From Practical to Prestigious: The Story of the Tourbillon

From Practical to Prestigious: The Story of the Tourbillon

F ew mechanical additions – be it sans chiming complications, perpetual calendars, rattrapante chronographs, or grand complications which contain all three – are so closely associated with the world of haute horlogerie as the tourbillon. First developed at the dawn of the 19th century to solve a relevant mechanical challenge of the day, the tourbillon has gone on to become one of the most sought-after features in modern prestigious watchmaking.

The question then is why are tourbillons – a mechanical feature first created more than two centuries ago and long-since made technologically obsolete – still relevant today, and so coveted?

A Whirling Origin: What is a Tourbillon?

While today garnering renown around the world of technically focused watchmaking, the tourbillon traces its origins to the twilight years of the French Revolution, when in 1801, after years of conceptualisation, legendary watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet patented his design for a new type of a regulator by the same name.

At the time, watchmakers were gaining a greater understanding of the negative effects of gravitational forces on the accuracy of a movement depending on the vertical position of a pocket watch. Breguet, therefore, presented the tourbillon, with the then-new mechanism working to normalise (or regulate) the energy transfer between the “regulating organs” of watch – i.e., the balance, balance spring, and escapement – via a 360-degree rotating cage containing them. By this system, each of the regulating organs are then theoretically taken through all possible vertical positions, therefore mitigating the effects of gravity on a watch’s accuracy.

French for whirlwind, and so named for its functional movement pattern, the tourbillon at its debut marked a serious technical achievement. Breguet and his contemporaries would go on to develop around 40 tourbillon watches, with clients including European royalty, esteemed explorers, and a variety of maritime travellers. That early relationship between tourbillons and ocean travel, in particular, can still be seen channeled today, for example in Lot 2344 of Sotheby’s Important Watches I auction in Hong Kong via the Ulysse Nardin’s Marine Grand Deck ref. 6300-300, which highlights that nautical link.

Revolving and Evolving

In the centuries that followed Breguet’s original invention, the tourbillon has seen numerous changes and executions in models of note. One of the more remarkable examples of an early tourbillon came from Girard-Perregaux in 1889, that year introducing the Tourbillon with Three Gold Bridges or “La Esmeralda”, a pocket watch which featured both the regulating mechanism and the brand’s distinct three bridge design signature. In modern times, the brand continues to produce tourbillon watches both with and without three bridges, a non-triple bridge example seen in Lot 2171 of the upcoming auction, via the Girard-Perregaux Minute Repeater Tri-Axial Tourbillon ref. 99830.

A little over 30 years after Girard-Perregaux’s contribution to the history of the regulation mechanism, Alfred Helwig, then the headmaster of the German Watchmaking School Glashütte, approached the concept. Whereas traditional tourbillons until this point were secured via visible supporting bridges, Helwig imagined a more dynamic mechanical variation that opted instead for only a single bridge secured to the movement directly via hidden link. Under Helwig’s supervision, his students in 1920 presented the first “flying” tourbillon to do just that, with the design going on to achieve wide admiration that has carried into the modern day.

The next major advancement in tourbillon technology came with the creation of the first calibers equipped with the regulation mechanism to be designed for wristwatches. This milestone came in the years directly following the Second World War, when Omega, Patek Philippe, and French manufacturer Lip each introduced their own tourbillon wristwatches.

Patek Philippe remains one of the most impressive tourbillon makers today, its legacy being carried in a number of watches like in Lot 2338, the minute repeating and perpetual calendar equipped ref. 5016; Lot 2327, the white gold minute repeater ref. 5539; and in Lot 2233, the pink gold and enamel dial minute repeating ref. 5339; all three watches containing traditional tourbillons tastefully visible via exhibition case backs.

A 1980s Revival, a New and Lasting Appeal

While tourbillon-equipped timepieces saw a small increase in attention during the mid-20th century on account of efforts by a small group of watchmakers, it wasn’t until the lattermost part of the 1900s when tourbillons began to gain their lasting, modern appeal.

