The world of watches can be a deep, dark and complicated place for amateur collectors or those who are simply curious about the art of watchmaking. This series seeks to tear down any horological walls and make the technical stuff (if only slightly) more understandable, especially if you’re just starting out.
Named after the French word for “whirlwind”, the tourbillon was designed not out of vanity, but as a mechanical solution to a problem that was way out of anyone’s control — gravity. In the 18th century, gentlemen carried pocket watches for timekeeping, and these either sat vertical in pockets, or horizontal on desks.
Gravity is a force that creates a drag on a watch’s movement when they are in certain positions. The pocket watch’s lack of variety in movements caused an uneven distribution of gravitational forces and friction within the movement of the watch, which resulted in damage in the long run.
Working against nature
Tourbillons are used by illustrious watchmakers all over the world now, but French-Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet takes credit for solving the conundrum back in 1795. By mounting the escapement and balance wheel in a continuous rotating cage instead of a fixed plane, he managed to negate the effects of gravity even when the timepiece was in a fixed position for prolonged periods of time.
One of the biggest challenges a watchmaker faces — even today — is ensuring the watch beats consistently no matter what position it’s kept in. Like shocks, magnetism and temperature, gravity has a direct effect on the delicate escapement parts. The latter help transmit power around a mechanical watch in a controlled way, much like a pendulum in a clock.
As the “brain” of the watch, the tourbillon gives watchmakers the possibility of achieving higher accuracy than other conventional movements. Typically, it makes one complete revolution per minute, turning the internal mechanics (the balance wheel and escapement) around its own axis to counter the effects of gravity, even if the watch is stationary in any position.
Doubling the stakes
It didn’t take long for the single tourbillon to start becoming mainstream, and for the hotshots in the industry to start outdoing each other with more complicated versions. In 1977, Anthony Randall invented a double-axis iteration, which turns around two axes instead of one, both rotating once per minute. (Its benefits were lost in a wristwatch which was constantly in motion, so this was really just to show off technical expertise).
The double tourbillon was introduced with Greubel Forsey’s Double Tourbillon 30° in 2004. It featured one tourbillon carriage rotating once per minute and inclined at 30 degrees, inside another carriage which rotated once every four minutes.
The following year, the same brand humbled the industry again with the Quadruple Tourbillon à Différentiel (pictured above), using two double tourbillons that worked independently.
Fancier versions include the flying tourbillon, which is cantilevered and supported only from one side instead of being supported by a bridge, and the gyrotourbillon, a Jaeger Le-Coultre creation comprising of a double-axis tourbillon with an equation of time and perpetual calendar complication.
For vanity’s sake
If your timepiece doesn’t have one, don’t panic. Now that movements have improved immensely, your watch no longer needs a tourbillon to stay accurate. However, it’s still considered one of the most challenging mechanisms to make, and is still highly valued — albeit as a show-off in watchmaking virtuosity. Vintage collectors constantly hanker after early functioning timepieces for their rarity and value.
The amount of time and work required to make such a tiny technical marvel usually increase triplefold, and can only be achieved by highly skilled watchmakers. Serious bragging rights and swag here, even if you end up reaching for your smart phone to check the time.