The word tourbillon means “whirlwind” in French. Well, this is quite apt considering its working! HOT demystifies the tourbillon.
The watch industry is known for constant innovation and reinvention. This is especially true in terms of responding to the challenges that are faced by watchmakers. Many years ago, when the tourbillion was invented, it was because of one such challenge.
The inventor…and an ingenious invention
Abraham-Louis Breguet came up with the ingenious invention that we call “tourbillon” and that has changed the very language of watchmaking. The goal was to improve the accuracy of pocket watches.
Breguet observed that gravity was the enemy of the regularity of horological movements. In simple words, it affected the accuracy of watches. The reason? With each change of position of a watch when worn (that is when the hand moves about) the effects of gravity interfered with the workings of the watch. Breguet realized that for achieving the best accuracy, it was important to ensure a balancing out of the effects of gravity. Putting the mechanism in various positions could do this.
His ingenious solution placed the balance wheel, escape lever, and escape wheel in a cage which then rotated a full 360 degrees making a complete revolution around itself, usually in a minute. The overall effects of gravity were thus balanced out, as the escapement of the movement never spent any significant time in one vertical position.
Breguet developed this mechanism around 1795 and then patented it as well. He received a patent from France’s Ministry of the Interior for this new regulating device on June 26, 1801.
It is also interesting to note that this somewhat accelerated the transition from pocket watches to wristwatches. Since then there have been many innovations related to the tourbillon.
Types of tourbillons
There are different types of tourbillons. Traditional tourbillons have one axis and have a ‘bridge’, that is part of the mechanism that holds it in place. A flying tourbillon removes the bridge for “unobstructed view” of the tourbillon that is connected to the movement from underneath. While most tourbillons operate on one axis, there are multi-axial ones as well. These provide gravity cancelling out effects for a watch no matter what position one is in since the wrist can move around a lot. So, in a way, this is a more intense exploration of accuracy! Watchmakers have also experimented with changing the position of the tourbillon as seen on the dial.
Do we need the tourbillon today?
Technically, no! there has been a lot of progress in the field of horology and that has given watchmakers different ways of obtaining accuracy in wristwatches. In fact, with smart watch technology accuracy is ensured.
Then why is there still a fascination for the tourbillon? Where does the tourbillon stand today? Modern watchmakers tell the story of brilliance of the art and craft of watchmaking through this mechanism. The tourbillon is usually done as a novelty. After all, it is one of the most delicate mechanisms to conjure. No wonder then, that watchmakers love to show it off on their watches and watch lovers also love to endlessly admire the beauty of the mechanism! It thus retains its fascination by the complexity that goes into making it and also because of the sheer genius of the concept.
A visual splendour
The tourbillon is exposed on the watch’s face to enable watch lovers observe the intricacies of the mechanism. To bring more attention to their visual splendour, watchmakers have moved the location of the tourbillon to the front of the dial – making it possible to see the mechanism when looking at one’s watch. This is absolutely justified since a tourbillon is a beautiful thing to watch visually.
The tourbillon is indeed a canvas for technical and horological mastery. Tourbillons are extremely complex to develop and manufacture. Each tourbillon must be carefully assembled by hand.
The watch industry has revealed an ingenious mix of tourbillons as they entered a golden age and still continue to provide technical splendour to the watches.