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The Tourbillon, history of a watchmaking feat

June 26 is a special day for Breguet. On this day of year 1801 the tourbillon, one of the most fascinating horological devices, was patented by Abraham-Louis Breguet.

The occasion gives us the opportunity to step back in time and chronicle some of the key events that led to the current advancement of this highly appreciated watchmaking feature.

Abraham-Louis Breguet conceived the idea of a new type of regulator called "the Tourbillon", around 1795 after returning to Paris from a few years exile in Switzerland (where he was born in 1747) during the Reign of Terror that occurred after the onset of the French Revolution.

Portrait of Abraham-Louis Breguet, circa 1798

At that time Breguet was already considered one of the greatest horologist of his time (and he still had to create many of his greatest inventions and masterpieces!). Today we can safely define him the greatest watchmaker of all time, the one who revolutionised the technique and the design of timepieces.

An exceptional inventor with a deep understanding of physical laws, Breguet realised that the way a watch run was affected by changes in its position. Changes were particularly evident when timepieces were kept in vertical position, which happened often considering that pocket watches were kept in the waistcoat pocket most of the time. He understood that the main cause of this behaviour was gravity. While it was not possible to eliminate the gravitational forces, he thought that it was possible to compensate them by installing the regulating organ (the sprung balance) and the escapement inside a mobile carriage performing a complete rotation about its own axis once per minute.

Breguet’s tourbillon: the balance wheel (A) inside the carriage (B) which revolves with pinion (C) carrying the escapement and balance around the stationary wheel (D)

With this invention, Breguet not only improved the accuracy of pocket-chronometers, but created one of the most appreciated and sought after horological devices. An additional benefit was the enhanced lubrication due to the constant change of point of contact undergone by the balance pivots in their bearings.

On June 26, 1801 (or 7 Messidor, year IX based on the Republican calendar in force in France at the time), the French Interior Minister granted Breguet a patent which would last for a ten year period for his invention.


Extracts from the patent granted to Breguet by the French Interior Minister 



 The first tourbillon: Breguet No. 1252 "Tourbillon expérimental à échappement à force constante"

Given the complexity of the device, it took some years before the first tourbillon watch could be actually produced. After two experimental models (the watch No. 169 gifted to the son of London-based horologer John Arnold in 1809, and watch No. 282 completed in 1800 and sold much later by Breguet’s son), the first Tourbillon would not be commercialised until 1805.

The tourbillon invention was finally presented to the public at the National Exhibition of Industrial Products that was held in Paris in September and October 1806. The Report of the Jury described it as "a mechanism called tourbillon by which timepieces maintain the same accuracy, whatever the position, vertical or inclined, of the watch”.

Pages from the Report of the Jury of the National Exhibition of Industrial Products held in Paris in 1806

Between 1805 and 1823, the year of Breguet’s death, a total of 35 examples of the tourbillon watches were sold. Over the years, the tourbillon remained one of the most fascinating horological device for connoiseurs and collectors.


Breguet No. 2567 a hunter case tourbillon pocket watch with Breguet's distinctive engine-turned silvered dial, roman numerals and Breguet hands in blued steel - 1812

In order to see a significant improvement to the tourbillon invented by Abraham-Louis Breguet, we had to wait more than a century when Alfred Helwig, instructor at the German School of Watchmaking in Glashütte, designed the first flying tourbillon in 1920.

Rather than being supported by a bridge on the dial side and a bridge on the movement side, the flying tourbillon is cantilevered, i.e. is only secured to the plate on one side so offering an unobstructed view of the mechanism on the other side.

An example of Alfred Helwig's flying tourbillon - 1927

The development of a flying tourbillon is particularly challenging because a revolving carriage that is not supported at both its extremities needs a perfect balance of all axes as they relate to one another.

At that time the tourbillon was still mounted only on pocket watches or table clocks. One of the first tourbillon wristwatch movement, the Calibre 30I, was created in 1947 by Omega for use in chronometry competitions where it achieved the best results recorded by a wristwatch up to that time. Noteworthy, the tourbillon of Calibre 30I performed one revolution every 7.5 minutes.


The Omega Tourbillon Wristwatch - 1947

Omega's archive credits the French watchmaker Lip for producing a tourbillon wristwatch prototype in 1930. The timepiece was actually created by Edouard Belin of the Besancon Watchmaking School using a Lip-ebauche.

Another remarkable advancement in the history of the tourbillon was the first series-production self-winding tourbillon wristwatch produced by Audemars Piguet in 1986 thanks to the development of a truly innovative movement, the Calibre 2870.

Audemars Piguet Automatic Tourbillon Wristwatch - 1986

This tourbillon was the smallest ever produced, with a diameter of 7.2 mm and a total thickness of 2.5 mm. For the first time, the tourbillon cage was made from titanium. To reduce the overall thickness of the timepiece, the movement and the case were actually merged into a single entity.

In 2003, Thomas Prescher became the first watchmaker to offer a double axis tourbillon pocketwatch.



Thomas Prescher's pocket watch with double axis tourbillon and constant force escapement - 2003

Prescher was inspired by the work of Anthony Randall, an English watchmaker who patented a double axis tourbillon implemented in a carriage clock in 1978.

Besides the engineering challenges of creating a tourbillon rotating through two axis once per minute, Prescher also integrated a constant force escapement in order to obtain a state of poise between the two axis while addressing isochronal errors.

One year later, Prescher presented a triple axis tourbillon wristwatch as part of the Tourbillon Trilogy, an exclusive set of three tourbillon wristwatches comprising single, double, and triple axis flying tourbillons with constant force escapements.

The technological evolution of the tourbillon has not ended. Just to mention a few advancements, in the last decade we have seen the creation of double and even quadruple tourbillons, the adoption of advanced materials like silicon and the development of fusee-chain transmission systems to further improve rate regularity.

The tourbillon remains one of of the top achievements for any watchmaker and one of the most desirable features for watch collectors and enthusiasts.

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Time and Watches: The Tourbillon, history of a watchmaking feat
The Tourbillon, history of a watchmaking feat
The History of the Tourbillon. The Tourbillon, history of a watchmaking feat. On 26 June 1801, the tourbillon was patented by Abraham-Louis Breguet. He conceived the idea of a new type of regulator called "the Tourbillon", around 1795. The French Interior Minister granted Breguet a patent which would last for a ten year period for his invention. Alfred Helwig. Thomas Presher. Anthony Randall. The Tourbillon, history of a watchmaking feat.
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