Here is the “Dollfus” Perpetual Calendar, nicknamed after its original owner – sold at auction in 2011, and not seen in public since. Though it’s well known in enthusiast circles both by name and reputation, we thought today – Leap Day – would be a great opportunity to look back at this historic watch – the first perpetual calendar wristwatch. When this particular watch was first sold, the price to the new owner, Mr. Jean Dollfus, was 11,000 Swiss Francs. It was a lot of money then, and today it would be considerably more, but even the inflation adjusted price pales in comparison to what it fetched at auction at Christie’s, in 2011: $475,618. It’s obviously an enormous sum of money, but the price becomes easier to understand, when you understand what the watch represents.
It’s quite simply one of the most important vintage wristwatches ever made by Breguet, and perhaps the single most important perpetual calendar wristwatch ever made, on account of it being – possibly – the first instantaneous perpetual calendar movement specifically made for a wristwatch. Patek Philippe, we should mention, did sell an instantaneous perpetual calendar much earlier – it was sold to Thomas Emery, in 1925 – but that watch used a movement, no. 97975, which had originally been made in the late 19th century as a ladies’ pendant watch movement; it’s now in the Patek Philippe Museum. The Patek shows that the technology existed much earlier than the 1920s and 1930s to make a wristwatch perpetual calendar; the movement in it was quite small at only 12 lignes. But it was left to Breguet to make an instantaneous perpetual calendar for the first time, specifically with a movement designed for a wristwatch.
The movement in the Breguet wristwatch, no. 2516, is even smaller than that in the Patek. According to Christie’s auction notes, this is a 10 ligne movement (about 22.5mm) with 18 jewels, a bimetallic compensating balance, Breguet balance spring (naturally) and a full suite of perpetual calendar indications, including the phase of the moon. All the indications jump instantly at midnight, which was a remarkable achievement even in earlier pocket watch perpetual calendars; all the more so in a wristwatch.
A first in a watchmaking industry, it also set the tone in terms of aesthetics. Displayed on a silvered matte dial, underneath an aperture for moon phases, the calendar functions lend the watch – otherwise a fine example of Breguet’s Art Deco period – a remarkably contemporary feel.
Of course, this isn’t the only amazing early Breguet perpetual calendar we’ve looked at on HODINKEE. In our Talking Watches episode with John Goldberger, he showed us a truly incredible vintage Breguet perpetual calendar wristwatch, seen below. This is what we had to say about it then:
“There is special, and then there is special. This is a Breguet wristwatch (keep in mind, there aren’t many of those from the 20th century that weren’t pilot’s chronograph) that dates to 1936. Not only that, but it’s a perpetual calendar. Actually, it’s a unique, rectangular white gold perpetual calendar with retrograde date. This watch is also a world premiere here on HODINKEE and even Breguet themselves don’t know about this one. It is one of three vintage retrograde perpetual calendars (period, from any brand of the 20th century) – and the other two are round and sit in the Patek and Breguet museums, respectively.”
Born into a prominent Parisian family, Jean Dollfus and his brother Louis owned a number of highly complicated pocket watches from Breguet, and would have been on the manufacture’s VIP list when the movement was in development. The Dollfus family were extremely enthusiastic Breguet clients – Breguet archives mention nine watches sold to Jean and Louis Dollfus between 1922 and 1934, and their purchases included a tourbillon pocket watch, a repeater, and a carriage clock with astronomical indications (among other things). Another purchase made by the Dollfus brothers is shown below: a chronometer escapement pocket watch with Guillaume balance, which achieved a price of $150,386 at Christie’s in 2008. However, there seemed to be no competition in this fraternity.
Call it brotherly love, but the “Dollfus” perpetual calendar was bought selflessly by Jean as a gift to congratulate his brother Louis on recording 500 hours of flight time – the final requirement to receiving a pilot license in France at the time. Engraved at the back are words of congratulations from Jean to his younger brother: “Souvenir de Jean Dollfus à son frère Louis pour ses 500 heures de vol décembre 1933,” (“Token from Jean Dollfus to his brother Louis for his 500 hours of flight time December 1933″).
Louis was the kind of guy you see in the movies: A one-time 24 Hours of Le Mans participant, and a collector of all things mechanically powered, including high-end complications, aircrafts, and sports cars. Remind you of anyone? Perpetual Calendars have become such a common sight; it’s easy to forget they were worn in pockets, not on wrists, less than 100 years ago.
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