The tourbillon counters the effects of gravity by rotating the escapement and balance wheel within a cage.
In 1795 Abraham-Louis Breguet invented the tourbillon to counter effect of gravity and improve the accuracy of pocket watches. The mechanism today is seen as one of the most difficult to make in watchmaking.
Read on to discover the history, current designers and some of the best examples of both expensive and cheaper versions!
History of the Tourbillon
The tourbillon (French for “whirlwind”) was developed in 1795 and was patented just 6 years later in 1801 by the French-Swiss watchmaker, Breguet. Because gravity has an effect on parts of the watch movements, especially the pallet fork, balance wheel and hairspring, the tourbillon was designed to eliminate positional error.
At this time in watchmaking, pocket watches were en vogue. Pocket watches were very stationary unless being taken out of the pocket to check the time. The obstacle for the watchmakers was to regulate the watch, no matter the position it were in.
Pocket watches were worn vertically in the pocket but then typically stored flat putting a lot of pressure on the delicate hairspring. This would then cause irregularity in the rate of oscillation, thus decreasing the accuracy of the pocket watch.
During the time that Breguet was working on his tourbillon design, watchmakers had a second watch when regulating, meaning the results may not always be exact and could take time.
Watchmakers could also regulate the watch up to eight positions: dial up, crown down, dial down, crown left, crown up, crown right, half-way position crown up and halfway position crown down.
Breguet’s invention reduced the number of positions that would be regulated, taking it from eight to three: dial up, dial down and one vertical position. The tourbillon makes one full rotation per minute, making the escapement turn around its own axis helping to eliminate the effects of gravity by turning through all possible vertical positions.
Modern Tourbillon Design
Still today, the mechanism is considered one of the most challenging to make in a watch, or pocket watch. The need for them has changed over the last 200 years. Most people wear a standard wristwatch over a pocket watch, and while Breguet’s invention was designed for the pocket watch it doesn’t really have a need in a wrist watch. The wrist’s natural movement provides the same effect as the tourbillon against the pull of gravity.
With that being said, this hasn’t stopped people from loving the mechanism so we still see it produced in watches today. A tourbillon is not considered a true complication (such as a moon phase or chronograph) but has come to be associated as a complication due to the complexity, design and romanticism.
Typically a Swiss-made timepiece with a tourbillon starts around $40,000 and can easily climb quite steeply in price from there. They are difficult to make by hand, with more than 40 parts inside just a few millimeter space and are made from light weight materials. Aluminum and titanium are both common materials used. These require special tools and due to their small size and complicated design, can take quite a while to make.
Types of Tourbillons
Since the time of Breguet’s design stayed mostly unchanged until the 1900s when the flying and double-axis were invented.
This was the first major adjustment to the design of a tourbillon. Typical design has the tourbillon supported by a bridge, or cock, at both the top and the bottom. The flying tourbillon was designed by Alfred Helwig in 1920. This new design is cantilevered, only supporting it from one side.
In January 1977, Anthony Randall invented this tourbillon design and a working example was built in 1980 by Richard Good. This design inspired the first flying double-axis tourbillon in a pocket watch and then in a wristwatch by Thomas Prescher. The flying double-axis tourbillon turns around two axes, rotating once per minute each.
Double and Quadruple Tourbillon
Greubel Forsey was launched in 2004 and came out with a bang with the introduction of the Double Tourbillon 30° (DT30). The name is a giveaway as this watch features two different tourbillons. The first rotates once per minute at 30° inside another carriage rotating every four minutes.
Just a year after launching, Grubel Forsey presented the Quadruple Tourbillon à Différentiel (QDT), using two double tourbillons independently.
Important Modern Tourbillon Watches
All types of tourbillons have the same end goal, no matter how complicated they are, to counteract the effect of gravity altering the oscillations and reliability. Brands around the world are still making these mechanisms inside watches.
Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon 6002G
The Patek Philippe Tourbillon that is on everyone’s mind as one of the most complex tourbillon models, and the most complicated wristwatch from the manufacturer. This is the Skymoon Tourbillon 6002G, pairing 13 complications on two dials, the front and back.
