Tourbillon – Fact & Fiction

I.  Introduction:
Who Invented the Tourbillon, Why, When & Where ?

The Tourbillon is a device used in watches & clocks to counteract the effects of gravity on the accuracy of watches. The word “tourbillon” means ‘whirlwind’ which describes the manner in which the balance wheel and escapement are rotated within the watch. The balance wheel and escapement are housed in a device within the watch movement, usually a cage, that rotates 360degrees, usually every 60 seconds, and rotating them thus, at least in theory, mitigates the effects of gravity.

The tourbillon is said to have been recorded in or about 1795 in association with Abraham-Louis Breuget, the great French watch engineer and designer who patented the idea in 1801. However, it should be noted that Breguet himself credited the invention to his close friend and fellow watch maker John Arnold. John Arnold was at least as great and possibly an even greater watch maker than Breguet.

John Arnold and Breguet became acquainted, it seems in the 1780s. It’s said that Arnold was so impressed by Breguet that he apprenticed his son, John Roger Arnold to Breguet offered Breguet free use of many of his (Arnold’s) inventions, including for example the now famous “Breguet” style engine turning which Arnold first used in the 1770s. Among the inventions Arnold seems to have given Breguet was the Toubillon. Breguet in turn apprenticed his son to John Arnold.

In 1808 Breguet gave John Roger Arnold a very special Tourbillon, now at the British Museum. This watch, signed on the back plate ‘John Arnold London Invt et Fecit No 11’ and known as Arnold no. 11, was made in or about 1774. It is a John Arnold chronometer, into which Breguet incorporated his first tourbillon. Breguet’s dedication to John Roger Arnold reads:

According to Breguet company records, quoted in the British Museum description of the watch:
The watch was re-engineered between January 1808 and May 1809 to Breguet’s design by watch-master’s employed by Breguet and was given to John Roger Arnold who received it on 30 August, 1809. Breguet spent Francs 336 to buy the Arnold watch movement and a further Francs 1,021 on refinements to the movement, including making and installing the tourbillon, and making the case. Another Breguet watch, no. 282, also made in 1808, is also inscribed as Breguet’s first tourbillon

This fraternal cooperation between three of the greatest watch makers the world has known, Breguet in France and the Arnolds in England, occurred against the back-drop of the Napoleonic Wars when Britain and France were engaged in a bitter and hard fought world-wide war.

All watch movements are affected to a greater or lesser extent by gravity.  The least effect is in solid state movements, such as electronic digital watches, and the greatest effect is in mechanical movements, such as wind up or automatic movements. Arnold and Breguet devised and perfected the tourbillon to ensure greater accuracy in mechanical watch movements by counteracting gravity.

In Arnold and Breuget’s day all watches and clocks, except sundials, were mechanical.  With very few exceptions (there were a few wrist watches but these were very rare) watches were pocket watches which stayed in one position most of the time.  Imagine a pocket watch kept tucked upright in a man’s vest pocket or a lady’s handbag, the only time it changes position is when it’s taken out by the owner to check the time.

The effect of gravity on a watch or clock kept in one position all the time, like a pocket watch, is particularly noticeable on the escapement, especially the balance which rocks back and forth. This can lead to inaccuracies.  Arnold and Breuget’s solution was the tourbillon.

Today, tourbillon movements are mostly found in wrist watches, which is pure vanity because most people keep their hands in near constant motion thereby providing the changes in position required to offset the effects of gravity on the watch movement. In other words the human wrist acts as a kind of tourbillon as far as wrist watches are concerned.

In a tourbillon movement, usually just the balance wheel and escapement is rotated.  Typically the tourbillon is incorporated as a design feature of the watch or clock, mostly at the 6 O’Clock position where this delightful piece of minature engineering can be seen pursuing its never ending race around and around.  Occasionally, the entire movement is rotated, as in the mid-19th Century US made “poor man’s tourbillon” a pocket watch in which the entire movement rotated through 360 degrees within its case.

II.  Who Makes Tourbillons ?

Historically and also today tourbillon movements are among the most complex, expensive and exclusive watch movements available.  They are typically associated with the most expensive offerings of the most expensive and exclusive watch manufacturers.

However, there has been a quiet revolution in the manufacture of tourbillons.  China has entered the market and a number of Chinese watch manufacturers are manufacturing tourbillons at affordable prices.  Some of these are offered on e-bay, some are offered as bona fide Chinese tourbillons; others are mutton dressed up as lamb and sold as German or Swiss Made, or even occasionally as knock offs of famous brands.  Buyer beware !

