Until the late 1980s, the word tourbillon was known to just a few horological historians. Today, it is the statement watch. Although not strictly speaking a complication – it doesn’t bestow any additional function; its action is about improving accuracy – it is, nevertheless, a status-conferring piece of micro-mechanical engineering, the prestige of which reflects the skill involved in its construction. Even people who do not know what it is, what it does, or what it is called, want one: a certain watch boss once told me that he had customers who asked for “the watch with the hole in the middle”, a reference to the cutaway in the dial that exposes the tourbillon cage.
However, two decades of increasing familiarity has bred, if not contempt, then at least the risk of weariness. Obviously any serious collector will have a tourbillon by one or more of the great marques: Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, Girard-Perregaux, Breguet. But what of the rest? What makes some tourbillons more equal than others?
The stated aim of the tourbillon is to compensate for the effect of gravity on the accuracy of the movement when in the vertical position (it is all to do with the asymmetric expansion of the balance spring, which will lead to irregularities in the timekeeping). This system was pioneered a couple of centuries ago by Abraham-Louis Breguet when watches were worn in the pocket, or suspended from little stands, thereby spending most of their time upright. However, unless you walk around with your left palm at 90 degrees to the floor, the benefits of the standard tourbillon will be lost in a wristwatch. Indeed, it is said that the improvements in chronometry of many modern wristwatch tourbillons are due more to advances in watchmaking technique, tools and materials than to the tourbillon itself.
But last year I came across two instances that demonstrate the sort of work going into the next generation of tourbillon watches. In November, I visited the Jaeger-LeCoultre factory to look at a new creation, the Duomètre Sphérotourbillon (€200,000), which uses a spring that is tubular, rather than flat, in a tourbillon that describes a graceful parabola likened by Jérôme Lambert, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s CEO, to the outline of a sombrero. There is plenty of technical stuff going on in the watch, my recollection of which is a touch hazy, but as the tourbillon is fitted to the Duomètre, one of my favourite modern-era Jaeger watches, I liked it.
This is not the first time that the Le Sentier‑based brand has dabbled in the multi-axis tourbillon. In 2004, it premiered the Gyrotourbillon (£290,000), which featured two tourbillons revolving one inside the other, which meant that the escapement was constantly mobile – it was simply hypnotic to watch. This was also the year in which a new player, Greubel Forsey, emerged on the new-generation tourbillon scene – a maker that last year came out top in a gruelling horological marathon staged by the watchmaking museum of Le Locle. Over seven weeks, watches were measured in different positions and temperatures, subjected to shocks and magnetic fields and then tested again. “We took the top score not only for tourbillons, but overall. Out of a thousand points ours got 915,” says Stephen Forsey, one half of Greubel Forsey, adding: “We have other prizes that are beautiful and we appreciate, but for Robert [Greubel] and myself as watchmakers our finest achievement was that result.”
For a thing that spins quite rapidly (usually once a minute), research into the tourbillon has not been fast moving. The Greubel watch that was tested was a version of the watchmaker’s Double Tourbillon Technique (from £399,000), so called because it features one tourbillon angled at 30˚ rotating within another. It is the culmination of a journey that began at the end of the 1990s, when the two men decided to work together to make a tourbillon more relevant to the wristwatch. They acknowledge the influence of an earlier generation of watchmakers, in particular “the first two-axis tourbillon of the mid-1970s made by Anthony Randall”, a British craftsman. Greubel Forsey has since gone on to make a quadruple tourbillon (from £664,000) with two double-tourbillon assemblies.
However, in spite of this achievement, Forsey downplays the gravity-beating effects of his clockwork. “It does not cancel gravity,” he says, “what it does is harness it to average out the effects and enables you to achieve a higher rate of accuracy.” By contrast, Jean-Frédéric Dufour, CEO of Zenith, is more bullish about his watchmakers’ achievements. “It is the only mechanism having full control of the effect of gravity, which is something that watchmakers have always been looking for. It is the first time the movement is fully in the three dimensions. We completely cancelled gravity.”
