A. Lange & Söhne, AHCI, Audemars Piguet, Beat Haldimann, Breguet, Chronoswiss, collectors, Daniel Roth, Derek Pratt, Don Corson, F.P. Journe, Ferdinand Berthoud, François-Paul Journe, George Daniels, Girard-Perregaux, Glashütte Original, Greubel Forsey, Jacob & Co, Omega, Patek Philippe, Paul Gerber, Swatch, Thomas Prescher, Uncategorised, Urban Jürgensen, Vincent Calabrese, watches, watchmakers, Zenith
26 June 1801 – 26 June 2021: 220 years of the tourbillon
The tourbillon turned from an ingenious device to fight gravitational errors into a place holder for fine watchmaking of inflationary abundance. We’ll attempt to highlight its highs and lows, and discuss its future
The tourbillon, probably the most coveted, most sought after yet certainly also misunderstood ‘non-complication’ there is1. Conceptually not too complex, an intellectually striking solution to an eminent performance problem (of the past), the mechanism is so immediately understandable and mesmerising to appreciate that it is on the wish list (or even the collection) of many watch collectors and -makers alike.
Today, the tourbillon celebrates its 220th anniversary – sort of, at least, as this day we commemorate the granting of the tourbillon patent to legendary watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet.
(Breguet’s pocket watch No. 1176 with natural escapement tourbillon, made between 1802 and 1809. © Breguet Museum)
On this occasion, we’ll present you with a short run through the history of the tourbillon, a few distractions, some further developments, and offer our musings on how we would place the tourbillon in today’s watchmaking landscape.
Late 18th century watchmaking – one solution causes another problem, and then an out-of-the-box idea emerges …
Some 200 years ago, watchmaking technology, tool and materials were not what they are today. Manual labour, handmade tools and alloys and lubricants were a great (!) lot more susceptible to their environments and to natural ageing, inducing Abraham-Louis Breguet to coin his famous phrase: “Show me the perfect oil and I’ll show you the perfect watch”. But this did not stop watchmakers from seeking optimisation within the confines of the technical status quo, experimenting with new escapements, tooth shapes or else.
One main problem that watch constructors then faced when creating a practical pocket watch was temperature, which had an eminent influence on the elasticity of the spiral and consequently the daily rate. Famous watchmakers such as John Harrison (1693-1776) and Pierre Le Roy (1717-1785) laid the theoretical and practical foundations to the temperature problem, and the go-to solution at that time to this was a bimetallic balance (steel and brass) that was cut open close to the spokes, such that it could ‘breathe’ with temperature, thereby altering its moment of inertia.
With the ‘breathing’ balance however the other important problem watchmakers tried to tackle got more pressing: the influence of gravity. With the arms of the balance now expanding or contracting in response to temperature changes, there was the possibility that the arms did not move perfectly symmetrical, and thus would disturb the poise of the system. That would significantly exacerbate the influence gravity had anyway due to the asymmetries caused by the oscillating balance spring.
Enter Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823): Breguet realised that he could not control both temperature and gravity at the same time in a practical way, and thus he tried something revolutionary: control the one (temperature) and let the other tame itself (gravity). The key to the latter was to have the escapement rotate such that gravity would have a positive influence on one given position of the escapement and an equal negative one in another – as a net result, poise errors would balance each other, and the rate would be stabilised. The development began around 1793, and on 26 June 18012, he was granted a patent valid for 10 years3.
(The Breguet Tourbillon. Left, construction drawing from Breguet’s patent application; right, Breguet No. 1188, made 1802 – 1807 and sold to Prince Antonio de Bourbon of Spain in the following year. Image © Breguet Museum)
The ‘tourbillon’ (whirlwind4), as Breguet called his invention, was born.
Breguet’s movement construction was conventional up to and including the third wheel, but entire escapement system was placed onto a rotating cage (A). The connection between gear train and escapement cage was realised through a two-level seconds wheel (B, F) interacting with the third wheel (E): it consists of a small gear ring (B) mounted on the fourth pinion fixed to the tourbillon cage and a larger one, (F) mounted directly on the movement plate concentrically to the carriage. Furthermore, the escape wheel pinion (G) meshed with the fixed part of the seconds wheel.
