Tourbillon: The pulsing heart of many luxury watches

January 26, 2024By Bonetto Cinturini

In the luxury watch sector, tourbillons have gained a true level of respect. A tourbillon is a type of device, proposed even by the most refined brands, that requires marked technical production skills, even if over the past years it has become more accessible. Even though it is a sophisticated mechanism that gives greater watch precision, however, many brands continue to select other solutions. Here are some facts about tourbillons, what they are, who invented them, and the more unique variants, which we are sure will amaze you.

 

What tourbillon means

As is known, Earth’s gravity can have quite a negative impact on watch precision. This is why tourbillons, which look like a cage and which connect the balance wheel, the balance spring, the escapement and the escape wheel, were invented.
Some brands keep the tourbillon hidden and well protected, but many others find it beautiful to look at, so they prefer to expose them on the watch face. In general, tourbillons are considered a design feature that not only renders the watch more exclusive, but also increases its overall performance. 

As far as operation is concerned, the cage that characterises a tourbillon is almost always connected to the seconds wheel and can make a 360° rotation every minute. This means that a full rotation ends when the 60 seconds finish. This rotation compensates the deviation caused by the force of gravity, so ensuring the best precision possible.
Not many people know that the word tourbillon is of French origin, and that it is also the abbreviation of Régulateur à tourbillon, the name of a mechanism invented by Abraham Louis Breguet and patented on 26 June 1801. An articulated construction of the mechanism, marked by circular movement, ensures that the gear train moves constantly; the balance wheel therefore acts as if it was rotating along the circumference, so eliminating the timekeeping delay.

Tourbillons have been re-elaborated over the years, to make them lighter and less bulky. Consider, however, that the lighter a tourbillon is, the more complex it is to produce.
Just think about the version proposed by Patek Philippe, with 69 components and an overall weight of just 0.3 grams. This special tourbillon is closed inside a circular cage whose diameter is smaller than one centimetre.

Choosing to wear a modern wristwatch today triggers a natural tourbillon effect, given by the balance wheel that takes on different positions while the wearer moves their wrist, even though the component is solidly fixed inside the mechanism. Newly-produced luxury watches are made more precise by the electronic measuring of the balance wheels, which barely feel the effect of gravity.
At this point, it would be normal to ask why movements with this particular mechanism are still being produced. The answer is very simple: tourbillons are considered an emblem of fine watchmaking, they increase watch performance, and they render operation impeccable.

The tourbillon can therefore be considered a complication that is suggestive, characteristic of the true art of watchmaking. Many variants are made only for aesthetic purposes, given that they remain very easy to see and can be inspected from the opening on the watch dial.

 

Tourbillon: some history

At the beginning of the 1800s, wealthy men would use pocket watches, models that remained vertical for most of the day and were pulled out when required, so only when the user had to tell the time.
At that time no-one knew yet that the force of gravity had a crucial effect on the mechanisms, enough to make watches slow down or accelerate in a truly unpredictable manner. It is easy to imagine the result of this effect: often time was inaccurate. To solve the problem, Abraham Louis Breguet, one of the most important people in watchmaking history, thought it would be a good idea to invent a device that could perfect the precision of his models.

The story of tourbillons is quite tormented. The talent of the master watchmaker came to light in 1785, but the mechanism was patented in 1801, to then be placed on the market four years later.
In 1806 the mechanism was presented at the Exhibition of Products of French Industry. On that occasion, the Parisien (and not only!) public were able to admire an invention that subsequently changed watch precision for the better.
At that period, the tourbillon was a great innovation, an exclusive jewel of micro-engineering. Some prototypes were made before it was marketed: the 169, which was assigned to the son of a London watchmaker, John Arnold, and the 282, completed in 1800, which remained with the Breguet family for many years until it was sold.
The uniqueness of the original model proposed by Breguet was the cage, which was divided into two sections, an upper and a lower one, connected to each other by two supporting columns. A special movement and pinion were added to the rotation of the co-axial cage, centred around a ruby.

As always happens with all great inventions, the initial form of the tourbillon was changed. The mechanism was modified and frequent implementations were made.
There is, for example, an inclined tourbillon which, as the name suggests, is inclined and whose angle can be varied. This small modification, which was invented by Albert Potter in 1857 but modified over the years, ensured superior balance and contrasted the force of gravity better. 

There is also a flying tourbillon, created in 1920 by Alfred Helwig for purely aesthetic reasons, in other words to make the mechanism more visible. This time, the tourbillon was mounted on only one side, not two, so it could be admired more easily. Differently to what many people believed, the flying version has shown itself to be just as precise as a traditional tourbillon.

Finally, the double- and multiple-axis tourbillons deserve a mention. The special characteristic of the first is the balance wheel, which oscillates according to the stress it undergoes. The second, which defines extremely fine watchmaking, is a more perfect version of the original mechanism. 

 

The most loved luxury watches with tourbillon

Many tourbillon watches have been launched on the market in recent years, many of which rare, limited edition, and proposed at quite high prices. The list includes the Audemars Piguet for example, a model that displays its complex mechanism, and characterised by a round cut at the 6 o’clock position.
Alternatively, there is the slimmest automatic variant in the world, proposed by Bulgari. This watch, presented in 2018 and named Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Automatic, is often only 3.95 millimetres and can boast a BLV 288 calibre of 1.95 millimetres. Its manufacture is extraordinary, and its performances are excellent, also thanks to the peripheral oscillating mass that is positioned on the case back. The model is waterproof up to 30 metres, has a diameter of 42 millimetres, and only 50 were produced, so it is particularly hard to find.
Another interesting watch is the Panerai in titanium, very light, whose balance wheel rotates around the horizontal axis rather than the vertical one, differently from classic tourbillons. This example, in fact, has three barrels, charges automatically, and ensures six days of autonomy, the level of which can be checked on the rear indicator. The special edition, dedicated to Galileo Galilei, is limited to 50 pieces.
Decidedly more solid, economic and sporty is the TAG Heuer Carrera Tête de Vipère, 45-millimetre, a limited edition of 155 pieces, while one of the most particular is the Benu Tourbillon by Moritz Grossmann, whose stop-second was made using human hair. The 16-millimetre cage takes three minutes to complete a rotation.

The list also includes tourbillon watches with a good quality-price ratio, for example the Frédérique Constant brand, with perpetual calendar and a steel case rather than a gold one.

Given that the tourbillon was specifically invented for pocket watches, plenty of people wonder if using it to make wristwatches is still relevant. Besides, no-one carries watches horizontally inside pockets and even waistcoats are no longer as fashionable as they used to be.
Consider, though, that because of the continual changes in a person’s wrist position, the force of gravity influences the balance wheel. This is why major producers offer various models that guarantee maximum precision even without a tourbillon. The highest standards of production, new technology and next generation materials make it possible to reach extremely high levels of reliability.

Owning a tourbillon to guarantee watch precision is therefore not necessary. Observing one is thrilling for enthusiasts and estimators, precisely because it is a work of art, an emblem of fine watchmaking, that it is almost impossible to remain indifferent to. Tourbillons manage to fully contrast the effects of the Earth’s gravity in any position, and they are just as efficient technically as they are fascinating visually.