At this year’s Baselworld fair, the annual Swiss event where many of the world’s top watch brands present their novelties, a recognized and discerning watch collector was spotted admiring one of the latest high complications. "I’d buy it today," the collector was overheard saying, "if only it didn’t have a tourbillon."
Over the past decade, advances in computerized production technologies combined with insatiable demand for upper-echelon mechanical watches have generated a flood of tourbillons. What was once the undisputed badge of high-watchmaking prowess has proliferated to the point where some collectors are getting turned off.
As with automobiles, not all tourbillons are created equal. Consider today’s market, which spans the gamut from Chinese-made tourbillons that sell for around $1,000 up to mid-six-figure tourbillons from Switzerland’s most illustrious marques. As one collector notes: "There are a couple of tiers of tourbillons: those that are watch collectors’ dreams and those that are garden variety."
Naturally, finishing is a primary distinguishing characteristic that seasoned collectors assess immediately. "One of the things we take pride in is our finish," says Octavio Garcia, chief artistic officer at Audemars Piguet, who points out the chamfering on all the internal parts of this year’s Openworked Extra-Thin Royal Oak Tourbillon. "There are 115 inward angles, and each one takes a half hour to finish. Just imagine the time spent on each watch."
Precision was Abraham-Louis Breguet’s mission in inventing the tourbillon, for which he received a patent in 1801. The single-axis tourbillon reduces gravity-induced errors by continually rotating the regulating system (the balance, balance spring, and escapement) in a cage, typically completing a full revolution in a minute. But since his device was conceived for pocket watches, which remain in the vertical position by day and horizontal by night, there has been some debate about the complication’s usefulness in wristwatches that change position hundreds if not thousands of times per day.
A decade ago, watchmakers began to devise new ways to make the standard tourbillon mechanism more relevant for wristwatches. Multiaxis tourbillons that rotate the escapement through both horizontal and vertical planes offered the potential to further correct for gravity-induced errors. Franck Muller, Greubel Forsey, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and independent watchmaker Thomas Prescher were pioneers in this extreme genre, which emerged around 2003. This year, accolades rightfully have been showered upon the $262,000 Jaeger-LeCoultre Duomètre Sphérotourbillon. In addition to the axis of its carriage, the Sphérotourbillon has a second axis inclined at 20 degrees, which frees it from the effects of gravity in every position. "All tourbillons today can be adjusted for hours and minutes, but not seconds," says the brand’s marketing director, Stéphane Belmont. "If you are a collector and want something very exclusive and unique, you need to look beyond traditional tourbillons."
Accuracy may be essential, but many contend that the real seductive power of the tourbillon is aesthetic. "If you are not creating a tourbillon as an emotion, you are just creating pieces of metal working quickly," says Juan-Carlos Torres, CEO of Vacheron Constantin, which introduced two new tourbillons this year. "You have to see the tourbillon large like the antique tourbillons, and the finish has to be perfect, because the pieces are moving a lot and your eyes are always focused on it. And in the end, the speed of the tourbillon has to be linked to your own heartbeat. Only then do you enter the rhythm of time. The tourbillon links you with the passing of time and the watch, and that feeling is priceless."