“By means of this invention, I have succeeded in cancelling through compensation the anomalies caused by the different positions of the centers of gravity of the regulator movements.” This is part of the original patent of the not-so-humble tourbillon, which was submitted by inimitable master horologist Abraham-Louis Breguet back in 1800, though the general thinking is that he came up with the idea five years prior. The idea was to counteract the nefarious effects of gravity simply by constantly changing the position of the regulator, evening out the unwanted extra force.
It’s also worth pointing out that it was also a method of distributing oil around the movement more effectively, even if that was more of a secondary effect. What’s certain though is that the ‘whirlwind’ as a concept was specifically designed for pocket watches.
It works by placing the balance wheel and escapement in a rotating cage. This then slowly rotates as the watch runs, ironing out positional errors across the most delicate components in the watch. It’s an incredible piece of watchmaking that requires equally incredible skill from the watchmaker putting it together and why Breguet’s original design was such a historical feat of horology. The reason its original pocket watch design matters however is that this is only really effective on one axis.
A pocket watch sits in your pocket, generally in the same upright position throughout the day. A wristwatch on the other hand moves as much as your hands which for most people is a lot. There’s no guarantee that a single plane of rotation will do anything useful at all. It may do, but it’s honestly unlikely.
That’s why in large part there weren’t many tourbillons prior to the late 80s. There were of course a few conceptual showpieces from the likes of Bahne Bonniksen, inventor of the karrusel, and precision-focused American Albert Potter. But they were few and far-between, definitely not anything you’d call commercial. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1986 that the complication would be rekindled as a serious piece of commercial watchmaking thanks to the Audemars Piguet calibre 2870, the first automatic tourbillon ever built.
From there, brands like Girard-Perregaux and Patek Philippe started approaching the tourbillon in their own distinctive ways and Franck Muller built his eponymous brand on his own, patented version. It’s a shift that has continued to the point where every haute horology maison has its own version of Breguet’s original invention in as many different ways. So, let’s take a look at some of them.
This is the baseline tourbillon, the one that we’ll normally see turning at 6 o’clock, by far the most common variation. The reason it’s set to turn once every 60 seconds is so that the case itself can also be used as a second counter, making best use of the otherwise empty space. It’s easily identifiable thanks to the signature cage supported by a bridge, and is the direct successor to the pocket watch versions of old. This includes pieces like Omega’s central tourbillon which, despite being oversized and unusually placed, works in the same way.
Designed by German watchmaker Alfred Helwig in 1920, the flying tourbillon is an aesthetic tweak on the formula. It serves the exact same function as the standard version, but the bridge has been removed and the cage is supported from beneath so that it appears to float. These are more difficult to build and therefore rarer, but much more refined in appearance. The lack of support makes it potentially more delicate, but few tourbillons are exactly rugged and the aesthetic trade off is worth it for many collectors.
An attempt to make the tourbillon concept work properly in a wristwatch, a multi-axis tourbillon – either double or triple – is one which rotates in multiple directions. This means it varies the position of the balance and escapement even more than a standard tourbillon and therefore is more likely to have the desired outcome of evening out the effects of gravity.
The double-axis version was patented by English horologist Anthony Randall in 1977 and first built by countryman Richard Good a year later in a carriage clock. It was actually German ex-Navy officer turned watchmaker Thomas Prescher who downsized it into a watch in 2003, then made it fly a year later. He also went on to create the first triple-axis tourbillon – because by this point, why not? – which was later turned into a wristwatch in 2007 courtesy of Aaron Becsei of Bexei Watches, in the form of the Primus. It’s a memorable watch.
Designed by Magali Métrailler and Eric Coudray in 2002 and pioneered by Jaeger-LeCoultre, the gyrotourbillon is, as the name suggests, a multi-axis tourbillon, one where two different cages rotate at 90 degrees from each other, ensuring that the mechanism is never horizontal and so is never negatively impacted by gravity. These are incredibly hard to make and, thanks to the multitude of parts, relatively delicate – even for a tourbillon – but do the job. Though whether the extra accuracy is the main aim or whether it’s just a showpiece is up to the necessarily well-heeled buyer. We’re currently onto the fifth generation of gyrotourbillon and it’s a stunner.
Double and Quadruple Tourbillon
Circles within circles, wheels within wheels and tourbillons within tourbillons. Generally the province of ex-Renaud et Papi watchmakers Messrs Greubel and Forsey, the double tourbillon was introduced in 2003. Rather than a single tourbillon cage moving in different directions, it means one tourbillon cage is nestled inside another like an haute horology Matryoshka.
In 2005 the pair followed up with the Quadruple Tourbillon à Différentiel, which used two independent double tourbillons, linked together to even everything out. Since then, it’s rare to find a Greubel Forsey timepiece without either complication.