The magical mystery of a tourbillon wristwatch

If such a thing existed, a game of watch Top Trumps would have a number of horological functions vying for best-card-in-the-pack status. But because of its spellbinding romance, you’d struggle to trump the tourbillon. For collectors of prestige watches, it’s a complication that’s in a league of its own.

A tourbillon is a device that counters the negative effects of gravity on a watch’s movement by housing the escapement – the oscillating mechanism that regulates power from the mainspring into intervals of time – in a constantly rotating cage. The name translated means “whirlwind”, and you need to see one in the metal to fully experience its hypnotic draw.

You see, a tourbillon lives and breathes in a way no other mechanism does, because it’s always moving, whirling away like a tiny vortex. Most houses that make a tourbillon cut an opening in the dial so you can see the entire assembly making a complete 360-degree rotation every minute. To look at, it’s pure watchmaking magic.

Not surprisingly, tourbillons are incredibly complex, fiddly, time-consuming things to manufacture, which means they can add on as much as £50,000 to the price of a prestige watch. They’re made up of 70-80 individual parts, yet weigh less than half a gram.

But what’s particularly extraordinary about the tourbillon is that it’s still made at all. It was originally patented by Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1801. Given that the tourbillon was designed for use in pocket watches not wristwatches ­– generally carried upright, hence the downward gravitational drag that would upset the consistency of the escapement’s oscillations, and therefore its accuracy – it really should be redundant by now. But it’s not.

Why? “A tourbillon has status,” says Jerome Lambert, CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre. “It reflects the wearer’s quest for sophistication.”

Wilhelm Schmid, CEO of A. Lange & Söhne, agrees. “It’s fair to say that on the wrist the tourbillon can leverage its gravity compensating effect only to a limited degree. But this doesn’t lessen the allure of its mechanism.”

It may only be marginal, but because of their anti-gravitational design, tourbillons are more accurate than regular mechanical watches. Patek Philippe says its tourbillons are precise to -2/+1 seconds a day – considerably better than most watches.

Richard Mille, whose bullet-proof tourbillon watches are worn by Rafael Nadal on a tennis court and Felipe Massa at the wheel of an F1 car, gives a helpful explanation of the difference. “Many people are unaware that watches have the worst chronometric results when lying on their side, like when you take your watch off at night,” he says. “In this position, a normal watch will gain several seconds in a single night. For a tourbillon there will be no effect at all. This means that over days and weeks, a tourbillon will be far superior in accuracy to any regular escapement, however well designed.”

More than anything, a tourbillon is a horological swipe card into an exclusive club – owning one shows you really know your watches. Now sit back and gaze into the whirlwind...

A. Lange & Sohne: Richard Lange
Tourbillon “Pour le Merite”
The dial marking the hours on this regulateur piece has a retracting section between 8 and 10 o’clock, which pivots in and out every six hours, revealing the tourbillon mechanism. Its “fusée-and-chain” transmission, a tiny motorbike-like chain made of more than 700 parts, helps deliver power with consistent torque.

£130,500 (in pink gold)