(Schematic drawing of a Breguet tourbillon. Image © Daniels, ‘The Art of Breguet’, p 334)
The energy from the third wheel drives the fourth pinion and with it the entire tourbillon cage in a clockwise direction. Due to the revolving carriage the escape wheel pinion turns on its own as it engages with the fixed seconds wheel (F), and thereby it automatically drives the escapement which itself determines the rotation speed of the tourbillon cage.
George Daniels notes:
“Mechanisms of this type are rare and expensive to make. They are extremely delicate and difficult to adjust for satisfactory working. Once properly set up they are very reliable and keep close, if somewhat noisy, time.” (George Daniels (1974))
During Breguet’s time, it took years to complete a single tourbillon watch – such demanding was the complexity of production and regulation, given contemporary techniques and the lack of practical experience with the mechanism at large.
So, was it worth it?
Before we tackle that question, we want to address a similar construction – the carrousel:
Side note: The Carrousel Watch
The challenge in the tourbillon construction was its requirements for tight regulation and balancing of the carriage since it is mounted on the seconds pinion. Danish watchmaker Bahne Bonniksen (1859-1935) recognised this and devised a construction that offered (most of) the advantages of a tourbillon but also less susceptibility to tolerances. Key here was that the carriage (B) had its own bearing, and that both the carriage as well as the seconds pinion (S’) are driven directly by the third wheel (K). The seconds pinion is co-axial with the carriage, while the balance is (usually) eccentric.
(Schematic drawing of a Bonniksen carrousel. Image © Meis, ‘Das Tourbillon’, p 62)
There were fierce discussions among collectors on what separates tourbillon and carrousel. The eccentric location of the balance in the latter was one criterion, however, there are functional ones as well: the rotating speed of the carrousel is independent from the escapement and can be defined by the watchmaker, and the rotation of the carriage is not needed for the escapement to work.
(Frodsham Pocket Watch No. 08982 with a Bahne Bonniksen Carrousel)
We’ll come to this later, with Blancpain!
Avionic classification: to fly or not to fly?
Amongst the classic tourbillons not all are equal, and we’re not referring to differences in finishing or aesthetics, but construction, or better, configuration in respect to the carriage and how it is supported. The classical tourbillon as Breguet constructed it had a lower and an upper bearing, the latter being fixed to its own bridge or cock.
(Detail of the Breguet Classique Tourbillon 3657)
More than 100 years later, in 1920, Alfred Helwig, teacher at the Glashütte School of Watchmaking, made the first fundamental development: Helwig contemplated how to expose the mechanism even better, and did so by removing the upper support – the view on the tourbillon was now completely free, and called this the flying tourbillon:
(Detail Glashütte Original Senator Karree Tourbillon)
Yet that’s not all – there were attempts to reduce the carriage to the max, and the solution to this was the half-flying tourbillon where the cage is supported on one side only, allowing it to be as rudimentary as possible, while the bearing for the balance is mounted on a fixed bridge (like with Kiu Tai Yu) or on a cock mounted to the movement plate (e.g., Don Corson). This allows to look almost inside the carriage.
(Don Corson’s Half Flying UFO Tourbillon)
Such construction needs extreme care in assembly and regulation and is thus very rare.
Evaluating the Efficacy
To answer that efficacy question, it is important to recall that a ‘portable watch’ at Breguet’s time meant a pocket watch, which usually knew just two distinct positions: it was either carried in an upright position in a trouser or coat pocket, or it lay flat (where gravity had little influence). It follows from this that having the escapement rotate on the horizontal plane of the watch, i.e., being upright most of its life, tremendously helped the tourbillon to fulfil its objective.
There were no regular chronometry competitions during Breguet’s lifetime, they did not start before 1848 in Geneva and 1862 in Neuchâtel. The test results, however, from those trials are interesting, as the data from the latter Observatory shows:
(Daily average rate recordings from Neuchâtel Observatory. (1), watches with tourbillon; (2), watches with chronometer escapement with spring; (3); watches with chronometer escapement with rocker; (4), watches with lever escapement. Image © Meis, ‘Das Tourbillon’, p 81)
For the first decade of trials, tourbillons (1) showed a clear advantage on average daily rate compared to all other types watches with Chronometer escapement (2) or those with carrousels (3), until there was a short period where all types of watch performed equally. After another decade, watches with tourbillons, but also those with spring chronometer escapements, scored consistently better results than all others.
