A Moment in Horological History

23 Jul 2014
5 min read
Ariel Adams reveals why the tourbillon movement still reigns supreme in the world of watches. As seen in FOUR International’s Luxury supplement…

An open window on the dial of a high-end luxury watch contains a spinning and beating mechanism called a tourbillon. In French, the term means ‘whirlwind’, and on the wrist, the watch industry would have you believe it means money and prestige. The tourbillon is difficult to assemble and watch collectors find them difficult to resist.

We live in a post-mechanical watch world where somehow mechanical watches still reign supreme. How did that happen? In an era where technology rules, watch lovers heedlessly gravitate toward purist timepieces that contain traditional movements. Almost all watch lovers with taste and resources proudly wear mechanical watches even though they are less precise and far more expensive than modern alternatives. The majority of timepieces that you’ll find on today’s wrists contain inexpensive electronic quartz movements. By the 1980s, quartz movements were so easy and inexpensive to mass-produce that they came very close to wiping out the mechanical watch industry.

As traditional makers of mechanical watches came to a slow halt, a few clever business people in Switzerland saved the watch industry by reinventing it. No longer would mechanical watches be produced for utility, but rather for status. By the early 1990s, the mechanical watch was more a high-end luxury item than it was a pedestrian purchase. Today, inexpensive mechanical watches almost exclusively exist to resemble their higher-end counterparts. The very best mechanical watches are produced for today’s equivalent of royalty and aristocracy, with beautiful mechanisms and histories that go back hundreds of years.

Many credit the Swatch Group as being among the major saviours of the mechanical watch industry. In 1999 the group made one of its most important historical acquisitions, the purchase of historic watch brand Breguet. Named after 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 of Breguet’s more experimental inventions was the tourbillon.

It was around 1795 that Breguet completed his notion of the tourbillon, a system designed to improve the accuracy of pocket watches. This was during an era when some of the greatest minds in Europe were seeking ways to increase the accuracy of timing devices for scientific and navigational purposes, particularly John Arnold in England. Back in the early days of Arnold & Sons, JohnArnold and Breguet worked closely together, sharing their passion, with evidence of their partnership, including Breguet’s first ever tourbillon, mounted in John Arnold’s No. 11 movement, a watch that today can be found in London’s British Museum.

The tourbillon was eventually patented in 1801, and its theory was that by rotating the regulating organ of a watch (the balance wheel and escapement) you could reduce the error-creating effects of gravity. Breguet produced the first-ever tourbillon-based clock for Napoleon Bonaparte but it remained an oddity of the watch world thereafter—until the latter part of the 20th century.

Tourbillon-based wristwatches did not come about until much more recent times, though in the mid-20th century Omega produced a non-commercial tourbillon watch for competition purposes. The modern tourbillon watch was conceived as a contemporary, miniaturised version of horological history. Their primary purpose was to deliver a beautiful example of engineering ability in the small confines of a wristwatch movement. Truth be told, while the tourbillon-style escapement assembly is remarkably mesmerising to look at, it is unclear whether or not it ever accomplished its original goal of improving 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 the tourbillon is credited to its complex construction and beauty in execution versus the promise of actual performance.

Unlike many modern things, there are no machines that can assemble a tourbillon. One of the mechanical watch industry’s great allures is that actual trained technicians (watchmakers) are still required to assemble, regulate and test them. Among these technicians, only master watchmakers have the skill and experience to produce a tourbillon. It is nevertheless important to credit modern manufacturing technology. A major irony of the tourbillon is that without the machines to produce the tiny parts required to assemble them, skilled watchmakers would be very unlikely to produce these historic machines in wristwatch form.

Computer technology has certainly helped in the proliferation and development of the tourbillon in the last couple of decades. We have come so far in fact, that ‘standard’ tourbillons are comparatively quite common compared to the exotic evolutions clever minds have imagined for the traditional mechanism. Breguet himself would hardly recognise many of them. Before discussing some of the most important modern tourbillon watches, it is wise to discuss how the tourbillon fits into the luxury watch landscape today. A handful of brands offer Swiss tourbillons at a price of around $30,000 to $50,000—these are considered bargains. The average tourbillon-based timepiece is priced at over$100,000. There are even some tourbillon-containing watches that are priced in excess of $1m. This fact has led many people to see the tourbillon itself as a status symbol, rather than a symbol of genuine mechanical watch appreciation.

One of the most famous modern tourbillon watches is the Patek Philippe 5002P Sky Moon Tourbillon. Priced at about $1.5m, the SkyMoon Tourbillon ironically doesn’t even display its tourbillon as it is hidden inside of the movement. The price and incredible complexity of the watch matched with the popularity of Patek Philippe among collectors helped announce to the world what a tourbillon could mean in terms of prestige. Patek Philippe tourbillon watches are quite rare, as other Swiss watchmakers produce tourbillon pieces much more regularly. Then there’s Arnold & Son’s TE8 Tourbillon Métiers d’Art I—the latest special edition to the Arnold & Son Royal Collection. This unique watch was produced in a limited edition of eight timepieces, in a 44mm18-carat rose gold case with each movement individually hand-engraved and numbered.

A trend that began about a decade ago was to include ever more complicated tourbillons inside watches. Greubel Forsey produces watches with between two and four tourbillons in a single mechanism. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s famous Gyro tourbillon series includes a spherical tourbillon that spins on two axis points inside of a cage. Girard-Perregaux produces their beautiful bi-axial tourbillon collection timepieces, while independent watchmaker Thomas Prescher is unique in producing triple-axis tourbillons that seem almost impossible in their operation.

Modern tourbillon movements are also increasingly practical. None argue that tourbillon movements are impressively more accurate than those with traditional regulators, but they can be just as convenient. Among the most beautiful (and practical) tourbillons are produced by German A. Lange & Söhne, which can be ‘hacked’ to stop while setting the time. TAG Heuer has even developed a few tourbillons. Their Mikrotourbillon S timepiece eschews the modern spring of most balance wheels for a magnetic system that operates much faster for accuracy.

Nevertheless, the tourbillon of today is about visual marvel and bringing a smile to the face of the person wearing it. Roger Dubuis claims that most of the watches they sell contain tourbillons, which isn’t surprising with pieces like their Skeleton Double Flying Tourbillon. Cartier produces a large collection of stunning tourbillon watches to top out their wide range of timepieces. A favourite from the French brand is the Astro tourbillon, a unique timepiece whose tourbillon actually rotates the entire dial of the watch each minute.

While exotic tourbillons prove interesting, most tourbillons sold are still traditional single axis, single tourbillon timepieces. Regulars in the tourbillon-making circuit worth looking at for classically beautiful examples include Vacheron Constantin, Blancpain, and of course Breguet. Over 200 years later and Breguet is still among the very top choices when it comes to getting a tourbillon-based watch. The brand has paid meticulous attention to keeping the tradition alive in its high-end offerings. Would Abraham-Louis Breguet be proud? Certainly, as well as extremely surprised by the life tourbillons have taken today.