It was a cold wintry day in 2005, in Bienne, a medium-sized, protestant town at the foot of the Swiss Jura mountains. A chilly fog coming off the lake enveloped the quiet town, a town that is nonetheless the nerve centre of the Swiss watch industry, a town where ostentation is sinful and work is elevated to a form of destiny. The contrast could not have been greater for Christine Albanel, president of France’s “Public Establishment of the Museum and National Estate of Versailles”, the Château of Louis XIV, the Sun King.
This high-ranking civil servant had been invited to lunch by Nicolas Hayek, the king of Swiss watchmaking, and the man responsible for bringing the industry back to life in the 1980s. He was the founder-owner of the Swatch Group was mourned by an entire nation on his death in 2010. Only a motive with some crucial premise could explain why such a person, the future Minister of Culture under Nicolas Sarkozy, would come to this austere country: money. And it was a noble motive—to sign a contract of cultural patronage with the Breguet brand.
A car was sent to pick up Ms. Albanel, who flew from Paris to Basel-Mulhouse airport, to take her to Bienne, home of the Swatch Group’s headquarters. She was welcomed by Emmanuel Breguet, seventh generation of the illustrious dynasty of inventors founded by his ancestor, Abraham Louis. Born in 1747 in the Swiss town of Neuchâtel, of protestant parents, he established his workshop in Paris, where he became very successful, even creating a unique watch for the queen, Marie-Antoinette.
Now, two and a half centuries later, a representative of the French Republic was in Bienne to discuss business with the genius Swiss-Lebanese entrepreneur. Everything went well. They took lunch in Hayek’s private dining hall along with Emmanuel Breguet, brand manager for Breguet in France, who is also the brand’s historian and curator of the Breguet museum and archives, located on the Place Vendôme, in Paris. Breguet Watches, the prestige brand of the Swatch Group, is now managed by Marc A. Hayek, grandson of the late patriarch.
It was a “very simple meal, in a simple setting, and it did not last long,” confides the direct descendant of Abraham Louis. The Breguet brand, with the Hayek family’s own financial backing, thus became one of the patrons of the Château de Versailles, which needed donations for its restoration work. But how did this come about? The unfortunate consequences of a climatic event that happened during the summer of 2003 attracted the attention of the president of the Swatch Group. An exceptional heat wave killed a 300-year old oak tree, the botanical pride of the Château de Versailles, the oldest tree on the estate. Planted under the reign of Louis XIV, it was the tree under which Marie-Antoinette would later take shade.
Nicolas Hayek heard about the tree and wanted to obtain a piece of the dead stump to make boxes for watches. He sent two emissaries to Versailles, Christian Lattmann and Vincent Laucella, both today Vice-Presidents of Montres Breguet SA, who were joined by Emmanuel Breguet. “Christine Albanel was very kind to us. Seeing that we were genuinely interested in Marie-Antoinette, she told us that she was looking for a patron to restore the Petit Trianon, which was the queen’s place of refuge and was now in a state of much-needed repair. That was the beginning of our collaboration.”
Nicolas Hayek made a donation of €6 million and became the exclusive patron for the renovation of the Petit Trianon as well as the French Pavilion, also in Versailles, an exquisite stone residence built during the time of Louis XV for the lovely Marquise de Pompadour, the king’s favourite. Breguet and its president were awarded the coveted title of “Grand Mécène du Ministère de la Culture” [Grand patron of the Ministry of Culture]. Today, a reproduction of the famous watch made by Abraham Louis Breguet for Queen Marie-Antoinette rests in a case made from wood from the legendary oak tree. The Breguet manufacture in L’Abbaye has some of this wood, a gift from the Château de Versailles. The reproduction of the watch and its case “are often travelling around the world” according to Emmanuel Breguet, who gives no further details.
Alain Baraton, chief gardener at the Trianon estate and the Grand Parc of Versailles, who also gives advice on gardening on a weekend radio show for the public station France Inter, remembers vividly the visit by Nicolas Hayek to the royal grounds. “He attended the extraction of the large oak tree. He had a lively look about him and a sparkle in his eye. He wore three or four watches on each wrist, from each of the brands he owned, so that nobody got jealous, he said,” Baraton recalls.
