Happy Birthday, Tourbillon:
A Celebration of the World’s Most Fascinating Complication

Article By: Logan Hannen

WATCH101 | June 26, 2019

In partnership with London Jewelers

Happy International Tourbillon Day, watchfam! Today marks the 218th anniversary of Abraham Louis Breguet’s patent submission for, you guessed it, the tourbillon!

While we’re known for celebrating incredibly strange anniversaries in this industry (think Rolex releasing the Datejust for their 40th anniversary, a number we don’t tend to regard as being especially monumental), celebrating the invention of an incredibly important, impressive complication that in many ways changed the industry as a whole actually makes a ton of sense.

So what is a tourbillon, and how did it come to be? It all started with Abraham Louis Breguet, namesake of the brand Breguet and man of many horological talents, noticed a major issue with mechanical watches (specifically, in the 1800s, pocket watches) – gravity.

The rate at which a watch runs is impacted by the position it is in, which is why we time watches in multiple positions (dial up, dial down, crown side up and down, etc). This is the direct result of the way that gravity is working on the mechanical movement. What Breguet figured out was that, in essence, the easiest way to fix this and, in turn, make timepieces more accurate, was to try to rotate the escapement. He accomplished this through what is now known as the tourbillon cage, which rotates 360 degrees every minute to keep the escapement from sitting in one static position.

Courtesy of London Jewelers
Footage by Anna Griffin (Theo & Harris)

As you can see, it’s absolutely mesmerizing to look at one in motion. However, the fame of the complication didn’t come from its effectiveness. It’s major selling point is, largely, the fact that it’s more of an artform than a matter of engineering now. In a time when mechanical watches are inherently a bit anachronistic, something meant to make them incredibly precise instruments becomes much more about luxury than it does practicality. That’s what makes it especially interesting when they show up not in the dressy watches we tend to associate them with, but with more tool-oriented pieces.

Take, for example, the Panerai PAM 00578, the Lo Scienzato (or “The Scientist” in English). Here we have a watch that is archetypal Panerai in so many ways, from its 47mm titanium Luminor 1950 case to its thick cut calf leather strap, and yet, being fully skeletonized so you can see not just the tourbillon, but the entirety of its manually wound GMT movement, we have a watch that’s elevated at the same time.

Courtesy of London Jewelers
Photo by Anna Griffin (Theo & Harris)

Case Diameter: 47mm
Case Material: Titanium
Complications: GMT, Tourbillon
Movement: Panerai P.2005/T Hand-Wound Movement
Price: $143,000

Panerai is not a brand we tend to associate with being dress oriented, and yet the tourbillon complication, despite its practical, almost tooly origins, seems to have been relegated to the dressy side of luxury. In the PAM 00578, we have a watch that, at 47mm, certainly isn’t a dress watch in the strict sense, and yet its skeletonized dial offers a more artistic look into what powers it, inherently rendering it more elegant than it might have been if the tourbillon was the only skeletonized portion of the dial (as is typical). The result is a kind of true hybrid of the tourbillon’s past and present and, perhaps, a sign of how its future might look as well.

No matter what becomes of the tourbillon, its high horology status and incredibly artistry mean that, as far as complications go, it may well be the best way to keep it classy, watchfam.

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