Invented during the era of the pocket watch, the Tourbillon is a mechanical complication found in the movements of high-end timepieces. Back in the day, watchmaking was also affected by gravity. Watchmakers faced a big challenge when regulating a pocket watch against the effects of gravity on the calibre or movement. A Tourbillon was invented to counter the drag effect that gravity plays. The effect was mainly seen on smaller components in a timepiece’s escapement when held in certain positions, and the Tourbillon’s mechanism negated these positional errors, thereby increasing accuracy.
The credit for its invention goes to master French-Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823), who first developed the tourbillon in 1795. It was then patented by him on June 26, 1801, and that date is now celebrated as “Tourbillon Day”. The year 2021 marks the mechanism’s 220th anniversary, as it continues to stay alive in luxury watches even today. In modern timepieces, the main advantage of the tourbillon no longer lies in increased precision. Instead, enlightened amateurs and collectors delight in the beauty of its brilliant invention.
The Tourbillon emanated from the mind of watchmaker Breguet, who started his career at the young age of 15. He set up his own business on Île de la Cité in 1775, and by the time he presented his idea of the Tourbillon and applied for a patent, he already had an illustrious career in the industry. Amongst his fans were King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette who admired his “perpetual” automatic watches. His numerous technical innovations, minimalist sense of design made him a pioneer with an international reputation.
Breguet, through reflection and observation, acquired a perfect understanding of the elements that can affect the precision of timepieces, especially inside the escapement. Through expertise derived from three great watchmaking nations of the time, Switzerland, France and England, Breguet dreamed up the Tourbillon.
A quest for perfection
The inventor spent almost a decade perfecting the new Tourbillon regulator. Breguet talked of his first-of-its-kind mechanism at the national exhibitions of Industrial Products held in Paris in 1802, 1806 and 1819. The complex movements were also adopted by other watch brands, because even though, Breguet patented it in 1801, it was only a ten-year patent. The innovation also inspired other 19th century researchers, including Bahne Bonniksen to create the Carrousel movement, a modification of the Tourbillon.
As mentioned in the great dictionaries of the 19th century, both by the great philosopher, Descartes and the Encyclopédie, the word Tourbillon signifies either a planetary system’s rotation on a single axis, or the energy which makes the planets revolve around the sun.
From the archives
Breguet’s archives note about 40 Tourbillons between 1796 and 1829, as well as nine other unfinished pieces that appear in books such as written off, scrapped or lost. The dials were artfully encased in gold, silver cases and no two pieces were the same. Unique objects made using the technology include a sympathetic clock (one that is synchronized from a master clock) and a clock-watch set, a large-format demonstration model, a marine chronometer and a travel clock.
Unsurprisingly, several sovereigns, including the George III and George IV of England, royals of Spain, Russian aristocrats, eminent European personalities of Poland, of Prussia, Italy, Hungary, Portugal were patrons of the House of Breguet’s invention.
According to Breguet’s own classification, the Tourbillon did indeed belong to watchmaking for scientific use as opposed to watchmaking for civil use. A quarter of the forty Tourbillons had a naval use, they were bought by shipowners or sailors and used for navigation at sea and the calculation of longitude. An explorer of Africa, Thomas Brisbane, top scientists used these precious pieces in their line of work.
Production of these watches, however, was very slow. Creating these pieces was fraught with difficulty, fine-tuning was time-intensive, and the skilled labour was scarce. The creation of each of these pieces would take between five and ten years, which led a drop in its popularity, but the Tourbillion would have its comeback.
It is an important legacy that Breguet has bestowed upon watchmaking, and dozen pieces of the Tourbillon are showcased in museums in England, Italy, Jerusalem and New York, three have joined the collections of the Breguet Museum. In total, nearly thirty of the forty pieces have survived the test of time, and some are even in the hands of private collectors.
Maison Breguet has carefully maintained the pieces produced by its founder and furthered his legacy in the 1920s and the 1950s, producing new Tourbillon pocket watches. Then, a couple of decades later came a revival as unexpected as it was paradoxical. The Tourbillon was brought back in vogue in the 1980s, through wristwatches. Though the mechanism was originally designed for pocket watches, ironically its reappearance has been in wrist pieces that are much less sensitive to gravity. Modern Tourbillons typically allow the hypnotising movements to be seen in the watch face, making it a defining style statement for every collector. A piece of its 220-year watchmaking history is embedded in every single Tourbillon timepiece designed by the House of Breguet.