Tourbillon Watches: How They Work and What Makes Them Expensive

Apr 15, 2020
Tourbillon Watches: How They Work and What Makes Them Expensive

Often, watch collectors light up at the mention of tourbillon watches. Indeed, it is one of those watch complications which enthusiasts are willing to pay a thousand more dollars for.

And if you see a tourbillon watch operating up close, you would understand what the fuss is all about. Its spinning mechanism is definitely a pleasure to watch.

But what exactly does it do? Does the tourbillon complication have practical applications? Read on to find out what tourbillon watches are and why you should have one in your collection.

Breguet Tourbillon Pocket Watch, Tourbillon Watches

What are tourbillon watches?

Tourbillon watches are some of the most complicated timepieces available. When you look at these watches, the first thing that you will notice is the spinning mechanism. Aptly enough, “tourbillon” is a French word that means “whirlwind” or “to whirl around”.

Basically, the tourbillon is added to a watch to increase its accuracy and precision. In it, both the escapement and balance wheel are mounted in a rotating cage. In effect, this will lessen the consequences of gravity when the timepiece is in a certain position. The continuous slow rotation of the gears inside averages out positional errors.

Original Drawing of Abraham-Louis Breguet, Tourbillon Watches

A Brief History of Tourbillon Watches

The Effects of Gravity

During the 1700s, pocket watches were still the norm. With that said, a pocket watch was usually stuck in two positions. Firstly, in a vertical position when it is inside the owner’s pocket. Secondly, in a horizontal position when it is laid on a table.

Spending too much time in a certain position strains the hairspring inside the watch’s escapement. Thus, it oscillates at an irregular rate and decreases the watch’s accuracy.

With that said, they needed to keep the watch in constant motion to counter the effects of gravity. But how do they do that without going through the hassle of shaking the watch every now and then?

A Rotating Cage

With this purpose in mind, Abraham-Louis Breguet invented a cage where he could store the parts of a watch that were necessary for keeping time. Furthermore, this cage can be rotated. In effect, it prevents gravity from tugging the parts in one direction. 

While the tourbillon was invented in 1795, it received its patent during 1801. This new technology greatly improved the accuracy of watches and was considered a breakthrough. Since then, the tourbillon complication has branched into different types, which we will see in a while.

What are the different types of tourbillon watches?

1. Flying Tourbillon

The Flying Tourbillon was the first-ever major adjustment to the complication. A typical tourbillon design is mounted with a support system like a bridge or a cock on both sides. Meanwhile, a flying tourbillon is cantilevered. In other words, it is supported on only one side. 

It was designed by Alfred Helwig, an instructor at the German School of Watchmaking, in 1920.

2. Double-Axis Tourbillon

The Double-Axis Tourbillon was invented by Anthony Randall in 1977. However, the first working example was made by Richard Good a year after.

As its name suggests, this type of tourbillon turns around two axes. Both of which rotate once every minute. Furthermore, this system inspired two other inventions. Namely, the flying double-axis tourbillon in a pocket watch and a wristwatch. Both were developed by German watchmaker Thomas Prescher.

3. Double and Quadruple Tourbillon

This type contains not just one but two different tourbillons. The first one rotates once every minute at 30°. Meanwhile, the other tourbillon in another carriage rotates once every four minutes.

This type of tourbillon was introduced by Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey in 2004.

4. Gyro Tourbillon

In the same year that the Double and Quadruple Tourbillon was invented, Jaeger-LeCoultre introduced their own. They called it the Gyro Tourbillon. What’s special about this complication is that it includes a perpetual calendar and equation of time. 

5. Triple-Axis Tourbillon

The Triple-Axis Tourbillon was also invented by Thomas Prescher. And as you would have guessed from its name, these carriages rotate about three different axes at the same time.

Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Tourbillon

Do tourbillon watches have any practical use?

It’s a given that the tourbillon was invented to increase the accuracy of pocket watches. However, due to differences in construction, these benefits may not be applicable to wristwatches. In fact, the tourbillon complication will only hog the available space inside the case. Which makes it difficult for manufacturers to produce thin tourbillon watches.

