Do you wear a modern mechanical wristwatch? If so, your pride and joy probably benefits from a clear caseback, perfect for answering those detractors arguing that the words ‘modern’ and ‘mechanical wristwatch’ have no place in the same sentence. Unstrap your watch, flip it over and beguile these heartless robots with a microscopic spectacle of springs, levers and cogs – a joyous anachronism that couldn’t be more essential in our disposable digital age.
You can take such pleasure with an automatic Tissot costing as little as £500. But for 100 times that buck, your horological bang gets a whole lot, er, bangier, thanks to a little thing called a tourbillon (‘whirlwind’ in French). For a start, you don’t have to unstrap your watch to show off the micro-mechanics – this flea-circus merry-go-round sits proudly on your dial for everyone to see. A carousel, tumbling the ticking escapement over and over in a mesmerising display of technical prowess.
You can wax lyrical about its 19th-century purist horological origins (which we will, below), but these days the tourbillon purely serves to embody ‘mechanical’ in an unashamedly extravagant fashion. It’s a spinning podium, rising from the stage in a billow of dry ice, feathered showgirl twirling on top. And every luxury watch brand, from Audemars Piguet to Zenith, would never dare not to include their own version in their catalogues.
“Chronographs or GMTs or divers may have usefulness and tactile engagement,” says Kyron Keogh, CEO of ROX jewellers, whose portfolio includes tourbillon brands Audemars, Chopard, Hublot and TAG Heuer, “but tourbillons are a tiny work of kinetic art on your wrist, which you can admire at any time.
“Of course, like a Rolls-Royce or Bentley, you’re joining a highly exclusive club – but unlike certain examples of those cars, no one will ever begrudge you your tourbillon. In fact, as a conversation piece, you can’t beat it.”
Frivolities aside, a tourbillon really is worth its price tag. Irishman Stephen McGonigle has made his name in Switzerland as a high complications gun for hire, and together with brother John, their eponymous indie brand does a sublime take on the tourbillon as art form (pictured below). Even he is still in awe of the tourbillon’s challenges:
“Without question, it’s the work and skill from the watchmaker that affects the cost,” says McGonigle. “Despite their similarity to a basic ‘time-only’ mechanism, the escapement components are much smaller and constantly moving, so very tough to assemble and far more difficult to adjust.”
When universally lauded ‘forefather of modern watchmaking’ Abraham-Louis Breguet first patented his tourbillon, or ‘whirlwind’ invention in 1801 (his submission to the French office pictured below) it wasn’t to show off his virtuoso watchmaking skills, as the tourbillon does now – it was to address a genuine problem plaguing pocket watches at the time.
As with mechanical movements today, the basic principle is that a geartrain feeds power from the winding barrel into the ‘escapement’ regulating organ. Tick for the tock for the tick, a lever locks and unlocks the escape wheel, eking out the flow of power, its rate governed by the oscillation of a ‘balance wheel’ – the breakneck equivalent of a grandfather clock’s pendulum.
With a pocket watch however, tucked away in your waistcoat all day, its pendulous balance wheel is constantly upright, so gravity constantly ‘squashes’ the spiral hairspring it’s mounted on. Watchmakers at the time could only adjust for a certain amount of error, and after a while timekeeping would go awry.
Breguet’s tourbillon patent
Breguet’s stroke of genius was using the geartrain not only to power the ticking escapement, but also to spin the whole assembly over and over by 360 degrees every minute. Gravity’s ‘squash’ of the balance spring is therefore evened-out over every angle. In wristwatch form of course, brushing your teeth and waving for the bus is enough to keep the balance wheel constantly reoriented, hence the tourbillon evolving into its modern guise as a rather pointless but beautiful badge of horological honour.
As with so many flashy things, the prominently exposed, dial-side tourbillon in wristwatch form only really got going in the eighties. Indie pioneer Franck Muller claims the first-ever in 1984, but then Audemars Piguet debuted the first-ever self-winding tourbillon in 1986, then Blancpain made a classical version, and then the floodgates were open…
From Breguet’s first prototype in 1795 right up to the seventies, less than 1,000 tourbillons had been made. Today, that figure is more like 3,000 to 3,500 a year. And the spectrum couldn’t be wilder in variety, from a Chinese Sea-Gull for £3,260 to a starting price of €300,000 at Greubel Forsey.
The first Breguet tourbillon
A traditional watch movement sends its power straight from the winding barrel to the locking and unlocking lever mechanism of the escapement, which ekes out the going rate of the intermediary geartrain, to which the hours, minutes and seconds hands are attached. With a tourbillon watch however, the geartrain sends the power first to the tourbillon cage, which houses the whole escapement assembly. The cage rotates on top of a fixed gear wheel, which passes power to the escapement inside via a pinion attached to the cage, allowing it to tick away as usual. Still with us?
