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April 28, 2021

2021 – Year of the Tourbillon

The year 2021 marks the 220th anniversary of one of the greatest watchmaking achievements of all time: the Tourbillon. This invention, an exquisite mechanism of unparalleled complexity, lies at the heart of a true human adventure that to this day contributes greatly to the reputation of its creator Abraham-Louis Breguet and his House.
As an expression of their own time, technical inventions rarely remain relevant from one century to the next. One innovation replaces another, and swept along in the stream of constant progress, they invariably fade into oblivion. With a few exceptions…

Developed 220 years ago by Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823), the Tourbillon has never been as important to ‘haute horlogerie’ as it is today. Considered one of the greatest complications of all time, it continues to flourish in the house of Breguet, which cherishes it. However, the principle was also adopted by a number of other watch brands, as Breguet only patented it in 1801…. and for only 10 years! This allowed it to inspire other engineers during the 19th century, including Bahne Bonniksen who, based on Breguet’s observations, invented the carousel.

The fascination of the Breguet invention stems from its very origins: the Tourbillon is more than a mechanical work of art – it is the result of a meticulous study of physics, a human adventure and an industrial saga in itself. In 2021, the House of Breguet intends to commemorate the ingenuity of its founder and the adventure of the Tourbillon through various events and the celebration of a new model on 26 June. On this day in 1801 – “7 Messidor of the year IX” as it was called in France just after the Revolution – the patent was obtained.

The origins of the Tourbillon

One man

The Tourbillon was born from the brilliant mind of a man who had already built a successful career for himself. Abraham-Louis Breguet, born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland in 1747, was apprenticed to a watchmaker and travelled to France at the age of 15 to continue his apprenticeship in Versailles and Paris. In the French capital, then already a world metropolis, the young Breguet received an academic education, more specifically at Mazarin College, which provided him with a solid foundation in the sciences, especially mathematics and physics. Breguet thus became an engineer ‘avant la lettre’ in every respect. In 1775 he started his own business on the Île de la Cité, and by the time he presented his idea for the Tourbillon and applied for a patent from the authorities, he could already look 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 of Versailles. Numerous technical innovations and a talent for sleek, minimalist design made Breguet an innovator of international renown. His name became known in all the major capitals, and many began to imitate him even then.

The search for precision

In 1793 Breguet was forced to flee the excesses of the French Revolution and seek refuge in his native country. He lived in Switzerland for two years, first in Geneva, then in Neuchâtel and finally in Le Locle. This would prove to be a fruitful sabbatical, a period of intense intellectual work and exchanges with the Swiss watchmakers of the Jura, from Geneva to Neuchâtel. On his return to France in the spring of 1795, his new findings gave a spectacular new impetus to his career…

In the five years that followed Breguet’s return to Paris, the house presented new products to a clientele that had long since become international and cosmopolitan. Among these novelties were the tactile watch (which allows the time to be read by touch), the Sympathique clock (which resets and synchronises watches that are placed on top of it), the watch ‘à souscription’ (breathtaking in its minimalism), a new escapement with constant force, and finally a new mechanism called “Tourbillon regulator”.

Defying the laws of physics

Through study and observation, Breguet had perfected his understanding of the factors that could compromise the precision of a timepiece, especially those affecting the escapement. He was undoubtedly the only watchmaker of his time who, through first-hand experience, had absorbed and summarised the achievements of the then three most important contemporary watchmaking nations: Switzerland, France and also England, which he visited on several occasions and where he had spent time with John Arnold in particular. Breguet realised that he would not be able to solve all the problems associated with the expansion of metals and the stability of oils on his own, and therefore began to work around these problems. He “compensated” for the effects of the laws of physics that affect the inner workings of a watch and thus its regularity. Since Breguet could not change the law of gravity, he chose to “tame” its effects.

The meaning of a word

Who else but Breguet could have proposed such a project? It required a thorough knowledge of science and also a spirit of optimism. Together, they resulted in a project that the inventor called “Tourbillon”. The word is often misinterpreted and its astronomical meaning has long been forgotten. According to the great dictionaries of the 19th century, including Descartes and the Encyclopédie, the word referred either to a planetary system and its rotation around a single axis, or to the energy that drives the rotation of the planets around the sun. This meaning of the word is far removed from its modern meaning of “violent rotation” or “uncontrollable storm”. As a man of the Enlightenment, Breguet thus chose a word that suited someone who observed the world before imitating it. In doing so, he also aligned himself with the vision of the 18th century philosophers who regarded horology as the creation of a microcosm.

Indeed, it is difficult not to see a small, orderly constellation in this mechanism that brings together the regulating (balance spring) and transmitting elements (escape wheel and lever) in a mobile cage that rotates as constantly as a planet…

Letter to the Minister and file

In 1801, France was (already) ruled by powerful, bureaucratic authorities. In order to obtain his patent, Breguet had to wade through the obstacles of the application file. It stipulated, among other things, that the documents had to include an illustrative watercolour plate and a letter to the Minister of the Interior.

Citoyen’ Minister

I have the honour to present to you a thesis describing a new invention for use with timekeeping devices. I call this device the Tourbillon Regulator.

By means of this invention I have successfully compensated for the anomalies resulting from the different positions of the centres of gravity caused by the movement of the regulator. I have also succeeded in distributing the friction over all areas of the circumference of the pivots of this regulator and the holes in which these pivots move. This has been done in such a way that the lubrication of all hinged parts remains constant despite the thickening of the oils. Finally, I have eliminated many other errors that detract from the precision of the movement.

