If you’ve been into watches for a while and like me, trawl through the catalogue of every high-end watch brand, you’ve probably come across the Tourbillon range. It’s as fascinating in its history as it is difficult to engineer.  But what exactly is the Tourbillon and what purpose does it serve to command such astronomical prices? 

The Origins of the Tourbillon 


Image Credit: Wikipedia

So where does the story of the Tourbillon begin? Well, we have to turn back the clocks to 1795. The story starts with an individual named Abraham-Louis Breguet, the founder of, well, Breguet. 

This Parisian invented the Tourbillon in 1795 before it was patented in 1801. 

The word Tourbillon literally translates from French, as “whirlwind” which, when we explain how a Tourbillon works, will make complete sense. 

So, what was the problem that the Tourbillon solved?

Most, if not all, inventions are brought to life to solve a problem; so what was the problem that the Tourbillon solved? 

Well, when a pocket watch is keeping time, gravity can affect the running of the movement. To be more specific, gravity affects the balance wheel, spring and escapement. 

If the watch and its movement are in constant counteraction with Earth’s gravity, then this would have an effect on the accuracy of the watch, according to Monsieur Breguet. 

Well, we’ve found the problem, what exactly is the solution?

Abraham-Louis Breguet decided upon the idea of the Tourbillon, or whirlwind, as a way of counteracting Earth’s forces. 

The motion of the Tourbillon is, rather aptly, of a whirlwind – no one particular motion, it moves as it needs to, to counteract the impact of gravity. 

The balance wheel, the part of the movement identified as being affected by gravity, turns 360 degrees. Also moving concurrently to the balance wheel, as part of the Tourbillon element, is the balance spring and the escapement. 

The Tourbillon from a modern standpoint

Image Credit: Lifestyle Asia Hong Kong

No one can deny the effectiveness of the Tourbillon for pocket watches. But nowadays we rarely see pocket watches, but we do see wristwatches. 

A lot of the high-end watch brands, the likes of Breguet, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Audemars Piguet, produce Tourbillon watches. But in wristwatches, which naturally move far more than pocket watches ever did, is the Tourbillon still effective?

It goes without saying that this subject is pretty controversial in watchmaking, with some arguing that Tourbillons in wristwatches are almost entirely negligible. This makes some sense. As previously mentioned, wristwatches move a lot more than pocket watches, which remain vertical and in the pocket. 

So, one side of the argument is that Tourbillons, in wristwatches, are produced to prove the craftsmanship ability of the watchmaker. They are incredibly difficult to produce and therefore show a high level of watchmaking prowess. You often see these watches way above £100,000 and, depending on the brand, they can go north of double or even triple this. 

Some watchmakers have even taken the Tourbillon a few steps further, creating double-Tourbillons or Flying Tourbillons. 

We are reaching a new height of watchmaking; brands are in constant competition with one another to produce the most complicated and often obscure timepieces. So, a once simply thought-out invention, which was complicated to produce is becoming easier to produce but far more complicated in how it is thought-out. 

Times have changed and arguably for the better. The “Tourbillon Level” is where watch brands can really prove their worth and their watchmaking capabilities. It is undoubtedly an interesting aspect of horology to keep an eye on, but one which remains fairly unattainable for most. But we can dream, right?