Tourbillon What is it and how does it work?

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The tourbillon is one element that can add significant value to a watch, yet few people know exactly what it is or what it is used for.

In fact, these types of watches are often confused with those that show the balance wheel through a window in the dial, also known as the “open heart”.

However, the tourbillon is an infinitely more complex and expensive piece that, thanks to its hypnotic movement, can give any mechanical watch a fascinating look.

In this post, we’re going to show what exactly this microengineering work is and how it works, and give an overview of its entire history.

✚ What is a tourbillon?

The tourbillon is a mechanism found in some high-end mechanical watches whose job it is to counter the adverse effects of gravity in order to improve their precision.

It is a mechanism that compensates for the most important parts of the machine to compensate for the deviations caused by continuous movements and changes in position.

✚ How does it work?

In a mechanical watch, the movement of the balance wheel is essential as it sets the timing of each swing.Tourbillon mechanism

However, the force of gravity in the different positions means that it does not always move at the same speed, especially when the mechanism is vertical.

The tourbillon largely solves this problem by rotating it at constant speed along with other important parts such as the escape wheel, lever, and hairspring.

It could be said to be a kind of cage that rotates slowly around its axis, generally at a speed of 1 rpm, to offset the effects of gravity on the above parts.

In this way, all position errors and the time fluctuations they produce are averaged, which results in greater precision.

This video shows a tourbillon watch in action:

✚ Tourbillon VS Open Heart

It is very common to confuse tourbillon watches with the “open heart” or “open heart” type, as both show part of the operating mechanism through a window in the dial.

However, those of the “open heart” type only show the balance wheel, while in tourbillions you can also see it spinning on itself.

Above these lines, you’ll see an authentic tourbillon watch first, and then an open-hearted watch.

As you can see, they both exit a window so you can see the mechanism in motion, but only the first turns the balance wheel.

✚ The tourbillon and its history

The word tourbillon (whirlwind in Spanish) comes from France, the country where Abraham-Louis Breguet invented this intricate watch.

Pocket watch with tourbillon
Source: breguet.com

At the end of the 18th century, pocket watches were the most common watches in use and the preferred place to wear them was on the vest pocket, which resulted in them spending a lot of time upright.

In this position, gravity had a strong influence on the mechanical movements of time and affected its precision.

Breguet took care of this problem and designed the first tourbillon in 1795, following various studies linking gravity to the precision of watches.

In 1801 he was granted the patent in Paris for 10 years, although his invention would not be fully functional until 1805, as the various prototypes that he created more or less successfully during this time prove.

In fact, between 1805 and the day of his death in 1823, he created only 35 examples of tourbillon, many of which ended up in the hands of aristocrats who coveted them for their complexity and rarity.

The same prince regent of George IV. Of England acquired one of Breguet’s clocks mounted on a bronze cone at the time, and Napoleon used another in his chariot.

After the First World War, the wristwatch replaced the pocket watch and the use of the sophisticated mechanism was no longer so necessary.

In mechanical wristwatches, the movement of the wrist itself serves the purpose of the tourbillon against gravity, so it doesn’t make sense to include it from a practical or functional point of view.

However, this did not prevent Breguet’s invention from evolving and is also incorporated into luxury wristwatches as an admirable complication.

Even today, it is considered one of the most difficult mechanisms to assemble on a watch and is highly valued for its design and complexity.

So much so that many are considered authentic works of art, the prices of which can range between 2,000 and 500,000 euros, depending on the brand and the complexity of the mechanism.

✚ Tipos from tourbillon

Breguet’s design remained largely unchanged well into the 20th century. At this point, new variants of the complicated mechanism appeared on the scene. These are some of them:

➤ Steering wheel

In 1920, the German watchmaker Alfred Helwig introduced the first notable modification, a cantilever tourbillon that rests on the cage at only one end.

In this way, the tourbillon in its original design is attached to the cage with a bridge that crosses it from side to side, but on the scales only from one side.

flying tourbillon glashütte
Source: glashuette-original.com

➤ Double axis

It would be a few decades before Anthony Randall decided to take the invention another twist and improve it with a two-axis system he designed in 1977.

The device was built by Richard Good a year later and assembled as a car clock in 1980 as it was not a miniaturized device.

A two-axis tourbillon, as the name suggests, rotates the mechanism around two axes, each of which rotates one revolution per minute.

In 2003, Randall’s design inspired Thomas Prescher, a German watchmaker who managed to miniaturize it into a pocket watch and a year later into a wristwatch.

➤ Triple axle

Prescher is also credited with the first three-axis or three-axis tourbillon, a constant force mechanism that can rotate in three different planes supported on a single end.

Hence, it is also a flying tourbillon, which is extremely complex given the number of movements of the mechanism.

The design uses a system of counterweights to maintain balance when moving on all three axes. The rotation times are one minute in the first 2 and 60 minutes in the third.

Triple Eje Tourbillon from Prescher
Triple Eje from Tourbillon Prescher

➤ Double and quadruple

Also in 2004, the Greubel Forsey brand revolutionized the world of watchmaking with its 30 ° double tourbillon design, also known as the DT30.

inclined tourbillon
Greubel Forsey 30 ° double tourbillon mechanism.

A watch with two different tourbillions. The first rotates 30 degrees every minute and the second rotates every 4 minutes.

Just a year later, in 2005, they would give the design a new twist by introducing the “Quadruple Tourbillon à Différentiel” or QDT, a mechanism that used two double tourbillons independently.

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