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A Brief Explanation of a Major Complication #2 : The Tourbillon

Anna Wu-Chauvineau
Le 27 February 2017

Invented and patented in 1801 by the French master watchmaker Abraham Louis Breguet (even if he never saw the mechanism function correctly before his death), the tourbillon is one of the most successful watchmaking complications by its complexity, and one of the most expensive ones we’ll find in a mechanical watch.

“What’s the use of a tourbillon Papa?”

At this very crucial moment, when your beloved child asks you this critical question, with eyes sparkling in front of the turning rotor inside its cage, one mustn’t show any weakness. Your reply could very well shape the way your child looks at you…for the rest of his life. He will be able, or not, to see you as his Number 1, his hero who he can always count on.

Any father would want to rise to the occasion. So let’s start preparing then shall we?

For starters let’s get one thing straight. The tourbillon has no use. Are we clear on that? Good, let’s continue.

Now there is a nuance: The tourbillon’s function isn’t useful in the sense that it isn’t vital in today’s world. Our lives no longer depend on its accurateness.

Breguet Tradition Tourbillon Fusée 7047

This doesn’t diminish in any way, however, the genius of its inventor, its function within the movement, and the complexity of its making. This complication has and will forever captivate and fascinate our minds.

Tourbillon (noun) :
A complication geared in such a way as to improve the precision of a mechanical watch by countering the negative effects of gravity on the balance wheel in order to minimize error.

I tried my best to not use big words such as “rotating cage” or “escapement mechanism” that could intimidate the small child.

If this isn’t clear enough for him, you can attempt to go further in detail. Explain, in the simplest way possible, that the functioning of a watch will vary depending on its (vertical) position in which it is being observed. The tourbillon will then impose one rotation per minute to the “escapement-balance wheel” ensemble in order to have it take all the vertical positions possible. The result? These variations of functioning are made up by a “balanced” average.

Classic Automatic Breguet Extra Flat Tourbillon 5377

These explanations should suffice until he turns 13 years old. When he starts to ask more detailed questions, you can continue the discussion with the following:

It’s true that some tourbillon experts say that the complication isn’t really efficient when it is in the vertical position. They go so far as to say that depending on the random movement of the wearer of the watch throughout the day, it recreates the effect of a completely identical average anyway.

After all: “Is this really that important?”

Ask him this question: Does the real importance of the complication have to do with gaining precision in a mechanical watch? Or is it the pure beauty of the framework of the mechanism itself, the genius of its design, and the magic it brings us when we observe it working?

This should calm his curiosity and allow open-minded and healthy reflection so that he may grow up to be a man of Science, certainly, but also a man of Humanities and Poetry. He will know to find his balance and become the man he was already aspiring to be when he was playing on your lap, you can be sure of it.