A Tourbillon is the gravity defying engineering feat of the watchmaking world. Or is it?
What is it?
The Tourbillon was initially invented by Breguet at the turn of the 18th Century. Its purpose is to cancel out the effect that gravity has on the accuracy of your watch.
How does it work?
It tries to achieve this by rotating the escapement and balance wheel in all possible directions. This aims to solve that age old issue many watch enthusiasts try to answer every day before bedtime: Shall I store my watch crown up, crown down or flat? Because depending how you put it to rest, the rate accuracy will vary.
For what it’s worth, as it rotates the cage fully in 60 seconds in many cases, you’ll also see it often (though not always) used as a very complicated subdial that shows the passing seconds.
Does it work?
Good question indeed. In short: Loads has been written about it, and watch enthusiasts around the globe have nerded out big time on this point. It seems that, in a wristwatch, there isn’t really a clear indication that it improves your watch’s accuracy. How about that, eh? Not to mention that in a wristwatch a Tourbillon is pretty much unnecessary. The watch sits on your wrist, as it is moving around all day long anyway, thereby doing the work for the Tourbillon. You are essentially a Tourbillon for most of your existence (you can put that down on your resumé). On a pocketwatch I’d argue it makes a bit more sense, as it is sitting in that same upright position for 99% of the day with gravity weighing down on the balance wheel & hairspring.
A Tourbillon in a wristwatch, if not for accuracy, then why? Simply put, it is an incredible engineering & watchmaking marvel to behold. To be able to create a watch with a beautifully functioning Tourbillon is a sign of watchmaking mastery*. You could call it a badge of honor, so to speak, for the watchmaker (and extra bragging rights for the wearer). And that alone, is more than sufficient to justify their existence. It is mechanical art, right there in a tiny little watch. For a purely rational mind, a tourbillon should make no sense (a ‘simple’ chronometer watch, is more accurate and at a fraction of the cost). Luckily, most of us are emotional creatures, and we can be completely captivated by the horological wonder that is the Tourbillon. Also, lest we forget, the strict rational minds out there, likely don’t wear a mechanical watch to begin with..
The careful reader has seen a little * in the previous paragraph. Tourbillons are no longer limited to the select Masters. Those days are over. Nowadays, Tourbillons can be mass-produced and can be purchased by brands as ébauches. This has resulted in Tourbillons now becoming available at a much lower price than they used to command.