at the watch from the back, where you can see the new design of the skeletonized caliber with motifs of the Earth (as a tourbillon), the Sun revolving around it (as a winding barrel, skeletonized in a ‘diamonds’ shape), Venus as a morning star, and the crescent Moon.
On the figure in the form of a ‘bat’ mask there are three holes for screws on the back side of the caliber, under the transmission wheel (crown wheel). In the 558 SQ1 they are placed in a line, whereas in the caliber of the previous generation they formed a triangle. The skeletonized cannon wheel with spokes forming a cross, instead of a figure of eight, is supplemented in Type2 with a skeleton minute wheel with 4 spokes, each curved in a spiral. Moreover, the minute wheel of Type2 watches is hand-engraved, while in Type1 watches it is plain. The brand has denied the allegation of using untreated nickel silver for the fixed tourbillon wheel and minute wheel. The movement as a whole has a pure white metallic tone, while the fixed tourbillon wheel and cannon wheel, along with the centre wheel and tourbillon cage driving wheel (situated on the reverse), have a yellow gilded finish.
One of the main features of the modernised caliber is the new shape of the tourbillon carriage, featuring three equidistant radial spokes and a traditional Genevan-style fixing cap of the hairspring outer coil, with two screws and without a side fixing screw.
Additionally, in the 558 SQ1 the brand brought back the full ring of the skeleton mainplate, surrounding the tourbillon. This was a feature of the early Type1.1. In Type2.1, the tourbillon bridge set on the back side the caliber is engraved with the inscription ‘Breguet’, while in Type1 it was engraved with a floral ornament.
In the Type2.1 and Type2.2 watches, instead of the serial number of the case or the serial number of the movement being inscribed on the dial side, to the left and below the tourbillon, the designation of the caliber, ‘Cal. 558 SQ1’, appeared.
Finally, the main feature that distinguishes Type2.1 from the subsequent Type2.2 is the tourbillon bridge on the dial side. This is without an engraved floral ornament, but with a modest horizontal straight grinding instead.
The cases of the Type2.1 examples we studied are marked with the letter ‘N’ of the case serial number, which corresponds to 2002 or 2003 production.
Reference 3355, Type2.2
Type2.2, currently the last reference 3355 version still in production today, brought back the tourbillon bridge on the dial side, hand-engraved with a floral motif. Incidentally, this is perhaps a unique feature of Breguet skeleton tourbillons, while other brands prefer a classic finish with fine mirror polishing.
The earliest of the Type2.2 examples we studied is marked with the letter ‘Q’ of the case serial number, which refers to the year 2003. Again, the release of reference 3355 Type2.2 continues to this day, in two versions, on a leather strap or on a platinum bracelet, both offered on the brand’s website.
Reference 3355, missing Type1.6
Finally, we would like to share with you information about a lost reference 3355 version that may well exist, though we intend to make it clear that this is only our guess, based solely on our knowledge of the evolution of the 558 caliber. The missing Type1.6 could have been produced as a transitional reference 3355 version, which may have the following properties. Firstly, the missing Type1.6 could use the upgraded 558 SQ1, not as it is in the reference 3355 Type2.1 and Type2.2, but as it appears as the base caliber in the skeletonized Breguet Tourbillon Perpetual Calendar Ref. 3755. This is the same movement as the 558 SQ1, but with the addition of a perpetual calendar module. Secondly, Ref. 3755 uses a skeleton version of the 558.1 caliber of the first, second and third generations, skeletonized and engraved differently from the reference 3355 Type2, with a design similar to the reference 3355 Type1. So, technically it is the caliber 558 SQ1, but design-wise it is the caliber 558 SQ.
If this movement was produced by the brand for the 3755 models, then why couldn’t it appear in Ref. 3355? We leave this question open.