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What Is a Tourbillon? A Watch Connoisseur’s Introductory Guide to Tourbillon Watches

what is a tourbillon

Did you know that pocket watches were once considered an important family heirloom passed down from father to son? From Sherlock Holmes to George Washington and even celebrities like Johnny Depp, if there is one thing they all had in common, it is their appreciation for a carefully-crafted pocket watch. Despite the watch’s popularity, today, people continue to ask questions like, “what is a tourbillon,” and ‘how is it an integral component of a pocket watch?’

The guide below provides you with a brief tour into the history of the tourbillon. It shows how the initial tourbillons came into being and have advanced over the decades into being one of the most sought-after watches today.

So, What Is a Tourbillon?

This fascinating device was first conceptualized, developed, and patented by a French-Swiss designer named Abraham-Louis Breguet in the late 1700s. Today, the tourbillon stands tall among watch-lovers as one of the most complicated mechanical pieces of art to have ever been conceived and designed in the world of horology.

To answer questions like ”what is a tourbillon,” a tourbillon is a mechanical obstacle embedded within pocket watches as well as some of today’s high-end wristwatches. Watches with a tourbillon consist of a special instrument with a rotating cage inside. The rotating cage holds an escapement and a balance wheel mounted upon one another. This contraption in turn improves a watch’s accuracy, and helps to counter the effects of gravity when left in a stagnant position.

Back in the 1700s, Abraham-Louis Breguet was the first to notice the impacts of physics on timepieces and the undeniable effect it had on a clock’s accuracy and efficacy, especially their movement when kept stationary or in a standstill position. After studying this phenomenon in great detail, Breguet concluded that the gravitational force tremendously impacts how a watch operates. To mitigate gravity’s impact on watches when left at a standstill position, he developed a tourbillon.

Different Types of Tourbillons

watches

Since its invention in the late 1700s, the original tourbillon has certainly evolved. Today, a horology enthusiast can find not one, but five different types of tourbillons. These include:

The Single Axis Tourbillon

When answering questions like ”what is a tourbillon,” it is important to know that the single axis tourbillon was the first of its kind. Abraham-Louis Breguet invented the tourbillon to complement the split bi-metallic balance, which was quite difficult to poise and later patented in the early 1800s. The key purpose of the single axis tourbillon was to minimize the error margins caused by the difference in accuracy and precision between different positions. As a result, whenever there is a gravitational pull on a watch’s balance spring, the single axis tourbillon throws off the timing regulator to improve the watch’s accuracy in reporting time.

In early watches, the fourth pinion was placed inside the fourth wheel, and was connected to an escape pinion. The single axis tourbillon was placed in a carriage, and carried by the fourth pinion. As a result, whenever the carriage was turned, the escape wheel would automatically rotate as well. The carriage containing the single axis tourbillon was released, and locked with each balance vibration.

The Double-Axis Tourbillon

Following the lead of Abraham-Louis Breguet, Anthony Randall invented and later patented the double-axis tourbillon in 1977.

Years later, in 2003, a German watchmaker named Thomas Prescher, intrigued by the double-axis tourbillon, developed a pocket watch named “Thomas Prescher Haute Horlogerie.” As opposed to the earlier single axis tourbillon, the double-axis tourbillon rotates two axes per minute, equalizing the effects of a wound and unwound mainspring, (the watch’s source of energy,) friction, and gravity. It is powered by a special constant force mechanism known as the remontoire, and works on a modified system designed by Henri Jeanneret.

The Double and the Quadruple Tourbillons

The question regarding ”what is a tourbillon” doesn’t end with the mere introduction of the single and double-axis tourbillons. In fact, just a year after the launch of the double axis, the Double Tourbillon 30° was introduced by Greubel Forsey, which focused on complicated watch movements. The Double Tourbillon 30° included a tourbillon carriage that rotated every minute and inclined at 30°, inside another carriage that rotated once every four minutes.

The Greubel Forsey further presented their Quadruple Tourbillon in 2005. As the name suggests, the Quadruple Tourbillon consisted of two tourbillons working independently, with a differential distributing torque between the two. 

The Flying Tourbillon

Introduced in 1920 by Alfred Helwig in Germany, the flying tourbillon differs from the traditional single axis tourbillon in the way it is mounted. While most previous tourbillons were supported by a viaduct or a bond on both sides, the new and improved flying tourbillon is fixed on only one side. The flying tourbillon can move in three dimensions, unlike the ones before, whose movement was limited to two dimensions.

The Gyro Tourbillon

The gyro tourbillon is accredited to two gifted watchmakers, by the names of Metrailler and Coudray. As the name suggests, the tourbillon in the gyro tourbillon gyrates on several axes. However, the gyro tourbillon’s success was short-lived, with limited production. 

So now that you have a basic idea about what a tourbillon is all about and why it is considered a symbol of luxury, let’s look at some of the most popular watches containing a tourbillon:

What Are the Benefits of a Tourbillon Watch?

a gray watch with a sticky note

Knowing the answer to “what is a tourbillon” is not enough. One should also be aware of the various reasons why tourbillon wrist or pocket watches are considered highly valuable. Some of these reasons include:

  • Symbols of fine craftsmanship – Not every watchmaker can build such tiny moving parts inside a cage with such finesse.
  • Accuracy – The tourbillon watch contains protection against friction and gravitational force, thus reassuring accuracy and precision in reporting time.
  • Uniqueness – Tourbillon watches are a feature of mechanical watches. The increase in demand for rare mechanical watches makes them unique in the eyes of watch connoisseurs.
  • Exposed dial – The aesthetics of tourbillon watches consisting of a stunning beautiful exposed dial is hard to compete with or resist.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who invented the tourbillon?

A French-Swiss designer named Abraham-Louis Breguet invented the tourbillon in the late 1700s.

Are there different types of tourbillons?

Yes! There are five different types of tourbillons developed over the years.

What is the world’s thinnest tourbillon?

The brand BVLGARI released the world’s thinnest tourbillon, the Bulgari Octo Finissimo. The Bulgari Octo Finissimo consists of an ultra-thin BVL 268 Caliber in-house manufactured tourbillon. It is approximately 1.95mm in thickness and has a power reserve of 55 hours.

Are tourbillon watches expensive?

Tourbillon watches are generally expensive. The price range starts from $10000 and can go up to millions depending upon the brand, model, and specifications. 

Why is a tourbillon-based watch so expensive?

Since a tourbillon is a complicated mechanism, watches bearing a tourbillon automatically become expensive for the masses to afford. This is why only some watches have a tourbillon.

Is there a cheaper version of a tourbillon watch?

Due to the technical nature of a tourbillon watch, not every watchmaker can design or mass produce it, so it falls within the luxury watch collection. Finding a cheaper version of a tourbillon watch is next to impossible.

In Conclusion

The art of creating timepieces has undoubtedly come a long way and faced many obstacles. If you happen to be a watch connoisseur like me, it is important to know the answer to questions like “what is a tourbillon,” and how these watches have evolved over time. No doubt, watch aficionados today are willing to spend millions to avail the accuracy and aesthetics these mechanical watches exude. If you still have any doubts, the guide mentioned above should answer all your questions, and convince you to add a chic, vintage tourbillon watch to your collection.

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