So What Is It.
The ultra-complicated part was originally built to fight gravity.
Now, it s extremely valuable proof a watch is special.
Reading about watches can often feel like cracking open a textbook.
Browsing and even buying means being barraged with inscrutable words and phrases like tourbillons, perpetual calendars, minute repeaters, and so on.
So here, we ll be breaking down the meaning, history, and importance of different watch terms.
Welcome to GQ s Watch Glossary.
Even if you don t know much about watches, you might know what a tourbillon does to one it adds a couple extra zeros to a timepiece s value.
Last year, Tag Heuer made headlines when it unveiled an affordable tourbillon watch.
The piece cost 20,000.
The tourbillon was once a breakthrough in watchmaking, but today, like spinners on a Hummer, is more useful for showing off.
How did we get here.
The tourbillon was invented by watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet around 1795, during the era of the pocket watch.
Unlike the modern wristwatch, a pocket watch typically remained in two positions vertical in a pocket or horizontal on a table.
Breguet discovered that gravity pulled on the time-telling mechanisms in the watch the balance wheel and hairspring, originally a coil of steel or gold that swung like a pendulum and kept time and created imperfections.
In his fight against gravity, Breguet created a cage that could hold all the pieces necessary for keeping time.
He made it so that cage rotated in a circle, effectively preventing gravity from yanking the spring too far in one direction.
Now, it s an incredibly complicated mechanism made up of roughly 70 different parts that live inside the diameter almost half that of a dime.
The whole thing is typically placed right on the dial, where the rotating gears can easily be called on to impress whoever s looking at a timepiece.
But the tourbillon didn t truly catch on until about two centuries after its invention.
Watches powered by quartz were invented in the 1980s they were much more accurate, and powered by batteries that kept ticking without interruption much longer than any mechanical watch.
All of a sudden all the mechanical movements became much less precise than the quartz, said Stephane Belmont, Jaeger-LeCoultre s director of heritage.
The movement is the heart of the watch, the series of pieces that keep it ticking.
Plus, wristwatches strapped onto flailing arms didn t have the same problems with gravity as their pocket-bound predecessors.
So, in response to the so-called Quartz Crisis, watchmakers started relying on beauty, more than precision, to sell their watches.
To wear a watch with a tourbillon was a sign that you would wear a very high-level watch and that you have something quite special, Belmont said.
That s how actually it became much more attractive and much more popular.
People knew if you had a tourbillon on the wrist it means you have a mechanical watch.
Wearers weren t the only who used the tourbillon to show off.
Watchmakers, too, used the tourbillon as an excuse to flaunt their skill and ability to assemble dozens of parts inside a tiny space.
Jaeger-LeCoultre, for example, upped the ante on a tourbillon that rotated on a single axis with the gyrotourbillon, which rotates around like a globe.
Luckily for modern watchmakers, Breguet s invention wasn t just practical in its time but mesmerizing over 220 years later.
Today, quartz isn t even the greatest threat to mechanical watches.
Most people now carry a device around in their pockets that knows the exact time, down to the second.
The tourbillon s greatest advantage isn t that it keeps time well, but that it does so beautifully.
A marvel of mechanics.
The word to describe what is inarguably the most revered complication in the world of watches is borrowed from the French language Tourbillon meaning whirlwind , as the name describes, is a component that turns 360 degrees within a watch.
To be precise, the escapement, which is found in all mechanical watches, is modified to make a full rotation every minute in order to counter the gravitational force that is exerted on it.
This is to improve the overall accuracy of the watch and because of their mesmerising mechanics and the sheer skill that goes into creating this masterpiece, tourbillons are held in very high regard amongst watch enthusiasts.
A whirlwind on the wrist a closer look at the tourbillon and its functions.
The tourbillon was invented in 1795 by Abraham-Louis Breguet, the legendary watchmaking visionary.
The patent was granted to Breguet in 1801 in Paris.
The complications prime function was to compensate for inaccuracies caused by changes in a pocket watch s position relative to the gravitational force that was exerted on the watch.
The Breguet Tourbillon s escapement is placed within a carriage that makes a full revolution in regular intervals around the centre seconds pinion.
Due to that rotation, the gravitational force is exerted in equal parts at each point of the escapement, in essence negating the effect of gravity on the critical points of the movement by taking it out of the equation, thus correcting for gravitational error.
Unlike a pocket watch, wristwatches are usually in frequent motion throughout the day, thus achieving the same effect a tourbillon would on a static timepiece.
Nonetheless, the ability to create tourbillon is equatable to a badge of honour in horology, as it is at the pinnacle of fine watchmaking.