Why are tourbillon watches expensive?

Now, we’ve learned that the tourbillon complication is just for show. Which brings us to the question — why is it expensive and why do people still buy it?

To answer the first question, tourbillon watches are difficult to produce. The small-scale mechanism is usually assembled with more or less 40 parts by hand. Indeed, it takes a different level of skill to produce a single tourbillon complication. The A. Lange & Söhne Tourbograph Pour le Merite, for example, takes 18 months to create just the movement.

As to why people still buy it, it all boils down to fine craftsmanship. The important thing to note about watch collectors is that a lot of them do not buy watches for the sake of practicality. They buy watches because of their pedigree and historical significance. Fortunately, tourbillon watches tick those items.

Our Recommended 15 Best Tourbillon Watches

Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Automatic, Tourbillon Watches

1. Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Automatic

Why is it good?

If you’ve been following the news, then you’ll likely recognise this record-breaking timepiece. The Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Automatic broke not one, not two, but three world records! Truly, in 2018, it held the title of world’s thinnest automatic watch, the thinnest automatic tourbillon, and the thinnest tourbillon.

This model is equipped with the new calibre BVL 288. It is an automatic flying tourbillon movement that is less than 2mm thick! Meanwhile, the overall thickness of the watch is at 3.95mm. A lot of watch enthusiasts swear that they can hardly feel the watch on the wrist.

You will also be delighted to hear about its dial. It features a skeletonised dial so you can appreciate its tourbillon in all its glory. Indeed, this timepiece is groundbreaking and deserves the number 1 spot on this list.

Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Automatic specs:

  • Case: Sandblasted titanium
  • Movement: Automatic
  • Power reserve: 55 hours
  • Dimensions: 42mm
  • Water resistance: 30m

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Tourbillon Extra-thin, Tourbillon Watches

2. Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Tourbillon Extra-thin

Why is it good?

The Royal Oak in itself is a sought-after model. But the brand took it a step further and created a special version with an added tourbillon complication. Apart from that, it also comes in an extra-thin case with a thickness of 9mm.

Upon closer inspection, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Tourbillon Extra-thin features the “Tapisserie Evolutive” dial pattern. Furthermore, there is a cut-out at the 6 o’clock position to display the tourbillon complication.

If you flip it over, the back is made with glare-proof sapphire crystal so you can admire the movement inside. The movement is called the Calibre 2924 Manufacture. To add, it has 25 jewels and runs at a frequency of 21,600vph. This classic model with the added tourbillon is a valuable item in every watch enthusiast’s repertoire.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Tourbillon Extra-thin specs:

  • Case: Titanium
  • Movement: Hand-wound
  • Power reserve: 70 hours
  • Dimensions: 41mm
  • Water resistance: 50m

Patek Philippe Grand Complications Sky Moon Tourbillon, Tourbillon Watches

3. Patek Philippe Grand Complications Sky Moon Tourbillon

Why is it good?

If you can’t get enough of watch complications, you should check out this watch. The Patek Philippe Grand Complications Sky Moon Tourbillon has exactly 12 complications! And that includes the tourbillon.

The dial is a treat to look at. Its white gold case is entirely hand-engraved with elegant volutes. Meanwhile, the black dial shows off cloisonné and champlevé enamel motifs.

At the front of the watch, you can see the perpetual calendar with retrograde date hand, hours, and minutes of the mean solar time. It also includes the day, month, leap year in apertures, and the moon phases. Meanwhile, the reverse side contains the sidereal time, sky chart, phases, and orbit of the moon.

Finally, its movement is called the R TO 27 QR SID LU CL calibre, which has a total of 55 jewels and runs at a frequency of 21,600vph. 

Patek Philippe Grand Complications Sky Moon Tourbillon specs:

  • Case: White gold
  • Movement: Hand-wound
  • Power reserve: 38-48 hours
  • Dimensions: 44mm
  • Water resistance: Not water resistant

Breguet Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat Squelette 5395, Tourbillon Watches

4. Breguet Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat Squelette 5395

Why is it good?

