Moving moments: timepieces

It's an ingenious complication and collectors will do anything to get their hands on a tourbillon-driven watch

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 March, 2013, 5:05pm

The enduring fascination that mechanical watches hold for collectors is a mystery to those who are not in the inner circle. In aesthetic terms, it is something akin to collecting great works of art. In technical terms, it can be likened to an appreciation for a magnificent car.

So there is beauty and artistry, but there is also history. Several centuries of accumulated knowledge and dedication to fine craftsmanship are brought to bear on the creation of a great watch. Collectors are sensitive to these influences.

All true watch lovers aspire to include a tourbillon watch in their collection. The most famous names offer a tourbillon model with pride. All the yearning to own such a watch, all the money and time invested in manufacturing such a watch - and yet the tourbillon itself is completely unnecessary to the wristwatch.

Why the tourbillon is still made goes right to the heart of the obsession with superb watches. Why take this trouble when a quartz watch is cheaper, more accurate and doesn't require winding?

A mechanical watch, as opposed to a quartz watch that functions electronically, is a thing of beauty, simply because it is mechanical. To see the mechanism of a watch working is to see an extraordinary example of skilled microengineering, much of it still done by hand.

In vastly simplified terms, the energy source of a mechanical watch is its mainspring, which must be wound to function. Its release of tension powers the gears, which power the balance wheel so that it can oscillate. The escapement allows the wheels to move forward at a consistent pace, moving the hands on the dial.

There are hundreds of parts, all working in perfect concert and are a joy to behold. No wonder the term for the mechanism is "movement". To this basic mechanism, virtuoso watchmakers add any number of features, or complications, such as calendars, alarms or moon phases. One of the most common is automatic winding.

The only complication without usefulness is the tourbillon. But just because it is not useful does not mean it is without merit.

The original function of the tourbillon (the word means vortex or, perplexingly, whirlwind) was to offset the effect of gravity on the balance wheel, which is the timekeeper. Its oscillations must be precise for timekeeping accuracy, so gravity acting on it could cause a variation. Long predating wristwatches, the tourbillon was designed to compensate for deviations caused by a pocket watch spending most of its life in a vertical position.

Enter Abraham-Louis Breguet, watchmaker to kings, emperors, aristocracy and revolutionaries. To balance out the effects of gravity, he created a sort of cage. The balance wheel, the escape lever and escape wheel are all encompassed in this cage, which rotates as a whole within the movement. So the escapement never spends too much time in a vertical position.

Pocket watches are no longer widely used and the issue does not arise with watches kept mostly on a horizontal plane.

Making a tourbillon is a complex operation, requiring incredible skill and many man hours. So why bother? On the manufacturer's part, it is a visible demonstration of superior skill and thus a prestigious advertisement. A tourbillon will be displayed through a transparent case as a matter of pride.

The cost of making a tourbillon is high, meaning the price of a finished watch can be as high as several hundred thousand dollars. The baseline price would be US$20,000. Many collectors justify this expenditure as a speculative investment but, in truth, very few can bear to part with a tourbillon, even when the price rises.

It comes down to pride in ownership of something rare and so taxing to make. Then there is the simple pleasure of watching the movement. Collectors may pay homage to Breguet (1747-1823) at his memorial statue in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. He was responsible for many ingenious watchmaking innovations, but the tourbillon was his masterstroke. He patented it in 1801.

Many say his initial diagnosis of the effects of gravity was wrong. Such arguments are futile in reference to wristwatches, which experience little variation in the frequency of the balance wheel. notes that, from 1860 to 1980, there were only 650 tourbillons made worldwide across all brands, all of them for pocket watches. Audemars Piguet changed all that in one iconic model, the Audemars Piguet Tourbillon 1, that was launched in 1986.

During this period, the collecting of mechanical watches caught on in a big way. It was as if Audemars Piguet had opened the floodgates. For watchmakers aiming for the collectors' market, mastering the tourbillon became a sign that the brand had arrived and could take its place in the ranks of the legendary firms of watchmakers.

An Audemars Piguet Tourbillon 1 was sold at auction by Christie's in Hong Kong in 2010. The selling price was not publicised, but the estimated price before the auction was between HK$95,000 and HK$140,000. Late last year, another Christie's auction in Geneva saw a model sold for €22,360 (HK$234,300).

One writer spoke of "the affectionate act" of winding a mechanical watch. This reflects the personal identification owners have with mechanical watches and, perhaps more than any other aspect of watchmaking, the tourbillon reminds us of the human element, in its painstaking manufacture and in pride in its ownership. Today, the tourbillon is no more than a curiosity. But what a glorious curiosity.



Designers have launched some innovative pieces with unusual features

The Pershing Tourbillon Abyss by Parmigiani Fleurier is unusual in that it is a dive watch, a fact underlined by its sea blue, wave-patterned dial. It features a 30-second tourbillon at 6 o'clock visible through the caseback and is hand-wound with a one-week power reserve.

Audemars Piguet popularised the tourbillon and still produces models that are eagerly awaited. One of the latest is the Tradition Tourbillon Minute Repeater Chronograph.

The titanium case is a 47mm tonneau. It is typical of Audemars Piguet that the decorative elements are subservient to the technology. So the watch is fairly plain to highlight the tourbillon at 6 o'clock. The opaline dial is accented with rose gold Arabic numerals.

Other complications include a minute repeater and a chronograph. The caseback is transparent. This is a limited edition of 10, each priced at US$471,300.

For 2013, Cartier has launched its Ballon Bleu de Cartier tourbillon with two time counters for dual-country time, one controlled by the winding crown and the other by a button.

The jumping hours are fully synchronised but separately adjustable. The carriage of the flying tourbillon is in the traditional C shape. It is offered in limited editions of 50 pieces each for white gold and rose gold models at US$123,000 and US$115,000 respectively.

Richard Mille has launched its RM 036 Tourbillon G-Sensor Jean Todt Edition, which has its inspiration in road safety. The G-sensor is a new and patented complication that interprets the wearer's physical response in rapid deceleration and displays the number of Gs.

It is visually very exciting, with a 12 o'clock scale display showing a green safe deceleration zone to a red danger zone.

A tonneau-shaped body encases the tourbillon made of grade-5 titanium. Finishing combines polishing, shot blasting and satin brushing.

The IWC Ingenieur Constant-Force Tourbillon Ref 5900 integrates a constant-force mechanism that IWC has patented. In platinum and ceramic, the watch face reveals the tourbillon and the entire movement can be seen through the caseback.

Another complication is a double-moon display with a countdown feature to the next full moon.