The Whirlwind Tourbillon

Tourbillons are probably the highest order of watchmaking, mesmerising many with its elegant, circumferential dance. Here is a small explanation for why it commands such an elevated throne...

By: Rahul Kapoor, Co-Founder, Excedo Luxuria

Posted on: August 10, 2011

Tourbillons are probably the highest order of watchmaking, mesmerizing many with its elegant, circumferential dance Here is a small explanation for why it commands such an elevated throne…

Sitting proudly, with head held high, among minute repeaters, grande sonneries, petite sonneries, perpetual calendars and chronographs, the Tourbillon is one of the most awe-inspiring complications of horology. Considered by many to be the most complex and difficult to make watch escapement, its has been mystifying watchmakers and watch connoisseurs since its inception in 1795 by Abraham-Louis Breguet. Today, the Tourbillon is a testimony of high quality workmanship and often fetches high prices in auction houses and in the luxury watch market.

The Tourbillion was a result of sea-goers’ constant quest for improved accuracy of their marine chronometers. These marine watches governed the chances of survival of sea men. They were an index to allow sailors to steer themselves away from harms way, especially on high seas. Chronometers were known, and still are, for their high accuracy. The chronometers used to be placed on deck, subjecting the balance wheel and balance spring (the organs of a watch which are responsible for the literal movement of the hands) to gravitation forces. This invariably affected the accuracy of the chronometer, thus risking lives, as minutes either way could have been a difference in life or death.

This problem was solved by the invention of Tourbillon. How I hear you ask? Well, depending on the position of the watch, especially when vertical (crown left, right, down or up), different variations in the frequency of the balance wheel will occur as a result of changes in its center of gravity. When a watch is vertical, the Earth’s gravity normally either accelerates or slows the balance and the escapement (a mechanism which controls the speed of rotation of the wheels), causing a gain or loss in the rate. Even a watch in excellent condition, which has been recently lubricated, serviced, and adjusted, will suffer the unavoidable effect of the gravitational forces of this Earth.

In an ordinary Tourbillon, the carriages are pivot-mounted on one side and bridged on the other, or bridged on both sides. A flying Tourbillon, however, is much more complex as the entire cage (where the tourbillon is located) must be supported from the bottom only. As the flying Tourbillon’s carriage is pivot-mounted on one side with no supporting bridge, it is like a floating mainspring barrel. That means a flying Tourbillon is actually a complication built onto the Tourbillon complication.

Ordinary Tourbillons were effective for pocket watches, as these are held in the vertical position and, therefore, have only one dimensional displacement from lying flat. Flying Tourbillons are designed to be effective at any angle.

The flying Tourbillon regulator was invented in 1920s by Alfred Helwig in Saxony and it began appearing in wristwatches in 1930. Regulators have the hour and minute hands on two separate axes on the dial. Even today, watchmakers have to build a regulator watch as their final exam to become master watchmakers. The Tourbillon regulator, as well, is a proof of a watchmaker’s technical creativity and skill. The Tourbillon regulator spatially separates the hours and minutes dials arranged vertically in a highly legible manner. The Tourbillon builds the visual center of the dial at the 6’oclock position.

It is critical that energy expenditure be at a minimum as the energy from the mainspring used to power the gears is also needed to move the Tourbillon. Any instability or disturbance in this energy flow will decrease the accuracy of the watch. Even to adjust the Tourbillon movement requires specialists who have to disassemble and reassemble the Tourbillon to regulate the balance.

Tourbillions have been taken even further by specialists such as Thomas Prescher, who with his Tourbillion Trilogy has captured many watch connoisseurs’ attention. The Trilogy collection has three different types of Tourbillon movements, even though they look similar. The single Tourbillon travels along one axis. Then comes a double Tourbillon, and finally a triple axis Tourbillon. Why all the fuss about the number of axes that a Tourbillon travels around? To be honest, it is only two things: visual splendor and bragging rights. Thomas Prescher is the first watchmaker to successfully place a triple axis tourbillon in a wrist watch. They said it could not be done! Well, whatever ‘they’ said, it was done, and in a manner that is outstanding to view. Thomas Prescher Tourbillons ensure that the focal points of the design are the tourbillon cages.

Tourbillions are the epitome, the ultimate in watchmaking prowess. With only about 300 experts being able to create a Tourbillon, these experts are further filtered down to an even more exclusive category, based on which type of Tourbillion one requires.

Historically, Tourbillons have commanded top prices and were out of reach of all but the extremely wealthy. Very few watch houses have the time and experience to produce Tourbillon watches, driving up prices even higher. Usually,  Tourbillon watches are made on request with a very controlled number being created each year as only the most skilled watchmakers are capable of making the handcrafted movement.

The higher price is attributable to the complexity of the Tourbillon mechanism, which is created within extremely tight mechanical tolerances with specialized tooling. Crafting a Tourbillon requires more parts and time than other movements. Dedicated tools and machinery are used to manufacture Tourbillons and special lightweight and durable metals are required. Most importantly, the creator him/herself must possess vast experience, patience and greatest attention to detail

Even though Breguet is credited with bringing the Tourbillon to this world, there are a myriad brands manufacturing this movement accurately like Cecil Purnell, Hysek, IWC Schaffhausen, Thomas Prescher and more. So make your pick carefully!

Rahul Kapoor, co-founder of Excedo Luxuria, works with exclusive boutique brands including Thomas Prescher Haute Horlogerie. Aided with experience in bespoke creations, Excedo Luxuria has also created the first all-services bespoke and customized accessories boutique for the ‘media-shy’. An avid watch collector, he loves scrutinizing and talking about watches as well.

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