Together, this indicates that initially tourbillons indeed offered an advantage over all other types, but then technological advances apparently have diminished gravitational influences, and it was more the overall quality of the watch which determined performance.
In the decades to follow, tourbillons played a clear minority role in watchmaking, but they were made frequently on demand of seasoned collectors or as ‘masterpieces’ in watchmaking schools.
Tourbillon watches became lucrative Veblen ‘objects of art’. This goes so far that chronometric performance would be seen as a detriment to the tourbillon’s allure, as Alan Downing notes on the Chronometrie 2009 competition:
“The revelation that the tourbillon actually enhanced the performance of a watch came as a shock. Shifting the tourbillon’s appeal from the emotional to the rational would demolish the reputation of a gadget that puts tens of thousands of francs on the price of a watch. Quartz had made accuracy cheap; the tourbillon was tainted with cheapness.” (Alan Downing (2020))
An extreme position for sure, but it signalled something disturbing – to us at least, and it conveys a bit of a very controversial attitude industry had taken towards this mechanism.
That in a way expressed the 180° turning point which first highlighted the artisanal value of the mechanism, and ultimately let the tourbillon develop into something that was embraced by numerous watch brands, all too often like a fig-leave signalling ‘fine watchmaking’, with a kind of a gold rush like inflation of such pieces produced.
In the following we want to highlight a few of what we consider the most outstanding and/or historically important tourbillons ever made before we discuss how we see (or desire?) the future of the ‘complication’.
The first wrist tourbillons:
With the chronometer competitions for wristwatches in full flow, a few manufactures have created wristwatches with tourbillon escapements as unique pieces solely for competition purposes (or on demand of important clients), e.g., Patek Philippe, LIP or OMEGA who developed their famous OMEGA Chronometer Tourbillon Cal. 301 in 1947, designed to outclass all competition at the observatory trials in Geneva, Neuchâtel and Kew-Teddington. The movement is based on a Cal. 30T, upgraded with a 7.5min tourbillon with Breguet spiral and Guillaume balance. 12 pieces were made in 1947, and they dominated the competitions as intended. The movements were eventually forgotten, but recovered in the 1980s, encased in 36mm cases and eventually sold to select clients.
(The OMEGA Chronometer Tourbillon. This example here competed in the 1950 Geneva Observatory trials (scored 10th place), and was encased and sold in 1987)
These watches are true collector’s items these days, and command stellar prices should they show up.
In the decades to follow, tourbillons continued to be made in very small quantities and upon collector’s request. As an example, we’d like to mention the Superbia Humanitatis, an ultra-complicated pièce unique with Grand & Petite Sonnerie, minute repeater, a flyback split-seconds chronograph, a perpetual calendar and a flying tourbillon. Most of the complicates were added by Paul Gerber, who also included the tourbillon. It was ordered by the patron of the project, Lord Arran, that the original hairspring and balance be retained. Paul Gerber managed to do so and created a most beautiful flying tourbillon. It was his first tourbillon ever… and it got noted, as a certain manufacturer from Glashütte a bit later asked Mr Gerber to help them constructing their own…
(Flying tourbillon on the highly complicated Superbia Humanitatis movement)
In the second half of the 1980 year the situation changed fundamentally, and the first ‘industrially’ conceived and made tourbillons showed up – both from the village of Le Brassus in the Vallée de Joux:
Based on a construction by AHCI co-founder Vincent Calabrese, the manufacturer Blancpain already in 1986 presented a revolutionary tourbillon which combined 5 world records:
- first flying tourbillon in a wristwatch
- the first one-minute flying tourbillon
- the first tourbillon with eight-day power reserve
- the first tourbillon to use ball bearings
- the thinnest tourbillon (at the time)
(The Blancpain Tourbillon, here in a stainless steel Léman case)
The movement has been slightly updated over the years, but essentially remains in production until today, and is even shared with sister-brands like Jaquet-Droz.
Side Note: Characteristic for the construction is the eccentric balance – but this immediately striking feature was historically mostly found with carrousel watches – thus, a fierce controversy arose around the question whether this movement qualifies as a tourbillon. Yet in 2008, Blancpain doubled down with the first flying carrousel in a wristwatch, and on top one where the balance is mounted co-axially to the cage. Now Blancpain had a tourbillon that looked like a carrousel, and a carrousel that looked like a tourbillon – confusing? 5 years later, Blancpain showed some humour and combined both into a single watch. Guess which is what?