Chinese made tourbillons can often be identified because of their use of a solid rhodium plated or polished steel metal bird shaped frame for the tourbillon.  If you see such a shape in a watch being sold as a famous name brand, beware it almost certainly is not original !  Well so I thought until today (5 July 2007) today I saw a diamond enhanced white gold wrist watch by a very well known Swiss brand founded in the early 18th Century and guess what ?  It uses at the 12 o’clock position what looks to my eye like a PTS Resources Chinese made tourbillon.  If so the venerable Swiss brand’s profit margin must be phenomenal.  Forgive me for not mentioning the brand’s name.

Watch out also for fake tourbillons, these are not tourbillons at all but watches with an exposed balance wheel mounted under a tourbillon style cross bar and sometimes hidden beneath a cage which rotates 360 degrees while the balance wheel beneath it remains in the same position as it rocks back and forth.  Some unscrupulious or ignorant sellers sell these as tourbillons, they are not.  Buyer beware !

Some Chinese made tourbillons are of a very high standard, two spring to mind, Seagull and Memorigin. Memorigin is a Hong Kong based watch company dedicated exclusively to the manufacture of tourbillons. I was privileged to observe their highly skilled lady tourbillon master (should that be “mistress” seeing as she’s a lady?) assemble a complete tourbillon movement in 45 minutes, which when placed on a high-end timing machine proved to be accurate to +/- about 1second per day.

By contrast a famed Swiss brand states that is takes their watch master 6 months to assemble a tourbillon. This brand has a number of boutiques in Hong Kong and at any one of them one can see several centuries or more of their tourbillon production, at least if it really does take their watch master 6 months to make one.

III.  Concluding comments and price guide

Today if someone wants a super accurate watch s/he will buy a 99 cent electronic digital watch.  It’s likely to be ugly but it will tell you the time, accurately.

We don’t buy mechanical watches because they are accurate.  We buy them for all sorts of reasons, maybe as a status symbol, maybe because we like the mechanism and the intricacy of engineering.

Apparently 75% of Swiss Tourbillons are made by one manufacturer while some three or four Chinese manufacturers, PTS Resources, Beijing Watch Co, SeaGull and Innovate dominate the Chinese made tourbillon market.  The finest Swiss made tourbillons are streets ahead of Chinese made tourbillons but don’t knock the Chinese product, some of them are well made and unlike their Swiss cousins, Chinese tourbillons are affordable, sometimes just 1% or less of the price of a Swiss tourbillon.

Here’s a little history of Chinese made tourbillons which I’ve learnt from Chinese tourbillon manufacturers and by rummaging around in Hong Kong’s flea markets:  The first Chinese made tourbillons were apparently mantle clocks made in the 1950s.  They are glass cased clocks, vaguely reminiscent in overall design of Jaeger LeCoultre’s Atmos clocks, with a brass framed skeleton jewelled movement, the tourbillon frame was large and made of aluminum.

Beijing Watch Co. and Mr Kiu Tai Yu of Hong Kong’s World Wide House both claim the distinction of being the first to make tourbillons in China.  Indeed Mr Kiu claims to be the first in Asia. Though I have seen Asian made tourbillon pocket watches from the late 19th century….

I know Mr Kiu and for watch enthusiasts visiting Hong Kong, I thoroughly recommend a visit to his little store on the 3rd floor of World Wide House.  His tourbillons have won praise from Swiss master craftsmen and prizes at the Basel Fair, the premier international watch fair.  Mr Kiu’s tourbillons are said to be in the same category as the top Swiss made pieces.

Beijing Watch Co, at the 2006 Hong Kong watch & Clock Fair, showed a piece the like of which I’ve never seen before and the purpose of which I cannot fathom, unless it be conspicuous consumption, a double tourbillon, two tourbillons mounted side by side, one at 6 O’Clock and the other at 9 O’Clock.  Their tourbillons are finely chased and engraved by hand, often in rose gold.  They feature a tourbillon frame in rose gold shaped like a bird with curved wings. This double tourbillon feature has caught on and some Swiss companies now offer this too.

I understand that some of the master craftsmen for at least some Chinese tourbillon manufacturers come from Russia, I don’t know whether or not this is true but it opens up some intriguing thoughts.

I have seen some beautifully engineered Chinese made tourbillons using the classic Breuget style frame or cage, these seemed to be finely made and elegant.  Many of the components used in Chines made tourbillons come from Switzerland.  At least two German companies are selling Chinese made tourbillons under their brand names and I for one will not be surprised if European tourbillon manufacturers do not soon outsource part or all of their ebauche (movement) assembly to China.

Personally I love the complexity and engineering genius in a fine mechanical watch.  I can’t afford a top of the line Swiss tourbillon and even if I could, I would not buy one.  But at a few hundred US dollars, a sterling silver cased, saphire crystal lensed Chinese made tourbillon is affordable to many and if you like fine mechanical wrist watches, I thoroughly recommend them !

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