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Time: Revolutionary Thinking

When you don a tourbillon, you strap to your wrist what is perhaps the most inefficient, out-of-date—not to mention expensive—complicated watch available. Undoubtedly, a number of horological aficionados will bristle at such a statement because it seemingly slights watchdom’s holiest of holies: the complicated movement that is revered above all others and virtually defines high-end mechanical watchmaking. But even the most devoted must acknowledge that for all of the labor and cost that goes into creating a tourbillon, it is still no more accurate than a dime store quartz model. Thus, the tourbillon stands as the perfect embodiment of the magnificent futility of mechanical watchmaking. Yet, once you view the mechanism as it gently pirouettes around itself, you will understand the veneration it commands; its beauty has never been equaled in any mechanical device.

The purpose of a tourbillon, which is to improve accuracy by compensating for the deleterious effect of gravity, was made moot more than 30 years ago by the advent of quartz. But that has not stopped legions of watch companies from introducing their own versions of the complication. And now, as high-end mechanical watchmaking celebrates a new heyday, there are more tourbillons on the market than ever. What makes the device so compelling is that its relatively simple concept is extremely challenging to execute.


Mechanical watches are regulated by an oscillating balance wheel and a coiled hairlike spring on which the wheel is suspended and driven. These two components roughly correspond to the pendulum in a grand-father clock. However, when you turn a watch on its side, the rate of oscillation varies enough to create inaccuracies—a clear drawback in a timepiece that is intended for portability.

The gravity problem was solved at the turn of the 19th century by Abraham-Louis Breguet, the archetypical genius watchmaker, with some elegantly simple engineering. Breguet devised a way to minimize the effect of a watch’s changing position by regularly rotating the entire balance wheel assembly.

Creating this rotating mechanism is the difficult part. Breguet designed a rotating “cage,” containing both the balance wheel and the escapement, the part that transmits the beats of the balance wheel to the power train that drives the hands. Breguet called his invention the tourbillon, French for whirlwind, which is a bit of an overstatement considering that most tourbillons spin at the modest rate of once a minute.

In modern tourbillons, the cage assembly is usually visible, with the pulsing balance wheel in the center and the ratchetlike escapement wheel in gentle orbit. Unlike the vast majority of complicated watches in which the workmanship and ingenuity are concealed, the tourbillon charms onlookers by putting its concept and execution on display.

However, not every manufacturer chooses to flaunt its cage. Such modesty, championed chiefly by Patek Philippe, is rooted in purism. “The basic prin-ciple at Patek Philippe R&D movement development has always been that we only show indications [time, calendar, power reserve, etc.] on the dial, via hands or disks in apertures,” says Philip Barat, who led the development team for Patek’s Reference 5101 10-day tourbillon released this year. “As the tourbillon is not an indication but a mechanism, there is no reason to show it on the dial.” There is another, more practical reason not to show the mechanism: Exposure to ultra–violet light can cause the specialized lubricants in the movement to deteriorate. Because the purpose of a tourbillon is to ensure accu-racy, Patek maintains that an exposed cage is self-defeating.

Patek Philippe has taken its quest for accuracy to extremes by submitting each 10-day tourbillon to Controle Officiel Suisse des Chronometeres (COSC) for certification. The watch must pass not only the official Swiss standards but also the company’s own more rigorous requirements. Before it is released to the market, a 10-day tourbillon must perform within exacting tolerances, losing less than one second per day.

Patek Philippe’s principled stand to shield the mechanism from damaging light rays, however, does not square with the vast majority of tourbillon makers. For most, the complication’s rotating cage is the dial’s center of attention. It seems that they have bowed to the wishes of their customers, who, above all, want to see the mechanism. “I think most people who purchase tourbillons are doing so because of the aesthetic appeal of the watch,” says Leon Adams, president of New York’s Cellini Jewelers, one of the few retailers in the country that regularly has a tourbillon on hand. “I find a lot of people who purchase a tourbillon love the way it looks. Many of them, I’m afraid, don’t necessarily know what it does.” Its appearance alone, though, is sufficient for many customers. They are willing to wait months for these watches, which are produced only by the handful.

Barat’s reasoning notwithstanding, even Patek Philippe has made concessions to those who prefer perception over purism. Its new 10-day tourbillon is the company’s first with a cage that can be viewed—through a sapphire exhibition back. To offer this unobstructed look at the new mechanism, Patek Philippe’s engineers repositioned several components from the configurations of its previous tourbillons.

At more than $200,000, Patek’s 10-day tourbillon comes at a considerable cost. The principal reason for this price, as with other well-made tourbillons, is the level of artistry that goes into the watch’s production. Assembling and finishing the 72 parts of the cage alone takes a full week of a master watchmaker’s time. Adjusting the watch for accuracy, which involves making minute changes in the weight distribution on the balance wheel as well as the tension of the hairspring, can require another week.