As mentioned above, the founder of Breguet was also the one who invented the complication. That is why this list will never be complete without a Breguet timepiece. With that said, you should check out the Breguet Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat Squelette 5395.

Along with the Bulgari Octo Finissimo, this timepiece is one of the thinnest tourbillon watches. At only 7mm thick, one would barely feel it on the wrist. Breguet was able to achieve its thickness by using the peripheral winding system.

You can admire and observe the movement through its open-worked dial. The tourbillon cage is located between the 4 and 6 o’clock positions; and the automatic winding train is visible between 9:00 and 12:00. Meanwhile, the back is made with a see-through crystal.

Breguet Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat Squelette 5395 specs:

  • Case: Rose gold or platinum
  • Movement: Automatic
  • Power reserve: 80 hours
  • Dimensions: 41mm
  • Water resistance: 30m

Hublot Classic Fusion Tourbillon Skeleton, Tourbillon Watches

5. Hublot Classic Fusion Tourbillon Skeleton

Why is it good?

The Hublot Classic Fusion Tourbillon Skeleton is an avant-garde take on tourbillon watches. It comes in a large 45mm diameter, yet it is still thin at 9mm.

Its skeleton layout allows the wearer to admire the inner workings of the watch. The HUB6310 manually-wound calibre inside runs at a frequency of 28,800vph. Additionally, it boasts a whopping juice of 115 hours. That’s more than double the average power reserve! What’s more impressive is that the movement was made in-house.

Meanwhile, its bezel is secured with the brand’s H-shaped titanium screws. Apart from that, the crystal is made with sapphire with anti-reflective treatment. This greatly improves the watch’s readability.

Hublot Classic Fusion Tourbillon Skeleton specs:

  • Case: Stainless steel
  • Movement: Hand-wound
  • Power reserve: 115 hours
  • Dimensions: 45mm
  • Water resistance: 50m

Hublot Classic Fusion Tourbillon Black Skull, Tourbillon Watches

6. Hublot Classic Fusion Tourbillon Black Skull

Why is it good?

If you liked the previous Hublot watch but want a more adventurous style, check this one out. As its name implies, the Hublot Classic Fusion Tourbillon Black Skull gives off a stealthy and dark vibe.

Upon closer inspection, the bezel of the watch is not entirely black. It has a few specks of white that give it a distressed look. The designers achieved this through a process called microblasting. But the case is not just for show. Hublot claims that the material used for this watch is durable, resistant to corrosion, and lighter than ceramic.

There’s no denying that the skull details are excellently placed. At the 6 o’clock position, you can see a 3D skull just on top of the tourbillon cage. Meanwhile, the movement’s bridges resemble bones. 

When it comes to the movement, it is equipped with the HUB6014 calibre. It is manually wound and can power the watch for 120 hours when fully wound. 

Hublot Classic Fusion Tourbillon Black Skull specs:

  • Case: Microblasted ceramised aluminium
  • Movement: Automatic
  • Power reserve: 120 hours
  • Dimensions: 45mm
  • Water resistance: 50m

IWC Portugieser Tourbillon Mystere Retrograde, Tourbillon Watches

7. IWC Portugieser Tourbillon Mystere Retrograde

Why is it good?

The IWC Portugieser Tourbillon Mystere Retrograde is a spin-off of a classic. It takes the brand’s classic design and adds a few watch complications. Such complications are the tourbillon and the retrograde date display.

On the dial, you can take a peek at the movement through the small crystal window at 12 o’clock. Meanwhile, the retrograde date display is between 6 o’clock and 9 o’clock. Lastly, there is a power reserve right beside 3 o’clock.

This watch uses the 51900 Calibre as its movement. It has a total of 368 components and can power the watch for 7 days. Additionally, it features the Pellaton pawl-winding system for maximum accuracy and precision.

IWC Portugieser Tourbillon Mystere Retrograde specs:

  • Case: Platinum
  • Movement: Automatic
  • Power reserve: 168 hours
  • Dimensions: 44.2mm
  • Water resistance: 30m

Ulysse Nardin Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel, Tourbillon Watches

8. Ulysse Nardin Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel

Why is it good?

