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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.

By the time Thomas Prescher began his apprenticeship at IWC in 1991, the tourbillon was the complication that any watchmaker or company striving for the upper echelons of the craft needed to master. That same year, independent French watchmaker François-Paul Journe—another watchmaker with a booming reputation for genius—quietly presented his first tourbillon, adding yet another twist by making it a constant force tourbillon.

The remontoir, or constant force component, ensures that the gear train passes energy from the mainspring, and the tourbillon in this case, in an even manner. This guarantees that the energy passed is constant, regardless of the state of the mainspring, which can vary, depending on when it was last wound. More or less tension in a mainspring can mean a faster or slower watch, and constant force equals a constant rate.

Journe made three working examples of his masterpiece, presented at Basel Fair (now Baselworld) 1991, one of which he wore all the time. By 1994—the year that Prescher finished his training at IWC and presented a handmade tourbillon as his final exam to become a master watchmaker—Journe's constant force tourbillon had not yet gone into series, but as he was always wearing the piece, it had begun to attract increasing interest. After founding his brand, Journe officially presented a "serial" version of the Tourbillon Souverain (as he finally christened it) at Basel 1999, where it was a huge success and sealed his growing reputation for mastery of intricate complications. In 2003, Journe presented a second tourbillon model, which, like the first, is a unique masterpiece.

Perhaps the most fitting development of the modern tourbillon era came in 1987, just a year after Muller's groundbreaking achievement, when Abraham Louis Breguet's name was dusted off and revived to serve as a brand name. The new management molded its concept in a most far-sighted manner: the freshly founded company would specialize in tourbillons, a distinct and fitting tribute to its namesake.

Today, the Breguet brand is owned by the Swatch Group, which took over from the previous group of investors in 1999. Appropriately, the marque is personally managed by the Swatch Group's cofounder and chairman of the board, Nicolas G. Hayek. Perhaps the most visionary businessman to ever step foot on Swiss soil, Hayek foresaw the modern era's demand for the burgeoning king of wristwatch complications and took the necessary steps to secure the most authentic story to attach to it.

"Breguet today remains the most important tourbillon manufacturer of all brands worldwide," Hayek proudly postulates, "and we manufacture more tourbillons in one year than all other brands combined, excluding [those belonging to] the Swatch Group." Although the Swatch Group does not release official production numbers, industry insiders put Breguet's tourbillon production at 1,000 pieces or more per year, an astonishing number without equal. Tourbillons are generally released in very limited quantities, usually of 25 pieces or less per model.

With the increasing technological advances of the modern watch industry as well as the well-endowed Swatch Group, the Breguet brand has not only managed to create a variety of tourbillons, but also has combined the rotating escapements with various high complications—a feat it has unselfishly shared with sister brands such as Blancpain.

At the 2006 edition of the world's largest watch fair, Baselworld, both Breguet and Blancpain presented yet another horn of plenty filled with beautiful and innovative examples of the revolving escapements. Perhaps the most astounding was Breguet's Twin Rotating Tourbillon, a timepiece that undoubtedly demonstrates the brand's technical virtuosity best in modern times. Two tourbillons, each running independently, are located across from each other on a dial that makes one complete revolution every 12 hours, not only fascinating the eye but also confounding the senses. Only 20 of these masterpieces, sold for $347,100 apiece, can be made per year.

Not to be outdone is the Swatch Group's Teutonic luxury brand, Glashütte Original. This firm, whose roots extend back to 1845 in the legendary German watchmaking town Glashütte, can be thanked for making a different school of the whirlwind escapements more common: the flying tourbillon. Invented around 1920 by Alfred Helwig, an instructor at the famed German School of Watchmaking in Glashütte, the flying tourbillon is a more graceful version of the standard tourbillon. Not covered by the bridge usually needed to secure the tourbillon to the base movement, the even beating of this revolving heart becomes more visible to the observer's eye, revealing all of its mechanical beauty. The flying tourbillon, which celebrated its wristwatch debut in 1989 in Blancpain's Caliber 23, was commemorated in 1996 by Glashütte Original in a limited edition of 25 pieces christened the Alfred Helwig Tourbillon I, which featured a flying tourbillon visible from the dial. Currently, both flying and nonflying tourbillons can be found in countless watches manufactured by countless brands.

In fact, so many companies carry tourbillon models in their collections that the tourbillon has almost been reduced to a luxury-marketing ploy. At Baselworld and S.I.H.H., the two most important watch fairs, more than 40 companies exhibited new tourbillon models at the 2005 shows—including fashion watch brand Chanel. This is by far the largest number of tourbillons ever introduced at one time. These companies are not attempting to illustrate the mechanical prowess of their watchmakers and engineers, but for the most part are buying into the complicated technology to keep up with the trend that they see the high-end brands having such success with.

"A tourbillon for me is not like a tourbillon for the rest of the industry today," says Thomas Prescher in explaining of his specialized segment in watchmaking. "For me it is an expression of art. When I started my career in watchmaking, the tourbillon was still the expression of the highest horological competence."

This "year of the tourbillon," as 2005 could well go down in history, left expert artisans like Prescher shaking their heads. What a number of these companies were beginning to offer was watchmaking art reduced to serial manufacture. The meaning of the tourbillon had begun to wane, with the end effect being that the tourbillon had become almost a standard complication in any luxury watchmaker's collection as opposed to being something extremely rare and reserved for only a select few owners ranking among the world's true connoisseurs.

