The makers of mechanical watches have a number of naturally occurring phenomena to overcome in their pursuit of perfect accuracy. The miniscule and highly vulnerable components inside a movement are adversely affected by inescapable forces such as magnetism and variations in temperature. However, because a watch is usually kept in motion on the end of the wearer’s arm, one effect they have to worry about less is the influence of gravity. But that hasn’t always been the case.
The wristwatch really only came of age in the 1930s. Before that, pocket watches were the ubiquitous method of timekeeping, particularly for men, and had been for hundreds of years.
One of the main problems with the pocket watch was its lack of movement—it would either be stored vertically in a vest pocket, or horizontally once it was removed for the day and laid on a table.
Kept in these positions, gravity produces a drag on the most crucial components to any watch’s precision, namely the balance wheel and escapement, and causes deficiencies—what is known as positional error.
Enter Abraham-Louis Breguet. In 1795, the Swiss-born inventor of, among other things, the first shock protection for balance pivots, the oscillating weight for self-winding mechanisms and, of course, the spring overcoil that bears his name, came up with the solution to the pocket watch challenge.
Now recognized as perhaps the most important horologist of all time, it was Breguet who devised the tourbillon. The mechanism, which took its name from the French word for ‘whirlwind’, involved placing the most gravity-sensitive parts of the movement inside a cage. That cage was then geared to slowly rotate, normally at 1RPM, keeping the components in a state of continuous motion. That way, it was able to negate the effects of gravity when the pocket watch was kept stationary, by turning the movement through every vertical alignment and eliminating positional error. Instead, the revolving escapement produced a consistently average rate.
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The Return of the Tourbillon
As effective as they were in their function, the tourbillon was such an intricate and labor-intensive innovation that only very few were made for the first 150 years of their existence. With the appeal of the pocket watch in serious decline, brands such as Patek Philippe and Omega were among the first to incorporate a tourbillon in wristwatches in the 1930s, but more as novelties rather than for any great increase in timekeeping precision. In fact, they were able to show that the presence of a tourbillon in a watch had, at best, no effect whatsoever, and could even make it worse in some cases.
Then, with the debut of Rolex’s Perpetual movements, the first workable self-winding calibers produced on a mass scale, Breguet’s great invention became even less relevant to the era.
It would not be until the craze for watch collecting exploded in the 1980s that the tourbillon made its comeback, now more as an expression of just what the finest horological artisans were capable of than anything else.
With even the most straightforward versions of the mechanism requiring more than 50 separate pieces, it was one example of microengineering reserved only for the truly elite brands—and with price tags that narrowed down the clientele dramatically. Models from the likes of A. Lange & Söhne, Jaeger-LeCoultre or Audemars Piguet (who made the first production tourbillon watch, the titanium ref. 25643, in 1986) typically started at around $50,000 and went a long way north.
Even so they had become the must-have addition to the collection for the most well-heeled cognoscenti by the 1990s. Along with their sheer artistry and the joy of watching the hypnotic spiraling in action, the expense gave them that most coveted of all aspects in the luxury business; exclusivity. Anyone with a passing interest in horology knew how much a tourbillon watch cost, and sporting one became the ultimate status symbol.
The Tourbillon Today
While they may not serve any practical purpose, tourbillons have developed over recent years.
Today there are several different types on the market and we are even seeing brands producing examples for mere fractions of the price traditionally associated with them.
Photo credit: @mbandf
Types of Tourbillon
1. The Flying Tourbillon
The flying tourbillon was actually invented as far back as the 1920s and represented the mechanism’s first major modification. Whereas on the customary style, the tourbillon is supported at both ends, usually with a bridge or cock on either side, the flying tourbillon is cantilevered. That means only the bottom is secured, giving it the impression of it hovering above the case.
2. Multi-Axis Tourbillon
As the name suggests, multi-axis tourbillons are those with a cage that rotates on more than one axis. Although not common, double and even triple axes tourbillons are available.
3. Multiple Tourbillon
A number of watches at the highest of the high end market feature several different tourbillon mechanisms. Greubel Forsey, a brand which only emerged in 2004, has been responsible for some of the most innovative examples. One of their first introductions was the Double Tourbillon 30°, which features an interior cage angled at 30 degrees that rotates every minute, inside a second cage that completes a revolution every four minutes. The different rotational speeds, and the first cage’s incline, are reported to cancel out all gravitational errors.
Just a year after that, they brought out the Quadruple Tourbillon à Différentiel, containing a pair of independent double tourbillons.
Photo credit: @gmt10past10
4. The Tourbillon Goes Affordable
With the tourbillon’s popularity only growing as watch collectors become more knowledgeable, several manufacturers have made it their mission to bring them to within reach of more than just the one percenters.
In 2016, TAG Heuer gave us the Carrera Heuer-02t. The 45mm titanium watch, complete with a single tourbillon mechanism at the six o’clock, retailed at an unheard of $15,900 on its release.
While that was orders of magnitude cheaper than even the most reasonably priced haute horlogerie offerings, recently introduced tourbillon models from China have slashed the cost even more. Here, you can buy examples for under $1,000, bringing this fascinating complication very much into the mainstream.
The tourbillon’s importance to the accuracy of a watch has always been up for debate. But whether it is something of any practical use or not, there are few who would argue that they are beautiful to watch in action.
One of the most demanding tests of the watchmaker’s skill, the tourbillon is still a work of art in motion.