It was originally made to improve accuracy, as well as reduce wear and tear on the parts of a watch you rarely see, and its supporters maintain it does just this as well as it ever has. Others, however, say it’s been usurped by more modern design methods, and that its inclusion in modern timepieces is solely for show.
To unearth the truth about the tourbillon, we’ve spoken to those who obsess over it. Meet the last true enigma of the watch world.
The tourbillon was developed in 1795 by French-Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet. Tourbillon translates as ‘whirlwind’ in French, and it was made for pocket watches worn at the time, aimed at improving their accuracy by countering the effects of gravity as the watch moved.
James Gurney, editor of watch magazine QP, explains that “the tourbillon starts back in the 18th century, when pocket watches were becoming precise enough for people to start worrying about really quite minor lack of precision.”
“In other words, pocket watches were accurate to within seconds a day, so people started to see if they could refine the basic principle.”
Breguet decided he could improve the humble pocket watch by tinkering with the insides. It was the beginning of an obsession, as Jonathan Betts, a senior curator of horology at the National Maritime Museum explains. “Inside all watches is a balance, a wheel which swings to and fro and measures out the time. The balance is connected to the escapement, the part of the mechanism which gives the balance little pushes to keep it swinging. If the balance is not perfectly poised, and is a little heavier on one side than another, its swings will keep time differently depending on the position the whole watch is placed in.”
And this is where the tourbillon comes in.
Instead of fixing the escapement and the balance in the movement, it mounts them within a revolving frame, or a ‘carriage.’
“When the watch is running, the carriage constantly goes round, usually once a minute,” says Betts. “This means the balance never sits in just one or two positions, but constantly goes round all the positions, thus averaging out any variations dependent on how the watch is placed.”
The result is that, no matter which way you turn the watch and how long you keep it there, it’ll keep accurate time.
“Breguet’s idea was that pocket watches are obviously mostly held in one position, so gravity would have an effect on the way the balance wheel moves,” adds Gurney. “So essentially it’s going to swing down faster than it swings up, and that would be enough to perturb the precision of the movement both in terms of day to day activity and also in terms of how the watch wears over time.”
But it’s not only there to improve accuracy, it also helps prolong the life of the watch, says Gurney..
“One part of it is to improve acute accuracy, to get it closer to zero seconds loss or gain, but the other is longer term over the lifetime of the watch, to prevent wear which would itself cause inaccuracy as the parts move around each other.”
It’s a marvel of engineering, a simple idea that stemmed from improving the accuracy of pocket watches. And it was a huge success. “Trials in the great European observatories at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century showed the device was a considerable improvement,” says Betts.
But with all the engineering and technological advances in the last two centuries, the question remains: Is the tourbillon still an effective way to improve the accuracy of modern timepieces?
“It depends who you ask,” says Gurney. “I would say actually not. You get better results by other design improvements, by using better materials and that sort of thing. And setting it up better. The best wrist watches of the last 50 years have not necessarily used tourbillons.”
But all the major watch manufacturers are still making tourbillons. Last year Piaget launched its Emperador Coussin Tourbillon Automatic Ultra-Thin, the world’s thinnest self-winding tourbillon watch, measuring just 10.4mm.
The company also makes the world’s thinnest hand-wound tourbillon movement, so obviously it thinks the mechanism still has legs. It’s undoubtedly a thing of beauty, as you can see from the images above, but does it actually improve the accuracy, or is it there to show off the company’s heritage? No one from Piaget was available for comment at the time of writing.
Betts agrees advances in design have undermined the tourbillon’s effectiveness, because a wrist watch is a completely different beast to a pocket watch. “Having a tourbillon in a wrist watch is difficult to justify technically as, unlike pocket watches, wrist watches are constantly assuming different positions anyway, and the tourbillon is unnecessary. Most wrist watches fitted with tourbillons are made principally as showpieces.”
“There’s absolutely an element to it that’s for show,” agrees Gurney. “Almost no tourbillons are made where the tourbillon is hidden. They are really fascinating to look at, they’re very dynamic.”
Anyone who’s seen a toubillon’s movement up close will attest to this, turning the watch this way and that and seeing the tourbillon move is certainly far more interesting than a plain watch face. But if they don’t perform their original purpose as effectively as they once did, why do they still add such a huge price tag?
Tourbillon timepieces regularly sell for upwards of £70,000 – that’s a lot of money to tilt your wrist and see something move, however fascinating you find it at first. So what’s the attraction?
“There’s a great deal of work and components involved in a tourbillon,” says Gurney “There’s an extra 80 components that have to be hand made, assembled and finished.”
Piaget says in its promotional material that the tourbillon in its Ultra-Thin took three years to develop. And perhaps this is the tourbillon’s continuing appeal. In a world of cheap imitations and replicas, a tourbillon is the true mark of quality craftsmanship, a guarantee that what you’re buying bears all the hallmarks of centuries of technical expertise, filtered down, refined, and in Piaget’s case, made thinner.
“People who make tourbillons make better wrist watches,” as Gurney puts it. “There’s no point producing a tourbillon that isn’t perfectly made.”