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Tourbillons: All You Need To Know

What is a tourbillon? That little thing that spins slowly on a watch dial has plenty of gravitas.

Here’s the genius who invented it. Abraham Louis Breguet created the tourbillon (French for ‘whirlwind’) in 1801. The eponymous brand he founded, now owned by the Swatch Group, continues to make some of the finest tourbillons today.

Why did Breguet do it? He was probably miffed that his pocket watches were constantly running out of whack. As they are typically worn in a vertical position (likely tucked in a waistcoat or pants pocket), the effects of gravity would cause their regulating mechanisms to go off over time.

And so? So, to counter that, Breguet invented a cage to hold the entire regulating mechanism. He engineered the cage in such way that it would rotate anti-clockwise – against the force of gravity - to compensate for the timing deviations.

Breguet Classique Tourbillon Extra-Flat Automatique 5377

Ok, so that was for pocket watches… We know what you are thinking. Tourbillons are obsolete right? Well, that’s half-right.

Why do tourbillons still exist then? Think of tourbillons as an homage to traditional watchmaking. Today, only watch brands of the highest technical calibre are capable of producing this complication. In watchmaking circles, creating a tourbillon is regarded as the consummation of a craftsman’s skills; a badge of honour flashed only by the best in the business.

But isn’t it tiresome to make the same thing over and over? Well, like all things horological, the tourbillon has evolved a great deal. Some brands still make it the old-school way, albeit with refined finishing, and with some featuring contemporary materials and modern construction for the tourbillon components. In some instances, brands push the envelope with innovations like double-tourbillons, and tourbillons that rotate on multiple axes.

Franck Muller Vanguard Gravity with extra-large elliptical aluminium tourbillon cage

Harry Winston Historie de Tourbillon 7 with two bi-axial tourbillons

That aside, it is easy to spot a tourbillon. Given how hard it is to construct, brands often accord the complication prime position on the dial. Watches usually display the tourbillon in open windows, where they can be seen rotating slowly.

A. Lange & Sohne 1815 Tourbillon

And if you really want to break it down…A ‘basic’ tourbillon houses the entire escapement comprising the (1) escape wheel, escape lever, and (2) balance wheel in a (3) carriage, usually made of a lightweight metal. The tourbillon carriage commonly rotates 360 degrees and usually takes a minute to complete each rotation.

What do they cost? Without trying to sound obscene, a typical tourbillon by an esteemed brand today would cost about S$60,000 and up. There is one new model though from TAG Heuer, the Carrera Heuer 02T, which costs about one third of that and is now purportedly the cheapest Swiss-made tourbillon watch yet.

TAG Heuer Carrera Heuer 02T

Ex Editor-In Chief

Alvin promises not to be a douche when talking about watches. He may have scoured the Basel and Geneva watch fairs for the past 15 years, and played an instrumental role to the growth of Singapore's pioneering horological and men's lifestyle publications, but the intrepid scribe seeks to learn something new with each story he writes.