Its purpose may be primarily aesthetical, but it is a spectacular addition to a watch that is held in high regard for good reason.
Variants and innovations.
Throughout history, several different variants of the tourbillon have been created.
From the Tourbillon to the Gyrotourbillon, let us have a look at the different creations the great masters of horology have invented.
Top Selected Products and Reviews.
Price Price 39.
If you re looking for a skeleton style watch with a true tourbillon movement, this is the real deal, not to be confused with a much less expensive and much less complicated open heart movement masquerading as a tourbillon.
This is a true Flying carrousel-tourbillon built for Jiusko by Hangzhou, one of China s most experienced movement manufacturers since 1972 .
The watch has a sapphire crystal, solid stainless case, clear display back and it looks classy on the wrist, with very well balanced skeleton detailing showcasing the details of the movement.
5mm, it s big enough to look modern without being garish, and it rises low enough to the wrist to work well with dress shirt cuffs.
Comfortable and great eye candy.
Plus I own 3 Jiusko watches, and I trust the build quality which, especially when it comes to more complex movements like tourbillons, is hugely.
In-Depth Does The Tourbillon Have Any Real Benefits In A Wristwatch.
For a clear-cut answer, we went to Roger Smith.
It s indisputably true that Breguet invented the tourbillon with the intention of creating something that would improve the performance of a watch.
At the same time that Breguet created the tourbillon his patent is from 1801 he also created a controversy.
The tourbillon is supposed to do something very specific reduce the rate variation between the flat positions of a watch, and the vertical positions, to an absolute minimum.
Enthusiasts who are interested in precision know that a watch runs at slightly different rates in each of the classic positions in which a watch is timed.
These are the vertical positions or hanging positions which are crown up, down, left, and right, and the flat, or horizontal positions dial up and dial down.
George Daniels succinctly states the purpose of the tourbillon in his book Watchmaking , The purpose of the invention was to eliminate errors of poise in the balance by revolving the escapement continuously to produce a uniform average rate.
Breguet four minute tourbillon, 1806, made for Count Stanislaw Potoki, no.
1176, with Breguet natural escapement and 21,600 vph frequency.
Auctioned at Christie s in 2014 for 935,442.
The biggest discrepancies are between the vertical and flat positions, thanks to the effects of gravity on the balance and balance spring Breguet s thought was well, if I put the balance and its spring as well as the escapement, including the escape wheel inside a rotating cage that turns in the same plane as the dial, I ll get a single, average rate for all the vertical positions.
Daniels remarks, The close vertical rates obtainable with a tourbillon will last longer than similar rates from a conventional watch.
He also points out, The tourbillon watch is expected to keep better time than a conventional watch.
If its potential to maintain a closer rate for a longer period of time is to be fully exploited, it should be fitted with an escapement that does not need oil at the impulse surfaces.
The reason for this is obvious as lubricant deteriorates, the rate of the watch will vary.
Now, all this seems relatively straightforward.
The notion that a tourbillon should be an aid to rate stability seems intuitive enough and yet it has become more or less a matter of conventional wisdom nowadays that the tourbillon is not a help in fact, it s often expressed that it s more of a hindrance than anything else.
Against the theoretical potential of the tourbillon, there are a number of practical arguments, which can be divided into arguments against the tourbillon in a wristwatch, and arguments against the tourbillon, period.
Patek Philippe observatory tourbillon movement, with 50 second tourbillon; mid-20th century; obtained a first-class bulletin.
To take the second set of objections first, the tourbillon creates some issues while attempting to address another.
You do get a single average rate for all the hanging positions, for sure, but you also need a more powerful mainspring because instead of the movement just moving the balance when the escapement unlocks, you have to move the mass of everything in the cage as well balance, spring, lever, and escape wheel.
On top of that you have to move the mass of the cage.
Every single time the balance unlocks and the escape wheel advances a tooth, the whole kit and kaboodle has to move which is a major additional inertial load, as well as a lot of additional load on the pallets and escape wheel teeth.
If you want to get around this nowadays, and you re making a tourbillon on the cheap, you can overcome lower manufacturing precision by throwing in a stronger mainspring; traditionally, however, making a tourbillon involved manufacturing to very high precision so as to avoid excess wear.
Audemars Piguet ultra thin cal.
In a wristwatch the objections become even more pronounced.
The space issue is perhaps less urgent in a pocket watch, but in a wristwatch, the tourbillon really starts to hog available space; building a tourbillon into a 50mm or larger pocket watch is one thing, but fitting one into, say, a 30mm diameter watch movement is another.
