If you’ve ever seen a watch with a tourbillon escapement built into it, and visible on the dial side, you would remember it. The constantly moving escapement is simply mesmerizing. So, you may be wondering: exactly what is a tourbillon and what does it do?
French for “whirlwind” – the tourbillon escapement is a regulating mechanism that compensates for errors in timekeeping due to the effect of gravity on the watch when it is in certain positions. Basically, when a watch is lying flat, the balance spring dilates during oscillation and creates some drag – resulting in timetracking errors of as much as a second a day. Theoretically, this does not happen when the watch is in a vertical position on the wrist. However, the wrist is not always in a vertical position.
The tourbillon escapement compensates for these differences -- countering out the drag thanks to itsconstruction, wherein the balance wheel and escapement – now combined as the tourbillon escapement -- are fitted into a rotating cage or carriage and the complete assembly revolves continuously at a constant rate. This averages the effects of gravity over each revolution or spin of the tourbillon cage.
The tourbillon, a true feat of technical mastery and hypnotic beauty was originally invented by Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1795.
A legendary watchmaker obsessed with perfecting timekeeping, Breguet patented it in 1801 and marketed it in 1805. His tourbillon escapement featured the seconds indication on the carriage pivot, so he ensured that the tourbillon rotated once a minute.
Most of today’s tourbillons are referred to as one-minute tourbillons. However today’s watchmakers have elevated the tourbillon to all new heights – with some offering multiple (double or triple) axis tourbillons and others creating 30-second tourbillons, multiple-minute tourbillons and more. Others have eliminated the two bridges that hold the escapement in place, using just one upper bridge so the tourbillon looks like it is suspended in air. This is called a flying tourbillon.
Other brands have built their tourbillon escapements to look like three-dimensional works of art – using spherical or globe-like carriages. Gyrotourbillons gyrate on multiple different axis to counteract gravity. Some tourbillon escapements are placed in Faraday-like cages to be able to spin more freely and yet others house multiple cages that spin at different rates. Some brands even combine the tourbillon escapement with other high complications (such as minute repeaters or perpetual calendars) to offer what the industry refers to as a grand complication.
Because of the complexity of the tourbillon, and the time it takes to build (a single watch can take as long as six months to assemble), tourbillon watches generally command high retail prices – well over $50,000 to $75,000 and more. It should be noted, though, that a few brands are obsessed with creating “affordable” tourbillon watches that sell for somewhere in the $20,000 to $30,000 price range. Some brands even combine the tourbillon escapement with other high complications (such as minute repeaters or perpetual calendars) to offer what the industry refers to as a grand complication. Among the watch collecting community, a tourbillon watch is among the most coveted.