What Is a Tourbillon? Everything You Need to Know

The tourbillon is a rare and complicated watch movement that exemplifies peak watchmaking. This special mechanical movement uses a unique mechanism that constantly rotates the balance wheel, balance spring, and escapement to counteract gravity.

A tourbillon is often visible through a watch’s skeleton dial, or open heart, so you can clearly see the interesting mechanics of how it operates. Due to its complexity, it’s often used in some of the most expensive watches in the world.

In this article, we’re going to take a deeper dive into what a tourbillon is, the mechanics behind it, and whether or not you should actually buy an (often incredibly expensive) watch with one.

What Is a Tourbillon?

A tourbillon is a complication added to a watch movement, greatly improving its accuracy. The movement’s escapement, balance spring, and balance wheel are all contained within a rotating cage to eliminate any inconsistencies caused by gravity.

“Tourbillon” is a French term for “whirlwind,” reflective of the rotating cage of the tourbillon within the movement.

How Is a Tourbillon Different From a Regular Mechanical Watch?

When an enthusiastic watchmaker like Monsieur Abraham-Louis Breguet (the great mind who invented the tourbillon) starts working on a mechanical watch, their goal is to create a movement that is as accurate, and as efficient in converting kinetic energy into a watch’s timekeeping ability as possible.

But, the basic mechanical watch wasn’t good enough for Breguet. To create the tourbillon, a few changes were made:

  • Instead of using the last wheel in the chain as the escape wheel, the cage in which the escapement is installed immediately turns. 
  • The cage is known as the Tourbillon cage; its unique structure gives a tourbillon watch its distinctive appearance.
  • The true beauty is in the link between the escapement in the cage and the rest of the movement. A stationary gear is located beneath the tourbillon cage that serves a purpose when combined with the escape wheel, and another smaller gear is suspended from the escape wheel.
  • As the tourbillon cage rotates, the smaller gear moves around the stationary larger gear and meshes with it. The escape wheel begins to spin and typically drives the escapement wheel. What brilliance!

The Swiss-Lever Escapement

When you hear the word regulation, you immediately think of discipline, sequence, and stability, and that is the epitome of a watch’s escapement. In watches, however,

There have been numerous methods for achieving this stability; however, the most efficient and well-known is the Swiss lever escapement, which integrates the escape wheel, palate fork, and balance wheel.

These three components pinch and release the motion advancement multiple times per second. The pinching part is relatively simple; the only effort required is to jam the wheels. This causes the mechanism to come to a standstill. The difficult step is restarting the framework, but there is a hidden trick: the motion never completely stops; it transfers.

When the palate fork, which serves as a jammer, is knocked into place by the escape wheel, it jams the escape wheel and causes it to stop. The other end of the palette fork nudges the balance wheel. 

The wheel then spins in one direction, winding the balance spring in the center. Then, the balance spring uncoils and rotates the balance wheel again to preserve the motion while the system is locked.

When the balance wheel returns, it taps the palate fork and unlocks it, restarting the process. You may have realized by now that the tolerances involved are tight and delicate. Such processes are influenced by external forces likeas gravity, and this is where the tourbillon comes into play.

A tourbillon can spin the entire system, taking the system’s every angle of action into account and presenting it to gravity equally, effectively canceling out its adverse effects. The brilliant invention required no additional functionality and has inspired generations of people. Many consider it to be the cornerstone of watchmaking.

Different Types of Tourbillons

The tourbillon watch, like red wine, has aged beautifully. These watches have undergone several changes over time. Luxury watchmakers have taken on the task of introducing various types of innovative tourbillon watches to the world.

Double-Axis and Tri-Axial Tourbillon

The double-axis tourbillon is an escapement in a cage with two axis rotating at 1 RPM. A tri-axial tourbillon has three different axes and rotates on all three.

Flying Tourbillons

A cock or a bridge usually supports a conventional tourbillon on the top and bottom. A flying tourbillon watch is distinguished because it only receives support from one side, having no upper bridge. The Rotonde de Cartier is one of the most well-known flying tourbillons in the world.

Double and Quadruple Tourbillons

As the names suggest, a double and quadruple tourbillon incorporates more than one tourbillon movement in a wristwatch. Jacob & Co. Twin Turbo Furious is a well-known brand that comes to mind when considering purchasing a double tourbillon watch due to its outstanding designs.

Gyro Tourbillons

Eric Coudray and Magali Metrailler, two exceptional watchmakers, introduced the first Gyro tourbillon watches in 2002. A gyro tourbillon has the unusual ability to revolve on multiple axes, hence its unusual name. The production of gyro tourbillons was quite limited, with only a few examples, including the Reverso Tribute Gyrotourbillon by Jaeger-LeCoultre.

History of the Tourbillon 

Now that you’re familiar with the workings of a tourbillon watch and its various types, let’s go back in time to see how it all began. 

Swiss-French watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet invented the tourbillon. He first came up with the idea of a tourbillon in 1795 but needed to send a watercolor palette of the design and a letter to the Minister of the Interior before he could finally obtain the patent. It was not until June 26, 1801, that Breguet received it. This classic discovery is still immensely popular in the watch world three centuries later and continues to amaze millions of people.

