DEFYING GRAVITY. An 18th century invention meant to counteract the earth’s pull became the mark of quality for high-end timepieces of the 20th century
Video advertisements for fine watches will usually start off with a sensually slow panning shot of the entire timepiece, followed by closer shots of the dial face, bracelet and maybe the case-back. For high complication watches, there will inevitably be zoomed-in segments lovingly showing off the inner workings of the various mechanisms contained within the case. And as any horology connoisseur can tell you, nothing grabs your attention quite like a spinning tourbillon.
CALM IN THE EYE OF THE STORM
“Tourbillon” is the French word for “whirlwind,” but in the world of horology it refers to a certain complex mechanical feature present in many high-end watches. There is some debate about whether tourbillons are technically complications at all, since it doesn’t actually add any new functionality to a watch. Instead, this 18th century invention was meant to make pocket watches of the day more accurate.
See, pocket watches spent most of the time sitting upright in a gentleman’s pocket. In this position, gravity can either accelerate or slow down the balance and escapement mechanisms of a watch, thus degrading the watch’s accuracy. In 1795, Abraham-Louis Bréguet, a master horologist born in Neuchâtel, came up with a solution: the form of the tourbillon-styled escapement assembly. In this configuration, the escapement and balance wheel of a watch are placed in a “cage,” which spins around on its own axis, usually once every 60 seconds, thus negating the effect of gravity.
If we want to get a bit more technical about it, gravity has a significant effect on a watch’s timekeeping rate whenever its position changes—especially vertically. By making the escapement turn on its own axis, a tourbillon causes the balance wheel to turn through all possible vertical positions, thus eliminating any timekeeping errors caused by gravity and changing watch positions.
THE PATH OF THE STORM
Two centuries worth of advances in metallurgy, design and manufacturing technology means that the high-end mechanical watches of today are precision machines on par (to a certain degree) with whatever state-of-the-art timekeeping devices the electronic industry can come up with. New alloys such as Elinvar and super-accurate laser cutting equipment have eliminated a host of problems, from lost elasticity from changes in temperature to the shock of daily wear, which might interfere with the delicate operations of a fine mechanical timepiece.
At the same time, the need for a mechanism like the tourbillon has also been more or less eliminated. In fact, there is still some debate as to whether tourbillons were ever necessary in the first place, with some horologists arguing that the inaccuracy of mechanical timepieces in the past is simply the inevitable consequence of how far technology has progressed at the time.
Yet, in the latter part of the 20th century, the tourbillon made a grand comeback. Some have even credited it as one of the factors that helped the mechanical watch industry survive the Quartz Crisis of the 1980s, when the Swiss watch industry fought back by reinventing itself as crafters of luxury items. The tourbillon would have been the perfect poster child for this movement, as it still is one of the most complicated watch mechanisms ever devised.
The mechanical description of a tourbillon might not be the best way to convey just how intricate the inner workings of this “whirlwind” really is, so picture it this way: In the movement of any mechanical watch, power from the mainspring is transmitted through the balance wheel to the gears of the movement. The balance wheel essentially regulates the flow of power supplied by the mainspring for the rest of the movement—this is why it’s often referred to as the “heartbeat of a watch.” When the balance wheel (the entire escapement assembly, actually) is mounted in the “cage” of a tourbillon, it means that the mechanism must perform its already complex job while rotating steadily as a tiny, suspended construct. In essence, the heart of the timepiece keeps ticking while spinning inside a whirlwind.
So, as luxury watch makers began to call attention to the incredible craftsmanship that goes into their timepieces, the tourbillon moved from the deep within the case toward the front of the dial. It became a mark of quality and exclusivity for timepieces made only by the best watch houses. And it certainly worked: The tourbillon is complicated enough to ensure its relative exclusivity, steeped in rich history and visual splendor.
“There is still some debate as to whether tourbillons were ever necessary in the first place, yet in the latter part of the 20th century, it made a grand comeback”
Naturally, horologists from all corners of the industry started trying to outdo each other. In 1977, Anthony Randall invented the first double axis tourbillon and a working model of the design was created the next year by Richard Good. A quarter of a century later, in 2004, the triple axis tourbillon was born in the workshops of Thomas Prescher Haute Horlogerie. That year also saw the emergence of the double tourbillon from Greubel Forsey. This mechanism had one tourbillon cage whirling inside another cage. The inner tourbillon rotated at an inclination of 30 degrees and a rate of one rotation per minute, while the outer tourbillon rotated once every four minutes. The next year, the brand formed by Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey presented their quadruple tourbillon, which had two double tourbillons working constantly and independently.
Perhaps the most exciting variation, however, is the flying tourbillon. Designed way back in 1920 by Alfred Helwig, the flying tourbillon differed from its more “normal” cousins in that it wasn’t supported at both top and bottom ends, but cantilevered. It is inherently much more complex and technically considered as a complication built onto the tourbillon complication. Of course, some people thought that wasn’t nearly complex enough: In 2003, Thomas Prescher, father of the triple axis tourbillon, came up with the flying double axis tourbillon. Unsurprisingly, the company has since released a triple axis flying tourbillon.
“The flying tourbillon is inherently much more complex and technically considered as a complication built onto the tourbillon complication”
Of course, there are plenty other tourbillons representing the twenty-tens. The Excalibur Spider Skeleton Double Flying Tourbillon from Roger Dubuis, for example, has a mesmerizing display of two whirlwinds occupying the bottom half of the display. Jager-LeCoultre’s Duomètre Sphérotourbillon changes things up with a multi-axis tourbillon.
At this year’s Baselworld, Girard-Perregaux presented the Vintage 1945 Tourbillon with Three Gold Bridges “70th Anniversary Edition” for a heady mix of history and technical wonder. Another showstopper at Baselworld was the Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon, noted as having the world’s thinnest tourbillon. Meanwhile, for the more contemporary-minded watch connoisseur, perhaps TAG Heuer’s Monaco V4 Tourbillon—the first of its kind to use micro-belts instead of gears to drive the cage—will be a much more attractive option. Or take the TAG Heuer Carrera Mikrotourbillons which has two independent tourbillons where one powers a chronograph that’s impressively accurate to 1/100th of a second.
In closing, perhaps the ultimate value of tourbillons lies in its implicit capacity to defy the odds. This complication was invented in an effort to defy the pull of the Earth itself; its resurgence was spurred by a defiant industry unwilling to slip quietly into the night when progress encroached on its territory; its relevance today, thus, is as a way to defy the limitations of fine horological craftsmanship.
As much as it defies logic, the sight of a miniature whirlwind spinning in place as the hands of your watch make their rounds will always be nothing short of magical. Hence, tourbillons are here to stay.