An open window on the dial of a high-end luxury watch contains aspinning and beating mechanism called a tourbillon. In French, theterm means ‘whirlwind’, and on the wrist the watch industry wouldhave you believe it means money and prestige. The tourbillon isdifficult to assemble as well as a vestige of another age, and watchcollectors find them difficult to resist.
We live in a post-mechanical watch world where somehow mechanical watchesstill reign supreme. How did that happen? In an era where technology rules,watch lovers heedlessly gravitate toward purist timepieces that contain traditionalmovements. Almost all watch lovers with taste and resources proudly wearmechanical watches even though they are less precise and far more expensivethan modern alternatives. The majority of timepieces that you’ll find on today’swrists contain inexpensive electronic quartz movements. By the 1980s quartzmovements were so easy and inexpensive to mass-produce that they came veryclose to wiping out the mechanical watch industry.
As traditional makers of mechanical watches came to a slow halt, a few cleverbusiness people in Switzerland saved the watch industry by reinventing it. Nolonger would mechanical watches be produced for utility, but rather for status. Bythe early 1990s the mechanical watch was more a high-end luxury item than it wasa pedestrian purchase. Today, inexpensive mechanical watches almost exclusivelyexist to resemble their higher-end counterparts. The very best mechanical watchesare produced for today’s equivalent of royalty and aristocracy, with beautifulmechanisms and histories that go back hundreds of years.
Many credit the Swatch Group as being among the major saviours of themechanical watch industry. In 1999 the group made one of its most importanthistorical acquisitions, the purchase of historic watch brand Breguet. Namedafter Swiss-born Abraham-Louis Breguet, the brand’s roots date back to the18th century. Often referred to as the greatest watchmaker to ever live, one ofBreguet’s more experimental inventions was the tourbillon.
It was around 1795 that Breguet completed his notion of thetourbillon, a system designed to improve the accuracyof pocket watches. This was during an era when someof the greatest minds in Europe were seeking ways toincrease the accuracy of timing devices for scientificand navigational purposes, particularly John Arnold inEngland. Back in the early days of Arnold & Sons, JohnArnold and Breguet worked closely together, sharingtheir passion, with evidence of their partnership,including Breguet’s fi rst ever tourbillon, mountedin John Arnold’s No. 11 movement, a watchthat can be found today in London’s BritishMuseum.
The tourbillon was eventually patentedin 1801, and its theory was that byrotating the regulating organ of a watch(the balance wheel and escapement)you could reduce the error creatingeffects of gravity. Breguet producedthe first ever tourbillon-based clockfor Napoleon Bonaparte, but itremained an oddity of the watch worldthereafter—until the latter part of the20th century.
Tourbillon-based wristwatches did notcome about until much more recent times,though in the mid-20th century Omega produceda non-commercial tourbillon watch for competitionpurposes. The modern tourbillon watch wasconceived as a contemporary, miniaturised versionof horological history. Their primary purpose was todeliver a beautiful example of engineering ability in thesmall confi nes of a wristwatch movement. Truth betold, while the tourbillon-style escapement assemblyis remarkably mesmerising to look at, it is unclearwhether or not it ever accomplished its original goal ofimproving the accuracy of a watch movement. Further,it was never designed for use in a wristwatch, but
rather for pocket watches. The surge in popularity of thetourbillon is credited to its complex construction and beautyin execution versus promise of actual performance.
Unlike many modern things, there are no machines that can assemblea tourbillon. One of the mechanical watch industry’s great allures is thatactual trained technicians (watchmakers) are still required to assemble,regulate and test them. Among them, only master watchmakers have theskill and experience to produce a tourbillon. It is nevertheless importantto credit modern manufacturingtechnology. A major irony of the tourbillonis that without the machines to producethe tiny parts required to assemble them,skilled watchmakers would be very unlikelyto produce these historic machines inwristwatch form.
Computer technology has certainly helpedin the proliferation and development of thetourbillon in the last couple of decades. We havecome so far in fact, that ‘standard’ tourbillon arecomparatively quite common compared to theexotic evolutions clever minds have imagined forthe traditional mechanism. Breguet himself wouldhardly recognise many of them.Before discussing some of the most important moderntourbillon watches, it is wise to discuss how the tourbillon fi ts into theluxury watch landscape today. A handful of brands offer Swiss tourbillonsat a price of around $30,000 to $50,000—these are consideredbargains. The average tourbillon-based timepiece is priced at over$100,000. There are even some watches that contain a tourbillonwhich are priced in excess of $1m. This fact has led many people to seethe tourbillon itself as a status symbol, rather than a symbol of genuinemechanical watch appreciation.
One of the most famous modern tourbillon watches is the PatekPhilippe 5002P Sky Moon Tourbillon. Priced at about $1.5m, the SkyMoon Tourbillon ironically doesn’t even display its tourbillon as it is hiddeninside of the movement. The price and incredible complexity of the watch
matched with the popularity of Patek Philippe among collectors helpedannounce to the world what a tourbillon could mean interms of prestige. Patek Philippe tourbillon watchesare quite rare, as other Swiss watch makers producetourbillon pieces much more regularly. Then there’sArnold & Son’s TE8 Tourbillon Métiers d’Art I—thelatest special edition to the Arnold & Son RoyalCollection. This unique watch will be produced ina limited edition of eight timepieces, in a 44mm18-carat rose gold case with each movementindividually hand-engraved and numbered.
A trend that began about a decade agowas to include ever more complicatedtourbillons inside watches. GreubelForsey produces watches with
between two and four tourbillonsin a single mechanism. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s famous Gyrotourbillonseries includes a spherical tourbillonthat spins on two axis pointsinside of a cage. Girard-Perregauxproduces their beautiful Bi-AxialTourbillon collection timepieces,while independent watchmakerThomas Prescher is unique inproducing triple axis tourbillonsthat seem almost impossible in theiroperation.
Modern tourbillon movements are alsoincreasingly practical. None argue thattourbillon movements are impressivelymore accurate than those withtraditional regulators, but theycan be just as convenient.Among the most beautiful(and practical) tourbillons areproduced by German A. Lange& Söhne, who can be ‘hacked’ tostop while setting the time. TAG Heuerhas even developed a few tourbillons.Their MikrotourbillonS timepiece eschewsthe modern spring of most balance wheelsfor a magnetic system that operates muchfaster for accuracy.
Nevertheless, the tourbillon of today is aboutvisual marvel and bringing a smile to the faceof the person wearing it. Roger Dubuis claimsthat most of the watches they sell containtourbillons, which isn’t surprising with pieceslike their Skeleton Double Flying Tourbillon. Cartierproduces a large collection of stunning tourbillonwatches to top out their wide range of timepieces. Afavourite from the French brand is the Astrotourbillon,a unique timepiece whose tourbillon actually rotatesthe entire dial of the watch each minute.
While exotic tourbillons prove interesting, mosttourbillons sold are still traditional single axis, singletourbillon timepieces. Regulars in the tourbillon-makingcircuit worth looking at for classically beautiful examples include VacheronConstantin, Blancpain, and of course Breguet. Over 200 years later andBreguet is still among the very top choices when it comes to gettinga tourbillon-based watch. The brand has paid meticulous attention tokeeping tradition alive in their high-end offerings. Would Abraham-LouisBreguet be proud? Certainly, as well as extremely surprised by the lifetourbillons have taken today.
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