In this modern digital world, you probably know the feeling of satisfaction wearing a perfectly crafted mechanical watch on your wrist. With a sapphire see-through case-back, you can unstrap your watch, flip it over, and get enchanted by all those little parts moving in perfect harmony and synchronization making your watch tick. Your pride and joy and the satisfaction you get wearing a mechanical wristwatch will be taken to a whole new level with a tourbillon watch.
You have probably seen one before, maybe not in person, but in videos or pictures of those high-end timepieces, displaying a baffling cluster of metal components and springs, spinning gracefully on the dial, referred to as tourbillons. The tourbillons mesmerizing effect, pumping like a mechanical heart on the dial, adds an elegant complication to the mechanics of the watch escapement.
We take a beginners look at how the tourbillon works, from the history and why this mechanical art piece is known for the pinnacle of watchmaking.
First of all, many devious watch dealers might mistake a semi-skeletonized dial visualizing the back and forth swinging of the balance wheel and hairspring known as an “open heart” for a tourbillon. Make sure you keep reading on so that you learn how to separate a real tourbillon from a fake one.
Tourbillon means “whirlwind” in French and is pronounced “tour-be-on” and was invented in 1795 by the father of modern mechanical watchmaking, Abraham-Louis Breguet. Only six years later in 1801 he finally patented the mechanism that is now known as the tourbillon. During the time of Breguet gentlemen carried pocket watches for timekeeping. The accuracy of the pocket watch and todays mechanical watches is affected by temperature, magnetism, shocks and gravity. Usually the pocket watch was worn vertically inside the pocket and then stored on a table horizontally. Through the course of the day the gravitational pull would exert on the pallet fork, hairspring and the balance wheel, causing irregularity in the rate of oscillation, decreasing the accuracy of the watch. The gravitational pull on the different parts of the movement was becoming a serious issue, and it was exactly this problem Breguet wanted to fix with the tourbillon. The tourbillon was hence a complication designed to counter the effects of gravity.
Breguet’s ingenious invention is a mind-boggling complicated one, but here is a more simplified look at the tourbillon. Instead of a fixed plane, the tourbillon places the escapement, including the balance-wheel, hairspring and the pallet fork, in a rotating cage or carriage. Around its own axis, the tourbillon turns the cage a full 360 degrees over a set period of time, usually in a rate of one revolution per minute. Due to the constant rotating movement of the tourbillon, the time-keeping components pass through all possible vertical positions making the negative effects of the gravitational pull cancel each other out.
Today, over 200 years since it was invented, the tourbillon is still considered to be one of the most complex and challenging complication to make in a watch. Although the complications original purpose is no longer as necessary in a wristwatch today, the tourbillon is one of the most requested complications in watchmaking today. Weighing in at under a gram, the tourbillon complication is made by lightweight materials such as titanium and aluminum, and consists from 40 parts to several hundred parts put together by hand inside a few millimeter space. Special tools are required to assemble the different hand polished parts and pieces. Due to its complicated design and small size it can take several months to make this marvelous complication we call a tourbillon.
The tourbillon was so complex and complicated that it took over 100 years before someone managed to improve upon it. It was the man Alfred Helwig who in 1920 managed to adjust the design of the tourbillon, which was a major breakthrough in horology given that only a few of the elite watchmakers could even build a tourbillon. Breguet’s tourbillon is designed in a way that has the tourbillon supported by a bridge, or a cock, on both the bottom and topside. The new design by Helwig which he called a Flying Tourbillon, is cantilevered and supported by one side only, making the tourbillons balance wheel moving in three dimensions, instead of two dimensions like the traditional tourbillon. As the tourbillon grew more and more popular amongst watch enthusiasts, and the elite watchmakers competing to make the most complicated timepieces, they have made different kinds of the tourbillon. Such as the double-axis tourbillon, double and quadruple tourbillon and the gyro tourbillon. These types of tourbillons are immensely expensive due to their complicated design, and few people can afford one.
Over the years the tourbillon, often referred to as the heart of the watch, has become a very prized and sought-after complication for watch enthusiasts all over the world. The tourbillon is one of the most desired and popular complications amongst both men and women. Due to the complexity, the time-consuming assembly and the enthralling looks of it, the tourbillon complication has become one of the most evidently markers of an expensive watch.
The price of a tourbillon watch can range from a thousand dollars to several million dollars. How much you pay for a tourbillon watch essentially comes down to the amount of human assembly versus machine involvement and has less to do with the quality of the watch. The tourbillon wristwatches can take on many forms and comes in every taste possible, ranging from minimalistic sports models, vintage models to high jewelry watches. When it comes down to buying a tourbillon watch, the essential part is to find a tourbillon watch that matches your own sense of style and desire for mechanical elegance and not least captures your imagination. Nevertheless, be prepared, the mesmerizing effect of this marvel heart of a tourbillon will attract lots of attention to your wrist.