Planetary emotion Featured

The tourbillon is still one of the most beautiful watch types

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20 September 2013

"I have the honour of presenting (...) a new invention that I call Tourbillon Regulator... By means of this invention, I have succeeded in (...) eliminating many other sources of error that influence the precision of the movement..." This is part of Abraham-Louis Breguet's application for a patent, granted in 1801, in which he presents not only his invention, but also its name, tourbillon, still today synonymous with the finest watchmaking.

Often translated as 'whirlwind,' in actual fact the origin of the term tourbillon is linked to astronomy. In his book Principles of Philosophy, Descartes noted that the observed movement of the planets could only be explained by combining a small circular rotation of a planet with its principal orbit around the sun – a complex course named the tourbillon. Early watchmakers like Breguet were fascinated by the idea that the movement of the gears in the case mirrors the mechanisms driving the planets and stars. The watch becomes a miniature cosmos.

Today, Breguet continues its pioneering watchmaking work in models such as the Classique Tourbillon extra-plat automatique. The Calibre 581DR movement runs at the relatively fast rate of 4 Hertz, exploiting the qualities of the titanium used for the tourbillon cage and balance wheel, and the silicon spiral spring and escapement. The high-energy barrel provides a massive 90 hours of power reserve. All of this in a movement just 3 millimetres thick, so that the entire case is no more than 7 millimetres thick. Breguet's audacity is expressed by the deliciously idiosyncratic dial design, with an off-centre layout, and four different types of guilloché. The result is intriguingly beautiful.

At its Villeret manufacture, Montblanc is continuing development of the tourbillon, and the ExoTourbillon Chronographe is a remarkable timepiece. Usually, the balance wheel oscillates within the tourbillon cage; in this watch, the balance wheel has been detached, enlarged, and placed on a plane above the cage. This makes it even more visible, and enables the cage to be reduced in size. Not surprisingly, the dial has the ExoTourbillon at the top; functions include a day-night display at 4 o'clock, and a subsidiary dial for a second time zone at 6 o'clock. It is made in two versions, white or red gold, in limited editions of 8 per type.

Blancpain is to the Carrousel what Breguet is to the tourbillon, and the brand's Tourbillon Carrousel is a very beautiful piece of haute horlogerie that combines two of the methods of reducing the detrimental effects of gravity on a watch's precision. The flying tourbillon is at 12 o'clock, the flying carrousel at 6 o'clock, with a date display at 3 o'clock. The two regulators are averaged and the resulting rate drives the time display. It is an ingenious piece, beautiful to see in action. Linking them both to the same gear train is a world first.

In its Tourbillon Squelette (PAM00446), Panerai have transferred the tourbillon back to where it started: the pocket watch. This return to the origins is accompanied by a very contemporary design, with a black ceramic cushion-shaped case. The watch chain is a modern version of an anchor chain: when it is removed, the watch can be transformed into a table clock by means of a special support. The three barrels provide a 6-day power reserve for the hand-wound movement. Pocket watches are making something of a return, and this is a very original version.

Audemars Piguet have added a very beautiful tourbillon to the Tradition collection: the Tradition Tourbillon Minute Repeater Chronograph (Ref. 26564). It has a classic, Deco look to it, with the simplicity of the dial design highlighting the tourbillon; the minute repeater hammers and other details of the movement can be seen through the sapphire caseback. The chronograph, controlled with the two pushers on the right side of the case, has a centre-sweep seconds hand, and a 30-minute counter. The tourbillon at 6 o'clock also provides small seconds. Every part of this spectacular movement is finished to perfection.

These are just some examples of how the tourbillon, one of the classic complications, is being incorporated into the latest timepieces; planetary motion generating infinite emotion.