Whirlwind Romance: Watch aficionados swoon over tourbillons, but what exactly do they do?

In June 1801, Abraham-Louis Breguet patented the watch component he named the tourbillon, which is French for whirlwind, or vortex. The entire escapement – escape wheel, balance and spring – were mounted in a moving carriage to offset the effects of gravity by averaging out positional errors.

The name tourbillon turned out to be an apposite one. It created a storm in watchmaking circles, and today’s timepieces from the world’s greatest makers more often than not incorporate the device. As yet, no one has improved upon the invention that is well over 200 years old, though there have been a number of variations, such as the flying tourbillon, which is mounted at just one point. While tourbillons feature on most complicated watches, they are not, strictly speaking, complications themselves.

For tourbillon lovers, the technical details are just as important as precision timekeeping and, of course, the watch’s ability to simply look good on the wrist. Most timepieces that house the devices display them with pride through a special window on the face, or dispense with the face altogether in favour of a skeletonised movement that bares all. To guide you through the maelstrom of variations, Gafencu has chosen eight of the best.

We would be remiss not to begin with Breguet. The Marine Équation Marchante 5887 is a nod to the fact that Breguet was appointed the official chronometer maker to the French Royal Navy in 1815. The “equation” in the name refers to the watch’s ability to calculate the difference between Mean Solar Time and True Solar Time. Two distinctive minute hands indicate each, and a perpetual calendar executes the calculation while also taking leap years into consideration.

The tourbillon, which comes in a titanium carriage, is displayed in a window at the 5 o’clock position and has a one-minute rotation cycle. The case comes in either 950 platinum or rose gold, with a sapphire-crystal case-back. And in homage to its nautical heritage, Breguet has made it water-resistant to 100m.

Unlike Breguet, Cartier is best known for its jewellery watches, but the brand doesn’t shy away from complications. The Rotonde de Cartier Minute Repeater Mysterious Double Tourbillon has a tourbillon that takes 60 minutes to rotate, but the sapphire-crystal disc in which it’s mounted takes five minutes to do a full rotation. The open-work display and contrasting black rhodium plating further highlight the fine work within.

The watch houses a minute repeater, and for this Cartier has maximised the acoustic properties of the timepiece. The hammers, for instance, are made of hardened steel, ensuring a richness of sound. The timepiece is certified “Poinçon de Genève”, which attests to the expertise of the maker’s craftsmen.

Montblanc, on the other hand, incorporates its patented mechanism into a distinctly feminine timepiece. Montblanc says its Bohème ExoTourbillon Slim watch is superior for two reasons: the weight of the tourbillon cage is disconnected from the balance wheel, and the weight of the cage itself has been minimised, resulting in a higher degree of precision.

Four of the 18 screws on the balance wheel can be adjusted for fine tuning, while the watch has a power reserve of two days. The MB M29.24 movement features the Côtes de Genève decoration en éventail (fan-shaped Geneva stripes) on the bridges and micro-rotor, as well as mirror polishing on the tourbillon bridge and satin-finishing on the main plate. It has a diamond pavé of 144 Top Wesselton diamonds and a further 58 on the bezel, all set in a rose-gold case.

Vacheron Constantin’s tonneau-shaped Malte Tourbillon also uses a distinctive design – the Maltese cross. It appears on the face and also forms the tourbillon bridge. Available in rose gold with a sapphire crystal case-back that reveals the movement, this dark-faced timepiece makes a bold statement.

Its manually-wound 2795 movement has been specially built to fit a tonneau case, and it bears all the fine detailing one would expect from one of the world’s oldest watchmakers. Eleven baton-shaped hour-markers and one rose-gold Roman numeral mark the time, while the timepiece can be left to its own devices for nearly two days thanks to its long power reserve.

Likewise, Roger Dubuis has never been shy of daring, innovative designs. The Excalibur Spider Carbon Skeleton Flying Tourbillon is nothing if not eye-catching – a watch aficionado’s dream of precision engineering in masculine red and black. The use of carbon, and its subsequent weight reduction, gives it a power reserve of 90 hours. The watch takes the automotive world as its inspiration, and according to the maker, the base plate and bridge represent a chassis, with the case resembling a car body and the tourbillon akin to an engine. Production is limited to just 88 pieces.

From Swiss watchmaker Piaget comes The Altiplano Tourbillon High Jewellery 41mm, featuring an ultra-light and ultra-thin tourbillon carriage. After all, the watchmaker is renowned for its fine, thin timepieces. This particular watch was made to celebrate 60 years of the Altiplano range, and it proves to be a fitting tribute.

The 18-carat white gold watch is set with no fewer than 265 brilliant-cut diamonds and 48 baguette-cut diamonds on the bezel; the face features a hand-crafted guilloché pattern on gold, coated with translucent blue-grey enamel. The flying tourbillon indicating the seconds at 2 o’clock nicely balances the main dial at 8 o’clock. The look is topped off with a stylish black alligator leather strap.

Another standout piece, A. Lange & Söhne’s Datograph Perpetual Tourbillon, is a rare beast. For one thing, the maker has decided not to showcase the tourbillon through a window, perhaps out of concern that to do so would be ostentatious. Fear not, though – it can be viewed through the case-back. Secondly, the watch has three complications and five sub-functions, yet manages to display all indications on the face in a highly organised and, dare we say, Teutonic way.

In addition to having a column-wheel chronograph complication, the watch features a perpetual calendar and moon-phase indicator which, after 122.6 years, will deviate by just one day. The maker’s signature outsized date in two adjacent windows is at the top of the face, while the power-reserve indicator is between 9 and 10 o’clock.

If a conventional tourbillon just doesn’t float your boat, Hublot has introduced one that spins on two planes. In addition to rotating in a normal fashion, the entire device rotates a full 360 degrees on a perpendicular axis at the rate of twice a minute. The MP-09 Tourbillon Bi-Axis is therefore quite a chunky affair, and a window on the side of the case showcases the spinning gizmo in all its glory.

The automatic movement has a generous five-day power reserve, while the date – which can be moved backwards and forwards with the lever positioned at 9 o’clock – is indicated in one of two semicircles below the main dial.

Even for those who aren’t versed in the more mundane mechanics of tourbillons, these classic timepieces – for all their fine craftsmanship and bare-all attitude – are just too cool to pass up.

Text: David Cornwell

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