Do you wear a modern mechanical wristwatch? If so, your pride and joy probably benefits from a clear caseback, perfect for answering those detractors arguing that the words ‘modern’ and ‘mechanical wristwatch’ have no place in the same sentence. Unstrap your watch, flip it over and beguile these heartless robots with a microscopic spectacle of springs, levers and cogs – a joyous anachronism that couldn’t be more essential in our disposable digital age.
You can take such pleasure with an automatic Tissot costing as little as £500. But for 100 times that buck, your horological bang gets a whole lot, er, bangier, thanks to a little thing called a tourbillon (‘whirlwind’ in French). For a start, you don’t have to unstrap your watch to show off the micro-mechanics – this flea-circus merry-go-round sits proudly on your dial for everyone to see. A carousel, tumbling the ticking escapement over and over in a mesmerising display of technical prowess.
You can wax lyrical about its 19th-century purist horological origins (which we will, below), but these days the tourbillon purely serves to embody ‘mechanical’ in an unashamedly extravagant fashion. It’s a spinning podium, rising from the stage in a billow of dry ice, feathered showgirl twirling on top. And every luxury watch brand, from Audemars Piguet to Zenith, would never dare not to include their own version in their catalogues.
“Chronographs or GMTs or divers may have usefulness and tactile engagement,” says Kyron Keogh, CEO of ROX jewellers, whose portfolio includes tourbillon brands Audemars, Chopard, Hublot and TAG Heuer, “but tourbillons are a tiny work of kinetic art on your wrist, which you can admire at any time.
“Of course, like a Rolls-Royce or Bentley, you’re joining a highly exclusive club – but unlike certain examples of those cars, no one will ever begrudge you your tourbillon. In fact, as a conversation piece, you can’t beat it.”
Frivolities aside, a tourbillon really is worth its price tag. Irishman Stephen McGonigle has made his name in Switzerland as a high complications gun for hire, and together with brother John, their eponymous indie brand does a sublime take on the tourbillon as art form (pictured below). Even he is still in awe of the tourbillon’s challenges:
“Without question, it’s the work and skill from the watchmaker that affects the cost,” says McGonigle. “Despite their similarity to a basic ‘time-only’ mechanism, the escapement components are much smaller and constantly moving, so very tough to assemble and far more difficult to adjust.”
When universally lauded ‘forefather of modern watchmaking’ Abraham-Louis Breguet first patented his tourbillon, or ‘whirlwind’ invention in 1801 (his submission to the French office pictured below) it wasn’t to show off his virtuoso watchmaking skills, as the tourbillon does now – it was to address a genuine problem plaguing pocket watches at the time.
As with mechanical movements today, the basic principle is that a geartrain feeds power from the winding barrel into the ‘escapement’ regulating organ. Tick for the tock for the tick, a lever locks and unlocks the escape wheel, eking out the flow of power, its rate governed by the oscillation of a ‘balance wheel’ – the breakneck equivalent of a grandfather clock’s pendulum.
With a pocket watch however, tucked away in your waistcoat all day, its pendulous balance wheel is constantly upright, so gravity constantly ‘squashes’ the spiral hairspring it’s mounted on. Watchmakers at the time could only adjust for a certain amount of error, and after a while timekeeping would go awry.
Breguet’s stroke of genius was using the geartrain not only to power the ticking escapement, but also to spin the whole assembly over and over by 360 degrees every minute. Gravity’s ‘squash’ of the balance spring is therefore evened-out over every angle. In wristwatch form of course, brushing your teeth and waving for the bus is enough to keep the balance wheel constantly reoriented, hence the tourbillon evolving into its modern guise as a rather pointless but beautiful badge of horological honour.
As with so many flashy things, the prominently exposed, dial-side tourbillon in wristwatch form only really got going in the eighties. Indie pioneer Franck Muller claims the first-ever in 1984, but then Audemars Piguet debuted the first-ever self-winding tourbillon in 1986, then Blancpain made a classical version, and then the floodgates were open…
From Breguet’s first prototype in 1795 right up to the seventies, less than 1,000 tourbillons had been made. Today, that figure is more like 3,000 to 3,500 a year. And the spectrum couldn’t be wilder in variety, from a Chinese Sea-Gull for £3,260 to a starting price of €300,000 at Greubel Forsey.
The first Breguet tourbillon
How Does A Tourbillon Work?
A traditional watch movement sends its power straight from the winding barrel to the locking and unlocking lever mechanism of the escapement, which ekes out the going rate of the intermediary geartrain, to which the hours, minutes and seconds hands are attached. With a tourbillon watch however, the geartrain sends the power first to the tourbillon cage, which houses the whole escapement assembly. The cage rotates on top of a fixed gear wheel, which passes power to the escapement inside via a pinion attached to the cage, allowing it to tick away as usual. Still with us?
