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November 2022

History of the tourbillon, the complication of excellence in watchmaking

I admit, many times I was wrong. At the beginning of my sales career and before I started to understand a few things, I said many inaccuracies. It is quite normal, mechanical watchmaking is a very complex field; one has to study or at least read about mechanics, general and specific history, a little physics, metallurgy, know the origins of companies and many other subjects. The more we know, the less monotonous we will be in presenting a product, the more correct in describing what a watch is. I don’t want to be difficult, but becoming a trained salesperson takes many years.
When I started in 1990, there was no Internet, no magazines, few companies, unlike today, organized training courses. One of the inaccuracies that I dragged around the most was calling the tourbillon an escapement. It is not an escapement.
After investment, if there is a term that is definitely overused in watchmaking today, it is tourbillon. This word follows me, harasses me, I find it often around a bit like the advertising that, by now, bombards all our senses.
Pardon the outburst but, perhaps because of age issues, I find myself a little impatient with those topics that are too much debated but, little explored. In addition to being a professional, fortunately for me, I have also become an enthusiast and this allows me to better understand why this device fascinates, impresses, intrigues, and provokes debates. There is an obvious fascination in watching the rotation of a tourbillon more, much more, than any other movement that takes place in a mechanical watch and it is no accident that, in recent years, the device is almost always visible through an opening in the dial. A bit of history.

History of tourbillon

The tourbillon is perhaps Abraham-Louis Breguet’s most ingenious invention: we are talking about one of the most prolific and creative great watch technicians in history. The whole struggle of watchmakers is directed at solving, eliminating, correcting the many problems involving friction, lubrication, distribution of forces, in Breguet’s time gravity was also added.
The watches were carried in a breast pocket and thus remained in an upright position most of the time. The balance wheel was subjected to significant perturbations and this was a limitation toward the pursuit of precision. Breguet thought of and invented a mechanism whereby the entire escapement rotates on itself in one minute. By creating a cage that contains all the parts, with spiral, balance, anchor and wheel pivoting on the same axis, the escapement pinion rotates around the fourth wheel, which is fixed, creating the rotation that is so striking.
For those who know how a clock works, it turns out to be seemingly simple (after he has laid out the way), but complicated, very complicated to make and, above all, to balance. It takes a technician with great sensitivity, as well as great manual dexterity. For many years, almost two hundred, the tourbillon was built very little, only by the greatest watchmakers with unique pieces or very small runs, or as a test of skill for the most gifted students of some high school of watchmaking, often only as an escapement and not as a whole movement. I read somewhere that from 1801, when the patent was filed, until roughly the 1960s there were about 600 known and documented tourbillons. Few at all.

The spread of tourbillon

But then how did we get to the prevalence of the last few years? Why did a system that was primarily supposed to solve a problem in pocket watches end up in wristwatches? Good question.
The main reason lies precisely in the fact that only the best technicians can build one and thus give much prominence to themselves or the company they work for. But if we change the point of observation, we could also say that if you produce, or have in your catalog, a tourbillon, you belong to the Olympus of watchmaking and this has triggered a race to include this little miracle of mechanics in the sample collections of many companies.
Companies that do not always have adequate personnel in-house. Here then is the reliance on specialized workshops, which provide for the creation and sometimes the production of an ad hoc movement. Nothing new under the sun. More tourbillons have been built in the last 30/40 years than in the previous two centuries. To me, that’s way too many. If anyone has at least one model with this mechanism on their list, personally it doesn’t appeal to me as much anymore. It no longer excites me, or it is difficult to make and therefore rare, or it is no longer rare and therefore becomes normality. Am I being too strict? Am I too used to excellence so that, as sometimes happens to some chefs who no longer feel the flavors, I have lost the taste? Is the problem only mine? I don’t know, give me your opinion, go wild.
The tourbillon was to eliminate an imperfection related to gravity, thus useless in a wristwatch. If our movements already, in fact, eliminate this problem, why put such a complex to build and also very expensive mechanism in a movement?
Perhaps it is because the enthusiast is first of all very “greedy,” instinctive, because he often decides with his “belly,” and that is why this small device, which can be hypnotic, MUST enter a collection. It does not matter much if it is not very useful on the wrist, it does not matter if too many are produced, if they have sometimes very different costs, if we are not sure that it was created in house, because it represents the best of technology.

Evolution of the tourbillon

Rotating cage, fixed fourth wheel, balance spring/balance on the same axis, this was Breguet’s idea. For a long time this was the guideline for designing tourbillons. But the world of hands is creative and so to complicate things, other players came along.
In 1892 Bahn Bonniksen invented a mechanism that we will call the Karrousel and that in the maker’s intentions was to be a simpler and more robust variant of the tourbillon. In this case the device does not turn on the fourth wheel, but the pinion of the third wheel drives some intermediate wheels and the fourth wheel with the escapement. Have I confused you? I am sorry but this is a very technical subject and only with the support of a video or with models it is possible to be clearer. If you go to the Internet you will find many examples and I am sure it will be easier to understand. But it doesn’t end there since we are talking about tourbillon, Karrousel, Carousel tourbillon, all seemingly similar variants, to lose your mind.
Since the original mechanism concerned pocket watches, but practically useless on the wrist, here are devices that “justify” the introduction of this fascinating and, let us never forget, very expensive device. Many studies have been done to improve the performance of the original design, many very talented and creative engineers have taken on the challenge of taking performance to a higher level.

Multiaxial tourbillons, double tourbillons, even quadruple tourbillons, inclined tourbillons, tourbillons that make their revolution in 30, 24 or even 5 seconds, flying tourbillons, gyrotourbillons, orbital tourbillons, astrotourbillons have all come into being. My head is spinning.
Yes I admit I still get it wrong sometimes. I wanted to talk a little bit about tourbillons, but I only succeeded in complicating your life. I tried, the topic is vast, very technical, today also very “fluid,” in short a chaos.
But what do you guys think about it?

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