Go to any purveyor of luxury timepieces, scan the displays and you’ll see them –tourbillon wristwatches, which can often be spotted by the presence of an opening in the dial that shows a complicated rotating mechanism. If you’re passionate about the romance of mechanics, it’ll be love at first sight, though you may find the cost daunting. The tourbillon is one of watchmaking’s most costly complications, and depending on various factors (including what other complications it’s combined with) the price of consummating your love can easily run into six figures.
What is it, then, this magical little rotating device that casts such a mesmerizing–and expensive–spell? It’s perhaps ironic, given its undoubted visual charm, that the tourbillon was originally invented not to charm the eye, but to solve a problem –a problem that was considered by one of watchmaking’s most brilliant minds.
Physics has its Einstein, painting its Picasso– in watchmaking, the name of the Swiss-born watchmaker A.L. Breguet carries the same weight. Though born in Switzerland, Breguet was of French ancestry and it was in France that he made his name as a master watch and clockmaker. His genius was varied in its fruits –Breguet either invented or significantly refined virtually every complication known to watchmaking, including the perpetual calendar and minute repeater.
He also devoted an enormous amount of effort to making watches more accurate. Breguet lived at the beginning of an era during which watches were becoming not only very expensive toys for the extremely wealthy (watches then were made by hand and every watch was essentially a unique work of art), but also precision timekeepers. It was in order to make mechanical timekeepers more accurate that Breguet invented the tourbillon.
The problem that the tourbillon intends to solve is one created by the force of gravity. A watch carried in the pocket–at the dawn of the 19th century, when the tourbillon was invented, there were no wristwatches–is subjected to gravitational stress, and as it shifts position in the pocket, will tend to run at slightly different rates depending on the position it’s in. This is because gravity tugs the escapement components in various directions, especially the extremely sensitive and delicate spiral hairspring, which directly controls accuracy. The accuracy of a watch, therefore, changes depending on its position with respect to gravity’s pull.
Breguet’s solution was to take the three regulating elements of a watch –the balance, spiral hairspring and escapement –and place them in a rotating cage or carriage. The regulating organs would therefore never rest in a single position, and rather than running at different rates in different vertical positions, the watch would instead show a single average rate for all the vertical positions. The rate of the watch in a flat position could then easily be adjusted to match the average vertical rate. And it was the visually seductive spinning of the cage that inspired Breguet to dub his invention the tourbillon –French for “whirlwind.”
That was the theory, but reality proved much more difficult. The single biggest problem was that the tourbillon significantly increased the amount of energy needed from the mainspring, which meant that for it to run at all it had to be made with great care, and the entire watch needed to be constructed with enormous precision in order to reduce energy lost to friction and inertia as much as possible. It took a genius like Breguet to invent the tourbillon but it also took a genius like Breguet to make one. For most of its history, the tourbillon was made in extremely small numbers. From the year Breguet was granted a patent for his invention in 1801, up through the latter part of the 20th century, fewer than 1,000 tourbillons were made.
Today, modern high precision manufacturing methods have made the tourbillon slightly less rare, but the creation, assembly, adjustment and finish of a top tier tourbillon is still one of watchmaking’s greatest tests of skill. Innovation in tourbillon design hasn’t stood still either. Bear this in mind: the tourbillon was invented for the pocket watch, and a wristwatch presents an even more complicated problem. The adaptation of Breguet’s invention to the wristwatch has led to an explosion in tourbillon innovation since the beginning of the 21st century. Not only as an aid to accuracy, but also as a demonstration of mastery of the highest level of watchmaking and as an exercise in sheer horological beauty, the tourbillon today continues to charm the eye as much as seduce the mind, just as it has for over 200 years.