“The cage, which is the ‘heart’ of the mechanism, is the toughest part to assemble,” says Stephen McGonigle, “but there are so many other subtleties from one calibre to the next. For example, when we were designing our tourbillon, it was important for us to have the cage as light as possible. Not just for aesthetic reasons but a light cage is also beneficial for the timing, reducing the inertia of the cage.
“The architecture of the tourbillon can also differ greatly,” he continues, “how the cage is held in place, for example. It can have one or more arms holding it to the mainplate of the mechanism. There are even tourbillons that appear to ‘fly’, as they are held from underneath.”
So you want to buy a tourbillon? Congratulations on your wad of disposable cash. And your discerning taste in watches, it goes without saying…
The necessarily difficult manufacture of these horological specimens fairly guarantees the veracity of whoever’s in line to receive your tens-of-thousands of pounds, as long as they’re a well-known name from either Switzerland or Germany’s village of Glashütte (home to A. Lange & Söhne and Glashütte Original). But as with most luxury purchases, the value proposition boils down to the degree of human intervention – CNC machining versus painstaking, steady-handed toil; off-the-peg design versus avant-garde technological envelope-pushing.
And these are all interchangeable values; Richard Mille, for example, CNC mills its futuristically architectural tourbillons out of titanium and carbon fibre, but the hand-assembly couldn’t be more nerve wracking and delicate, especially with the ever-present danger of scratching PVD-coated bridges.
“When it comes to making your decision,” says Keogh, “obviously, a decent budget is necessary, but do bear in mind that budget can soar astronomically when it comes to tourbillons. TAG’s recent £12,000 tourbillon is exceptionally good value of course, almost unbelievably so [see below]. But fifty grand can still get you something very interesting – Bell & Ross’s new sapphire-block BR-X2 for example…
“And that’s the thing,” he concludes, “don’t buy for the sake of it, buy a tourbillon that captures your imagination beyond the mechanism alone. It’s a big outlay for something so whimsical, so prepare to pay a bit more to secure the tourbillon that reflects your particular whims!”
A TAG Heuer watch for £12,100, which isn’t hewn from gold or studded with diamonds, sounds particularly keen for the purveyor of accessible luxury. But when you realise it’s a tourbillon, Swiss examples of which generally start at around £50,000, the question turns from ‘what the hell?’ to ‘how in God’s name?’
Well, there’s no shortage of technical know-how at chez TAG, but the pricetag comes down to clever business, and it doesn’t come much cleverer than CEO Jean-Claude Biver. The outspoken industry legend reveals that, simply put, they took the hit on what would normally be a £28,000 mark-up. “By taking the normal margin that we would make on a £600 watch, we could do a tourbillon at this price point,” he says. A lost revenue stream perhaps, but we’re all still talking about it, which makes it one of TAG’s cheapest marketing campaigns for a while…
The name should be enough for most. It was, after all, Abraham-Louis Breguet who invented the tourbillon back in 1795, patenting it in 1801 – a conceit so perfect from the outset that everyone still does it like he did. But while some might quibble over the pedigree of today’s Breguet The Brand – owned by Switzerland’s megalithic Swatch Group since 1999 – the nous that typified Monsieur Breguet’s work back in Paris has been well and truly restored.
In respect to the old craft, but also in keeping with the old master’s cutting-edge thinking, they’re combining silicon technology with dials still guilloché-engraved using 19th-century lathes, just as he would have done. If he’d happened to have had dry-reactive ion etching technology at his disposal.
Switzerland has the Jura mountains: chocolate-box pretty in the literal sense, home to most of the world’s finest watchmakers. In Saxony’s Ore mountains, you’ll find the rest of them, only crammed into a single pfefferkucken-box-pretty village: Glashütte. Here, the virtuoso of German watchmaking was always Adolph Lange’s eponymous brand, established to take advantage of the region’s out-of-work miners in the 19th century.
Russian bombs and the Iron Curtain might have spelt actual curtains, but thanks to Adolph’s great-grandson and the backing of the mighty Richemont Group, Lange has re-established itself in the 28 short years since the fall of the Berlin Wall as a force to be reckoned with. Up there with Patek Philippe. As for its tourbillons? For an industrialised set-up, they don’t come finer.
There’s a French word that watch snobs like to use: ‘manufacture’. Not as a verb, but a noun, demarcating each of Switzerland’s handful of true, verticalised, self-sufficient watch factories. Patek Philippe rules the pyramid, followed by the other four: Audemars Piguet, Girard-Perregaux, Vacheron Constantin and Jaeger-Le-Coultre. Recent third-party acquisitions aside, it’s the latter who can rightfully wield 100-percent-in-house bragging rights, short of an alligator farm for their leather straps.
So of course they make tourbillons. Extraordinarily complicated ones in the case of the Gyrotourbillon – a slow-motion gyroscopic astronaut trainer for the wrist. And also extraordinarily good value ones in the case of the Master Tourbillon – a true ‘manufacture’ example, beautifully hand-polished, for little over the industry’s usual starting price.
