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Watch Complications: The Tourbillon

Although not technically a complication, the tourbillon is certainly worthy of inclusion under the genre. It is a movement which places the escapement and the balance wheel of a watch inside a rotating cage. The word tourbillon refers to the vortex created by whirlwinds or whirlpools, an image evoked by the movement of the rotating cage. Such a design is intended to negate the effects of gravity when the timepiece (and therefore the escapement) remains too long in the vertical position. In this article we take a brief look at the history and design of the tourbillon.


The tourbillon was invented towards the end of the eighteenth century and was patented in 1801 by its French-Swiss watchmaker developer, Abraham-Louis Breguet. It was designed for use in pocket watches which were left hanging in a vertical position for most of the time. As the device rotated about a single axis, the effects of gravity were countered and the invention proved very effective at negating any discrepancies in timekeeping that resulted. As the pocket watch gave way to the wristwatch, the tourbillon proved less efficient, since a watch worn on a wrist assumes many more positions about the horizontal and the vertical than its predecessor. But the tourbillon lived on.

Use in modern watchmaking

Whilst arguably now defunct in so far as the function it was originally intended to serve, the design still appears in a significant number of high-end watches. Indeed it is seen as a novelty and demonstration of watchmaking virtuosity due to the enormous amount of time and skill it requires to construct. For example, a Patek Philippe tourbillon houses 69 tiny parts inside a space with a diameter of around only 10 mm and which together weigh just 0.3 gram. Watchmakers must train for years before they are allowed anywhere near such a complicated movement.


Since the latter half of the twentieth century, many variations and improvements have been developed and patented. Today we have the double and triple axis tourbillons, the double and quadruple tourbillons and the flying tourbillon. But the single axis version first seen over 200 years ago still persists and can be purchased, at a price, by anyone with the inclination to own one of watchmaking’s most iconic inventions.

If you have any watches that you would like to sell, please contact Simon Rufus, watch specialist at Grand Auctions, Folkestone, Kent for further details.