Developed around 1795 and patented by the ‘Forefather of modern watchmaking’ French-Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet on June 26, 1801, a tourbillon or ‘whirlwind’ in horology is an addition to the mechanics of a watch escapement. Originally invented to improve accuracy and to combat the negative effects of Earth’s gravitational pull, horology at the time was confined to the pocket watch, which was constantly stored vertically in the user’s pocket, then stored on a table horizontally. Spending the majority of its time stuck in that vertical and horizontal orientation put strain on the hairspring inside the escapement, causing it to oscillate at an irregular rate, decreasing the accuracy of the watch.
The tourbillon aims to counter the effects of this by mounting the escapement and balance wheel in a rotating cage, to negate the effect of gravity when the timepiece is stuck in a certain position. A traditional watch movement sends its power straight from the winding barrel to the locking and unlocking lever mechanism of the escapement, which ekes out the going rate of the intermediary gear train, to which the hours, minutes and seconds hands are attached. With a tourbillon watch however, the gear train sends the power first to the tourbillon cage, which houses the whole escapement assembly. The cage rotates on top of a fixed gear wheel, which passes power to the escapement inside via a pinion attached to the cage, allowing it to tick away as usual.
Sounds technical and the tourbillon is often presented as the king of complications however it remains today a unique feature for all high-end brands as a demonstration of watchmakers’ capabilities to manufacture such small mechanisms. The mechanism is usually exposed on the watch’s face to show it off. It didn’t get going until the 80s claimed first by Indie pioneer Franck Muller, then Audemars Piguet debuted the first-ever self-winding tourbillon in 1986, then Blancpain made a classical version, and then the world was a tourbillon oyster……..
From Breguet’s first prototype in 1795 right up to the seventies, less than 1,000 tourbillons had been made. Today, that figure is more like 3,000 to 3,500 a year. And the spectrum couldn’t be wilder in variety and price.
Take a look at the movement in closeup action.
Pretty cool right?
Here are some of our favourite tourbillon watches.
Breguet Tradition 7097. The Tradition collection pays a vibrant tribute to the memory of Breguet. Inspired by the legendary souscription watches of Breguet, Tradition timepieces suggest both a return to the brand’s origins and a vision of its future. Tradition wristwatch in 18-carat white gold. Self-winding movement. Retrograde small seconds at 10 o’clock. Off-centred silvered gold dial, engine-turned by hand. Sapphire case back. Water-resistant to 30 meters.
Jacob & Co, The Astronomia Tourbillon is a truly unique, groundbreaking timepiece that elevates the art of watchmaking above the Earth, above time. Combining the highest level of Swiss timepiece craftsmanship and the horological decorative arts to create a watch that is a poetic visual rendering of the celestial world with every element in constant, visible motion, all under the control of the oscillator at the heart of the three-axis tourbillon with an orbital display of the hours and minutes.
The new generation Audermans Piguet Royal Oak Concept Flying Tourbillon GMT has the asymmetric look of contemporary architecture with its redesigned bridges and fully revealed flying tourbillon at 9 o’clock. A powerful mix of sandblasted titanium and black ceramic – with 10 days’ power reserve.
Tag Heuer Carrera Tourbillon Chronograph Viper Head. Released in context of the 55th-anniversary celebrations of the Carrera, this evolution of the Heuer-02 Tourbillon is housed in a dark blue ceramic case. It also comes with a Viper Head certification, the Besançon observatory hallmark attesting chronometer precision. 45mm blue ceramic/steel case – water-resistant to 100m – automatic movement calibre Heuer-02T with hours, minutes, small seconds, chronograph and tourbillon – alligator/rubber strap on folding buckle.
The Rotonde de Cartier collection showcases the most advanced movements in Cartier Fine Watchmaking: the Astrorégulateur, minute repeater, Astrotourbillon and skeleton grande complication. The Rotonde de Cartier Flying Tourbillon watch, 40 mm, Manufacture mechanical movement with manual winding 9452 MC certified “Poinçon de Genève”. The case is in 18K pink gold set with 65 brilliant-cut diamonds and beaded crown in 18K pink gold set with a brilliant-cut diamond, totalling 1.24 carats. White galvanised guilloché dial, satin-brushed silvered open-work grid with sunray effect, and black transferred Roman numerals. Sword-shaped hands in blued steel. Sapphire crystal. Alligator-skin strap, double adjustable folding buckle in 18K pink gold. Flying tourbillon complication with seconds indicated by the C-shaped tourbillon carriage. Individually numbered movement comprised of 142 parts including 19 jewels. Water-resistant to 30 metres.