“Even in 1999, we thought the tourbillon was overused and abused,” Stephen Forsey tells us. “A tourbillon is fine in a pocket watch, but putting it in a wristwatch is like putting a car engine in an aeroplane – completely different conditions.”
And thus, the founding tenet of Greubel Forsey was forged: essentially, ‘tourbillons are pointless in wristwatches, so we’re going to give them a point’. Now part-owned by Richemont, boasting over 100 employees, but only making – get this – a little over 100 watches a year, an Englishman from St Albans and his French partner have succeeded in proving the tourbillon is still capable of improving timekeeping precision in a wristwatch, through some mind-bending, multi-axis mechanical gymnastics (their watches look like miniature adventure playgrounds), all hand-finished to a level unsurpassed by anyone else.
Yes, Bulgari – as in the bold and the beautiful Roman jeweller, so beloved of divas like Elizabeth Taylor in the sixties. Recently however, all things horological have been ramping up in Switzerland, with the acquisition of some top-flight tweezer-wielding facilities (one of them, Gérald Genta, was the genius behind Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak).
The result is the blossoming Octo collection – arguably the most successful contemporary watch design of our time, every case a symphony of 110 overlapping facets, milled from a single block of metal. In wafer-thin ‘Finissimo’ guise, Octo has now notched off three records: world’s slimmest manual-wind tourbillon (5mm top to bottom), world’s thinnest minute repeater (6.85mm) and last year the thinnest automatic (5.15mm). Liz would’ve loved them all.
What do the French navy’s fighter pilots, the Paris Gendarmerie’s armed R.A.I.D. squad, some industrial divers and a shedload of moneyed hipsters all have in common? Why, Bell & Ross of course. The Parisian-but-Swiss-made brand conceived in the nineties as a no-nonsense ‘tool watch’ brand for professionals was snapped up by Chanel before you could say ‘voila’. And while the fashion giant claims no interference, the evolution of the watchmaker’s minimalist, monochrome aesthetic (ring any bells?) into severely chic territory is a coincidence you can’t ignore.
The early brutalism of Bell & Ross’s monumentally square ‘Instrument’ range had enough shock tactics to impress those R.A.I.D chaps, but has now settled into a curious incubator for artistic expermentalism – underpinned by genuine military kudos. Its BR X2 is a frivolous tourbillon, sure, but look at how it’s presented: raw and industrial, enclosed by a sapphire-crystal chamber – like a crashlanded UFO, tethered to an Area 51 testbed.
As one of the ‘Big Five’ manufactures, AP naturally boasts several tourbillons in its canon – most spectacularly in its 25th-anniversary Royal Oak Offshore Openworked Tourbillon Chronograph. Not so much ‘openworked’ as blasted into concave constructivist futurism. Such bleeding-edge mechanical wizardry is usually down to the brand’s show-off side projects, whose client list includes Richard Mille, and whose alumni number aforementioned Messieurs Greubel et Forsey.
But as far back as 1986, AP quietly broke ground with the calibre 2870. Not only was it the first automatic tourbillon, framed by a gaudy gold sunray case very much ‘of its time’, but to this very day it remains the slimmest ever made, standing just 4.8mm tall. And that was 1986, when CAD and CNC machines were the stuff of science fiction. Quite the tourbillon calling card, wouldn’t you say?
A cursory flick through the catalogue of Geneva’s favourite son – Patek Philippe if you hadn’t already guessed – reveals one particularly glaring omission: a tourbillon. Surely the world’s most revered watchmaker and holder of virtually every auction record going is capable of making a tourbillon? Well of course it is, but unlike everyone else (and despite those ubiquitous print ads) Patek is humble when it comes to horology.
Humble and stoically traditional, choosing to keep its tourbillons tucked away behind their dials. The purist reason being that UV light accelerates the degradation of the delicate lubricants in the escapement when it’s exposed. The practically lady-like 37mm ‘5539G-010’ is the only tourbillon reference in the current line-up, but it’s not entirely stealth wealth – there’s always a handy ‘TOURBILLON’ label where the cage would normally be spinning.
Back in the mid-noughties, everyone had a tourbillon. They were falling out of cereal packets. And that’s because the pre-crash watch market was drunk on its own relevance – horology was back, baby, and everyone deserves a bulbous cocktail of mad mechanics ruining their French cuff. That democratisation of elite ‘savoir-faire’ was largely down to an outfit called BNB Concept – off the peg haute complications, assembled by board-shorted kids in labcoats. Old school dun nu skool.
Of course, BNB collapsed in 2009, while every watchmaker took a cold shower and returned to making elegant timepieces. But one brand going places, Hublot, was clever enough to snap up half of BNB’s thrusting talent, a lot of their state-of-the-art machinery, and assert itself instantly as an in-house tourbillon maestro. The rest has certainly been deserving of the history books, as, away from the ruthless marketing campaigns, mopping up supermodels, footballers and hip-hop moguls, the technical prowess chez Hublot is second to none.