Patronage and communication
A patron, as defined by the Collins English dictionary, is a person who sponsors or aids artists, charities etc. Major Swiss watch brands sponsor prestigious sporting events. Rolex is one of the emblems of the Wimbledon tennis tournament and the brand of choice of Swiss champion Roger Federer. Audemars Piguet was, in 2009, co-sponsor of the fastest flying trimaran in the world, the Hydroptère.
Cultural patronage, however, is a bit more discreet. “This type of patronage is a form of communication that pairs well with our company,” explains Emmanuel Breguet. “It corresponds with the roots of our history and our desire to support projects that are perennial.” Being patron of the restoration of the Petit Trianon and the French Pavilion are not the brand’s only sponsorships. It also provided €4 to 5 million to the department of art objects at the Louvre Museum in Paris in order to reopen a series of magnificent rooms that have been closed for many years. More recently, the brand, whose cultural sponsorship activities are for the moment confined to France, gave a gift of €60,000 to the Marine Museum on the Place Trocadéro in Paris, which helped to equip a room dedicated to the Fleet Air Arm, recalling that Breguet was also the watchmaker of the Navy and the Air Force. This type of support, not surprisingly, also involves something in exchange, such as “lifetime” tickets to the historic buildings in question or even the possibility to use the prestigious locations free of charge for events.
The thing being sponsored always has a close relationship with the image conveyed by the watch brand. In this way, Hublot, from the LVMH group, among the top in large luxury divers’ watches, financed—by the intervention of its president, the Swiss Jean-Claude Biver— an exhibition devoted to Antikythera, the famous astronomical mechanism from ancient Greece. The exhibition took place at the Musée des Arts et Métiers, in Paris in 2011 (see Europa Star 6/2011 - December/January issue).
History, for watch groups, is a rich vein, a stratum that is seemingly inexhaustible. A current trend in the French capital is for large businesses to participate in the renovation of historic façades. Their names appear in large letters on sheets covering the scaffolding. Nothing could be less discreet. It is no longer a question of sponsorship, but rather of purchasing prime advertising space. Anyone who was in Paris at the beginning of 2012 could not help but notice a giant sheet depicting Swatch watches, extending over an entire section of the renovation work being conducted on the Conciergerie, where Marie-Antoinette was imprisoned before being beheaded at the guillotine…
In Bienne, the Swatch Group is not very forthcoming about this type of activity. “These operations are part of the brand’s basic marketing mix. The same principle is applied around the world,” says a spokesperson at its headquarters in Bienne. The French Ministry of Culture, which sold the “Conciergerie” space on the north façade of the current Palais de Justice, is more open. “The Swatch Group used the space for advertising during the months of October 2011 and February 2012 in exchange for a payment of €507,200,” it explains. “This support by the group financed 20 per cent of the cost of the restoration of the façade on the Quai de l’Horloge (this also included restoring the clock, the first public clock in Paris). The other partners that have provided funds for this restoration are Dior, Apple, Samsung, VW and BMW.”
This type of blatant display has upset many purists, who see this as an unacceptable—and too visible for their taste—intrusion of the marketplace into the French national heritage. Under the Ancien Régime, the kings used the money of their subjects to finance artists and major works. The Republic has done the same for a long time. Today, however, the coffers of the State are empty. They beg for charity.
Source: Europa Star December - January 2012-13 Magazine Issue
The Arts & Watches section comprises the following articles:
- Introduction: Is watchmaking an art?
- The cultural track: a discussion with Franco Cologni
- Rolex - handing down talent and experience
- Girard-Perregaux: paying tribute to Le Corbusier
- Vacheron Constantin: Creating a dialogue between art and artisanal
- Hermès - imaginary time
- MB&F – “In watchmaking, there are not enough egoists”
- Greubel Forsey – Microscopic art
- Cinema Paradiso: watches and cinema