Much of this growth in interest began in the years following the introduction and subsequent wide adoption of quartz-technology in the 1970s and into the 1980s, after which a resurgence in the traditional appeal of mechanically powered timepieces began to arise.

Many credit Audemars Piguet for this initial rekindling, with the maison in 1986 boldly introducing the ref. 25643 to a quartz-ruled period, the serially produced model being the world’s first self-winding tourbillon wristwatch courtesy of the ultra-thin caliber 2870.

Following the launch of Audemar Piguet’s watershed reference, the unique, new form, and appeal of the tourbillon became clear. No longer was the tourbillon a solution to some horological problem, with plenty other simpler and more effective mechanical and quartz workarounds having developed for the gravity problem. Instead, the tourbillon was to fully be an artistic and horological showcase in and of itself.

The haute horologerie market is often defined by its focus on craft, particularly as it relates to uncommon feats that are accomplished meticulously by hand and with extreme focus. The tourbillon in this way is considered an ultimate embodiment of this ethos, being a highly difficult to produce mechanism that all but the most skilled and dedicated of watchmakers could successfully accomplish. Where a regular mechanical movement appeals to many over quartz for its traditional appeal, tourbillon-equipped watches are simply a further elevation – being no more useful but all the more romantic.

Tourbillons in the Modern Era

Naturally, as tourbillons grew in popularity among the luxury maisons and their clients of the watchmaking world, simply producing one was no longer the goal, but the entry-point. Thus, it was that while equipping a tourbillon to a timepiece served as point of pride and “high-horological bonafides”, it was even more impressive to raise the bar even higher.

Some watchmakers, like F.P. Journe, have set out to improve upon the tourbillon in some technical fashion. Lot 2163, the Tourbillon Souverain Ruthenium, is one such model, with the timepiece being an example of the watchmaker’s first generation of Tourbillon Remontoir d’ Egalite watches, each of which include a remontoire mechanism that enhances accuracy by exerting a constant and equal amount of energy to the tourbillon.

Richard Mille, another acclaimed watchmaker, set about to introduce a sports-capable tourbillon, having accomplished the feat via the original RM002 launched at the turn of the millennium. Lot 2324, the RM002-V2, came as part of the second generation of the collection, being a special “All Grey” edition launched in 2009.

Other brands, such as Vacheron Constantin, have merged multiple veins of luxury intrigue into singular, tourbillon-equipped wristwatches. Lot 2179, the Malte Tourbillon ref. 30672, is one such example, with the timepiece featuring a skeletonised aesthetic, diamond and sapphire-set platinum case, and signature maltese-cross stylised tourbillon.

Patek Philippe, conversely, went a different route with a similar ethos via the Sky Moon Tourbillon “988", ref. 5002, featured in Lot 2257. The watch at its launch in 2001 was one of the most complicated wristwatches of its time, merging a tourbillon and platinum case with 12 complications for a true embodiment of meticulous, mechanical execution.

The Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Gyrotourbillon 1 was similarly impressive at its initial debut in 2004, with it featuring both multiple complications and various previous materials, and further represented one of the watches equipped with a multi-axis tourbillon. Lot 2321, reference 600.64.06 from circa 2017, is a contemporary example.

Harry Winston, another prestigious watchmaker, has found some signature success in its multi-axis tourbillons, including the Histoire de Tourbillon 9 featured in Lot 2334 containing a triaxial tourbillon and incredible bi-retrograde jumping hours display, as well as in the Histoire de Tourbillon 7 seen in Lot 2310 which contains two biaxial tourbillons on display via the dial.

While the bar has been raised in what’s particularly impressive for modern tourbillon watches over the past 30 years or so, the appeal of the mechanism remains. Charming, visually entrancing, and symbolically important to the history and modern stories of watchmaking, tourbillons shall persist in their appeal and significance, representing the watchmaking virtuosity of those who produce them, and captivating the admiration of those who acquire them.

This autumn, as part of the Important Watches I auction on 5 October, Sotheby’s Hong Kong will present a meticulously sourced assortment of these significant wristwatches. To learn more about the upcoming auction and its revered individual lots, click here.

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