Tourbillon Watches: An Expert Guide

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.

Zenith Toubillon Watch

“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.”

McGonigle Toubillon Watch

The History

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

The first Breguet tourbillon

How Does A Tourbillon Work?

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.”