A Guide to the Tourbillon

A Guide to the Tourbillon

| 05.06.24

POV: You’ve been a watch collector for three years. Your significant other bought you a Seiko, thinking they were doing something nice for your birthday. Little do they know that this ostensibly innocuous gift would send you spiraling down a dangerous path of more and more elaborate watches. A year later, you wake up with a ‘Rainbow’ Daytona on your right wrist, a Patek Philippe minute repeater on the left, a Richard Mille on your ankle, and a Royal Oak strapped to your neck like a dog collar. You are examining your life choices when you realize there’s one complication you haven’t explored — the tourbillon! 

Since its introduction in the early 1800s, the tourbillon has captured the minds of enthusiasts globally, prized for both its mechanical complexity and hypnotic aesthetic. Originally intended to address a specific mechanical need, the tourbillon is, at its core, a complication designed to achieve near-perfect timekeeping accuracy. Nowadays, its significance is much more about its symbolism, romanticism, and history rather than any practical timekeeping advantage. (More on that in a moment…) Beautiful, utterly unnecessary, yet extremely compelling at the same time, it's is a complication that brings endless fascination — and will no doubt wow your friends. If that sounds like just the thing for you, then read on! 


Breguet's tourbillon was granted a 10-year patent - (Image by Breguet)

The tourbillon dates back to the late 18th century, an era of innovation when many watchmakers were exploring the tremendous impact gravity had on chronometric precision. This period was characterized both by an increase in the ability of watchmakers to measure precision, and also, the ability to make precise changes in the manufacturing process to improve timekeeping based on those results. In many ways, these two factors contributed to an explosion of precision watchmaking, and the emergence of a number of significant brands, including Breguet. 

Movement, Breguet no. 1176.  - (Image by Breguet)

Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet, alongside the other master watchmakers of the time, was frustrated by the way in which gravity interfered with precision timekeeping: A pocket watch, held vertically in a waistcoat pocket, would experience “positional error” from a prolonged suspension in a single orientation. Theoretically, introducing movement (of the watch’s escapement) into the equation would “iron out” said error, leading to increased chronometric accuracy.

Seeking to develop the most accurate escapement possible, Breguet began working on a solution in the late 1700s, filing a patent in 1801 for a device he called the tourbillon, or “whirlwind.” The tourbillon placed the full movement escapement assembly inside a rotating chassis, thereby equalizing the gravitational forces on the watch by spinning it around an axis — most often within a one-minute period. The result was extremely impressive — Breguet was indeed able to increase the accuracy of the pocket watch, and his invention is still produced nearly a quarter-millennium later.

The Tourbillon Today

Greubel Forsey Double Tourbillon 30° 

The tourbillon was designed for pocket watches. However, the ascendancy of the wristwatch in the early 20th century largely negated the need for such a device — indeed, when a wristwatch is worn, its movement is constantly passing through different orientations, and a rotating tourbillon cage has no significant mechanical advantage at all. Why, then, do watchmakers still place a tourbillon inside their highest-end pieces? 

Today, the tourbillon represents the pursuit of mechanical perfection, chronometric precision, and the (admittedly unattainable) goal of achieving perfect timekeeping. Thus, while placing a tourbillon in a wristwatch doesn’t inherently do much, chronometrically, it does signify a brand’s respect for history, craft, and complexity — and its ability to build an extremely sophisticated mechanical device at a mind-bogglingly small scale. 

A tourbillon, comprising about 40-70 individual components, is extremely difficult to produce. While a small number of low-cost, machine-made tourbillons exist, they are most often hand assembled in small batches, representing a horological triumph that aspiring watchmakers endeavor to attain. In effect, including a tourbillon in a wristwatch is a statement from a watch company — an expression of competence and ambition. Likewise, those who seek out and purchase a tourbillon-equipped wristwatch are expressing the desire to interface with watchmaking history, and probably value a high degree of watchmaking competence. 

The Tourbillon at Analog:Shift 

The labor-intensive nature of tourbillon production introduces an inherent premium to watches that carry this complication. That being said, tourbillon watches can be found at multiple price points, from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands…even millions of dollars.

It should be noted that a less expensive tourbillon-equipped wristwatch is not necessarily indicative of inferior quality, as advances in manufacturing methods have brought price points down significantly over the past decade. What follows are some excellent, tourbillon-equipped wristwatches available right now at Analog:Shift. Reach out to us today to come view these pieces in our NYC showroom and to experience the magic of Breguet’s invention for yourself! 

Angelus U23 Tourbillon Pièce Unique ($29,900)

Angelus U23 Tourbillon Pièce Unique - IN THE SHOP

Building upon their long history with complicated watchmaking, it’s no surprise that Angelus has moved to tourbillon production. This pièce unique tourbillon, for example, combines a traditional complication and layout with extremely modern materials and looks: Featuring an open-work dial, a titanium main case, and CTP carbon midcase and accents, its exposed movement bridges has been PVD coated in purple, giving it tremendous character. Indeed, considering its tourbillon, open-worked dial, and unique execution, its sub-$30K pricing is remarkable. If you’re hoping to catch a brand on the ascendancy, this is certainly an excellent watch to do it with! 

IWC Portugieser Tourbillon ($31,350)

IWC Portugieser Tourbillon - IN THE SHOP

The IWC Portugieser Tourbillon is one of the best traditional interpretations of the tourbillon at the sub-$50,000 price point, and its execution in precious metal elevates it to a fresh level of value. Sized at 43mm in rose gold, with a dial featuring appliqué ‘Arabic’ numerals, a ‘railroad’ minutes track, and the classic Portugieser subsidiary seconds, it maintains the classic Portugieser style codes while incorporating a tourbillon as a crown jewel at 9 o’clock. If you’ve got the wrist circumference for this large piece, you’ll find yourself with an important complication at a great price. Hard to go wrong here! 

Greubel Forsey Double Tourbillon 30 Degrees ($255,000)

Greubel Forsey Double Tourbillon 30 Dregrees - IN THE SHOP

Greubel Forsey’s Double Tourbillon 30 Degrees is one of the most sophisticated tourbillons available on the market from any brand. Featuring dual tourbillon cages to further compensate for gravity in a three-dimensional orientation, it consists of an outer cage revolving at a period of four minutes, and an inner cage, inclined at a 30° angle, revolving once per minute. The tourbillon movement itself is incredibly hand finished, befitting a brand making only about 100 watches a year. Rare, ludicrously sophisticated, and a wonder to behold, the Double Tourbillon 30 Degrees is the type of timepiece that would have impressed even Breguet.