1. The Breguet Tradition Tourbillon 7047BR
What could possibly be more delightful than a tourbillon from the company that invented them? The firm founded by Breguet is still a leader in luxury watchmaking and still making some of the most precise and beautiful tourbillons in the world. Their most recent introduction is this year’s Tradition Tourbillon 7047BR. It’s a savvy blend of old and new –the tourbillon is paired with a balance spring and escapement made of high tech silicon (which is unaffected by magnetism, one of the great banes of watchmaking) and in addition to the tourbillon, it also includes a fuseé and chain. The fuseé is a spiral cone connected to the mainspring by a chain that unwinds from it as the watch runs, and it’s basically a transmission system that ensures that an even supply of energy reaches the escapement –another essential requirement for accuracy.
2. The Ulysse Nardin Freak Diavolo
It’s a watch with an apt name–the Freak is one of the most unusual tourbillons in the world, in which not just the regulating components but the entire movement rotates inside the case, turning once per hour. Called the “Freak” because it defies conventional classification, it redefined modern watch design when it was first introduced by Ulysse Nardin more than a decade ago, and has become one of the great classics of modern watch design. The most recent evolution of the Freak, the Freak Diavolo, adds a new dimension through the installation of a traditional tourbillon on the rotating movement of the original design –a match made in heaven and a linking of hands from the origins of the tourbillon to its constantly developing future.
3. The Greubel Forsey Tourbillon 24 Secondes Contemporain
Other than Breguet itself there’s perhaps no watchmaking house more identified with the tourbillon than Greubel Forsey, one of the most exclusive names in modern fine watchmaking. Greubel Forsey (named for its two founders, Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey, who met while creating complications for Audemars Piguet) produces tourbillons especially intended for the wristwatch, and their signature complication is the inclined tourbillon, which rotates on an axis tilted 25 degrees from the vertical plane –this helps minimize even further the amount of time the escapement spends in a compromising position. The Tourbillon 24 Secondes Contemporain places this ultra-rare invention against a stunning background of blue titanium in a richly subtle platinum case.
4. The Vacheron Constantin Malte Tourbillon
No name in Swiss watchmaking is more redolent of long history and proud tradition than Vacheron Constantin. The oldest watchmaking house in continuous operation, Vacheron has been making watches since 1755. For 100 of those years –from 1912 to present –it has made watches in the distinctive tonneau, or barrel shape, and this year it introduced a new tonneau shaped Malte Collection. The undoubted grande dame of the new Malte timepieces is the Malte Tourbillon, which is a traditionally conceived and executed tourbillon wristwatch done with the impeccable finish and restrained, flawless good taste that only Geneva’s most venerable watchmaking house can muster. Notice the shape of the carriage –it’s shaped like a Maltese cross, the emblem of Vacheron Constantin, from which the collection gets its name.
5. The Patek Philippe 5208P Grande Complication
When the tourbillon travels alone it exerts a singular fascination, and when it keeps company with fine watchmaking’s most exalted complications, it’s a cornucopia of horological delights. One of the richest watchmaking feasts is spread by Patek Philippe, in its ref. 5208P Grand Complication. Here the minute repeater is joined by a single push piece chronograph and a perpetual calendar, which automatically adjusts its indications for the lengths of all months, including February and even in a leap year. The minute repeater chimes the hours, quarter hours, and minutes on demand. Musical instrument, miniature computer, and work of art, the 5208P represents the art of complicated watchmaking at its pinnacle.
6. The Jaeger LeCoultre Duométre Spherotourbillon
It’s perhaps only fitting that Jaeger LeCoultre –for many decades known for creating some of the world’s most complicated watches –would also be one of modern horology’s most innovative tourbillon designers. In recent years, it has specialized particularly in multi-axis tourbillons, in which two tourbillon carriages are nested inside each other (not coincidentally, scoring high marks in recent accuracy competitions as well.) This year it introduced its latest multiaxis tourbillon: the aptly named Spherotourbillon, in which two carriages rotate, one inside the other, with the axis of the inner carriage inclined 20 degrees with respect to the outer. An added bonus: the “dual wing” construction, which isolates the timekeeping gear train from that driving the complications, for even better accuracy. Its dizzying spiral gyrations are one of today’s most literal incarnations of the whirlwind of movement that gives the tourbillon its name.