Tourbillon – The Complication of the Century: Part 2 – The Millennium Watch Book


If there is one complication that embodies the 2000s, it is the tourbillon. Between his official invention in 1801 and the end of the 1990s, Mr. Breguet’s innovation remained discreet and incidental; just one of the many other ways to get better timing. A glance at the winners of the houses which generally won gold medals in the Observatory competitions of the 19th and 20th centuries confirms this: hardly any had a tourbillon. Indeed, tourbillons were at that time difficult to design, manufacture, adjust and make reliable. But from the 2000s, they embodied the revival of high-end watchmaking. At the dawn of the new millennium, tourbillons underwent a kind of metamorphosis, gradually shifting from a laboratory curiosity to a place of prestigious experiments, ultimately becoming a winning formula that placed those who presented them at the top of the top of the world. range. The whirlwind had arrived, becoming the topic of the day and the center of attention – not least because of the many different new forms in which it began to appear.

RM 001 (2001) © Richard Mille

What is a whirlpool anyway?

Before examining all these developments, it is appropriate to give a basic definition. The tourbillon consists of housing the regulating organ (the balance, the hairspring, the anchor and the escape wheel) in a so-called cage or cage structure, itself driven in rotation. The purpose of this rotation is to place the balance in various positions: like the speed of oscillation of a regulating organ, its power and the friction along its axis are all affected by gravity, its spatial orientation alters its behavior. chronometric. To prevent the regulating member from remaining in a particularly favorable or unfavorable position, the tourbillon keeps it constantly in motion. In short, it is a machine which compensates for the errors caused by such positions: the tourbillon’s job is to adjust the behavior of the regulating organ to an average position. The faster the cage rotates, the faster the variety of positions adopted.

The complication of the century

Malte Tourbillon Openwork Caliber 2790 SQ © Vacheron Constantin

Typically, tourbillons rotate once per minute, allowing them to indicate seconds. In addition to rotation, watchmakers began to play with other factors: the frequency of the balance, the orientation of the cage in the plane of the movement; the number of axes around which it revolves. These different variables and the potential for inventiveness associated with them have transformed a single complication into many different specialties. The extent of this potential is evidenced by the distance between, say, a Ref. 5101 by Patek Philippe – a brand that hides all its very conventional tourbillons at the back of its watches – and the Quadruple Tourbillon by Greubel Forsey which has two biaxial tourbillons, each with an axis inclined at 30 °; or between the prophetic and ultra-sporty style of Richard Mille’s RM 001 and the uninhibited reinterpretation of ultra-technical classicism found in Bovet’s pieces.


Another feature of the tourbillon is that it is impossible to tell whether or not it is a complication. Strictly speaking, a complication is an indication, while tourbillons do not actually indicate anything; they are simply part of the functioning of the regulatory body. But in the 2000s, orthodox definitions were gradually deconstructed amid the diversification of complications, pure inventiveness and the spread of high-end watches, none of which was very compatible with dictionary definitions. Indeed, the iconoclastic identity of the tourbillon, and the recent boom in Johnnycome’s diversity that it has spawned, make it a metaphor for watchmaking as a whole. For the uninformed observer, the world of watchmaking appears very homogeneous, populated by only a few brands. To the untrained eye, everything looks the same, whether from a distance or even close at hand. But with the right focus, everything becomes denser and more complex, like a drop of seawater seen under a microscope: it’s absolutely teeming with life. Often seen as a simple technical solution, the tourbillon has proven to be a field in its own right – and a springboard for notoriety, prestige and sales. The path taken by the tourbillon resembles that of the entire industry, and is somewhat of a scale model of the industry as a whole. It has its specialists – like Greubel Forsey, which takes tourbillons to new heights of technicality in terms of timing and fine craftsmanship, or even Jaeger-LeCoultre with its Triptyque, the first watch to have a detent escapement in a tourbillon – as well as his dilettantes. It has its own low-cost versions (like the Highlife Tourbillon by Frédérique Constant), but also extremely expensive (the route chosen by Vacheron Constantin, whose tourbillons embody the last word in finishes). It can fulfill any role in a watch, from technical or chronometric performance to style – or, in its most basic versions with an externalized generic movement, only play a role of a simple accompanist.

Branching out

While the vortex was originally a response to a single problem, and remained so for a long time, it has broken down into many different categories. Early examples include the flying tourbillon invented by Alfred Helwig and the Bonniksen carousel, a variant with subtle technical differences. In the 21st century, the tourbillon has become a world in its own right. Cyrus offers flat, inclined and vertical vortices; Roger Dubuis has singles and doubles, Antoine Preziuso has triples, Greubel Forsey, the quadruple tourbillon.

The complication of the century

Klepsys vertical tourbillon © Cyrus

They can have one, two or three axes (as with Thomas Prescher), and frequencies of 2.5, 3, 3.5, 4 or even 5 Hz from De Bethune and Zenith. A cage rotation can take a minute, four minutes, or even five seconds (as in Tourbillon Rapide by Franck Muller) – or, conversely, an hour, with Ulysse Nardin’s prophetic Freak. The cage can have two bridges (the classic tourbillon); a single bridge (definition of the flying tourbillon, taken to the extreme in the case of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Hybris Mechanica and the peripheral tourbillon by Carl F. Bucherer) without forgetting the specialty of Bovet, a bridge hidden halfway along of the rod. Tourbillons can be small, medium, large or giant, the latter being the hallmark of Kerbedanz. Their axis of rotation can be centered on that of the balance; shifted, as in the Exo Tourbillons by Montblanc; or peripheral, as in the Astrotourbillon de Cartier. Omega and Hysek place their vortices in the center; the majority put them at 6 o’clock; Blancpain has them at 12 o’clock, and Breguet at 5 o’clock.

The complication of the century

Rotonde de Cartier Astromystérieux, Manero Double Peripheral Tourbillon, Double Tourbillon 5347 © Cartier, Carl F. Bucherer, Breguet

Panerai and Patek Philippe hid them; others display them, sometimes even closer in a specially shaped dome, as is the case with Vianney Halter Deep Space or more recently Legacy Machine Thunderdome from MB&F. And today, tourbillons are present in all types of watches: sport chic, extreme sport, vintage, classic, dressy, men, women, jewelry, skeleton and ultra slim.


Several factors help to explain the particular fate of this complication, coinciding like it with the arrival of the modern watch. On the one hand, tourbillons have emerged from the desert of inaccessible complexity, the manufacture of their components greatly facilitated by digital machining. Tourbillons have at least 50 specific parts, some of which weigh only a few hundredths of a gram; they are complex in shape and manually finished. Moreover, the era itself was a powerful stimulus for novelty, high technology, prestige and differentiation.

The complication of the century

Pinball © Ulysse Nardin

It has also seen the emergence of highly talented watchmakers, many of whom are independent, mobilizing their vast knowledge to resuscitate various traditions; the fact that these went wrong in the 80s and 90s also meant that there was an opportunity for a revival of mechanical watchmaking on a large scale. And of course, the tourbillons had the advantage of movement. Their rotation is a performance: a ballet that symbolizes the passing of time much more efficiently than the oscillations of a balance, even when these are made visible through an opening in the dial. Very early on, those who succeeded in making tourbillons decided to highlight them by placing the regulator in plain view, just under the dial, visible through a dedicated window.

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