It is after mature consideration of all these advantages, of the advanced means of manufacture at my disposal, and of the considerable expense which I have incurred in acquiring these means, that I have decided to claim the right to determine the date of invention, and thus to secure remuneration for my sacrifice

A long road

Assuming that the idea for the Tourbillon originated with Breguet between 1793 and 1795 (during his stay in Switzerland), it took him six years to realise it, from his return to Paris to obtaining the patent on 26 June 1801. It then took another six years for sales to take off. This suggests that Breguet probably underestimated the difficulties of fine-tuning this new type of regulator – another result of his habit of optimism – and that the “considerable cost” and “sacrifices” he mentioned in his letter to the Minister of the Interior did not end in 1801…

In other words, Abraham-Louis Breguet needed more than a decade to not only develop his highly complex invention, but to make it reliable. The master watchmaker mentioned his invention at every opportunity and advertised it at the French industrial fairs held in Paris in 1802, 1806 and 1819. He praised it as a mechanism that enabled timepieces “to maintain their accuracy whether they were upright or inclined”.

Convinced of the importance of the invention, which could be installed in various types of timepieces, Breguet and his collaborators produced 40 Tourbillons between 1796 and 1829 – plus nine other pieces that were never completed and were listed in the books as written off, discarded or lost…

Famous customers and applications

Thorough research of the available archive material has made it possible to draw up a precise list, outlining the history of each of these pieces. There are 35 watches, more than half of which have a cage that rotates once every four or six minutes, while the patent describes a cage that rotates every minute. There are also five other unique pieces: a Sympathique clock and an ensemble pendule-watch, a large-scale model for demonstration purposes, a marine chronometer and a travel clock…

Among the customers of Breguet were, not surprisingly, kings (George III and George IV of England, Ferdinand VII of Spain), Russian aristocrats (Princes Yermoloff, Gagarin, Repnin, Demidoff and others) as well as prominent European personalities from Poland (Count Potocki), Prussia (Prince Hardenberg), Italy (Count d’Archinto, G. B. de Sommariva), Hungary (Baron Podmaniczky) and Portugal (Chevalier de Brito).

Only recently has it become generally known that a quarter of these 40 Tourbillons were probably used for naval purposes. In other words, they were bought by shipowners or sailors and used for navigation at sea and for calculating longitude. Explorers in Africa also used the watch for the same purpose. Thomas Brisbane reached Australia with his specimen. Some watches were used for half a century on the world ocean. Several pieces even belonged to prominent scientists.

It is clear, and in accordance with Breguet’s own classification, that the Tourbillon fell into the category of watches for scientific use rather than civilian use. In any case, the buyers understood and benefited from the greater precision the mechanism offered.

A complex success

Equipped with a gold or silver case, these Tourbillons are works of art whose aesthetics correspond to their technological ingenuity. Although they were considered purely scientific objects, they were given a refined finish. The dials of the Tourbillons are among the finest in the history of the House. Perfect legibility – a hallmark of every Breguet watch – and dials in gold, silver or enamel, to which functions could be added: running seconds, seconds on demand, power reserve, sometimes even a thermometer… no two pieces were alike. The Tourbillon mechanism could be adapted to different types of escapements and watches.

However, production was very slow. In 1802, after obtaining the patent, construction of six Tourbillon timepieces began. The manufacture of each of these pieces would take between five and ten years. In 1809, taking advantage of his booming business and hoping that the opening of his branch in St. Petersburg would also open up the Russian market for him, Breguet began the production of 15 new Tourbillons, half of which were not completed until after 1814. The marine Tourbillon chronometer would remain unique, as would the travel clock, the last Tourbillon of the original series. The making of these pieces was difficult, the time required for fine-tuning long, and the skilled labour capable of making them scarce.

Although the Breguet adepts were particularly impressed with the Tourbillon, it did not offer the maker a reasonable economic return for his efforts. The real quid pro quo was different, more in line with his lifelong quest to improve the operation of timepieces, which eventually led him to… simpler solutions!

The Tourbillon, the shooting star in the sky of horology, the brilliant idea born of Enlightenment thinking, faded – but never completely disappeared. It has not had its last word.

A venerable and inspiring heritage

A precious testament to a fruitful past, Tourbillons from the time of their inventor continue to fascinate collectors, historians and key players in the watchmaking world, from George IV of England to Sir David Salomons and from George Daniels to Nicolas G. Hayek. Twelve pieces are kept in museums: three belong to the collections of the Breguet Museum, five are kept in the British Museum and other museums in England. The others can be found in Italy, Jerusalem and New York. Another fifteen are in the hands of private collectors. In recent years, two pieces have also been stolen at auctions. In total, almost 30 of the 40 original pieces have been preserved, a proportion that speaks volumes about the fascination they exert.

A rapid revival

The house of Breguet not only preserved the pieces of its founder with great care, but 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 finally came, was as quick 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 much smaller wristwatch cases that were also much less sensitive to gravity. How ironic! Since then, the triumph of the Tourbillon has been unstoppable, gaining ground year after year. Today, the Tourbillon’s main advantage does not lie in its increased precision. Instead, the enlightened amateur can enjoy the beauty of a brilliant invention, a chapter of human history, and the reassuring regularity of a revolutionary process (in all senses of the word) that, 220 years later, still speaks to the human spirit.


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