The tourbillon, French for ‘whirlwind’, is one of the great traditional complications, mastered by only the finest watch houses. The delicate oscillations of a tourbillon’s cage make our hearts race faster
Words Simon de Burton   Photography Bruce Anderson
There’s a good chance that if you’ve found yourself getting serious about watches, you’re building yourself up to purchase the horological equivalent of a Bugatti Veyron, a Wally yacht or a Learjet. We refer, of course, to that ultimate, statement-making timepiece – the tourbillon wristwatch.
It’s something that committed horophiles feel they simply have to own because, it seems, at least one tourbillon is as essential to a definitive watch collection as a Blower Bentley is to a stable of vintage sports cars, or a case or two of 1966 Château Palmer is to a
well-rounded wine cellar.
But why do tourbillons carry such collecting kudos, where did the tourbillon come from, and what is it? The term is bandied about in watch speak as freely as automotive types opine about torque curves, compression ratios and valve timing – without necessarily knowing exactly what they’re referring to.
Feather touch: Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master Tourbillon Dualtime has a second time zone and a date hand that jumps from 15 to 16 to avoid hitting the tourbillon. Price: £56,000’
The idea behind a tourbillon is to counter the effect that gravity has on a watch escapement, that part of the mechanism designed to transfer the power of the mainspring to the going train. In a perfect world, this happens in a smooth, linear and constant fashion. But many moons ago it became apparent that, because pocket watches spent a long time in the vertical position (ie when they were in waistcoat pockets), gravity could cause the power delivery to become erratic.
Cornishman John Arnold was the first to conceive the tourbillon mechanism, but he died in 1799 without bringing the idea to fruition. As a result, it is most commonly associated with his close friend, the Swiss Abraham-Louis Breguet, who patented the idea two years later and respectfully fitted his first, fully operational tourbillon into an Arnold pocket chronometer, which he gifted to Arnold’s son. It now resides in the British Museum.
Flight of fancy: The movement inside the new IWC Portuguese Tourbillon Hand-Wound is based on a 1930s pocket watch calibre. Its flying minute tourbillon rotates on its axis once every 60 seconds. Price: £44,000
Although Breguet is rightly synonymous with the tourbillon, he made just 26 due to the fact it is a fiendishly difficult contraption to create. Why? Because it involves housing the already intricate escapement within a tiny, fragile and exquisitely crafted cage that, in the case of Breguet’s design, rotates 360 degrees every minute, thus preventing the escapement from spending a significant length of time in the same position and so countering the effect of gravity. It was that rotating action that led to the mechanism being called a tourbillon, the French word for whirlwind.
Tourbillon movements first appeared in wristwatches during the 1930s, but few were made due to the extreme difficulty of reducing the mechanism to wristwatch size and, perhaps more significantly, because the need to compensate for the gravitational effect of a watch being kept vertical becomes irrelevant when one is worn on the wrist. Add to this the fact that anyone who buys a mechanical watch nowadays accepts that it can never be
as accurate as a quartz-powered model costing a fraction of the price, and the apparent frivolity of the 21st-century ‘tourbillon wristwatch’ soon becomes clear.
Dawn chorus: The small seconds on Zenith’s Captain Tourbillon is attached to the tourbillon carriage, making a full rotation every 60 seconds. Price: £46,000
But, as we all know, mechanical watches of any sort are not really about practicality, they’re more about an appreciation of the fine art of micro mechanics – and nowhere in horology (save, perhaps, for the minute repeater) is this more exquisitely expressed than in a beautifully crafted tourbillon.
The gradual resurgence of the mechanical watch in the late 1980s gave makers the impetus to once more rise to the challenge of tourbillon construction, with Audemars Piguet and Blancpain spearheading the mechanism’s return to popularity – although, by the turn of the 21st century, there were still only a handful of brands around the world with a tourbillon watch on their inventory.
Perhaps one of the most magnificent of these early reprises was affected in 1994 by the then newly revived maker A. Lange and Söhne. Based in Glashütte, a town that was formerly part of East Germany, the company showed that years of oppression had not diminished its talents by producing a watch that was instantly regarded as a modern classic – the Tourbillon Pour Le Mérite.
Free as a bird: The three-part regulator dial on this exquisite A. Lange & Söhne Richard Lange Tourbillon ‘Pour le Mérite’ separates the hour, minute and seconds hands. Price: £162,200
Named after a prestigious order of merit sponsored by King Frederick William IV of Prussia in 1842 for outstanding accomplishments in the fields of science and art, the Pour Le Mérite pieces are still revered as being among the most exquisitely engineered tourbillon wristwatches ever made. Early examples have now attained true collector status, with one changing hands for a record €330,000 at Germany’s Dr Crott auction house in May 2012.
Some have calculated that the number of watch houses brave enough to attempt a tourbillon now reaches into three figures. By presenting a tourbillon, a watch brand is able demonstrate that it has conquered the higher peaks of horological achievement and joined the elite ranks of those makers who will appeal to the world’s most discerning collectors.
But while the complexity of making a tourbillon means they will never be cheap, the models seen on these pages show they are at least attainable for a five-figure sum, although whether or not you need one is a simple question to answer, because you don’t. But if we all lived our lives in such black-and-white terms, the world would probably stop spinning from the sheer force of collective boredom, and then the tourbillon would finally be redundant.