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 – some’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.