(Blancpain L-Evolution Tourbillon Carrousel from 2015)
In the same year as Blancpain, another famous Le Brassus watchmaker presented their first tourbillon which is considered the first automatic wristwatch tourbillon, the first one with a titanium carriage and, until very recently, the thinnest automatic tourbillon in the world: the Audemars Piguet Tourbillon Automatique Cal. 2870 – a unique construction in many aspects: it’s a form movement with the tourbillon located at the upper left edge, the winding is performed by a platinum pendulum, and the thinness was possible thanks to the use of the case back as movement plate – you can see the jewels on the back.
(Image © www.thepurists.com)
The watch is a milestone for sure, and its construction paved the way for the rise of AP’s associated Renaud & Papi specialists’ atelier which churned out a great number of the most famous watchmakers today.
Yet again from the same area, tourbillon inventor Breguet could not miss this core aspect of their history – and called on the help of the hands and brains of their resurrection, master watchmaker Daniel Roth. In 1989 Roth developed what is now considered the pure classical tourbillon, which was used by Breguet but also Roth’s own eponymous brand such as in his Tourbillon Double-Face Ref. 187 (1989):
(Daniel Roth’s Tourbillon Double-Face. Image © Ming Thein)
This is a thoroughbred classic tourbillon in regulateur arrangement, and an icon in so many ways. For more on this watch please read our Gold Dust article here!
Another one of those classic designs comes from Girard-Perregaux, their iconic Tourbillon with Three Gold Bridges. It goes back from a pocket watch from 1860 that featured three golden bridges with arrows at both ends that supported the entire gear train. The escapement was housed in an A-shaped tourbillon case designed by legendary tourbillon maker Ernest Guinand (1810-1879).
In its modern recreation developed in the 1990 years, Girard-Perregaux advanced the movement such that a micro-rotor could be placed ‘invisibly’ under the bridge at 12 o’clock.
(GP’s iconic Tourbillon Three Bridges, here in a Vintage 1945 case, 25 pieces made as Ref. 9987 in platinum in 2005)
Finally, one last iconic design: the OMEGA De Ville Flying Central Tourbillon (1994/2007/2020). Instantly recognisable thanks to the central position of the tourbillon (like Beat Haldimann’s H1), the watch is impressive in construction and finishing. Originally developed by master watchmakers Moritz Grimm and André Beyner for the brand’s 100th Anniversary, the challenge was to place the tourbillon escapement co-axially (pun intended) to the hands. The solution (using disks for the hands) presented itself already 10 years earlier in OMEGA’s “Les Montres des Sables” pocket watches constructed in cooperation with the late Dominique Loiseau, father of Blancpain’s legendary 1735 Grand Complication.
(OMEGA De Ville Flying Central Tourbillon, here in a version with co-axial escapement and smoked sapphire dial, 2012. The watch is still in production)
The Flying Central Tourbillon went through a few iterations, first in 1997 improving the winding system (early watches had the platinum rotor mounted on the caseback, giving the watches a characteristic sonic footprint), adding COSC certification (2002), then with the adoption of the Co-Axial Escapement (2007) and lastly also the Master Chronometer certification (2020).
Since we mentioned ‘industrialisation’ already, there were numerous efforts to make a tourbillon more accessible. A first noteworthy Swiss effort was the Progress Tourbillon, developed by using a number of ETA parts. The Cal. 6361 was presented in 2001 and had at the time a remarkably long (initially 72h, later >100h) power reserve and sported 7 ball bearings.
The Chronoswiss Régulateur à Tourbillon is one nice example:
(Skeletonised version of the Chronoswiss Régulateur à Tourbillon)
It offered an ‘affordable’ entry point into a credible Swiss tourbillon and was widely used, e.g., by Alain Silberstein, Chronoswiss, EPOS, Frederique Constant, Jacques Etoile, Joseph Chevalier, Peter Speake-Marin, Technomarine, and UTS. After a few ownerships the manufacturer is now integrated into Bovet’s Dimier 1738 brand.