Upon first glance the watch doesn’t look like it actually has a tourbillon. This is because it’s actually hidden underneath the dial. Under the moonphase at 6pm is where you’ll find the tourbillon, it is marked across the dial inside the display and you can see it if you were to take apart the watch and look at the movement.
The watch features a combination of art and technical aspects. The case is an elaborately engraved 18k white gold measuring 42.8mm across and 16.25mm high. At 6 o’clock you’ll also notice the word “email”. This actually is the German word for enamel, marking that the stunning blues are made from this hard material and are fade resistant.
On the front of this complicated timepiece there is also a minute repeater with two cathedral gongs and a perpetual calendar with retrograde date and moonphase. When you flip the watch over, there is the astronomical features. This shows the northern sky, sidereal time and the angular progression and phases of the moon.
It’s no wonder that this Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon costs over $1,000,000 USD with its hand carved case taking over 100 hours before it can be approved and 686 components in the movement.
There are many different variations of the Gyrotourbillon, from the classic round limited edition watch to the Reverso Gyrotourbillon 2 and now the Gyrotourbillon 3. The Gyrotourbillon began production around 2004 with a maximum release of 20 watches per year and is limited to just 75 pieces. This model retails for approximately $400,000 USD.
The Reverso Gyrotourbillon 2 takes the classic Reverso size and shape and fits a double-axis tourbillon and cylindrical hairspring, an update from the original Gyrotourbillon design, inside. This watch has a retail of approximately $350,000 USD, a 3500% increase from a classic stainless steel Reverso.
The Gyrotourbillon was specifically designed by Jaeger-LeCoultre to be a three-dimensional mechanism. They used computer simulation alongside classic drawings to create the new design. Larger watches opened the opportunity to fit the Gyrotourbillon inside.
From the Gyrotourbillon to the Gyrotourbillon 2, the frequencies increased from 3hz to 4hz. The speed of rotation of the internal carriage was also increased. As mentioned with the Reverso, the Gyrotourbillon 2 also features a cylindrical hairspring, like those used in marine chronometers from the standard flat hairspring.
The Gyrotourbillon 3 has continued to evolve and is now a flying tourbillon. This again means that there are no bridges holding the tourbillon in place. Instead, Jaeger-LeCoultre uses a ball bearing in the back of the tourbillon.
The hairspring has also evolved again and is now sphyrical. The only way to check the precision of the watch is by using the traditional way of setting and watching. Watchmakers will set the watch and note any time variations over the next 48 hours.
IWC Da Vinci Tourbillon Retrograde Chronograph
Released in early 2017, IWC showed off their design skills when they combined a chronograph and tourbillon within their Da Vinci case.
This design features a flying tourbillon, mounted to the movement on a single end on the underside of the mechanism with no upper bridge to hide it rotating. The tourbillon features a complex hacking function, providing extreme accuracy when setting the watch, something rarely seen in combination with the tourbillon across watch brands.
This feature means that when the crown is pulled out, two levers grip the balance rim blocking the mechanism until the crown is reset against the case. IWC is known for their innovation and has outfitted the movement with a 68-hour power reserve despite the complications. They’ve also used diamond-coated silicon to reduce friction and resistance as the movement beats.
When the watch was released at SIHH 2017, it was priced at approximately $134,000 USD, subject to change as it is produced and released.
Franck Muller Giga & Fast Tourbillon
Franck Muller is known for its complicated movements and original designs so it’s no surprise that they have also created their own tourbillons to be highlighted in watchmaking.
The biggest tourbillon in a wristwatch was designed by Franck Muller and is rightfully called the Giga Tourbillon. The tourbillon itself measures 20mm in diameter and takes up half of the watch. To power such a large mechanism, there are four barrels giving the watch a 9 day power reserve. Titanium and bronze barium were both utilized inside the movement to lighten it.
In addition to having the largest, Franck Muller has the fastest tourbillon. Typically one rotation takes a minute due to the different angles, however this completes one rotation in just five seconds meaning you can watch it make 12 full rotations in a minute. Similar to the Giga, this is also powered by four barrels but the escapement is completely reversed from a traditional one.