Despite having an open-worked dial, the Ulysse Nardin Executive Tourbillon Free Wheel keeps it clean and simple. In fact, if there’s one thing you would first notice, it’s the watch’s layout. Its gold or white gears stand out against the black background, almost giving the illusion that they are floating.

Speaking of the calibre, this watch uses the UN-176 movement. It is manufactured in-house and runs at a frequency of 18,000vph. This is considered a slow beat to make the tourbillon more interesting to look at.

While there is nothing to see at the caseback, the sapphire glass of the dial extends up to the side. When light enters it, it will give the illusion that the parts are shining. Lastly, to give customers a sense of exclusivity, each watch has its own number on the side. 

Ulysse Nardin Executive Tourbillon specs:

  • Case: Rose gold or white gold
  • Movement: Hand-wound
  • Power reserve: 170 hours
  • Dimensions: 44mm
  • Water resistance: 30m

Breguet Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat 5367, Tourbillon Watches

9. Breguet Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat 5367

Why is it good?

The Breguet Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat 5367 is the most recent iteration of the brand’s tourbillon collection. Like its ancestor, this watch is as thin as 7mm, which is considered as one of the thinnest in the market.

What makes this unique from the previous Breguet watch is its dial. While the other one sports an open-worked layout, this one displays only a part of the inside. Almost the whole dial is made with an opaque cream background. However, there is a small window between 4 and 6 o’clock where you can admire the movement. 

Speaking of movement, it runs on the Calibre 581 which is self-winding and uses the peripheral winding system. Despite having 334 components, the movement itself is just 3mm in height.

Breguet Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat 5367 specs:

  • Case: Rose gold
  • Movement: Automatic
  • Power reserve: 80 hours
  • Dimensions: 41mm
  • Water resistance: 30m

Tag Heuer Carrera  Heuer 02 Tourbillon

10. Tag Heuer Carrera  Heuer 02 Tourbillon

Why is it good?

Aside from chronographs, Tag Heuer proves that it can also make excellent tourbillon watches. So, say hello to the Tag Heuer Carrera  Heuer 02 Tourbillon. The brand is proud to say that each unit undergoes over three weeks of intense testing. This is to ensure that the watch meets the high standards of the Swiss testing agency COSC.

At the 6 o’clock position, you can see the one-minute flying tourbillon cage. Meanwhile, the subdials at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock show the chronograph minutes and hours.

For its engine, it uses the Calibre HEUER02T COSC movement. It is manufactured in-house and runs at a frequency of 28,800vph. 

Tag Heuer Carrera  Heuer 02 Tourbillon specs:

  • Case: Titanium
  • Movement: Automatic
  • Power reserve: 65 hours
  • Dimensions: 45mm
  • Water resistance: 100m

Stuhrling Original Viceroy Tourbillon 296D, Tourbillon Watches

11. Stuhrling Original Viceroy Tourbillon 296D

Why is it good?

The Stuhrling Original Viceroy Tourbillon 296D is one of the cheapest tourbillon watches around. But just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean you should ignore it. Its white dial with blue accents is sure to make heads turn.

At the 6 o’clock position, you can see the two hand tourbillon movement via a sapphire window. Meanwhile, the back consists of a clear caseback which lets you admire the mechanical movement in full.

Speaking of movements, the calibre used is called the ST-93301. It runs at 28,800vph, has 18 jewels, and can power the watch for at least 40 hours when fully wound.

This watch is a great entry point for collectors who want to venture into tourbillon watches without breaking the bank.

Stuhrling Original Viceroy Tourbillon 296D specs:

  • Case: Stainless steel
  • Movement: Hand-wound
  • Power reserve: 40 hours
  • Dimensions: 42mm
  • Water resistance: 50m

Jacob & Co. Twin Turbo Furious, Tourbillon Watches

12. Jacob & Co. Twin Turbo Furious

Why is it good?