But why should one tourbillon be enough? Better safe than sorry…
The ‘Multiple Tourbillons’
Combining multiple tourbillons into one movement may have many different interpretations – a few several cages, or a few cages, one mounted inside the other. Let’s start with the former, and keep the theme of cheap watches, specifically the infamous Chinese Tourbillons.
A tourbillon was just too attractive for Far East companies as the technology in principle is manageable, and ‘acceptable’ performance (i.e., ‘it works’) can be attained at modest prices if cost advantages can be accrued. Ingersoll presented this Asian their Orbital Double Tourbillon, a twin flying tourbillon that rotate around a central axis (actual rotation speed is not known).
(Ingersoll Orbital Double Tourbillon)
The watch comes in a solid 18kt gold case and still costs about 50k € and is sold under several brands names. Attractive? Well, the details tell the story…
But this clearly is the exception if we look at the opposite spectrum: meet the Breguet Classique 5345PT Double Tourbillon (2006). Breguet was in a way ‘obliged’ to push tourbillon technology, and did so, with a mechanism that mounted two independent tourbillons in a 180° angle that complete a rotation in 12 hours – and doubled as hour hand. The tourbillons appear at opposite positions relative to gravity and – at least in theory – present a second (meta-) tourbillon system.
(The Breguet Double Tourbillon, here the Ref. 5345PT Double Tourbillon Quai de l’Horloge from 2020)
Also with twin tourbillons, but one each for a different function, was Zenith’s Defy El Primero Double Tourbillon (2019). Zenith’s then new Cal. El Primero 21, a movement with two escapements, on for the time and one for the high-frequency chronograph functions capable of counting 1/100th of a second, it was only a question of time (pun intended) that the two escapements were upgraded with a tourbillon each – it’s a brand that has long been honed by Jean-Claude Biver’s sense for theatrical moments, and also – two tourbillons rotating at very different speeds (5Hz & once/minute and 50Hz & once/5seconds, respectively), must be quite captivating – and they were.
Since the chronograph escapement is only active when time is measured, its small, fast moving carriage sits idle most of the time. It’s moving on your command, only!
(Zenith Defy El Primero Double Tourbillon, the one for the chronograph is at 10 o’clock and the corresponding for the time function at 8 o’clock, respectively)
The watch exemplifies the notion that often their objectives are mostly of ‘entertainment value’, a phenomenon aptly demonstrated by the Twin Turbo Furious developed by Luca Soprana for Jacob&Co, as it carries a twin triple-axis tourbillon combined by a differential:
(Jacob&Co Twin Turbo Furious. The watch also has a Decimal Repeater and a chronograph…)
Cecil Purnell offers a (strikingly) similar mechanism.
But Jacob&Co did by far not debut the ‘3D tourbillons’ – that honour for realising this in a wristwatch goes to Thomas Prescher: Having learned a lot during his work with Richard Daners at Gübelin, Prescher stunned collectors with his spectacular Flying Triple Axis Tourbillon of 2003: 1st axis (1 minute), 2nd axis (1 minute) and 3rd axis (1 hour, synchronous with the minute hand). He had a remontoir integrated into the 1st axis, and all bearings were of flying construction.
(Movement of Thomas Prescher’s Triple Axis Tourbillon)
At the same time in 2003 also Franck Müller presented his 3-axis tourbillon. Both watches marked signalled the way to a few multi-axis constructions.
While such constructions are primarily mechanically stunning, the idea of adding rotational axes inspired those watchmakers who have mainly chronometry in mind.
Enhancing the tourbillon’s chronometric performance – the advanced constructions
Having just a tourbillon alone seemed not enough to substantiate the chronometric claims of the ‘whirlwind’ – as conventional watches gained a lot of ground in this aspect. One possibility was to focus on position: tourbillons are made to correct gravitational errors of pocket watch, usually quite stable in a vertical (pocket) position. For wristwatch, this was certainly not true, but there was a solution as well: Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey can certainly be named ‘scientist watchmakers’, and it is always entertaining and educative to follow their ‘experiments’. With their Double Tourbillon 30°, Greubel Forsey in 2004 tried to explore optimisations of the gravity-balancing performance of the tourbillon with specific emphasis on the typical positions of a wristwatch. They did so by mounting a balance wheel inclined at a 30° angle in an interior cage which rotates in sixty seconds. The interior cage itself is placed in a larger main cage that turns parallel to the movement’s main plate once every four minutes.
