Is the tourbillon a complication?

In the world of haute horology, complications tend to entail hefty price tags. While it is true that there are Swiss or German made tourbillon watches that can easily set you back hundreds of thousands of dollars, the market also offers ridiculously affordable alternatives, such as Chinese-made tourbillons that only cost a few hundred dollars. Naturally, this disparity raises skepticism among enthusiasts as to whether the tourbillon is a genuine complication.

King George III’s Breguet tourbillon

In order to shed light on this question, it is necessary to first of all clarify what is meant by “complication”. The word is a piece of the traditional sales language used by the Western watch industry. A timepiece that only indicates hours, minutes and seconds is regarded as “basic" or “non-complicated”, whereas any additional functions on the movement, such as power reserve, tourbillon, day/date, moonphase, and arguably even the central seconds hand, can be regarded as complications, although some of these functions only require two or three simple additional parts.

Given this context, the tourbillon obviously counts as a complication. But is it just a sales pitch designed by the industry to justify its exorbitant asking prices? What exactly is a tourbillon, is it difficult to make, and what is its value? Let us explore these questions one by one.

1. What is a tourbillon?

Simply put, the tourbillon is an attempt to improve the accuracy of a mechanical watch.

Before the advent of quartz watches, mechanical timepieces had been the only choice for timekeeping in every field of human endeavour, including everyday social life, scientific research and military operation. Therefore, for a long time in the history of horological development, it was paramount to continuously improve the accuracy of mechanical watches.

Roughly speaking, the accuracy of a mechanical watch is affected by the following three factors: mechanical state, temperature and orientation. Through continuous calculations, mathematicians have designed better gear shapes and spring shapes to keep the movement in a stable mechanical state. Through continuous experiments, material scientists have optimized the composition of alloys to reduce the impact of temperature on the accuracy. But in the face of positional error, for some time people felt helpless as they realized that the culprit was earth’s gravity.

In a mechanical movement, energy is stored in the mainspring, and released slowly and uniformly to drive the balance wheel into a back-and-forth movement through interaction with the escapement. During the release process, the gears drive the hands to rotate and thereby display the time. Therefore, the frequency of the oscillatory motion of the balance wheel is the key to controlling the speed at which the hands move.

Left:Richard Mille RM001 tourbillon,2001
Right:AP RD#3 tourbillon,2022

But for any balance wheel, no matter how expensive its materials are and how meticulous the adjustment is, its center of mass can never perfectly coincide with its axis of oscillation. Any slight shift of centre of mass caused by different orientations of the watch makes the oscillation non-uniform, just as the range of the shower ? varies when it sprays water in different directions.

For some time, when hardworking watchmakers were presented with such a seemingly unsolvable problem, there was not much they could do except to constantly improve their adjustment skills, making the imperfect balance a little more perfect with their dexterity and endless patience.

But the master watchmaker Abraham Louis Breguet thought of a way to solve this problem from the root, which was the tourbillon.

The idea is that in order to eliminate as much as possible the influence of positional change on precision, the tourbillon packs the balance wheel and its related parts in a tiny and uniformly rotating cage. The balance wheel in the rotating cage never stays in a fixed position, so that no one position can have enough impact on precision. Given this set-up, the balance wheel will momentarily go faster or slower due to the constant change of position, but these fluctuations will gradually cancel each other out in the long run, making the watch more accurate.

2. Is the tourbillon difficult to make?

Packing the balance wheel and escapement in a single cage requires a considerable number of extra parts. Furthermore, additional energy is required for the entire cage to continuously rotate. So a watch that features a tourbillon is indeed superior in terms of production difficulty and movement design. However, we are just getting started when it comes to the complexity of a tourbillon. Having it rotate is only the first step;a greater challenge lies ahead.

MB&F LM Thunderdome tourbillon
|Source: MB&F

The most difficult part of the tourbillon is its adjustment. If we name the poising of a balance wheel at rest “static adjustment”, then the adjustment of a running movement can be called “dynamic adjustment”.

