Of all the complications out there in the world, the tourbillon is one that constantly reminds people of the prowess of mechanical watch engineering. Of course, every complication, be it a chronograph or a perpetual calendar, is a reminder of the extent and depth of mechanical watchmaking but the tourbillon belongs to a different class of mechanisms. For starters, those other complications are not always working. The tourbillon, for instance, is always on the move. It is both aesthetically tantalizing as well as mechanically intriguing, a combination seldom seen these days.
The Inception Of The Tourbillon
Like any other invention, the tale of the tourbillon begins with a problem and the man who solved the problem was one of mechanical watchmaking’s grandest figures, Abraham-Louis Breguet. At the time of the tourbillon’s invention, Breguet used to operate out of Paris. This is where Breguet made most of his creations. His work was often seen as neoclassical pieces of art despite the fact that the man himself was known for his love for practicality.
Abraham-Louis Breguet soon noticed watches that came in for repair had a pattern. They had irregular wear and tear. Basically, what happened was that the wear and tear was atypical. There was damage to the moving part in certain places while other parts were just fine. Breguet figured this had nothing to do with the users’ way of using the watch (these were pocket watches as wrist watches still had not been invented back then.)
Some areas had exemplified lubrication while other parts had nothing at all. The answer to this came in the form of the tourbillon.
Enter, The Tourbillon
The tourbillon was invented to counter the effects of earth’s gravity on the moving parts and lubrication inside the watch. Have you seen Christopher Nolan’s Inception? Well, the complication works pretty much like a dream inside a dream. You see, the tourbillon basically places an oscillating escapement inside a constantly rotating escapement.
Along with the escapement, the balance wheel and the associated gears and pallet are also rotating on an axis. This ensures that all the components are equally exposed to the effects of earth’s gravitational pull. There you go, no uneven wear and tear. In addition to that, the watch also gains additional accuracy and a longer life.
The tourbillon was created in 1795 but the patent for the same came in 1805. It was a 10-year patent that was granted for the new technology. Breguet only made about 35 pocket watches with the tourbillon complication between 1805 and the year of his demise, 1823. These references, being exceptionally rare and limited in numbers, were prized possessions among societal elites.
The Tourbillon – Present Day
Today, the tourbillon has achieved a legendary status among watchmakers and horology enthusiasts. The complication is regarded as one of the most complicated and sophisticated mechanisms to ever exist. Not to mention, one of the most functional ones out there too. This poetry in motion, however, was not always this popular. Even after the official launch in the early 1800s, the complication was fairly niche.
After the passing away of Abraham Breguet, many watch companies took it upon themselves to capitalise on the tourbillon technology. One such enterprise was the Dent Co. Yes, the same watchmaker that built the Big Ben in London. Girard Perregaux was yet another watchmaker that further worked on the tourbillon and created the Three Golden Bridges design.
However, the true potential of the tourbillon was achieved when Bahne Bonniksen, a Danish horologist created the ‘karrusel’ or the carrousel. Similar to a tourbillon, the karrusel uses an axis to spin the balance assembly around. The difference, however, comes in the form of a second gear that is responsible for rotating the cage around the balance. This alleviates some pressure off of the miniscule parts and adds to the precision of the watch.
Pretty soon, the tourbillon found its way among wristwatches and the rest, as they say, is history. The first one to come up with a wristwatch with a tourbillon fitted inside was Patek Phillipe with Omega catching up soon after.