The Enigma [5/28/01]

Carlos' Journal September 17, 2002 admin


The Enigma

by Carlos Perez

May 28, 2001


Hated and loved, reviled and praised, there is perhaps nothing more polarizing within the art of high horology than the “tourbillon.” Priced out of the reach of all but a few, they are something rarely seen other than in pictures, yet they are a subject upon which every watch enthusiast will have an opinion. Once witnessed, one cannot fail to be seduced by the stately and measured dance of the tourbillon (“whirlwind”), but this does not silence the disquiet of controversy which has surrounded it from its introduction two hundred years ago. Some argue that it is just an item of conspicuous consumption — a pretty toy for those with deep pockets, others that it has no valid place outside of the dead language of pocket watches, and yet others argue that it is a serious work of the craft, and an homage to watchmaking tradition. I’ve decided to look back, to find its original raison d’tre, in hope that it can tell us something about the proper place of the tourbillon today. Our quest begins in the years shortly after the triumph of John Harrison’s H4 (circa 1759).

The 18th century was the brave new world of chronometers, when the lives of sailors literally began to depend upon the accuracy of their ship’s deck watch or marine chronometer. This premium placed upon accuracy drove the quest for performance gains, and led to the development of the pivot detent escapement in France in 1766 and the spring detent escapement in England in 1780. These detent escapements would dominate the field of nautical timekeeping for the next two centuries, in time coming to be known colloquially within watchmaking circles as “chronometer escapements.” While highly accurate, their sensitivity to physical disturbance limited their use in pocket watches to a small number of very high-grade pocket chronometers created more as examples of technical excellence than as ordinary timekeeping instruments, and were made available only to the most select clientele — and this in a time when watches were still the exclusive domain of the aristocracy.

Of course the quest for improved accuracy did not end there — this was after all a time of continual innovation and invention in horology. As a chronometer would almost always rest in the same position, the gravitational force of the Earth was a directional constant effecting the behavior of the balance wheel and spring — a problem more for those fine pocket chronometer showpieces than gimbal-mounted marine chronometers. This led our favorite watchmaking genius, Abraham-Louis Breguet to the invention of the rgulateur tourbillon in 1795 (shown above left and at top in modern versions from Breguet with lever escapements), and which he patented in 1801. The tourbillon regulator places the balance and escape wheels within a rotating carriage, which is driven by a fixed fourth wheel around which the escape wheel pinion rotates — thus equalizing (or canceling out) the gravitational effect on the escapement over a full 360 degrees. The rotational period depends upon the layout of the movement, but is typically 1, 4, or 6 minutes per full rotation. The detent escapement with tourbillon regulator, or “chronometer tourbillon,” became the basis of the most coveted type of fine chronometer pocket watches, receiving little use in marine chronometers or deck watches.

Due to the extreme difficulty of manufacturing chronometer tourbillons, it is thought that their entire production over the last two centuries numbers only in the few hundreds. This difficulty led to a simpler form of revolving escapement by Bahne Bonniksen, with his patenting of the karrusel (fr. “carrousel”) in 1892. The karrusel placed an entire English lever escapement – including a conventional balance bridge – on a small rotating platform that was driven by the third wheel pinion (as shown at right). The fourth wheel of the karrusel movement is not fixed, instead rotating within the karrusel platform (it is visible beneath the balance cock). These karrusel platforms turned at a much slower rate than tourbillon carriages, varying from 34 to 52.5 minutes per full rotation depending upon the design. Though less precise, the lever escapement invented in England and further refined by the Swiss was simpler and more robust than the chronometer escapements. With freesprung English lever escapements, karrusels from Coventry, England, tested well at the Kew Observatory trials and received some use in deck watches by the Royal Navy.