There were certainly tourbillon wristwatches built in the days before the post-quartz luxury watch boom, but they were very few in number Patek Philippe made several wristwatch tourbillons for the observatory trials, as did Omega, but these are rarities, and the search for winning timekeeping solutions in the observatory trials was largely taken up with refining the lever escapement watch, and improving fine adjustment techniques.
Audemars Piguet s ultra-thin tourbillon watch, caliber 2780, from 1986, was intended as a demonstration of tour de force watchmaking prowess, not a serious contribution to precision timekeeping.
Finally, it s doubtful whether, as the saying goes, the game is even worth the candle.
We asked watchmaker Roger Smith, who s known in the watch community for his advocacy of simplicity and robustness as traits of paramount desirability in a watch movement, for his views on the tourbillon in a wristwatch.
I think George Daniels would have happily admitted that a tourbillon has no practical purpose within modern horology, and I would agree.
The tourbillon was invented to cope with the vagaries of a split bimetallic balance, which due to its nature two flexible arms is impossible to poise, due to the varying temperatures, centrifugal forces and repeated shocks that a watch will receive.
The tourbillon moderated these issues.
Today, the industry all use mono metallic balances which do not move once poised in the factory or workshop, and so for practical purposes relegates the tourbillon to the history books.
Where a tourbillon does have a role today, is when a watchmaker is wanting to show off their skill, artistry and flare for miniaturized mechanics and to stand out from the crowd.
I would still put one in a watch.
The Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Automatic is a slim, modern take on the tourbillon.
It s conventional wisdom that the natural home of a tourbillon is in a pocket watch but Smith makes an interesting and often forgotten point the split balances used in pre-Glucydur balance watches, which were paired with steel balance springs, were extremely difficult to poise both statically and dynamically, and moreover would have any poise errors amplified by the expansion and contraction of the balance.
In this context, a tourbillon could be effective, or at least it would seem so from observatory time trial records a Girard-Perregaux observatory tourbillon from the 1890s, was recorded at the observatory at Neûchatel as having a difference in rate between the flat and hanging positions of just 0.
19 seconds day.
But in a modern watch with a monometallic balance, the device seems superfluous at best and parasitic at worst, purely from a chronometry standpoint.
Modern Rolex watches, to take just one obvious example, leave the factory adjusted to 2 seconds per day, which a tourbillon wristwatch certainly one of the same proportions as, say, a 39mm Oyster Perpetual would be hard pressed to match.
Dial and movement, Girard-Perregaux observatory tourbillon, 1889.
Still, there are interesting outliers in the data on tourbillon wristwatches.
The Concours International de Chronométrie was one of the few modern examples of a real accuracy competition, and in 2011, a Greubel Forsey Double Tourbillon Technique was the overall champion, with 915 points out of 1000 overall awarded a Tissot, the winner in the Classique category, scored 764 points.
The 2009 edition of the Concours also featured winning performances from tourbillons, with the JLC Master Tourbillon and Gyrotourbillon obtaining the highest overall scores.
Such a small sample size, of course, provides little in terms of solid information on the benefits of the tourbillon and as with all time trials, may say as much about the adjusters as it does about the watch, but at least it shows that the device is not necessarily inimical to accuracy which is not strong marquee, as they say, but it s something.
The Greubel-Forsey Double Tourbillon Technique Sapphire.
A final point which is sometimes forgotten in the discussion of tourbillons in watches, is that the single average rate for the vertical positions is itself subject to instability.
Having a single average rate is certainly a theoretical advantage, but that single rate is an average and itself subject to variation depending on the amount of power in the mainspring, the state of lubrication of the watch, and the amount of time it spends in varying positions where poise errors may be more or less exaggerated.
The latter issue is the one that multi-axis wristwatch tourbillons are meant to address, and certainly, such tourbillons those from Greubel-Forsey, for instance remain fascinating as intellectual exercises.
That may sound like damning with faint praise, but it isn t the intellectual interest of such watches isn t for everyone and certainly the price is not for every wallet but they remain intriguing examples of the exploration of bleeding edge mechanical solutions to long term rate stability; experimental constant force escapements like Girard-Perregaux s are another example of such experimentation, and I think the watch world is definitely richer for such things.
Lange Söhne 1815 Tourbillon Handwerkskunst.
Asked if it s true that a tourbillon could at least proved a theoretical benefit in a wristwatch given its ability to produce a single average rate in the vertical positions Smith replied, A simple and well set up balance and spring will hold as good a rate in the verticals as any tourbillon.
In the long term, a simple watch will far out perform a more complicated tourbillon, particularly as the lubricants begin to age.
Patek observatory tourbillon no.
86115, cased for Philippe Stern in 1987.