With interest in luxury watchmaking increasing all over the world, along with the growing numbers of individuals able to afford expensive timepieces, people began looking for something special. The new tourbillons, with the escapement doing its rounds on the front of the dial, were just the ticket. The constant motion of the finely finished, filigreed little parts is pure enchantment to the eye. It is no wonder that astute watch manufacturers wanted to cash in on the tourbillon craze.

However, for real connoisseurs, these days it is not enough that luxury watchmakers "just" be able to place a tourbillon in a wristwatch. While a few companies are still offering true innovations at this level, some dyed-in-the-wool collectors looking for something really different are turning to independent watchmakers who specialize in the handmade art of the tourbillon. These independents generally don't make more than a few pieces a year, so the waiting list can be long, but collectors still line up. Thomas Prescher makes a maximum of 30 wristwatches a year. "We don't just make timepieces here, we make art," Prescher explains.

Following extensive research into other watchmakers' work, Prescher presented a sensational set of tourbillons at Baselworld 2004: The Trilogy of Time. Previous research had already led him to make a prototype of a double axis tourbillon, showing him that it was indeed possible to take the king of complications a step further. This led him to a philosophical progression of both past masters and his own work as exemplified in the Trilogy, a limited-edition set containing single-, double- and triple-axis flying tourbillons—each outfitted with a remontoir for the icing on the cake.

The unencumbered views of these multiple-axis masterpieces reveal a beauty rarely seen in watchmaking. The tourbillon escapements appear to float between two sheets of sapphire crystal in the large window cut into the dial for this purpose. The view alone would be worth the price of admission, which seven lucky collectors have so far been able to take advantage of for more than $2 million each.

Baselworld 2004 set the scene not only for Prescher's unique triple-axis tourbillon, but—incredibly—another created by the French-English team of tourbillon specialists, Greubel Forsey, another independent watchmaker. "Greubel Forsey's case was right next to mine," Prescher remembers, "and it was a shock to see what they were presenting. Triple axis tourbillons just must have been in the air that year. Stephen Forsey and I traded tourbillons to wear for the duration of the fair to show that neither of us had hard feelings. These things happen sometimes."

The introduction of both masterpieces at the same show does nothing to diminish either piece's element of genius. But it does show that handmade tourbillon art continues to be researched and presented in highly limited quantities and that collectors continue to clamor for it, often steering past more commercial versions of the complication.

Greubel Forsey makes no more than 24 timepieces per annum. Collectors must often wait years if they are lucky enough to be promised one of these extremely rare watches as well as be able to cough up the $300,000 or so asking price.

This fascinating whirlwind technology is also available in less exclusive releases from nonspecialist luxury watch companies. It has become common for these firms, both large and small, to try to corner their own niches, creating extremely exquisite specimens of the art. All of this makes for an even more exciting tourbillon market.

One never tires of looking at Jean Dunand's exceptionally limited Tourbillon Orbital, for example. Not only does the escapement do revolutions around its own axis within the cutaway in the dial, the dial also carries the cutaway with it as it completes a 12-hour rotational journey, making the tourbillon appear to orbit in space against the silky background of a magnificently decorated dial. Jean Dunand's mastermind, Christophe Claret, began working on the idea for this timepiece in 1993, finally patenting its technology in 1998. It was presented in 2004. These pieces are so exclusive that each is made to order, and only a handful have been delivered worldwide.

A similar concept, though based on completely different technology, is a tourbillon created by blu-source du temps founder Bernhard Lederer that also features a rotating dial. Lederer's unique time display, sans hands and numerals, requires the owner to literally think about the time with every glance at his watch. One elemental difference between this and all other modern tourbillons is the frequency at which the escapement's very visible balance wheel beats. In stark contrast to the quick beats of modern balances, which usually make 28,800 oscillations per hour, blu's Majesty tourbillon makes half that number, allowing the golden-hued components to be eminently visible to the naked eye. The Majesty is made to order and can be outfitted with personal dials in such select unique materials as spectrolite, aventurine and hand-guilloché solid silver.

Yet another rotating tourbillon comes from Piaget, which presented its Polo Tourbillon Relatif at the S.I.H.H. 2006. The watch seems to have its tourbillon planted squarely on the minute hand, taking it fully around the dial every 60 minutes. Watching it work is akin to a magical experience, for not even David Copperfield would be able to explain to the layman how on earth this seemingly disjointed tourbillon could be made to come to life. With the world looking as if it were disconnected from the movement, a planetary gear hidden underneath a well-concealed hour disk makes it all possible. Twenty white-gold pieces retailing for approximately $222,000 each as well as five special diamond-set variations selling for $239,000 apiece will grace the wrists and safes of 25 lucky connoisseurs.

Newcomer DeWitt has often astounded the watch world with cutting-edge technology housed in a strikingly unique case. The Academia Tourbillon Force Constante is no exception, an inspiring tribute to the ingenuity of the brand, its collaborators and the forerunners of tourbillon technology in a limited edition of 25 pieces.

German specialist Glashütte Original continues to create unusual tourbillons of astonishing beauty, one of which was the brand's first nonflying tourbillon in 2006, the Tourbillon Regulator. The regulator dial pulls the hours, minutes and seconds apart so that each of these displays can be read separately for greater legibility. Glashütte Original has redefined the age-old display and combined it with the king of complications for a truly unique masterpiece.


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