In the world of horology, where dozens of complications abound, there is perhaps no complication that screams luxury and extravagance more so than a Tourbillon. The name of the complication, whirlwind in French, is apt as just like how a whirlwind rises up towards the heavens, a Tourbillon aims to defy the laws and the negative effects of gravity in regards to the accuracy of a timepiece.
Many people who are familiar with the complication tend to associate it with Breguet, and rightfully so. The complication was developed and patented by the company’s founder, Abraham-Louis Breguet, in 1795 and 1801 respectively. In this historical context, when wristwatches were still in the process of developing, pocket watches were the contemporary choice for portable time-keeping. Since a pocket watch is worn hanging or placed in pockets vertically most of the time, one can surely imagine gravity constantly acting on it. This gravitational pressure will imbue stress on the mechanisms of a pocket watch, such as its hairspring and balance wheel, thus negatively affecting its rate of oscillation. Ultimately, the accuracy of the pocket watch may stand to suffer. A Tourbillon serves to correct this positional error. In a Tourbillon, the balance wheel of a pocket watch can be located in a rotating cage which turns about its own axis once every minute, effectively negating the detrimental effects of gravity when a pocket watch is fixated in a certain position for most of its time.
Fast-forward to present times, and you’ll see Tourbillons largely reserved to the haut monde of horology, due to its complexity and the time needed to make one. Wristwatches with a Tourbillon complication can easily set one back six-figures. Here, we’ll look at some notable Tourbillon watches that have further propelled this innovative complication since it came to being in the late 18th century.
In 1920, Alfred Helwig, an instructor of the German School of Watchmaking, designed the first ever flying Tourbillon. A flying Tourbillon is different from a traditional Tourbillon as it is cantilevered and supported from one side instead of the top and bottom by a bridge. Roger Dubuis is an ardent proponent of the flying Tourbillon, which they utilise in a lot of their Tourbillon watches. A personal favourite of mine is the Roger Dubuis Excalibur Spider Pirelli (280,000 CHF), a racing-inspired timepiece that features not one, but two flying Tourbillons! The streaks of blue accents running down the straps and present in the dial and crown makes the watch a very striking specimen indeed. To further highlight the racing theme, the strap utilises rubber inlays from Pirelli’s signature rubber tires.
The Tourbillon has also since transcended the boundaries of European borders to eastern ones. Credor (a brand of Seiko) released its FUGAKU Tourbillon in 2016 and it represents the perfect romance and matrimony between eastern and western cultures and traditions. This timepiece encapsulates Seiko’s first Tourbillon movement, the caliber 6830, within “a work of art that expresses the essence of the Japanese sense of beauty.” The case, dial and engravings were worked on by masterful Japanese craftsmen who takes great pride in their work. Signature Japanese craftsmanship can be witnessed throughout the timepiece, such as the Urushi lacquer technique. Most evident in the dial is the wave motif, hugely inspired by the artwork, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”, by Katsushika Hokusai. The dial has multiple layers, creating great depth and beautiful 3-dimensional perspectives when viewed at different angles.
The two pieces mentioned above command exorbitant price tags of 280,000 CHF and 430,000 CHF for the former and latter respectively. If these prices deter you from ever thinking about the prospects of obtaining a Tourbillon watch, fret not as Tag Heuer unveiled its Carrera Heuer-02 T which costs only 15,000 CHF – officially making it the cheapest and most accessible Swiss-made Tourbillon chronograph yet. Needless to say, the price definitely made waves when news of it broke in 2016. Just like the Roger Dubuis Excalibur Spider Pirelli, the Heuer-02 T houses a flying Tourbillon (although just one instead of 2). It is also very lightweight as it was constructed with materials such as titanium and carbon.
Despite the engineering marvels of a Tourbillon, there have been multiple debates regarding the usefulness of a Tourbillon in a modern wristwatch, and whether it is a vestigial and anachronistic complication. These stem from the view that since a wristwatch is worn, well on a wrist, it is constantly moving and hence deters the ill-effects of gravity on its own without the need of a Tourbillon. Personally, while a Tourbillon may not be as practical as it was in the past, it still represents a pinnacle and an achievement in the world of horology, and perfectly reflects the pursuit and pathological obsession towards time-keeping excellence of dedicated watchmakers and horologists. As such, Tourbillons have certainly earned their own place.
– By our contributor Alvin Chong @watchrology