If there’s one element in all of watchmaking that encapsulates the drama, science and history of watchmaking, it must surely be the tourbillon. The vision of one man, Abraham-Louis Breguet, that cage constantly whirling free of gravity’s grip is both a work of science and art.
At the heart of the tourbillon’s genesis was a problem to be solved. The escapement, that delicate regulating organ that was the beating heart of a timepiece, was, like everything, sensitive to the world around it. Lubricating oils degraded over time. Metals contracted or expanded — and eventually wore out. Dust and moisture played havoc with accuracy. And these are just the enemies the watchmaker can see; equally pernicious are the invisible enemies of temperature and gravity. In his attempt to compensate for these effects, Breguet invented a self-contained and neatly ordered constant force escapement. The balance wheel and escapement were mounted within a rotating cage. Breguet’s invention was finally patented in 1801, and between 1796 and 1829, some 40 tourbillons were produced. Today, 220 years later, nearly 30 of those originals have survived the ravages of time, including one with an Australian link.
The First Tourbillon in Australia
For those thinking that the early history of the tourbillon was a Euro-centric affair, you’d be wrong, as Breguet no. 2574 proves. This handsome, regulator-style pocket watch was sold in 1816 to Thomas Brisbane, a Scottish soldier in the British Army. He achieved the rank of Major General in 1813, and shortly after was appointed as Governor of New South Wales, eventually having a new settlement on Moreton Bay (and now capital city of Queensland) named after him. In parallel to his military and political career, Brisbane was a keen scientist and astronomer. Indeed, he built the first properly equipped Australian observatory in Parramatta and a further two in Scotland. He was a significant scientific patron in both Australia and Scotland. This is where Breguet no. 2574 comes in.
When this watch was made, it was a cutting-edge scientific instrument; the regulator dial layout allowed for utmost precision in reading the time. The large six-minute tourbillon beat at an unusually high 21,600 vibrations per hour. In his book, Breguet, Watchmakers Since 1775, Mr Emmanuel Breguet notes in the context of Breguet’s works being shown in an exhibition of 1819, “The jury’s report laid particular emphasis on the extraordinary regularity of Breguet’s marine watches which, even when subjected to the roughest conditions, varied by only one minute in six months. It also cited the example of the pocket chronometer belonging to the English general Thomas Brisbane, which over a period of no less than 16 months lost a mere second and a half.”
That is some phenomenal accuracy for the early 19th century and shows the very real benefits of a tourbillon, only years after Breguet patented his invention in 1801. It’s quite incredible to think of this watch as what was very likely the first tourbillon in Australia, which was only just becoming an autonomous colonial settlement, decades before the discovery of gold and the subsequent onrush of wealth and prosperity.
This historically significant Breguet was auctioned online by Sotheby’s for CHF 560,000, a good sight more than the 2,000 francs Thomas Brisbane paid for it more than 200 years ago.
The Tourbillon Today
Australia and the world have changed vastly over the years. Breguet, however, remains the master of the tourbillon — the complication remains an important part in the maison’s assortment — even though the original impetus for unimpeachable accuracy is less critical than it once was.
In the Breguet Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat 5367, the off-centre tourbillon takes centre stage in this ultimate vision of Breguet’s prestigious place in the pantheon of watches. The platinum case with finely fluted case middle, pure grand feu enamel dial and heat-blued Breguet hands for white dial (and silver-coloured hands for the dark coloured dial variation) — everything is straight out of Abraham-Louis’ own playbook.
The exceptionally thin profile, thanks to the peripheral rotor, adds to the overall demeanour of restrained elegance, while the tourbillon itself shows just how far the technology has come over the centuries. The escape wheel itself is silicon, and the cage is titanium. The rear of the tourbillon bridge is engraved with “Brevet Du 7 Messidor An 9”, a somewhat cryptic inscription until you remember that, when Breguet’s patent for the tourbillon was granted, the calendar in use was the complex and short-lived Republican Calendar. The 7th of Messidor, Year 9, is, of course, June 26th, 1801.
Of the original batch of 40 tourbillons produced by Breguet, nearly a quarter of them — including Thomas Brisbane’s — were used for naval navigation and timekeeping. While longitude isn’t likely to be a pressing concern for someone owning a tourbillon today, the maritime link lives on in Breguet.
The Marine Tourbillon Équation Marchante 5887 is a fabulously complicated watch, and the tourbillon is just the start of it. Sitting on top of the tourbillon cage is a distinctively shaped cam, which provides input for the running equation of time complication — another complication with strong historical links to the golden age of sail. Of course, a far more literal representation of Breguet’s proud naval heritage is the wavelike motif, hand-engraved on a rose engine.
Movement: Self-winding calibre 581; 80-hour power reserve
Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds, tourbillon
Case: 41mm; platinum; water resistant to 30m
Strap: Blue alligator leather with platinum triple folding clasp
Price: USD 161,800/CHF 158,000
Movement: Self-winding calibre 581DPE; 80-hour power reserve
Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds, tourbillon, perpetual calendar with retrograde date and equation of time
Case: 43.9mm; 18K rose gold; water resistant to 100m
Strap: Brown alligator leather with rose gold triple folding clasp
Price: USD 215,000/CHF 210,000