In the world of mechanical watches, any feature that performs a role other than telling the time, such as a chronograph or GMT hand, is dubbed a “complication”. The king of complications is an ingenious contraption that, despite not providing the most relevant benefits to modern life, has become increasingly popular and typically raises a watch’s value to over £30,000.
In an age when timekeeping was the forefront of technology, the first watch with a tourbillon was like the first phone with touch screen. At the time, the Steve Jobs of watchmaking was Abraham Louis Breguet, who as well as making a number of extraordinary devices for the likes of Marie Antoinette, invented the tourbillon.
Breguet’s first tourbillon was part of a carriage clock for none other than Napolean Bonaparte. While standard clocks were inaccurate by a few minutes per day, Napolean’s carriage clock promised to cut that down to a matter of seconds. Breguet had come up with a way of wiping out the effects of the most limiting factor on a timepiece’s engine, gravity.
In any traditional timepiece, as in most of today’s Swiss watches, energy stored in a coiled spring is used to spin a wheel back and forth, like a pendulum, and this motion drives the watch. Back in the day when clocks and pocket watches spent most of their life in a vertical stance, each swing of the wheel had gravity to compete with. Breguet’s tourbillon, French for “whirlwind”, placed the pendulum inside a slowly rotating cage, which hugely reduced its time spent in a vertical position.
Once the Breguet patent expired, other clockmakers were quick to attempt their own versions. Over the following decades, despite many debates over how effective it actually was, the tourbillon was such a difficult device to make that it became a matter of prowess for watchmakers. Today, a tourbillon still takes about three times as long to make as the movement itself, and is still only made by the most distinguished watchmakers.
The benefits of a tourbillon to a wristwatch, which is constantly moved from position to position, are not exactly clear. Some maintain it adds accuracy to a movement, others think it's a question of looks, and most put it down to a chance for a watchmaker to show his talents. Either way, the tourbillon has had its heyday in the last couple of decades more often than not, modern tourbillons are displayed through windows in the dial, and are increasingly emphasised, decorating watch faces like a jewel in a crown.
We have also seen a slew of wild and elaborate interpretations, such as double and quadruple tourbillons, multi-axis tourbillons, and flying tourbillons, all increasingly difficult to make and integrate, all promising a greater degree of accuracy, and all costing an increasing amount of money. One of the most advanced of these tourbillon mutations was an invention by Greubel Forsey in 2004; it was, effectively, a tourbillon inside a tourbillon.
As the market became flooded with this once-rare and exceptional contraption, the prices for a "standard tourbillon" have begun to fall. This year, TAG Heuer has made a trailblazing move, typical of CEO Jean-Claud Biver, by trying to make this pinnacle of high-end horology available to a wider market. The TAG Heuer Carrera Calibre Heuer 2 offers the most affordable Swiss-made tourbillon ever made, at about £11,000.
Whether tourbillon movement really has any real benefit over a well-made movement such as the Rolex 3135 is difficult to say. However, the hours and skill that go into mastering it are undeniable, and as it glistens away, revolving and pulsing, it’s a dancing reminder of the highest virtuosity of an industry that was once the forefront of technology.