Few things excite hardcore watch enthusiasts as much as the concept of a pièce unique. It’s a natural impulse among collectors to seek out something no one else has, and a truly one-of-a-kind timepiece naturally can’t be topped for rarity. In today’s heavily publicized modern watch industry, true pièce unique designs are still rare but serve as public relations stunts as much as they do actual consumer products. These modern one-offs act as halo pieces for their respective brands, drawing copious media fanfare and community hype that reaches far beyond the single watch’s eventual owner. This wasn’t always the case, however. In years past, one-off watches were just that — watches that were made once, and never again. Breguet managed to turn this simple idea into an art form, developing an entire business concept around made-to-order watches that lasted for decades. Our featured watch for today is a prime example of that business model in action, delivering one of the most classically refined dress watches of the 20th century. This ‘60s-era Breguet Empire is an endlessly compelling bespoke beauty, combining traditional brand aesthetics with one of the finest movements of the era to showcase the real power of a pièce unique.
Coming to us courtesy of renowned vintage watch retailer Oliver and Clarke, this particular later-model example of the Breguet Empire serves to illustrate the brand’s unique business approach. For much of the mid-20th century, the heart and soul of this historic brand was its flagship Paris showroom. Outside of serial-produced military timepieces such as the Type 20 pilot’s chronograph (and its civilian variants), much of Breguet’s business in these days was strictly made-to-order. Buyers would enter the Paris showroom, select a case, a movement, and a dial design, and the marque would produce a one-off watch to that exact specification. The Empire series operated in this way throughout its entire production run and combines many of the nameplate’s most sought-after features alongside an honest and attractive patina.
At 36mm-wide, the yellow gold case of this Breguet Empire is the widest of the available options and presents an array of classic Breguet visual cues. The brand’s distinctive mid-case fluting is present and accounted for here, along with the familiar straight Breguet lug architecture. Interestingly, the Empire uses screws to secure its strap rather than spring bars, leading to a touch of added visual detail on an otherwise elegantly simple part. The grooved smooth bezel is likewise a subtle addition of detail on the wrist, without disrupting the cleanliness of the overall design. Around back, the solid caseback has been engraved with the initials “L.B.” While the identity behind these initials is likely lost to time, it adds another layer of humanity and intrigue to an already mysterious bespoke-made timepiece.
Like the case, the dial of this particular Breguet Empire puts a spotlight on a host of traditional Breguet flourishes. For a start, there’s the mirror-polished gold Breguet handset, coupled with a set of classic printed Roman hours numerals. Of course, it’s the guillochage that truly steals the show here. The clous de Paris texture of the main dial surface has picked up a fair amount of patina over the years, accenting the warm silver tones of the dial with minute flecks of brown. The radial brushing of the hours ring is similarly aging gracefully, with subtle variations in tone that bring new depth to the layout. In between these larger segments, though, Breguet showcases its exquisite attention to detail. Each dial segment is bordered by a razor-thin accent ring, each of which uses a unique guilloché texture. It’s a subtle touch, but one that immensely deepens the sense of quality behind the design.
Breguet equips this particular Empire with one of the finest movements of the era, the Peseux 260. Only 3,300 examples of this hand-wound small seconds movement were produced between 1947 and 1970, powering timepieces from a broad range of Swiss brands during that era. The Peseux 260 is far from a run-of-the-mill small seconds movement for the era, however. Built from the ground up for competition in the famed observatory chronometer trials in Geneva and Neuchâtel, the Peseux 260 is one of the most accurate movements of its time, and its low-stress 18,000 bph beat rate makes it unexpectedly reliable as well. Although the Empire’s original strap is long gone, the textured chocolate brown leather currently fitted to it matches the character of the watch on the wrist perfectly.
The classic ‘60s-era Breguet Empire is a charismatic classic on its own merits, but the idea that this particular timepiece was made-to-order specifically for the original buyer as a one-of-a-kind piece elevates it into the lofty heights of the vintage watch pantheon. It stands as a potent reminder of the power of a truly one-off watch, and a case study for why we as enthusiasts should strive to be different, stand out from the crowd, and find something we can truly call our own.