The Jacob & Co. Twin Turbo Furious is a tourbillon watch that looks like it came from the far future. Aside from its futuristic aesthetic, its technology is also a marvel. Case in point: It is a combination of a double, triple-axis sequential high-speed flying tourbillon and a minute repeater.

While the dial may be busy, you will find that it is fun to admire the gears inside. At the bottom corners, you’ll find the double, triple axis sequential high-speed tourbillon. And in between them is a power reserve indicator. In the middle, you can see a reference time differential, which is displayed by a chronograph second hand on a dial-trained pit board.

One unique feature of this watch is its winding system. In a typical watch, you wind it through the crown. In the Twin Turbo Furious’ case, you wind it by rotating a folding crank. It’s something that will remind you of the vintage film cameras that have film rewind levers.

Jacob & Co. Twin Turbo Furious specs:

  • Case: Rose gold
  • Movement: Hand-wound
  • Power reserve: 50 hours
  • Dimensions: 57mm
  • Water resistance: 30m

Blancpain Tourbillon Carrousel, Tourbillon Watches

13. Blancpain Tourbillon Carrousel

Why is it good?

The Blancpain Tourbillon Carrousel is a unique offering from a brand that specialises in diver watches. But it doesn’t mean you should ignore this model. Simply put, it is the combination of Blancpain’s Villeret collection with the addition of two rotating escapements.

To add to that, the watch has a tourbillon at 12 o’clock and a carrousel at 6 o’clock. These two regulators improve the watch’s accuracy as time goes by.

If you turn the watch over, you’ll see the Calibre 2322. It is a manually-wound movement that contains 379 components. Additionally, it can power the watch for one whole week when the watch is fully wound.

Blancpain Tourbillon Carrousel specs:

  • Case: Rose gold
  • Movement: Hand-wound
  • Power reserve: 168 hours
  • Dimensions: 44.6mm
  • Water resistance: 30m

Blancpain Tourbillon Quantième Perpétuel Chronographe Flyback à Rattrapante

14. Blancpain Tourbillon Quantième Perpétuel Chronographe Flyback à Rattrapante

Why is it good?

Yet another excellent tourbillon watch from Blancpain. The Tourbillon Quantième Perpétuel Chronographe Flyback à Rattrapante is an elegant timepiece with a lot of features.

Apart from the tourbillon, it features a perpetual calendar, split-second flyback chronograph, and a leap year indicator. All of these are displayed in a classy manner on the dial. Meanwhile, the 6 o’clock position has a clear window where you can observe the tourbillon.

Inside, it is powered by the Calibre 56F9U movement. Unlike the previous Breguet watch, this one is automatic. It has a total of 432 components and 40 jewels. It also runs at a frequency of 3Hz and can power the watch for 40 hours.

Blancpain Tourbillon Quantième Perpétuel Chronographe Flyback à Rattrapante specs:

  • Case: Red gold
  • Movement: Automatic
  • Power reserve: 40 hours
  • Dimensions: 42mm
  • Water resistance: 50m

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Tourbillon, Tourbillon Watches

15. Vacheron Constantin Overseas Tourbillon

Why is it good?

To end the list, we have the Vacheron Constantin Overseas Tourbillon. The Overseas collection is iconic. But with a tourbillon complication, it becomes a lot more appealing to watch enthusiasts.

This highly complex watch is powered by the automatic Calibre 2160 movement. Inside, it has a total of 188 parts and 30 jewels. It can also power the watch for up to 80 hours.

The Vacheron Constantin Overseas Tourbillon is ideal as an everyday watch with its casual design. Furthermore, it is a highly sought-after watch due to its quality and heritage. You can never go wrong with this timepiece.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Tourbillon specs:

  • Case: Stainless steel
  • Movement: Automatic
  • Power reserve: 80 hours
  • Dimensions: 42.5mm
  • Water resistance: 50m

Final Notes

Practically speaking, a tourbillon complication has no use in modern times. However, you cannot discount the fact that tourbillon watches have a significant place in history. They are a mark of excellent watchmaking.

 

Shopping for your next Patek Philippe watch? Check out our ultimate guide to Patek Philippe watches!

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