What is the tourbillon, and how is it significant in watch design? We look at one of the most ingenious ‘complications’ ever invented
The tourbillon, now over 200 years old, is one of the most exquisite and complex mechanisms ever conceived. Intended to solve a problem in time-keeping by the application of physics, it became an engineering challenge which still absorbs watchmakers – and fascinates collectors.
It was on June 26th in 1801, or as it was known in post-revolutionary France the “7th Messidor of the year IX”, that the patent for the tourbillon was granted. Abraham-Louis Breguet, who gave his name to a watch company still at the forefront of development of luxury timepieces today, was granted the patent for ten years.
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The problem Breguet had laboured to solve was the effect of gravity on watch mechanisms. Each change to the position of a watch when it is worn (and of course we are talking about pocket watches) can cause a variation to the timing of the mechanism.
There was more than mere professional pride at stake. In a world where maritime navigation could succeed or fail according to the efficiency of timepieces, each improvement in accuracy was commercial gold.
Breguet’s idea was to install the entire escapement (meaning the balance and spring, the lever and the escape-wheel, the parts the most sensitive to gravity) inside a mobile carriage that performs a complete rotation each minute. (The word tourbillon means ‘whirlwind’, which gives a slightly misleading idea of the stately progression of the actual mechanism).
His theory was that since all the causes of variation would then be regularly repeated, they would compensate for each other. Bregeut also thought that the tourbillon function would enhance the lubrication of the mechanisms.
Despite the brilliance of its conception, the tourbillon proved extremely difficult to perfect. The Breguet company holds detailed records and designs from the experiments, which resulted in a commercial product in 1805.
After two experimental models (the watch no. 169 gifted to the son of London-based horologer John Arnold in 1809, and watch no. 282 completed in 1800 and sold much later by Breguet’s son), the first tourbillon (seen above) was presented to the public at the National Exhibition of Industrial Products held in Paris on the Esplanade des Invalides in September and October 1806.
It was described as “a mechanism by which timepieces maintain the same accuracy, whatever the vertical or inclined position of the watch”, and became an object of fascination to horologists forever more.
Breguet records that early customers included the Italian patron and collector Sommariva, Monsignor Louis Belmas, Bishop of Cambrai, the Bourbons of Spain, and the Prince Regent of England. Reserved for the most distinguished customers, the tourbillon watches were sold in very small numbers – just 35 between 1805 and 1823.
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Breguet’s legacy lived on in successive models which added to the complexity of the mechanism, such as the Classique Tourbillon Quantième Perpétuel 3797 (seen top of page). The use of gold in these mechanisms is something that has largely fallen out of fashion but is still maintained by Breguet.
The Classique Double Tourbillon 5345 “Quai de l’Horloge” has two mechanical ‘hearts’ beating independently from each other, each driven by their own barrel. An engraving on the back of this model depicts the house that Abraham-Louis Breguet acquired on the Quai de l’Horloge in Paris.
Also remarkable is the Classique Double Tourbillon 5347, which includes a hand-wound movement fitted with a pair of tourbillon regulators rotating on the hour axis. Working independently from one another, two tourbillons are coupled by means of differential gears and mounted on a rotating centre plate effecting a complete revolution in twelve hours. The hour is shown by the bridge connecting the tourbillon regulators doubling as a watch hand, and minutes by a standard centre hand.
And the Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat Automatique 5367 provides a beautifully simple interpretation of the tourbillon, which reigns supreme on a minimalist dial. The Calibre 581 mechanism powering this timepiece comprises a balance oscillating at a frequency of 4 Hz while maintaining a comfortable 80-hour power reserve.
Some manufacturers present watches with a semi-skeletonized dial showing a visible balance wheel known as an “Open Heart”, which might be mistaken for a tourbillon by the unwary; but the true mechanism persists only in the highest quality watches, and many manufacturers have taken up the challenge of refining the design – Bulgari for instance releasing the world’s thinnest tourbillon in the Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon, with an 11-jewel movement just 1.95mm thick, and others presenting multi-axis tourbillons where the cage rotates on two, three or more axes, such as the Jacob & Co. Astronomia and Jaeger-LeCoultre Gyrotourbillons.
Representing an investment of perhaps five figures upwards, a tourbillon watch will always attract attention and comment, and hopefully say as much about the wearer as it does about the ingenuity of its inventor.
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