Though karrusels had no impact upon the rarefied status of chronometer tourbillons, nor upon the place which tourbillon regulators held within the increasingly important observatory trials, the turn of the 20th century definitively marked the twilight of all escapements designs other than the lever. Finely tuned Swiss lever escapement watches were now entering competitions and winning, and in the halls of high horology there came the appearance of watches with lever escapement and tourbillon regulator, or the “lever tourbillon.” Thus it was that the kinship between the marine chronometer and pocket chronometer was broken: Marine chronometers and deck watches (with the exception of torpedo-boat chronometers) continued to use the detent escapement well into the quartz age, with the pocket “chronometer” as a class setting aside the traditional chronometer escapement for the lever — making them more practical, if somewhat less noble. But with the legitimacy of the lever escapement established by trial, the lever tourbillon retained most of the esteem of the chronometer tourbillon which it replaced, as a paramount work of the craft and the pursuit of precision.

The tourbillon regulator made the jump to wristwatches starting in 1930 — naturally with the more durable lever escapement. Whereas the pocket chronometer tourbillon had been the highest civil form of the marine chronometer, lever tourbillon wristwatches became the high civil form of observatory competition watches. In 1945 for example, Patek Philippe produced a lever tourbillon wristwatch with Guillaume balance, a close kin of its 333 series of lever tourbillons which competed from 1943 to 1967 at the Geneva Observatory. And so it was until the cataclysm of 1969, when the long line of chronometer evolution was snuffed out by the quartz oscillator. Yet the romance of the tourbillon regulator is such that it was being produced again in the very first years of the mechanical revival — the ultrathin bumper automatic lever tourbillon wristwatch of Audemars Piguet was probably the first of the new wave in 1986. Since then there has been an amazing explosion of lever tourbillon wristwatches, and complicated wristwatches with tourbillon regulators. The Souverain Tourbillon by F.P. Journe shown at left is one of the new more creative and technically innovative forms that have been produced by independent watchmakers in recent years.

Of course it begs the question of what “purpose” such a device now serves. While the tourbillon regulator was probably of greatest benefit to a detent escapement in vertical position, its value to the performance of the lever escapement in varying positions was well established by the stern objectivity of observatory trials. Still, it is clear that the tourbillon regulator was never intended by its originator to be a practical and common solution for everyday timekeeping, and to criticize it because of this is I think missing the point. The tourbillon regulator exists for the same reason that Formula 1 racing cars exist: not because it is something we need, but as a demonstration of the edge of the envelope — the forward edge of human technical creativity and skill. You would not deride an F1 car because it cannot carry the groceries, and the lever tourbillon wristwatch is the civilian “sports car” to the “race car” of the now extinct observatory competition watch. We do not need sports cars, but we will always covet them — they let us get closer to that edge than anything else available, though at an admittedly steep cost of diminishing returns.

The latest and most dramatic attempt at an alternative to the tourbillon regulator is the carrousel central created by Carole Forestier in 1998. The essential concept of the carrousel central is that the entire movement rotates within the case of the watch once per hour. Since it eliminated the possibility of using a standard winding and setting crown, winding and setting of watch were accomplished by turning the bezel. As yet there is only one production carrousel central in the works, and it is not yet available to collectors. As karrusels enjoyed only a brief heyday before their extinction, the world of rotating escapements continues to belong to the one-minute tourbillon regulator, which is now receiving more diverse application than anytime in history — reaching a new pinnacle with the handful of co-axial escapement tourbillons produced by master watchmaker George Daniels. In this 21st century “high mechanical renaissance” the tourbillon regulator is now as much an object of art as a refinement of chronometrie, whose myriad forms often startle and amaze.

One of the earliest conceptually artistic applications of the tourbillon regulator is in the Tourbillon Sous Trois Points d’Or first created by Constant Girard-Perregaux in 1867 for his pocket chronometers. Its genius lies in its bold clarity and unabashed richness, lyrically merging complexity with simplicity in a horological haiku. While the three-bridge design was soon copied and produced in cheaper variations by others, it is its most ethereal and pure form, with finely shaped symmetrical solid-gold bridges, solid-gold wheel train, and chronometer tourbillon, that became a signature of the watchmaking house of Girard-Perregaux. After barely surviving the quartz dark age the manufacture once more began producing a small series of Tourbillon Sous Trois Ponts d’Or hunter pocket watches in 1982.