Generally speaking, a movement that has been well statically adjusted can already meet the needs of daily use. If it is well dynamically adjusted, it can basically achieve observatory-level accuracy.

The adjustment of a tourbillon consists in adjusting the balance wheel in a rotating cage in an already running movement, which is not unlike Inception, where we are dealing with a dream within a dream. This dreadful task is a marathon run with tweezers and files, and a test of the watchmaker’s intelligence and willpower.

A. Lange & Söhne Handwerkskunst tourbillon
|Source: Phillips

3. Is the tourbillon valuable?

In terms of improving accuracy, the tourbillon does indeed deliver what it promises. The most accurate mechanical pocket watch ever in the Kew Observatory competition is the Patek Philippe Tourbillon No. 198423. The utility and value of the tourbillon are self-evident.

Yet when weighing up pros and cons, it becomes clear that the price of having a tourbillon on the movement is simply too heavy. The first is the sacrifice of space. In the limited space of a movement, the more space we allocate to the mainspring which drives and rotates the tourbillon cage, the less space we have for the rest of the parts.

No. 198423 Patek Philippe tourbillon
|Source: Antiquorum

Under the same size constraints, a movement equipped with a tourbillon must use smaller gears and balance wheels, and the smaller the parts, the greater the error.

The second is the sacrifice of robustness. The more parts a movement has, the more likely it is to fail. Lastly, let us not forget the sacrifice made by the watchmaker. After all, it was a formidable and exhausting task back in the days.

These sacrifices, to a large extent, can be seen as doing more harm than good. This is why we rarely see tourbillons on marine clocks and chronometers submitted to observatory competitions, where ultimate precision was essential.

In practice, most watchmakers chose to adopt a simpler and more reliable approach, leaving precious space for a large balance wheel and a large mainspring. Such a timepiece could still run with unparalleled precision after careful regulation.

Left: Vacheron Constantin FiftySix tourbillon|Source: Vacheron Contantin
Right: Cartier Mystery tourbillon|Source:timeandwatches

Of course, all of the above has changed completely with the advent of electronic watches. Just as after the emergence of photography, painting no longer pursued resemblance to reality, the birth of electronic watches has put an end to haute horology’s pursuit of precision.

The tourbillon has in effect been rendered redundant as a precision device, and together with the entire industry of mechanical watchmaking, has entered the category of luxury goods and art. People began to seek different things, such as fascinating visuals and stylish complexities, as evidenced by subsequent creations like flying tourbillon, fast tourbillon and multi-axis tourbillon. At the same time, with the development and popularization of CNC machining equipment, tourbillons have become significantly easier to make, to the extent that cost-effectiveness has become a necessary feature for certain manufacturers.

As a device intended for the improvement of accuracy, only 600-900 tourbillons were made in the era when it was actually needed for timekeeping, with an average of less than 10 made annually; in this day and age, when watches are generally considered as jewelries, tourbillons are mass-produced at an unprecedented level. Today, you can buy one for less than $400.

Patek Philippe 5303R minute repeater tourbillon
|Source: Patek Philippe

Is the tourbillon still valuable in today’s world? I suspect that the real value lies not in its function anymore, but in the endless attempts to push the boundaries of design, the sheer mechanical ingenuity involved, and the tick-tocking, spinning soul of the watch that knows no rest.

I think it is one thing to ask whether a watch is complicated or not, but quite another to ask whether it is interesting and valuable. Those who correct you that the tourbillon is not a complication and therefore worthless are as boring as those who specifically correct your Chinese translation of a foreign brand and take pride in doing so.

In any case, I believe that after reading this article, you should have your own opinion as to whether the tourbillon is a complicated function.

By: Logan
Edited by: A, J, Leftpain2, Luka
Graphics: Rawkiid
Related Watches
Richard Mille RM001
Further Reading