The piece of machinery that would, if Dufour is right, give Sir Isaac Newton something to worry about is the Christophe Colomb (£154,000), at the heart of which is an assembly mounted on gimbals. “Whatever the position of your wrist, it stays horizontal; exactly what you have in a marine chronometer.” While not as big as a chronometer, it is too big for a conventional case, so the crystal on the back and front of the case features a large bubble to hold the balance assembly.
However cumbersome its aesthetic, the Christophe Colomb also fulfils the second most important duty of the new tourbillon: as well as acting as an antidote to gravity, it must also do its utmost to counteract the ennui, amertume and lassitude that assail the super rich. Yes, even though there is a lot of science involved, there is a powerful case for saying that a modern tourbillon is a piece of entertainment technology.
In effect, a new tier of timepiece has emerged. Typical is the attention-grabbing foray from Franck Muller into triple-axis tourbillon territory in 2005, with a behemoth of a watch called Evolution 3-1; while in 2008, Girard-Perregaux launched its first multi-axis tourbillon, since when demand has led it to enlarge its range with more launches this year and next (Bi-Axial Tourbillon, £348,500).
And for those who prefer something yet more idiosyncratic looking, there is a school of design that appears to owe much to Ulysse Nardin’s Freak (from £114,000), a watch that has defied categorisation for the decade or so that it has been around. Even today, the sight of the movement circulating round the dial is surprising to see and hard to describe.
Since then, Piaget has launched something slightly similar in spirit if different in technique: the Tourbillon Relatif (price on request) has the tourbillon dangling off the back of the minute hand, seemingly disconnected from the rest of the watch. Another marvel is the Astrotourbillon from Cartier (£87,500), in which the tourbillon is at the centre of the watch with the balance wheel pushed out to the extremity, where, with a special arrowhead bridge, it functions as a second hand.
Watch houses call this sort of thing horological savoir faire, and while each taken individually is of considerable technical interest, together what they demonstrate is that the tourbillon is being shorn of its sacerdotal status; it can be fun, as long as it is practical. Richard Mille, a watch brand that balances irreverence with innovation, has experimented with an inclined tourbillon in a watch designed for Argentine polo ace Pablo MacDonough (£421,500). Its reasons for adopting an inclined tourbillon were not to achieve improved chronometry, but due to the case – an aerodynamic cowling that swells to accommodate two circular windows, one of which displays the dial, the other the tourbillon. “Even if polo is a chic game, it is very tough, too, and when I saw that Pablo has not a single bone that remains unbroken, I knew it was important to cover the watch; and then I imagined that visibility had to be lateral, and the tourbillon has been adapted accordingly. I don’t believe the fact it is inclined makes a big difference to the accuracy,” says Richard Mille.
But even if Mille has inclined his tourbillon to cope with polo mallets rather than gravity (unless, of course, you fall off your pony), it is still the pursuit of accuracy that drives most tourbillon research. Tag Heuer, for one, has produced some of the most interesting watches of recent years, and October will see the launch of its double tourbillon, Mikrotourbillon S (£175,000). According to CEO Jean-Christophe Babin: “This puts Tag Heuer in a league in which many doubted we belonged”; and indeed, the double tourbillon club includes some pretty heavyweight players: Breguet (Classique Grande Complication, £327,000). Tag Heuer is new to tourbillons and full details have yet to be released, but the premise is that one tourbillon takes care of the hours and minutes, the other improves the performance of the chronograph. “This is not a tourbillon for the sake of making one,” says Babin, but part of the brand’s mission to make the sports chronograph ever more accurate.
And it is in this statement that the litmus test of many a new-generation tourbillon resides: it has to meet a proper horological need, as Claude Vuillemez, of Roger Dubuis, explains. He is pleased with the differential that links his twin tourbillons, and says that it has been able to minimise the wastage of torque, to the extent that the planetary rotor functions with the efficiency of the bigger central rotor. “There are many paths to gain performance,” he says, a trifle gnomically, before elaborating on plans for a gravity-equalising machine with four balance wheels arranged at 45˚ to form a pyramid. “We want this to be a theoretical answer to a watchmaking problem. There has to be a sound basis for why we would do that, it has to be useful theoretically.” He stresses the theoretical nature because, as a realist searching for horological answers, he has to accept the ultimate paradox facing all mechanical watchmakers: “If you want to be precise, you go to quartz.”