In the cold January winter of 2019, I took my first trip to Israel. While I remained in Tel-Aviv for work during the week, I had some free time on Thursday evening to visit Jerusalem before I returned home. My colleague suggested that he take me for a short visit to see the historically important sites in Jerusalem, but he also knew my passion for horology, so he had a recommendation for me to visit the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art.

I immediately went online and Googled the museum, and to my surprise it held the world’s most horological significant pocket watch, clock, and automaton collection. I was excited and looking forward to the visit. It just so happened that we could not leave office until later in the evening and then faced the weekend traffic driving into Jerusalem. The museum was open until 7PM, and we reached there around 6:30PM. As we walked through the front entrance, we noticed no lights or people around. I thought I had missed a golden opportunity to see the collection. But to our surprise the door opened and a young attendant greeted us in the visitors booth. We purchased our admission pass and he guided us down one level to see the watch collection and asked us to take our time.

As we walked down the stairs to the ground floor, I noticed what appeared to be an old underground bank vault with a massive vault door weighing several tons. After reading the story in the book “The Art of Time” co-authored by George Daniels, I understood why such precaution is taken to protect the rare collection inside.

On April 16, 1983, someone broke into the L.A. Mayer museum in middle of the night, and stole 106 pieces of rare watches and clocks. This theft was considered one of the most ingenious crime committed in Israel. The stolen collection belonged to Sir David Salomons, the first Jewish mayor of London, and it was donated by his daughter, Vera Bryce Salomons. Per Mrs. Salomons wish, the museum was founded in Jerusalem in 1974 (Vera Salomons passed away in 1969). Mrs. Salomons wanted to establish the museum to cultivate peaceful relations between Muslims and Jews, and to honor her friend, Professor Leon Arie Mayer, prominent scholar of Islamic art and archaeology and professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The museum exhibits important and rare Islamic cultural artifacts, and while there is no obvious connection between European timepieces and Islamic artifacts, they all remain works of art.

After two decades, the museum staff and Israeli police had given up on finding the precious watch collection. In August 2006, an art dealer from Tel-Aviv visited Rachel Hasson, Artistic Director of the museum, and informed her that someone was trying to sell pieces from the stolen collection in Israel. Soon thereafter, a lady by the name of Nili Shomrat invited the museum’s management and explained that her deceased husband left some watches which may belong to the museum. She returned 39 watches and clocks, including some of the most important watches made by Abraham-Louis Breguet. One of the watches returned was Breguet No. 160, also known as the Mona Lisa of watches, made for the queen of France, Marie Antoinette, and estimated to be worth $30 million.

When the museum notified the Israeli police, their investigation broke open the 23-year old case and began the process of recovering the missing watches and clocks. The thief responsible for this massive robbery was Na’aman Dieler, a well-known Israeli robber. Na’aman married Nili Shomrat and left all his stolen pieces to her as he died of cancer. He confessed to his wife about the stolen watches prior to his death. Fortunately, he only managed to sell only few pieces from the entire stolen collection. Most of the collection was found in a warehouse near Tel-Aviv. Na’aman was so careful to hide the collection, that Israeli police had to co-operate with the French police to hunt for more than 40 watches and musical boxes in safes spread across Paris.

Salomons’ collection had 191 total pieces. 101 pieces were stolen, out of which 88 were recovered, and 13 have not been found to date. Now all of Salomons’ collection is displayed in the vault on the ground floor with no windows and an elaborate surveillance system. As I walked through the vault, I went straight towards the back where 55 pieces of most important work by Breguet were displayed. The display itself is unique where the pocket watches are suspended inside clear glass cases to view them from every angle.

I felt like I was in heaven to see so many watches of horological significance made by Breguet. But the one which took my breath away was Breguet No. 160. This very special automatic pocket watch was commissioned in 1783 by an officer of the guard in the court of the French queen, Marie Antoinette. It took Breguet 37 years to make and deliver the watch in 1820. Marie Antoinette never got to see the watch since she was executed in 1793, just a year after monarchy was abolished. Breguet No. 160 is synonymously referred to as the Marie Antoinette watch.

In today’s terms, Breguet No. 160 can easily be classified as a mechanical super-computer. Only a master-watchmaker like Abraham-Louis Breguet could design and create a watch so sophisticated. It demonstrates Breguet’s unparalleled ability to construct watches with complex movements and multiple applications.

Apart from the necessary steel parts, it is made entirely of gold. The surfaces of the gold watch-case are studded with sapphires. The top and bottom lids are made of rock crystal, through which you can appreciate the perfect finish of the movement. The dial, also made of rock crystal, is engraved with Roman numerals and the signature “Breguet et Fils.” The hands are made of blue steel, with a jumping hour hand. A display on the left is devoted to equation of time and a 48-hour power reserve, and on the right is the date and a thermometer scale. On the side of the case is another engraving: “Breguet No. 160.” The other complications include a minute repeater that on command strikes hours, quarters and minutes as well as a full perpetual calendar showing the date, the day and the month at two, six and eight o’clock respectively.

After spending several minutes admiring the Breguet No. 160, I discovered more amazing work of Breguet like marine chronometer, quarter repeater, tourbillon, and equation of time watches. Besides Breguet collection, there was also fascinating musical boxes, automaton, shelf clocks, grandfather clocks, scientific instruments like compasses, barometers, solar clocks and telescopes. Particularly fascinating were complicated watches and clocks with beautiful enamel work, made in 18th century Europe for the Turkish market.

As I left the museum to visit the holy sites in Jerusalem, I wondered how many visitors knew about this small vault underground with suspended Breguet No. 160, the rarest of horological artifact.  If you are planning a trip to Israel, I would highly recommend visiting the L.A. Mayer Museum.

Sources: L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art; The Art of Time book by George Daniels and Ohannes Markarian

Photo Credit: Jakub Geier and Breguet

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