This lightning fast tourbillon has been rightfully nicknamed the “Thunderbolt.” The unique combination of speed and escapement takes more energy and needs multiplying gears to speed the tourbillon without affecting the balance.
Breguet not only invented the tourbillon, thus improving the accuracy of pocket chronometer, but the brand still makes the mechanism in modern watches. In fact, they are quite the masters at making grande complication watches.
The Breguet Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat 5377 is extremely thin with a price of $150,000 to $170,000 USD depending on case material. It held the record until Bulgari introduced the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon in 2014.
This Breguet features an off center tourbillon with a titanium cage and anti-magnetic escapement. The movement measures just 7mm which is quite impressive as the movement needs to be thick enough to house the rotations.
There is also the Breguet Tourbillon Messidor 5335, featuring a completely skeletonized dial showing off both Breguet’s invention and the rest of the movement. The constant seconds can be found on the tourbillon shaft itself, meaning this rotates one completion per minute. There is also an invisible tourbillon bridge, making it look as if it were suspended in mid air. The Messidor retails for around $130,000 USD.
Breguet isn’t going to let Grubel Forsey have all the fun with double tourbillons. They released the 5347 Double Tourbillon with 676 parts in the movement. One of these tourbillons is going to be the hour hand, making one full rotation every 12 hours. The other cage acts as the small seconds, making one rotation per minute.
As you can see, Breguet has mastered the art of the tourbillon. This Breguet Double Tourbillon has a price of over $425,000 USD.
Two words you never expected to see together are “cheap” and “tourbillon” but they do exist, and you can find them in production.
Cheapest Swiss-Made: Tag Heuer Heuer-02T
In January 2016, Tag Heuer released the Heuer-02T, a tourbillon chronograph. While this may sound extremely complicated and something most people can only dream to own, they were able to produce it for 15,000 CHF (approximately $15,650 USD) retail, making it the cheapest Swiss-made tourbillon.
How were they able to make this affordable tourbillon? There is going to be dramatically less finishing inside the movement when compared to A. Lange & Söhne or Patek Philippe. Tag Heuer said it cut down the cost of manufacturing through “the perfect mastery of industrial processes and manufacturing costs.”
With the release of the Tag Heuer Connected Modular, the tourbillon is included in a box set where you can switch out the Connected case with the tourbillon case for 2 watches in one.
Cheapest Chinese Mechanisms
Up first is the Aatos Tiago Tourbilllon produced in China. In 2013, the watch was still for sale and had a retail of 399 GBP and was listed at $412 USD. The Aatos Tiago Tourbillon was one of the cheapest tourbillons available. It not only featured Breguet’s invention, but included a day/night indicator and GMT.
Unfortunately this piece is no longer for sale on Amazon.
Our pick for current cheapest tourbillon hails from the Akribos XXIV, currently retailing on Amazon at $659 USD, marked down from $2,495! This model features a 42mm yellow gold tinted stainless steel case with a thickness of 14mm. The watch is manually wound and features an exhibition caseback where you can see the movement. It is water resistance to 50m, meaning light swimming and showering.
The Akribos XXIV has two sister watches in tinted rose gold stainless steel and classic silvered stainless steel. All three models feature a moonphase and have a 24-hour indicator for a second timezone. They are sleek in design and make a perfect modern dress watch with unique complication. What we love about the Akribos XXIV is the three separate case colors, which lets you choose which metal works best with your style.
Our favorite part about this cheap version? The classic style and complicated element for an unbeatable price!
While the usefulness of the tourbillon today is questionable, it can show off the skill of watchmakers. The mechanism is quite stunning to look at, and you can get lost into watching it circle around the different axes. Whether you end up with a cheap tourbillon example like the Akribox XXIV, or end up with one costing 1000x plus, we’re sure you’ll enjoy watching it on your wrist. If tourbillons aren’t your style, you now know why they were invented by Breguet and what it means for modern watches.
For more watch content including brand histories, reviews and more technical insights like this page please go to the Bespoke Unit Watch Homepage.