Watches Everything You've Always Wanted to Know (but Never Dared to Ask) About the Tourbillon

4 min

This month, we’re exploring the tourbillon, the often misunderstood gravity-defying component of luxury watches. Get to know the tourbillon, how it works and how TAG Heuer has revolutionised it...

What’s a tourbillon?

In French, “tourbillon” means whirlwind, a word film buffs will recognise from the inimitable Jeanne Moreau’s rendition of “Le tourbillon de la vie” in Truffaut’s Jules et Jim

In watchmaking, a tourbillon is what is lovingly referred to as a “complication,” a feature that goes above and beyond the straightforward display of time. 

Invented by legendary horologist Abraham Louis Breguet around 1795, the tourbillon first appeared in pocket watches. Wristwatches had not yet come into fashion, and Breguet’s solution addressed a problem particular to the pocket watch. Unless it’s being consulted, a pocket watch remains primarily in a vertical position (in a pocket), keeping the watch’s movement in direct opposition to the forces of gravity. Its sensitive timekeeping parts, including the balance wheel and hairspring, are susceptible to that pull. The tourbillon was an ingenious design to contain the movement, cancelling out gravity’s effects on the mechanism’s ability to keep accurate time.

How does a tourbillon work?

A watch harnesses the power of motion to tell time. Breguet’s tourbillon regulates that motion by placing the entire movement inside an escapement or cage, and then setting the cage in motion. It rotates fully every 60 seconds, effectively counteracting gravity’s pull – like a planet on its own orbit.

How many parts are in a tourbillon?

The tourbillon has evolved quite a bit from its invention in the late 18th century, to its rise in popularity during the 1980’s, all the way up to today.  At TAG Heuer, in our Calibre Heuer 02T, a tourbillon is a complicated mechanism composed of 59 precise parts.

Why is a tourbillon so valuable?

A tourbillon is valuable, and often costly, because it’s incredibly complex! It is made up of many delicate parts, and its assembly takes hours and hours of detailed and steady work, performed by hand and with a set of custom tools.

As they have less of a practical purpose today (wristwatches are much less sensitive to gravity’s pull), tourbillons have become a demonstration of sheer beauty and functional complexity in luxury watches.

What’s the difference between a tourbillon and a flying tourbillon?

In contemporary watchmaking, there are many kinds of tourbillons. A normal tourbillon has a bridge that mounts it on the watch case and on the movement. A flying tourbillon suspends the whole tourbillon cage, held in place on just one side, giving it the appearance of floating. There are also gyrotourbillons, which gyrate on multiple axes, and certain luxury timepieces have multiple tourbillons.

What’s TAG Heuer got to do with it?

A tourbillon, with all its beautiful complexity, is known to increase the price tag of a luxury watch. In 2016, thanks to innovative and modern manufacturing techniques, TAG Heuer introduced the Carrera Heuer-02T, the least expensive Swiss-made (and Besançon- and COSC-certified) chronograph featuring a tourbillon. The watch’s movement beats at 28,000 vph and includes a flying tourbillon.

Wait, if we don’t wear pocket watches, why do we still have tourbillons?

While today a tourbillon serves less of a practical and more of an aesthetic purpose, it also serves as a way to elevate the mechanical beauty and complexity of a watch.