(The Double Tourbillon 30°, here exposed in the Greubel Forsey Invention Piece 1)
The concept is a mainstay in Greubel Forsey’s collection ever since and has been advanced and amended in movements with quadruple tourbillons.
A second option was to tackle constant torque delivery to the escapement (next to the fact that this adds to the cinematic appeal), such as a remontoir. The first such watch however was not a wristwatch, but a pocket watch: Derek Pratt’s Oval Tourbillon Pocket Watch (1991), an oval shaped pocket watch for Urban Jürgensen & Sönner, centred around an open-worked movement with a detente escapement mounted in a flying tourbillon, fuelled with a constant force thanks to a remontoir that for the first time was integrated into the tourbillon carriage:
(Derek Pratt for Urban Jürgensen & Sönner: Oval Tourbillon Pocket Watch. Note the remontoir at the 4 o’clock position of the tourbillon)
To our knowledge, the first such concept for the wrist came with François-Paul Journe’s landmark Tourbillon Souverain of 1998 that combined a large, enticing tourbillon cage placed eccentrically left of the comparatively small, applied time display with a constant force device executed as a one-second remontoir d’egalité system. The watch, together with the Chronomètre à Résonance presented at the same time, defined both Journe’s aesthetics as well as secured him his prominent place in the history of watchmakers until today.
(F.P Journe Tourbillon Souverain, here an early Souscription model)
Speaking of resonance, i.e., making use of the stabilising effect of resonating oscillators, one watch has to be mentioned: Beat Haldimann’s H2 Flying Resonance watch that combined two escapements with remontoir, with its balances falling into resonance with each other thanks to a blade spring connecting the two balance spring studs. The entire assembly is supported on the bottom only (flying) and turns around the central axis.
(Beat Haldimann’s H2 Flying Resonance. Note the remontoir spring in the escape wheel facing the viewer)
A very logical enhancement of the tourbillon, in our view.
Taking a technically less elaborate, aesthetically, but in terms of handcrafts however immensely lovely approach, the A. Lange & Söhne Pour Le Mérite Tourbillon came like a bomb right with the rebirth of the Saxon watchmaker in 1994. The ‘dream team ‘around the late Günther Blümlein and Walter Lange created the essential ALS tourbillon, a watch which instantly enjoyed collector’s acclaim for its restrained aesthetics combined with superb technical details (e.g., the large tourbillon cage and the smooth power delivery through a fusée and chain mechanism) and exceptional finishing. Till today a collector’s dream, although the reference has recently been re-introduced into the collection.
(A. Lange & Söhne Pour Le Mérite Tourbillon)
Fusée and chain – keyword to switch over to our last group!
The ‘Non-Tourbillon’ gravity defying devices
Although Zenith (under the infamous Thierry Nataf) initially called this the ‘Tourbillon Zero-G’, the Zenith Gyroscope (2008/2012/2017) is none such. We still decided to include it, as the system aims at reducing gravitational influences like tourbillon or carrousel – but addresses the issue at its root: instead of balancing gravitational errors, the gyroscopic assembly of the escapement module avoids such by ensuring that the latter is always positioned perpendicularly to gravity – such that gravity has no, or always the same (minimal), influence on the movement’s rate. In other words, there should be no positional error with this watch – it is ‘gravity resistant’.
A philosophically entirely different approach to the same problem, and it’s also a marvel to behold!
(The original Zenith Gyroscope in close up)
Zenith further developed the calibre from Nataf’s Defy origins to its first, elegant, serial, version in 2012, and later shrunk it in 2018 to get rid of the protruding bubble (and thus also of a significant cost factor for the case).
Another example which is neither tourbillon nor carrousel, but also aims to balance gravitational influence, is the Swatch Diaphane One, where (almost) the entire movement rotates around its own axis twice per hour:
(Luxuriously Swatch: Diaphane One Turn 2 Him version with white gold case elements)
Probably the most expensive Swatch, but certainly one of the most accessible Swiss ‘tourbillons’.
The Tourbillon today: overhyped, inflationary, or still a collector’s delight?
