The Art Of The Tourbillon

With a focus on Jaeger-LeCoultre this month, following the launch of our pop-up boutique in Selfridges and a competition to win a personal watchmaking masterclass with the iconic manufacture, we are also celebrating the art of fine watchmaking. Jaeger-LeCoultre is a brand renowned for its exquisite complications and watch mechanisms, introducing a new High End complication each year, so we asked watch expert Ariel Adams to explain the true art of one of the most challenging watch mechanisms on the market today, the tourbillon…

“Tourbillon” is the name for a technical feature inside a watch movement that not enough people fully understand. Like gold, it often exists in modern times to increase the status of a watch, allowing one’s timepieces to communicate a degree of wealth and prestige. In the watch world there are gold watches, and then there are gold watches with a tourbillon.

I’ve heard industry people who sell tourbillons suggest “tourbillons mean that a watch costs £100,000 or more. People buy them because they are used to suggest the value of a watch as well as the value of the wearer.” But not all tourbillons cost £100,000, with some costing significantly more.

In a way, a tourbillon is a more masculine mechanism, and sometimes a much more subtle form of having a timepiece with diamonds. The tourbillon has introduced an entire new demographic of watch lovers to the inner workings of a watch and it has also served as a tangible feature you can use to determine the relative status of a timepiece.

So why is a tourbillon precious like gold or diamonds? The tourbillon is a mechanism and not a precious material. It is built by watchmakers and often proudly displayed through the dial of a watch, in an opening that offers a window into the movement. Watchmakers would have you believe that skill of the utmost care and detail is required to assemble a tourbillon. While sometimes a matter of perception, the tourbillon is certainly more complicated to produce than a normal escapement, and the real exclusivity lies in some of the world’s most exotic tourbillon complications, that only a handful of master watchmakers can even assemble.

It was in 1947 that a tourbillon was first placed into a wrist watch. The watchmaker was Omega and the timepiece was produced in a limited quantity to compete in chronometric trials. Meaning that Omega incorporated a tourbillon into a handful of movements that competed in an accuracy competition.

They did this because when the tourbillon was originally invented it was to help improve the accuracy of clocks and pocket watches. Invented by the great watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet in the late 18th century, a tourbillon takes a watch’s oscillating balance wheel and puts it on a cage that rotates around its own axis. The idea is that if gravity pulling on a balance wheel has an effect on its rate, then constantly rotating the balance wheel will average out the effects of gravity, allowing for more stable and thus accurate timing results.

It has been shown that in a wrist watch the tourbillon does not really increase accuracy alone. That is because wrist watches have very different lives compared to pocket watches or clocks. In the 1990’s, luxury brands started adding tourbillons into timepieces with a greater frequency as a means of separating the best timepieces from more entry-level luxury watches. By the early 2000’s the tourbillon become a mainstay of almost every luxury watch brand as a flagship complication you could find in many timepieces.

The popularity of the tourbillon has decreased its exclusivity but in turn has increased how many people are aware of what it is. To the layperson, the tourbillon is a beautiful image of mechanical prowess. Often prominently displayed on the dial of a watch containing one, the tourbillon offers a visually engaging animation that increases the beauty of a mechanical movement. For centuries there has been wonder and amazement in people’s eyes when they see complex moving gears.

Producing a tourbillon requires the production of very small, very precise parts. Typically only very experienced watchmakers can assemble them, and what is often more difficult is the hand-decoration that is applied to bridges and other elements of the tourbillon assembly. Most tourbillons are tiny but still contain about 50 parts.

As a collector finding a fine tourbillon is simple, but choosing the right one can be a path of discovery. Today tourbillon watches can be found as sport watches, aviation-themed watches, formal dress watches, and even modern pocket watches. The most exotic tourbillons have additional features built into them, such as a dead-seconds hands.

The best way to think of a tourbillon is as mechanical art, with an impressive history, and a rather clever way of showing wrist-worn prestige. It will take the right person to notice your tourbillon, but when they do they will no doubt have something interesting to say about it.