Apr 4, 2008
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Marie-Antoinette watch unveiled in Basel -- just 200 years late

Apr 4, 2008

BASEL, Switzerland, April 4, 2008 (AFP) - Time waits for no man, or woman -- even a queen, as Marie-Antoinette found to her cost amid the tumult of the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century.

Marie-Antoinette watch - Photo : Sebastien Bozon/AFP

France's last queen, famed for her love of luxury while her subjects suffered grinding poverty, was to have received the "most complicated and most sophisicated" watch possible back in 1783 at the behest of an admirer.

But the watchmaker Breguet -- owned by Swatch Group in its current incarnation -- took their time in meeting the royal requirements, and the watch was finished more than three decades after the queen lost her head on the guillotine.

On Friday, more than two hundred years later, Breguet unveiled only the second example of the gold pocket watch during the Baselworld watch fair here.

The so-called Breguet number 160, more commonly known as the Marie-Antoinette, is encased in 18-carat gold, while its glasses are made of rock crystal. It has a self-winding movement, and includes 63 jewels.

Unveiling the watch, Swatch chairman Nicolas Hayek said: "Three years ago we decided to make this watch ourselves. It was a hell of a challenge."

After all, no-one among the watch-makers had seen the original when the team embarked on the task of recreating the watch, which is closely tied to the history of Breguet.

All they had were drawings and technical details archived in museums including Breguet's own.

There were to be no limits to the original price, Breguet was simply told to make the "most spectacular" watch possible.

It was eventually completed in 1827, some 34 years after the queen was sent to the guillotine, and 44 years after it was ordered.

Owing to its origins and complicated engineering, the watch quickly became a legend.

It finally ended up in a museum in Jerusalem as a donation from someone who bought it years later.

In 1983, the watch was stolen from the museum.

Hayek said he wanted to advertise and pay for the watch, but was advised against it as the museum would then seek its return.

In 2005, he decided to simply make a new one.

Soon after, Hayek learnt that the queen's favorite tree in the royal palace of Versailles outside Paris, was about to be felled.

He offered to buy the wood to make the box for the pocketwatch, but Versailles offered the tree for free.

In turn, Breguet donated 5.0 million euros (7.85 million dollars) to the restoration of a section of the palace called Petit Trianon - where Marie-Antoinette spent most of her time.

Towards the completion of the watch, Hayek got a mysterious anonymous SMS from someone living near Jerusalem, offering to sell him the 200-year-old watch.

The person said he paid about 165,000 dollars (104,951 euros) for it, and wanted a higher bid from Hayek.

Hayek asked for proof that it was the real thing, but never heard back from the person.

At the end of 2007, it emerged that the watch had been sold back to the Jerusalem museum, which has not made it available for viewing since.

Hayek said he will decide whether to sell the new watch watch by the end of the fair, which closes on April 10.

If he decides to sell it, about one to two pieces will be made a year.

He also said no decision had been made regarding the price, but added: "Don't forget how much the first was offered at."by Hui Min Neo

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