How we appreciate the tourbillon today – well, there is no general ‘rule’, and thus the authors both chose to convey their personal musing:
Being relieved from the chronometric burdens, the tourbillon enjoyed a reputation of craftsmanship, a reputation that in my view wears like a double-edged sword: one the one hand the tourbillon indeed requires skill, experience, steady hands and patience to realise (also its purely speaking not a complication), so it is a sign of fine watchmaking, on the other hand there are the advances in materials, tools and computer-assisted design and production.
The latter made tourbillons more accessible for watch brands to produce, and in consequence has induced quite a number of them to exploit is as a short-cut solution convey the notion of haute horology – often without any fitting context to it.
(Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Tourbillon – someone’s trying to make the sharks dizzy?)
As a purist at heart, I always feel a bit uneasy when presented with an affordable tourbillon – not because I think such ‘complication’ should be exclusive, but because I believe that is it a demonstration of fine art and handicraft, and as such quite naturally should only be created as a rare handmade object.
(Exceptional watchmaking: the tourbillon at the Ferdinand Berthoud Chronometre FB 1)
As attractive as it might seem that you can meanwhile get a Swiss made tourbillon for about 15k CHF, look closely and you’ll notice the shortcomings. That realisation becomes particularly apparent if one gets a chance to compare with the finest specimens, e.g., from Ferdinand Berthoud or Greubel Forsey, and a great number of individual artisans.
(Greubel Forsey Handmade 1)
It does of course not require going to the ultimate top in watchmaking like the examples above, but a certain level should qualify and also a tourbillon should make a compelling sense in a brand’s collection (and not purely from a marketing point of view) – it should advance the horological footprint of a brand. In my view, this respects the authenticity of the construction and keeps it desirable without milking it with little much thought and respect.
To me it´s an interesting topic with lots of different reasons to be collectible. May it be milestones like technical or even economical firsts, aesthetics or whatever comes to your mind. Being the most accurate wristwatch today isn´t true. Being the most challenging complication to produce isn´t true as well. Personally, I am not fascinated by the complication in general, but in some cases I could easily fall for one. One of my personal favorites is the Greubel Forsey Tourbillon 24 Seconds Contemporain.
Not because of technical firsts, but because of its design approach – pure space and depth. It´s not the most talked about GF, but it made an (deep) impression to last in my case. Before I saw this watch back in 2012, I always favoured “hidden” tourbillons at the back, especially when perfectly integrated and executed like in the case of a Patek Philippe Ref. 5101P (caliber 28-20/222) – pure understatement for the connoisseur at the peak of haute horlogerie. (Images © Christies)
Tourbillon – is it high on my personal list of ´must-have` complications? No! Industrialized ones are of none interest in my book and sophisticated ones < for the sake of beauty > I can´t afford – at least not for now.
In summary, for both of us the tourbillon is both an object of deep appreciation and confusion at the same time. Whatever your take, we would welcome if the watch industry would focus on the artisanal value of the tourbillon and at the same time be more daring, serious and creative when trying to create convincing contemporary watches and by this feel a lot less induced to use the tourbillon as a stopgap solution.
Until then: happy 220th anniversary, tourbillon!
1) a ‘complication’ in the classical sense implies an additional indication, i.e., a date function is one, a tourbillon, being ‘just’ a different escapement arrangement, is not.
2) technically, it was on the “7th Messidor of the year IX” in the post-revolutionary Republican calendar of France at the time.
3) Breguet’s patent submission described a tourbillon that rotated once every minute. Yet the majority of the 35 tourbillons created during his lifetime rotated between once every four to six minutes (Breguet (2021)).
4) the most commonly used interpretation of the word is simply its translation from French: ‘whirlwind’. While this is an immediately intuitive notion, one has to note that in astronomic and scientific discourse at Breguet’s time ‘tourbillon’ also referred to either a planetary system and to its rotation on a single axis, or to the energy that causes the rotation of the planets around the sun.
- Breguet (2021): ‘Breguet, inventor of the tourbillon. 2021, year of the tourbillon’. Anniversary press release
- Daniels, George (1974): ‘The Art of Breguet’. ISBN 0-85667-004-9
- Downing, Alan (2020): ‚Triumph of Brands Over Watchmaking’. https://watchesbysjx.com/2020/09/demise-chronometry-trials-chronometrie.html
- Meis, Reinhard (1993): ‘Das Tourbillon’. ISBN 3-7667-1059-1