Another company with a great deal of equity in tourbillons is, of course, Breguet. Although the time-honored marque has been fully reconstituted since Abraham-Louis’ day, it has striven to remain faithful to the founder’s original ideals, a characteristic that appeals to collectors seeking something close to the original. “The modern tourbillons from Breguet are like the originals—not complicated and simply made with the minimum required parts,” explains Nicolas Hayek, CEO of the brand’s parent company, Swatch Group. “They also display most of the attributes and design creativity of Abraham-Louis Breguet, such as the shape of the hands, the handmade guillochage, and the fluted case band. In all aspects, you will find many of the technical specifications developed by Breguet still used now.” The company recently applied these principles in a tourbillon for women, proof that it believes the complication’s appeal extends beyond the traditional collector.

While tourbillons have always been a staple of the great houses, including Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet as well as Patek Philippe and Breguet, several younger companies are establishing their bona fides in the field of luxury watchmaking by introducing their own tourbillons. Bear in mind, however, that not every company builds its tourbillons from scratch. Some use fully or partially supplied movements, and others farm the highly skilled and specialized watchmaking work to third-party specialty houses. Neither of these practices is neces-sarily bad for the customer. In fact, using proven and reliable components and labor is one of the best ways to ensure that the timepiece will operate properly. (Not all of them do.)

Girard-Perregaux is one of the few companies with a reputation for consistent excellence in the field. Its most famous model, the Three Gold Bridges, is considered by many experts to be the gold standard for tourbillons. Girard-Perregaux actually produces three different three-gold-bridge movements, all based on one of the company’s mid–19th century pocket watch designs. The characteristic look of the movement, with the cage slung beneath the lower bridge, is what most people remember, but the model is also remarkably stable and reliable—a reason so many have been built to date. “We recently celebrated the 1,000th tourbillon made since we started in 1991,” says technical director Willy Schweizer. “And our after-sales statistics show that, apart from accidents, the return of these watches for repair or adjustment has been negligible.”

The quality of the watch begins with the conception, explains Schweizer. A lighter cage improves performance—Girard-Perregaux’s tourbillon has 75 parts and still weighs less than .3 grams. “Larger size also helps,” he adds, “as does a balance wheel with poising screws [the tiny screws laid out along the rim of some of the best balance wheels]. It is also important that the work is executed by an excellent watchmaker, rather than a merely good one. Concessions on these points will lead to a tourbillon in name only, with none of the advantages.”

Still, functionality can be secondary for both watchmakers and collectors with an appetite for flamboyance. For them, the tourbillon is a medium for watchmaking virtuosity, an opportunity to show off one’s imagination and talents. The skeleton executions recently introduced by Girard-Perregaux and Glashütte Original represent the ultimate in letting it all hang out.

For those not content with garden-variety tourbillons, there is also a beast known colorfully as the “flying tourbillon,” which offers an unimpeded view of the mechanism. The flying tourbillon cage is suspended from below on a single, rotating axis, a modification that greatly increases the watchmaking challenge, but rewards with a number of aesthetic possibilities. One is exploited well by Piaget’s new Emperador Tourbillon, in which front and back sapphire crystals create the impression of a floating cage. Blancpain also upped the complicated ante with this year’s limited edition Le Brassus flyback split-second chronograph with flying tourbillon.

A flying tourbillon is as much a statement of watchmaking prowess as it is a functional timepiece. The same can be said of Franck Muller’s latest Revolution model, which, in his style of don’t-try-this-at-home watchmaking, rotates the cage both horizontally and vertically. Other varieties, such as central tourbillons (with hands that come up inside the cage) and carousel tourbillons (in which the cage drives one of the hands), are also innovative and difficult to copy. And if these watches have slightly bizarre appearances, so much the better for those who seek the unconventional.

Obviously, some of these more exotic incarnations stray from the original spirit of Abraham-Louis Breguet’s invention. But they are nonetheless valid reflections of what today’s avid collector desires in a watch. No one wears a tourbillon every day, and when it is removed from the drawer, watch box, or safe, it will invariably require winding, adjustment, or both, so the question of accuracy becomes irrelevant. But then, as you watch the cage do its gradual, graceful spin, who really cares what time it is anyway?

Blancpain, 877.520.1735, www.blancpain.com

Breguet, 212.288.4014, www.breguet.com

Girard-Perregaux, 877.846.3447, www.girard-perregaux.ch

Glashütte Original, 877.520.1735, www.glashuette.de

Patek Philippe, 212.218.1240, www.patekphilippe.com

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