The word tourbillon means “whirlwind” in French. We say, quite apt considering its working. The watch industry is known for constant innovation and reinvention. This is especially true when responding to the challenges that are faced by watchmakers. Many years ago, when the tourbillion was invented, it was because of one such challenge.
The inventor…and an ingenious invention
It was Abraham-Louis Breguet who came up with the ingenious invention that we call “tourbillon”. Today this has changed the very language of watchmaking. The goal was to improve the accuracy of pocket watches.
Breguet observed that gravity was working against the regularity of horological movements. In simple words, it affected the accuracy of watches. The reason? With each change of position of a watch when worn, the effects of gravity interfered with the workings of the watch. Breguet realized that for achieving the best accuracy, it was important to ensure balancing out the effects of gravity by placing the mechanism in various positions.
His ingenious solution placed the balance wheel, escape lever, and escape wheel in a cage which then rotated a full 360 degrees making a complete revolution around itself, usually in a minute. The overall effects of gravity were balanced out, as the escapement of the movement never spent any significant time in one vertical position.
Breguet developed this mechanism around 1795 and then patented it as well. He received a patent from France’s Ministry of the Interior for this new regulating device on June 26, 1801.
This somewhat accelerated the transition from pocket watches to wristwatches. Since then there have been many innovations related to the tourbillon.
Types of tourbillons
Traditional tourbillons have one axis and a ‘bridge’, that is part of the mechanism that holds it in place. A flying tourbillon removes the bridge for an “unobstructed view” of the tourbillon that is connected to the movement from underneath. While most tourbillons operate on one axis, there are multi-axial ones as well. These provide gravity cancelling out effects for a watch, irrespective of its position.
Do we need the tourbillon today?
Technically, no! There has been a lot of progress in the field of horology which has given watchmakers different ways of obtaining accuracy in wristwatches.
Then why is there still a fascination for the tourbillon? Where does the tourbillon stand today? Modern watchmakers tell the story of brilliance of the art and craft of watchmaking through this mechanism. The tourbillon is usually done as a novelty. After all, it is one of the most delicate mechanisms to conjure. It retains its fascination by the complexity that goes into making it and also because of the sheer artistry associated with the concept.