Named after the French word for “whirlwind,” a tourbillon watch is a mechanical device that consists of a small cage that houses the balance wheel and escapement and rotates on its own axis. The concept behind the tourbillon is that the constant rotation of the balance wheel and escapement averages out any positional errors that may be caused by gravity, which was a concern for pocket watches that remained in one position for long periods.
As tourbillons are some of the most intricate and challenging watch mechanisms to make, they are the domain of only the best high-end watchmakers. Tourbillons are also very expensive, therefore have become the ultimate status symbol in some watch-collecting circles.
From its history and how it works to the various types available, here’s everything you need to know about the tourbillon watch.
Brief History of the Tourbillon
The tourbillon was developed in the late 18th century by Abraham-Louis Breguet, who is often considered the godfather of horology. Breguet invented the tourbillon to improve the accuracy of pocket watches and he patented the device in 1801.
His theory was that pocket watches, which were typically carried vertically, can have accuracy deviations thanks to the effect of gravity on the oscillating balance wheel. Therefore, a tourbillon counteracts the negative effects of gravity by spinning on its own axis at a constant rate and path.
According to the modern-day Breguet watch company, its founder created 35 tourbillon pocket watches during his lifetime. However, fewer than 10 of them are known to exist today.
In 1947, Omega created Caliber 30I, the first tourbillon movement purposely built for a wristwatch.
The Audemars Piguet ref. 2870, which debuted in 1986, was not only the first self-winding tourbillon ever made but also the first series-produced tourbillon wristwatch.
In 2014, Bulgari introduced the world’s thinnest tourbillon watch in the form of the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Manual, which measures a mere 5mm thick.
How Does a Tourbillon Work?
While there are various types of tourbillons, all of them work in a similar fashion, which is to say they consist of a rotating cage that houses the balance wheel and escapement. The balance wheel and escapement are also known as the regulating organs of a mechanical watch.
The entire mechanism spins on itself so that the balance wheel rotates to all positions, thereby canceling out any gravitational effects if the timepiece is stuck in one position. In other words, the tourbillon is intended to provide a single average rate for all the vertical positions.
See it on the Wrist: Royal Oak Concept Tourbillon On the Wrist
A tourbillon usually completes one full rotation a minute, which means it is also often used as a seconds counter on the dial.
Although Breguet created the tourbillon for pocket watches, the spinning “whirlwind” mechanism has since found its way into high-end wristwatches. While there is some debate as to whether or not a tourbillon improves the accuracy of wristwatches (since a wristwatch isn’t subject to the same positional constraints as a pocket watch), they are no less coveted by serious watch collectors.
A watch complication is any function on a watch other than the display of time. Even though a tourbillon doesn’t provide any additional information and thus, doesn’t adhere to the accepted definition of a watch complication, many still call a tourbillon a complication.
Different Types of Tourbillon Watches
As the development of tourbillon watches evolves, haute horology brands have released various types over the years. In addition to the traditional tourbillon explained above, there are multi-axis tourbillons, flying tourbillons, and watches with more than one tourbillon. A tourbillon mechanism is almost always placed on the dial for all to admire and often paired with other complications to create truly outstanding pieces of mechanical art.
The single-axis tourbillon is the most traditional type, featuring one axis for the tourbillon to rotate on and bridges above and below to secure it.
Some of the finest watchmakers include several tourbillon watches in their catalogs and these are some of our favorites:
- Patek Philippe
- Audemars Piguet
- Vacheron Constantin
- A. Lange & Söhne
- Richard Mille
In 2004, Jaeger-LeCoultre unveiled the Gyrotourbillon, the first multi-axis tourbillon with two axes so that the tourbillon cage rotates in two planes through every possible position. That was quickly followed by the Franck Muller Revolution 3 tri-axial tourbillon that same year.
Since then, we’ve seen a wide range of multi-axis tourbillon watches hit the market, often developed by independent watch brands. A few notable models include:
- Girard-Perregaux Tri-Axial Tourbillon
- MB&F Legacy Machine Thunderdome
- Vianney Halter Deep Space Resonance
A traditional tourbillon is anchored between two supporting bridges on both sides. On the other hand, a flying tourbillon does away with the top bridge for an unobstructed view of the whirling mechanism.
A few fantastic examples of flying tourbillon watches include:
- Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Flying Tourbillon
- Drive de Cartier Flying Tourbillon
- Chopard Alpine Eagle Flying Tourbillon
- Bovet Battista Tourbillon
In 2004, Greubel Forsey launched the groundbreaking Double Tourbillon 30°, which boasts two tourbillon cages that rotate at two speeds on two separate axes. What’s more, the smaller, inner cage is inclined at 30° relative to the other one. Nowadays, multiple tourbillons are a specialty of Greubel Forsey with models such as the Quadruple Tourbillon GMT and others.
A few other impressive multiple tourbillon watches include:
- Roger Dubuis Excalibur Skeleton Double Tourbillon
- Harry Winston Histoire de Tourbillon 10
- Breguet Classique Double Tourbillon 5347
Does Rolex Make a Tourbillon?
At this point, you may be asking yourself, does Rolex make a tourbillon? No, Rolex does not make tourbillon watches. There is a Rolex tourbillon out there that grabbed a few headlines in 2018, however, this was not made by the Crown. It is a modified Milgauss created by a customization company. Therefore, if you come across a Rolex tourbillon, it’s not a genuine piece.
The Tourbillon Watch: Two Centuries Later
Whether manual winding or automatic, single axis or multiple, flying or not, tourbillon watches are some of the most remarkable fine timepieces money can buy.
While the tourbillon has been around for well over two centuries, today’s watchmakers continue to surprise us with creative, high-tech, and ultra-modern reinterpretations of Abraham-Louis Breguet’s groundbreaking mechanism.
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Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Tourbillon Chronograph Titanium
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