Complications: The Tourbillon Watch Explained

Watches are exceedingly complicated bits of technology. Sure, they may seem like commonplace objects, but if you’ve ever glanced at what goes on behind the dial, you’ve likely seen a very intimidating, almost alien collection of mechanisms. Luckily, you don’t have to understand every single one of the ins-and-outs to appreciate them for what they are: superb pieces of everyday carry gear. Still, you’ll be a more well-rounded person if you take the time to at least garner a basic understanding of their operations.

And while you very likely understand how the time-keeping function of a watch works, there are many other varieties with greater functionality than just letting you know what hour, minute, and second it is. These secondary functions, of course, are called complications. And one of the most complex, coveted, and elusive of all is the tourbillon. In the following article, we’ve traced the history, functionality, and modern examples of this impressive and costly complication in order to give you both a better understanding of it and, perhaps, a greater appreciation for the genius there is to be found in horology.

Photo: Breguet Classique complications 5317

History Of The Tourbillon

Like all watch complications, the tourbillon dates back to a very specific problem with a very specific type of watch. In this case, it was during the 1700s in which the most commonly carried watch type was the pocket variety. To understand this, however, we need to touch on some baseline details of watches and the ways in which their environments affect them.

As watches are mechanical and man-made, they are not infallible – no matter how complicated and masterful they might seem. In fact, there are a number of external factors than can affect the accuracy, consistency, and operation of a watch. These include motion/speed, altitude/temperature, submergence, magnetism, shock, and more. Most of these can be circumvented with alterations to the case of the watch itself. Make a sturdy and impenetrable enough watch case and you’ll not have to worry about water seeping in or atmospheric variances and altitude changes – it’s as simple as that. There are, however, other factors that cannot be fixed from the outside.A well-built sturdy case does not negate the pull of our planet.

One such problem is something that affects literally everything in the universe to some degree or another: gravity. You see, a well-built sturdy case does not negate the pull of our planet. If anything, it accentuates it. And because gravity is, for our purposes, an invisible and entirely pervasive force, it also affects the moving gears within a watch. Now, when a watch is lying flat on its back or face, this hardly matters – as the gear motion is horizontal and thereby relatively unaffected. Turn a watch on its side, however, and the vertical gears suffer from inaccuracies due to the fact that they are not, in fact, completely uniform on all sides.

This is where pocket watches come into play. As they were the only carry-friendly option of the time, everyone who wanted a watch had this variety. But it’s how they are carried on one’s person that causes problems to arise. A pocket watch, by their very nature, is carried – most of the time – in a pocket vertically. As such, they are quite susceptible the slowing effect of gravity – requiring the user to reset the time on a more frequent basis. To counter this, a French-Swiss watchmaker by the name of Abraham-Louis Breguet invented a complication that he called the tourbillon – the French word for “whirlwind.”

What Makes It Tick

There are two parts to every watch that keep them ticking on a consistent basis – the escapement and the balance wheel. The escapement is the key element that makes mechanical timekeeping possible and is the device that transfers energy to a watch’s timekeeping device in a manner that can be counted or “timed.” The balance wheel is the mechanism that replaces the gravity-controlled pendulum of standing clocks in small-form wall or desk clocks and watches and accounts for energy lost as a result of friction in the escapement. These two pieces are also the ones that suffer from the slowing effects of gravity in a pocket watch.

In order to make up for that, Abraham-Louis Brequet came up with a shockingly simple idea that required an incredibly complicated bit of mechanical engineering. You see, if the escapement and balance wheel of a watch were housed in a cage that constantly rotated, the effect of gravity would be averaged out and thereby negated. Simple in theory, very difficult in practice because it required the invention of a freely rotating cage that moved the escapement and balance wheel on a consistent basis, controlled by the very movement the device was created to assist. Still, in a stroke of genius, Breguet managed it and patented the device in 1801.Breguet’s original tourbillon device remains the standard through today.

Though Breguet’s original tourbillon device remains the standard through today, there are actually a few different varieties – all of which capitalize on the same base idea. They range from the dual-axis tourbillon – a sort of 360-degree gyroscope watch complication – to a “flying” tourbillon – a cantilevered take on Breguet’s design supported only on one side, rather than two. In any case, they all function basically the same, or – perhaps more accurately – operate on the same principle.

There is a slight problem, however, with the tourbillon: it’s not actually necessary when it comes to wristwatches. You see, the idea to create a rotating cage for the escapement and balance wheel is genius for a watch that sits on its side for most of the day. Wristwatches, by contrast, are constantly in motion and serve to average out the effects of gravity on their own – it’s just the nature of wearing a timepiece on one’s arm. In fact, it’s been shown that a toubillon can actually negatively impact the function of a wristwatch in some cases. That being said, they are still often incorporated into watches as both a novelty and to display the virtuosity of the horologist behind it. They’re incredibly difficult to do well and speak monuments of the mind responsible. As such, they also come with a very high price tag – regardless of necessity.

Breguet Marine 5887 (Learn More)
IWC Portugieser Tourbillon Hand-Wound (Learn More)
Zenith Chronomaster El Primero Tourbillon (Learn More)

Top-Tier Everyday Carry

Yes, tourbillon watches are exceedingly expensive when compared to just about every other variety. And yes, in truth, they are not a necessary part of wristwatch functionality by a long shot. But that doesn’t make them useless – or at least not any more useless than a piece of fine art, a hypercar, or a mansion. The fact of the matter is this: owning a tourbillon watch is an achievement in and of itself. They are magnificent examples of human ingenuity and – so long as you don’t take ownership lightly and have a basic understanding and appreciation of their complexity, value, and functionality – they impart an air of refinement and accomplishment upon their owner. If you like them and you can afford one: more power to you.

The GMT Watch Explained

If a hundred-thousand-plus-dollar tourbillon seems a little too complicated and out of your price range, you might want to look into something a bit more commonly attainable. For instance, we’ve put together this explanation of GMT watches that might be more reasonable and, by proxy, have greater appeal.

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