Adaptation of the design to wristwatches only finally occurred in 1991, in classic hand-wound form with lever tourbillon, with the movement prominently displayed through the dial (as shown above). Since then the concept of the Tourbillon Sous Trois Points d’Or has been applied in ever widening variations: hand-wound tonneau, automatic with micro-rotor, hand-wound with chronograph module, the ladies’ Petit Tourbillon Sous Trois Points d’Or; with its ultimate form, the “Opera One” with 4-gong chiming minute repeater; and the most classical, the simple “President” which most strongly reflects the sensibility of the original 19th century designs. Despite this variety only a handful of these watches trickle from Girard-Perregaux’s workshops every year — for they must be held to the standard of absolute perfection originally required by their creator over 130 years ago.

An equally visionary but very 20th century interpretation comes from the revived brand Blancpain. I have never seen nor heard of a watch with tourbillon regulator produced by the original house, so it perhaps fitting that those now produced by the new one are novel as well. Riding upon the vanguard of the mechanical watch revival, Blancpain introduced its first lever tourbillon wristwatch in 1990 — the last of their “Six Masterpieces.” Originally featured in the 34mm “Classsique” case, the version shown above in the 38mm “2100” case was produced after reacquisition of the brand by the Swatch Group. The original calibre 23 showcased here broke new ground in the architecture of it bridges, the unusual form of its “flying tourbillon,” combined with the vast fount of power of its large single mainspring barrel. There is some clever sleight-of-hand with two crown wheels which I don’t claim to understand, but which allows the 8-day power reserve to be wound with only the same number of turns of the crown required of a common 2-day movement. It is also available with modular automatic winding as their calibre 25.

The “flying” type of tourbillon regulator was invented in Saxony in the 1920s by Alfred Helwig. While tourbillon carriages are usually pivot mounted on one side and bridged on the other, or bridged on both sides, the flying tourbillon’s carriage is pivot mounted on one side with no supporting bridge — akin to a “floating” mainspring barrel. It is also produced by manufactures like IWC and Glashutte Original, and independent watchmakers like Vincent Calabrese (as shown below), and is now being offered by Progress Watch as an ebauche. That a tourbillon regulator may be applied to the escapement of any type of watch appears to be an almost holy mission at Blancpain, for beyond the simple hand-wind and automatic they have produced chronographs, split-seconds chronographs, perpetual calendars, and rattrapante perpetual calendars; all with flying tourbillon regulators, except for their Grande Complication which uses a bridged one — but we can forgive them this single faux pas. In a little over ten years Blancpain has become one of the world’s most important manufacturers of lever tourbillon wristwatches.

From its conception at the close of the 18th century, the tourbillon regulator has been a rare and exotic showpiece of technical mastery and the pursuit of precision. Cheaper and simpler rotating escapement solutions will always be less than successful with tourbillon buyers and admirers, for there can be no substitute that is as pleasing in concept or in motion. In my own mind the primary virtue of today’s simpler lever tourbillon calibres is that they receive a level of attention and finish otherwise only lavished upon the even less accessible striking watches and grand complications of the great houses, or in the scarce work of the independent masters — they are the “entry level” of haute horlogerie today. The heritage of the tourbillon regulator is the heritage of the specialized observatory chronometer of the 20th century and the limited production masterpiece of the 19th, but now past all of that in the 21st, perhaps all that remains is the dance.

Image Credits

Breguet Tourbillon and Vincent Calabrese Tourbillon Regulus by Michael Sandler

Nouvelle Lemania calibre 387 by Roland G. Murphy

Karrusel Deck Watch detail courtesy of Pieces of Time

F.P. Journe Souverain Tourbillon by Anthony Tsai

Girard-Perregaux Tourbillon Sous Trois Points d’Or by R. Choi

Blancpain 2123 from the private collection of

Copyright © Carlos A. Perez  2001

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