“The cage, which is the ‘heart’ of the mechanism, is the toughest part to assemble,” says Stephen McGonigle, “but there are so many other subtleties from one calibre to the next. For example, when we were designing our tourbillon, it was important for us to have the cage as light as possible. Not just for aesthetic reasons but a light cage is also beneficial for the timing, reducing the inertia of the cage.
“The architecture of the tourbillon can also differ greatly,” he continues, “how the cage is held in place, for example. It can have one or more arms holding it to the mainplate of the mechanism. There are even tourbillons that appear to ‘fly’, as they are held from underneath.”
Vacheron Constantin Tourbillon
What To Consider When Buying One
So you want to buy a tourbillon? Congratulations on your wad of disposable cash. And your discerning taste in watches, it goes without sayingThe necessarily difficult manufacture of these horological specimens fairly guarantees the veracity of whoever’s in line to receive your tens-of-thousands of pounds, as long as they’re a well-known name from either Switzerland or Germany’s village of Glashütte (home to A. Lange & Söhne and Glashütte Original). But as with most luxury purchases, the value proposition boils down to the degree of human intervention – CNC machining versus painstaking, steady-handed toil; off-the-peg design versus avant-garde technological envelope-pushing.
And these are all interchangeable values; Richard Mille, for example, CNC mills its futuristically architectural tourbillons out of titanium and carbon fibre, but the hand-assembly couldn’t be more nerve wracking and delicate, especially with the ever-present danger of scratching PVD-coated bridges.
“When it comes to making your decision,” says Keogh, “obviously, a decent budget is necessary, but do bear in mind that budget can soar astronomically when it comes to tourbillons. TAG’s recent £12,000 tourbillon is exceptionally good value of course, almost unbelievably so [see below]. But fifty grand can still get you something very interesting – Bell & Ross’s new sapphire-block BR-X2 for example…
“And that’s the thing,” he concludes, “don’t buy for the sake of it, buy a tourbillon that captures your imagination beyond the mechanism alone. It’s a big outlay for something so whimsical, so prepare to pay a bit more to secure the tourbillon that reflects your particular whims!”
A TAG Heuer watch for £12,100, which isn’t hewn from gold or studded with diamonds, sounds particularly keen for the purveyor of accessible luxury. But when you realise it’s a tourbillon, Swiss examples of which generally start at around £50,000, the question turns from ‘what the hell?’ to ‘how in God’s name?’
Well, there’s no shortage of technical know-how at chez TAG, but the pricetag comes down to clever business, and it doesn’t come much cleverer than CEO Jean-Claude Biver. The outspoken industry legend reveals that, simply put, they took the hit on what would normally be a £28,000 mark-up. “By taking the normal margin that we would make on a £600 watch, we could do a tourbillon at this price point,” he says. A lost revenue stream perhaps, but we’re all still talking about it, which makes it one of TAG’s cheapest marketing campaigns for a while…
The name should be enough for most. It was, after all, Abraham-Louis Breguet who invented the tourbillon back in 1795, patenting it in 1801 – a conceit so perfect from the outset that everyone still does it like he did. But while some might quibble over the pedigree of today’s Breguet The Brand – owned by Switzerland’s megalithic Swatch Group since 1999 – the nous that typified Monsieur Breguet’s work back in Paris has been well and truly restored.
In respect to the old craft, but also in keeping with the old master’s cutting-edge thinking, they’re combining silicon technology with dials still guilloché-engraved using 19th-century lathes, just as he would have done. If he’d happened to have had dry-reactive ion etching technology at his disposal.
A. Lange & Söhne
Switzerland has the Jura mountains: chocolate-box pretty in the literal sense, home to most of the world’s finest watchmakers. In Saxony’s Ore mountains, you’ll find the rest of them, only crammed into a single pfefferkucken-box-pretty village: Glashütte. Here, the virtuoso of German watchmaking was always Adolph Lange’s eponymous brand, established to take advantage of the region’s out-of-work miners in the 19th century.
Russian bombs and the Iron Curtain might have spelt actual curtains, but thanks to Adolph’s great-grandson and the backing of the mighty Richemont Group, Lange has re-established itself in the 28 short years since the fall of the Berlin Wall as a force to be reckoned with. Up there with Patek Philippe. As for its tourbillons? For an industrialised set-up, they don’t come finer.
There’s a French word that watch snobs like to use: ‘manufacture’. Not as a verb, but a noun, demarcating each of Switzerland’s handful of true, verticalised, self-sufficient watch factories. Patek Philippe rules the pyramid, followed by the other four: Audemars Piguet, Girard-Perregaux, Vacheron Constantin and Jaeger-Le-Coultre. Recent third-party acquisitions aside, it’s the latter who can rightfully wield 100-percent-in-house bragging rights, short of an alligator farm for their leather straps.
So of course they make tourbillons. Extraordinarily complicated ones in the case of the Gyrotourbillon – a slow-motion gyroscopic astronaut trainer for the wrist. And also extraordinarily good value ones in the case of the Master Tourbillon – a true ‘manufacture’ example, beautifully hand-polished, for little over the industry’s usual starting price.