The year 2021 marks the 220th anniversary of one of the greatest watchmaking complications of all times: the Tourbillon.
Inventor of the Tourbillon
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Breguet, inventor of the Tourbillon
Celebrating 220 years of the Tourbillon
An exquisite mechanism of unrivaled complexity, the invention lies at the heart of a genuine human adventure that, to this day, contributes extensively to the reputation of its creator Abraham-Louis Breguet and his House.
The Tourbillon, a legendary invention
Compensating for the effects of Earth’s gravity, which is detrimental to a watch movement’s accuracy, the Tourbillon is based on a brilliant principle and truly fascinating to observe in action. The balance-and-spring assembly together with the escapement are housed in a rotating carriage performing one complete turn per minute. Today Breguet watches are made in the Swiss region of Vallée de Joux, the centre of advanced mechanical horology. Its artisans, driven by the same enthusiasm that the founder brought to his art, create timepieces that suggest both a return to the brand’s origins and a vision of its future.
The Tourbillon sprang from the brilliant mind of a man who had already carved out a successful career for himself. Abraham-Louis Breguet, born in 1747 in Neuchâtel in Switzerland, was apprenticed to a watchmaker, and at the age of 15, he traveled to France to continue his apprenticeship in Versailles and Paris. In the French capital, a world metropolis even then, young Breguet obtained an academic education, most notably at Mazarin College. It provided a strong foundation in sciences, particularly mathematics and physics, which to all intents and purposes made Breguet an engineer before the time.
He set up his own business on Île de la Cité in 1775, and by the time he presented his idea of the Tourbillon and applied to the authorities for a patent, he was already looking back on a long career. His so-called Perpétuelle, or self-winding, watch enchanted first King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette and eventually the entire court at Versailles. Countless technical innovations and a talent for sleek, minimalist design made Breguet an innovator of international repute. His name became known in all the major capitals, and many started to imitate him.
Tourbillon Regulator Patent
Assuming that the idea for the Tourbillon sprouted in Breguet’s mind between 1793 and 1795 (during his time in Switzerland), its realization then took six years, from his return to Paris until the patent on June 26, 1801 was obtained. It then took another six years for sales to pick up. This suggests that Breguet had likely underestimated the difficulties of fine-tuning this new type of regulator – another result of his habitual optimism – and that the “considerable expense” and “sacrifices” that he mentioned in his letter to the Minister of the Interior did not end in 1801…
A Long Road
In other words, it took Abraham-Louis Breguet more than ten years not only to develop his extremely complex invention, but also to make it reliable. The master watchmaker mentioned his invention at every opportunity and promoted it at the French industrial fairs held in Paris in 1802, 1806 and 1819. He praised it as a mechanism, which allowed timepieces to “maintain their accuracy, irrespective of whether the position of the watch is upright or tilted.”
Convinced of the significance of the invention, which could be installed in different types of timepieces, Breguet and his staff went on to produce 40 Tourbillons between 1796 and 1829 – plus nine other pieces which were never finished and appeared in the ledgers as written-off, scrapped or lost…
A Rapid Resurgence
The House of Breguet not only preserved its founder’s pieces with great care, but it also created a selection of new Tourbillon pocket watches that were sold from the 1920s into the 1950s. Only a small number of insiders knew about this.
The revival, when it came at last, was as swift as it was unexpected. Although designed for pocket watches, which were generally worn upright, Abraham-Louis Breguet’s invention made its comeback in the mid-1980s, in the much smaller cases of wristwatches that were far less sensitive to gravity. How ironic!
Since then, the triumph of the Tourbillon has proved unstoppable, and year by year, it gains ground. Today, the main advantage of the Tourbillon no longer lies in increased precision. Instead, the enlightened amateur may delight in the beauty of a brilliant invention, in a chapter of human history and in the reassuring regularity of a revolutionary process (in every sense of the word) which, 220 years later, continues to bear witness to the human spirit.
The meaning of a word
Who but Breguet could have proposed such a project? It required a solid grasp of science as well as an optimistic streak. This specific set of circumstances resulted in a project, which its inventor named “Tourbillon.” The word is frequently misinterpreted and its astronomical meaning has long been forgotten.
According to the major dictionaries of the 19th century, among them Descartes and the Encyclopédie, the word referred either to a planetary system and to its rotation on a single axis, or to the energy that causes the rotation of the planets around the sun. This sense of the word is far from its modern meaning of “violent rotation” or “uncontrollable storm.” A man of the Enlightenment, Breguet thus chose a word that someone who observed the world before imitating it would choose. In this, he resembles the 18th century philosophers who considered watchmaking to be the creation of a microcosm. In fact, it is hard not to envision a tiny, tidily ordered constellation in this mechanism, which assembles the devices for regulation (balance spring) and transfer (escape wheel and lever) in a mobile cage that spins as constantly as any planet…