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The Art of the Tourbillion

The king of horological complications ticks with the ingenuity of two centuries' worth of top watch technology. But what exactly is it?
Elizabeth Doerr
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007

Thomas Prescher bends over complicated drawings in his little workshop. The ex-pat German watchmaker maintains the sunny atelier in a small, picturesque Swiss village known for its vineyards. The affable Prescher is, however, not your run-of-the-mill artisan. This 40-something entrepreneur is an exceptionally talented and experienced watchmaker, specializing in creating tourbillons.

Tourbi-whats? you ask.

The tourbillon is a horological complication invented in 1795 and patented in 1801 by perhaps history's most famous and inventive watchmaker, Abraham-Louis Breguet. Greatly disturbed by the meager technology available in his day, Breguet did his utmost to upgrade it in order to produce more precise watches. Pocket watches, that is.

One physical consequence troubled him and his quest for perfection: the earth's gravity pulls everything down with it, including a pocket watch's movement. This is a simple law of physics that everything on our planet must follow. Though watch movements continue to beat regardless of what position they are in, that beating can be less precise thanks to the effects of gravity.

Until wristwatches were born at the turn of the twentieth century, pocket watches literally spent their days upright in the vest pockets of the gentlemen who wore them. This lack of change in position left their movements more susceptible to gravity's forces, effectively making their rates too fast or too slow.

Breguet wasn't about to let this stop him, though, and his quest for perfecting the rates of his watches led him to invent the tourbillon. Tourbillon is the French word for whirlwind and could also be used to denote a Jacuzzi should you be visiting a spa in Paris. The reason Breguet named the invention he brought to life in that famed city the tourbillon was because of its constant motion, which was sometimes visible on a watch's dial through windows and cutaways.

Basically, what the tourbillon does is this: by continuously rotating the components found within its cage (called the escapement in watchmaking jargon, essentially the watch's beating heart), it compensates for the effects of gravity on the escapement by constantly changing its position, rotating it around its own axis once every minute as a rule.

This is simple enough in theory, but really very complicated to achieve—and absolutely moot in the modern world of wristwatches. Compensators like the tourbillon are no longer needed today since the watch is no longer worn in a vest pocket but on the wrist, where it gets more than enough activity to keep its rate from being overly affected by the earth's gravity.

In 1986, Franck Muller became the first watchmaker to successfully put a tourbillon into a wristwatch. Six years before he founded his own brand, Muller, who some consider a genius, was a freelancer specializing in difficult restorations and sticky complications. Muller added the tourbillon to the wristwatch movement not for the extra precision it would bring to the rate, but for the prestige it would bring to both his own legacy and that of the company for which he made the tourbillon, Audemars Piguet.

And there we have it in a nutshell: the tourbillon is such a difficult, tricky complication to create that from this point on it became the calling card for every luxury watch company worth its salt. Brands selling haute horlogerie—the Swiss term for luxury mechanical watchmaking—could no longer ignore this king of complications. And the tourbillon became the ultimate expression of horological art in the modern era.

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