Despite everything “big watch” will tell you, mechanical watches are pointless. There, I’ve said it. That might seem odd given this is a column dedicated mainly to mechanical timepieces but there’s little to be gained from not acknowledging that fact. Your mobile phone tells you the time more accurately. So why do I care about mechanical watches?
They are so much more than something that tells the time; they are fashion, sophistication, jewellery, status. More than that, they are a celebration of the mechanical arts – one of pointlessness.
Nothing encapsulates the utter uselessness of mechanical watches better than the tourbillon function, the sine qua non of superfluous features. And I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. Briefly, a tourbillon is a rotating cage that holds the escapement to average out the effects of gravity on the movement. It was invented by Breguet hundreds of years ago, when gravity was an issue, but came back into fashion over the past decade, when high-end watchmakers were looking to justify their premium pricing. It’s pointless, as the tourbillon makes little difference to timekeeping. But tourbillons are hard to engineer – and they look great. So this week’s column is a tribute to pointlessness in all its glory.
When the trend was white hot, five or six years ago, every Tom, Dick and Harry was chancing it. Now it has died down, elite brands such as A. Lange & Söhne are back to being the purveyors of tourbillons. The company’s 1815 Tourbillon is a wonderful example of the function, which dominates the bottom half of the watch and is beautifully rendered to show the full drama of the rotating cage.
It is part of the L102.1 movement, one of the best in the business, which is hand decorated, hand assembled and has an impressive 72 hours of power reserve. Adding to the heritage look are a white enamel dial and 39.5mm platinum case. Limited to 100 pieces, the 1815 Tourbillon doesn’t come cheap: A. Lange & Söhne has hit the premium-price trifecta of limited quantities, tourbillon and brand and has priced the piece at US$197,200.
The Franck Muller Yachting Gravity Skeleton is the 1815’s polar opposite. This watch is loud and proud, with its tourbillon on full display and coloured bluish-purple just in case you didn’t see it. Franck Muller isn’t for everyone – and, yeah, it does seem incredibly popular with Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern royalty and people who became wealthy in unorthodox ways. But the brand injects a bit of wackiness into watches, and that’s a good thing.
There’s a lot going on here. The elliptical rendering of the tourbillon is massive at 21.2mm and, given the skeleton nature of the dial, it has a 3D quality. The iconic tonneau case is rose gold, which, along with the tourbillon, pushes the price up to HK$1.06 million.
Finally, we have what I consider to be the best tourbillon watch of the past few years: the Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Skeleton. I love this watch precisely because the tourbillon is an adjunct and not the centrepiece of the design, which is a masterpiece in skeletonisation and the industrial look.
Moreover, the watch is incredibly thin and, you’ve guessed it, features the world’s thinnest tourbillon, so you have the drama of the feature but it sits on your wrist in a restrained way. This watch is the apex of beautiful pointlessness and I salute it. The platinum case is sized at 40mm and the watch comes with a black alligator leather strap. It is priced at HK$973,000.