An Effort to Nullify the Force of Gravity

Monsieur Breguet desired to create something that could completely disregard gravity to ensure the passage of time reflected by the hands of a watch is accurate. All of the intricacies, delicacies, and complications are designed to mitigate the effects of gravity on the system. Gravity is the force that affects all objects on Earth and in space. 

We now know gravity holds us in place, prevents motion, and even impacts larger objects like the moon, thanks to Isaac Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation. Nevertheless, Breguet was determined to render gravity null and void when it comes to telling time through watches.

He devised a perplexing yet brilliant plan to work on the entire escapement. These tiny parts moved together and made it rotate indefinitely. The tourbillon was able to contain the timepiece’s regulating system and function in a way that nullified and canceled the errors caused by forces of action like gravity. 

Why are Tourbillons So Expensive?

Unsurprisingly, the upper echelons of the watch industry adore this complication. There are several reasons why watches containing a tourbillon are some of the most expensive on the market.

Only Highly Skilled Luxury Watchmakers Can Pull it Off

A tourbillon requires a highly skilled watchmaker to work on it. It is not an easy watch feature to put together. A tourbillon is typically made up of over forty different tiny parts.

All of these bits and pieces add up to weigh less than a gram. Aluminum and other lightweight metals are used to make these parts. It is typically assembled by hand, meaning only the most skilled watchmakers can perform the task.

A tourbillon requires specialized tools to be created and assembled. Such effort and time invested in the process will almost certainly cost thousands of dollars.

It’s a Status Symbol

People will notice the complexity of your watch if you have a tourbillon on your wrist, and compliments will start pouring in within seconds. This is because the outstanding display shows this beautiful feature working effortlessly in the watch.

Many watch designs include precious stones such as diamonds, raising prices. All of these factors have contributed to tourbillon watches becoming a status symbol, further increasing their prices.

A Visual Treat

Like the first time, you lay eyes on a fully mechanical movement, seeing a tourbillon in action can be mesmerizing. And, sure, as much as we can all appreciate the craftsmanship behind a horological innovation, actually seeing it, is a whole different beast.

And thankfully, this complication is aesthetically pleasing as it is intricate, so its value often isn’t hidden underneath a dial. It’s often exposed through an open-heart or skeleton dial, so you can enjoy the tourbillon spin whenever you look down at your wrist to check the time.

Large Complications in a Small Mechanical Movement

Tourbillons take up valuable wristwatch space. This issue was less noticeable in pocket watches but is prominent in wristwatches. Fitting a tourbillon into a watch with a diameter of only 30 mm is challenging.

What Is the Cheapest Tourbillon Watch?

Sugess makes one of the most affordable tourbillons on the market. Although purists might look down on such a piece, it’s simply impossible to find, and likely even manufacture, a Swiss tourbillon, at this price.

Although the watch costs tens of thousands less than its competitors, it’s still a genuine tourbillon, and surprisingly well-decorated. A glance at the tourbillon seen through the dial or the movement itself seen through the see-through case back immediately demonstrates that this isn’t a cheap knock-off, but rather a watch to be proud of… as long as you don’t mind foregoing a Swiss timepiece.

When it comes to Swiss tourbillons, however, take a look at the Tag Heuer Carrera Heuer 02T, a ceramic chronograph with a skeletonized open-work dial. This allows you to view the tourbillon, and other underlying mechanisms right underneath the hour markers, and chronograph subdials… Of course, this watch clocks in over $20,000 USD, over a 10x price increase over the Sugess.

What Is the Most Expensive Tourbillon Watch?

The $3.5 Million Louis Moinet Meteoris Collection is not just the most expensive tourbillion, but one of the most expensive watches in the entire world.

The 4 limited edition pieces each have their own precious stone or meteorite piece embedded into the dial.

And, of course, a tourbillon is front and center of this extremely complex and somewhat futuristic looking watch.

Bottom Line

Tourbillon watches undoubtedly contain a complex and captivating mechanism. It has the power to engulf the entire watch escapement and rotate it with an additional wheel to eliminate any effects of gravity on the system’s movement. 

The groundbreaking invention by Abraham-Louis Breguet was created for pocket watches, but its complexity caught the attention of modern watchmakers, who decided to take it up a notch by adding this captivating feature to wristwatches. 

However, because hand movement disrupts the purpose of the tourbillon, it is rendered useless as gravity can act on the movement of the gears inside a watch. This makes the tourbillon more of an aesthetic choice than a functional one.

Regardless of these factors, the watch remains one of the most prized possessions of many watch collectors. Due to people’s interest and desire to see more tourbillon watches, different types made it to the market, such as tri-axial and gyrotourbillons.

It is also the ideal feature for luxury watchmakers to demonstrate how their skill and craft can breathe life into the structure of a watch. Whether efficient or not, these watches are charming, and anyone would be proud to wear one on their wrist. After all, a tourbillon watch is both rare and fascinating!

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