For some watch connoisseurs the tourbillon is the ultimate demonstration of haute horology mastery, while for others, it’s merely a mechanism that has been grossly exaggerated. Here we take an in-depth look at what is a tourbillon, its importance in the luxury watch industry, and some of our favorite ultra-luxurious tourbillon watches from top watchmakers.
What is a tourbillon?
The tourbillon was invented by renowned watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet in the late 1700s and patented by him on June 26, 1801. According to Breguet, the main purpose of a tourbillon was to negate the effects of gravity. His theory was that the accuracy of his pocket watches — which were typically worn hanging vertically — could be improved if gravitational consequences could somehow be canceled out.
Tourbillon is the French word for “whirlwind,” which perfectly describes the mechanism in action. The tourbillon houses the escapement and balance wheel of a mechanical movement within a spinning cage, thus its constant and steady rotation offsets any effects of gravitational pull on parts of the escapement like the ultra-sensitive hairspring and pallet fork. Essentially, the revolutions of the tourbillon cage reduce the potential for positional errors, thereby improving accuracy.
Technical mastery or gimmick?
The most obvious question is, does the tourbillon actually do what it’s supposed to do? While the tourbillon may have had some positive effect on the accuracy of pocket watches, it doesn’t necessarily translate to wristwatches. In fact, there have been several tests and studies that have shown that the tourbillon has little, if no effect at all, on the accuracy and reliability of timepieces today. So if that’s indeed the case, why are tourbillon watches still around and why are they so expensive?
The consensus on why they are still present on top luxury watches today is that the tourbillon is so seductive to look at. The motion of the whirling tourbillon—almost always placed front and center on a dial—is not only hypnotizing but adds life to the face of the watch. So while tourbillons may not add anything to timekeeping precision, aesthetically speaking, it’s hard to beat. And there are plenty fine watch aficionados who appreciate tourbillon watches and are willing to pay the high price tags to own them. In fact, the most expensive Omega ever sold was a rare tourbillon watch that went for over $1.4 million at the recent Phillips Bacs & Russo Auction Six in Geneva!
As to why tourbillon watches are so expensive to own? Well, because they are extremely complicated to make and only the best watchmakers and haute horology manufactures have the capabilities to do so. So wearing a tourbillon timepiece is a luxury reserved for only the very few. Behold some of our favorite tourbillon watches.
Vacheron Constantin Malte Tourbillon
A member of the Holy Trinity of Swiss high watchmaking (along with Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe), Vacheron Constantin’s history dates back to 1775. For the last 242 years, Vacheron has been integral in the advancement of Swiss watchmaking with both iconic designs and incredible technical mastery. Case in point is the Vacheron Constantin Malte Tourbillon, which pairs the famous tonneau-shaped case from the Malte collection with the sumptuous tourbillon.
Crafted in platinum, the 36mm case houses an intricately decorated silver dial where the upper portion includes the hour and minute hands, a power reserve indicator subdial and a date subdial. On the other hand, the entire bottom portion of the dial is reserved for to prominently display the tourbillon dutifully working away. For a better view of the Caliber 1790 manual-wound movement, flip the watch around and have a look through the sapphire exhibition caseback. Topping off the watch is a black leather strap with a matching platinum buckle.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Tourbillon Dual Time
Not only is Jaeger-LeCoultre one of the finest watchmakers in the world, they are also well known for providing excellent mechanical movements to other top watch brands. So it comes as no surprise that this manufacture is absolutely capable of building their own tourbillon escapement.
From the brand’s Master collection of elegant dress watches comes this Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Tourbillon Dual Time. Surprisingly equipped with a robust stainless steel 41mm case rather than a more precious metal one, this is a contemporary approach to very traditional watchmaking. Along with the tourbillon mechanism on full display at 6 o’clock, this Jaeger-LeCoultre is wonderfully practical too. First, encircling the periphery of the dial are the dates, a scale used in conjuction with the center blue tipped hand. Furthermore, this date hand is, in fact, a jumping hand that “jumps” from 15 to 16–the numbers flanking the tourbillon. Plus, there also a 24-hour subdial at 12 o’clock to indicate a second time zone. All of this technical prowess is thanks to the in-house automatic Caliber 978 within the case.
Parmigiani Fleurier Toric Tourbillon
A relative newcomer to the luxury watch scene, independent watch brand Parmigiani Fleurier has unveiled an impressive amount of complicated timepieces over the last 20 years. A star of the Toric collection–Parmigiani Fleurier’s expression of the famous Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio–is the Parmigiani Fleurier Toric Tourbillon in 18k rose gold.
Within the lavish 18k rose gold case is a dial finished with a beautiful Côtes de Genève finishing and blued steel javelin style hands. Accompanying this time-only model is the open-worked tourbillon escapement proudly displayed at 6 o’clock. Oscillating beneath the dial is a manual-wound mechanical movement, which can be viewed via the clear caseback. Finally, complementing the warm rose gold is a rich brown alligator strap with a matching rose gold buckle.
Cartier Tortue XL Tourbillon Chrono Monopoussoir
While Cartier may be most famous for their iconic watch designs and coveted fine jewelry, the Maison also undertakes serious watchmaking feats. A stunning example of their capabilities is this Cartier Tortue XL Tourbillon Chrono Monopoussoir. The Tortue shape–named after the French word for turtle–has been a signature design of Cartier since the early 20th-century. And as one of the brand’s most exclusive collections, it’s only fitting that the Tortue model was selected to house not just the tourbillon, but also a single-pusher chronograph function.
Limited to only 40 pieces, this Tortue XL Tourbillon boasts a platinum case measuring a very wearable 39mm. Of course, on the creamy guilloché dial, replete with a center rosette, are the characteristic Cartier-style Roman numerals. As with all the other tourbillon watches we’ve covered, the tourbillon escapement on this platinum Cartier also sits at 6 o’clock, making its required once-a-minute revolution for the pleasure of the wearer. Additionally, there are also two subdials at 6 and 9 o’clock for the running seconds hand and 30-minute counter, respectively. Playing to the elegance of the complicated Cartier timepiece is the sophisticated black leather strap, which comes together with a platinum buckle.
While there may be some debate about the practicality and price point tourbillon watches, those issues are completely beside the point. Rather, fans of tourbillon watches understand that this complex mechanism is not so much about time precision or pricing. What is a tourbillon? It’s a celebration of haute horology and demonstrates the incredible work that master watchmakers can achieve.