A tourbillon means different things to different people. To the horological novice, it’s a pretty spinning thing. To the casual appreciator, it’s a pretty expensive thing. To the knowledgeable collector, it is a beautiful demonstration of watchmaking artistry. But for Breguet, the brand whose very founder was the inventor of this captivating complication, it represents a history of ingenuity and a promise to keep creating some of the finest examples in the world.
The modern tourbillon hasn’t deviated much from the original in terms of intention and design. When Abraham-Louis Breguet finalised his invention in 1795, it was to protect the escapement and balance wheel — watch parts that were crucial to timekeeping and also highly sensitive to external disturbances — from the prolonged effects of gravity, since pocket watches were often in a stationary, vertical position.
The tourbillon fixed this by having the escapement and balance wheel mounted inside a rotating cage, where the constant movement would help average out any positional errors and thus guarantee greater accuracy.
But since the introduction of wristwatches, the tourbillon hasn’t really needed to solve anything other than a lack of spectacle. On that front, the brand he left behind has not failed. Year after year, the tourbillons that leave Breguet’s modern workshops are made to the highest of industry standards, and recent releases have shown just how far the 200-year-old complication has come.
One of the greatest challenges of constructing a tourbillon is power. The mainspring needs to deliver enough of it to drive both the watch’s movement and the rotating tourbillon cage, and it has to do so with enough regularity that accuracy won’t be affected. As you can imagine, such considerations often result in chunky constructions, but Breguet is among the handful of companies that has mastered the art of the ultra-thin tourbillon.
The Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat was first introduced in 2013 and has enjoyed a number of beautiful renditions in the following years. Measuring 41mm wide and just 7.45mm high, the watch is impressively slim. The calibre 581 is 3mm thick, and boasts such 21st-century innovations like a peripheral rotor, silicon escapement and balance spring, a thinner and longer barrel, and a lightweight titanium tourbillon carriage for added efficiency.
The 2020 model is a boutique exclusive that is distinguished by its platinum case and dark blue grand feu enamel dial. This rich, glossy colour is the result of a tedious process involving layers of enamel being baked repeatedly at temperatures exceeding 800 degrees until the perfect, impurity-free shade is achieved. If you look very closely, you will notice a secret signature above the tourbillon, a feature Breguet first used in the 19th century to distinguish his watches from fakes.
Secret signatures are more of a charming tribute than a reliable counterfeit detector these days. Besides, Breguet also has tourbillons that would be far too difficult to try and copy in the first place. Take the Classique Double Tourbillon, for example. This 15-year-old model is still a masterpiece by today’s standards, boasting two 60-second tourbillons — each with its own mainspring — that are connected by a central differential.
These mainsprings also give power to the plate on which the tourbillons are mounted, allowing it to make a full rotation once every 12 hours. In this way, the coloured part of the extra long tourbillon bridge also acts as the watch’s hour hand. But the most dramatic version of this remarkable watch is also its newest: the Ref. 5345 Quai de l’Horloge. The double tourbillon movement is skeletonised to a breathtaking degree with barely a component left undecorated. Turn the watch over to admire the hand-engraved depiction of an 18th-century print of Breguet’s workshop in Paris.
Tourbillons often star alongside other advanced complications, and putting them all together is the mark of a true high horology house. While Breguet doesn’t lack in that department, the Marine Tourbillon Equation Marchante is particularly notable for its unusual combination of fancy extras: in addition to a tourbillon, it houses a perpetual calendar and a running equation of time.
The equation of time is an astronomical complication that tells you how much the standard time we are reading has deviated from true solar time (which is the time displayed by the position of the sun). While the few watches out there that bother to indicate such an obscure piece of information usually do so by showing us how many minutes we have to add or subtract on a scale, Breguet’s watch simply shows you the solar time at a glance via a dedicated sun-tipped minutes hand. Factor in easy-to-read apertures for the day of the week and the month, as well as retrograde date, and you have complexity and legibility in one lavishly finished timepiece.
Thanks to its founder, Breguet as a watchmaking brand today sees itself as the original steward of the tourbillon, and if its latest timepieces are anything to go by, we can expect the upcoming releases to be more reminders of why the brand is synonymous with this most mesmeric of complications.