On November 11th we were lucky enough to attend the opening of the exhibition, “Breguet The Innovator: Inventor Of The Tourbillon,” (which ran from November 11-17 at the 5th Avenue boutique in New York) –a traveling round up of Breguet tourbillons that included virtually every modern tourbillon the company makes today, as well as a very special tourbillon made during the lifetime of Breguet himself –one of the first ever made.

The tourbillon was patented by Breguet in 1801, but the invention itself seems to have evolved during his period of exile in Switzerland, where he fled –abandoning his Paris workshop at 39 Quai d’Horloge –in 1793; the date given by Daniels in The Art of Breguet for the invention of the tourbillon is 1795, at which time Breguet was living and working in Neuchatel.  The tourbillon is one of the most unusual inventions in the history of watchmaking for several reasons, but one of the most intriguing is that it appears to have had no particular antecedent.  The problem of adjusting a watch to positions was well understood by Breguet’s time, of course –he refers to the task of adjusting to positions in a letter to his son, from 1795, in which the tourbillon is mentioned in writing, as ” . . . endless fumbling, with no certainty of success,” and the tourbillon was an expression of his lifelong interest in precision chronometry.  Unlike many inventions in horology –indeed, unlike most –the tourbillon appears to have had no real antecedent.  The development of calendar works, of chronograph watches, chiming complications, temperature compensation methods,and so on, can often be traced from simpler to more complex and more sophisticated solutions, but the tourbillon appears, as Emmanuel Breguet said to us during a recent visit to the Breguet Museum in Paris, to have ” . . . come from the mind of Breguet,” without having been developed from any earlier work.

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The older Breguet tourbillon at the exhibition was made during Breguet’s lifetime, which makes it extremely rare –the archives record only 30 tourbillons made during this period of which the majority are lost or in unknown locations.  The tourbillon is no. 2567 –sold in 1812 to a M. Bigot, for 1800 francs, it is an example of the later evolution of the tourbillon regulator during Breguet’s working life.  The first tourbillon made was Breguet no. 282, which was completed in 1800 and is inscribed to John Arnold, the great English watchmaker and friend to Breguet; it uses Arnold’s chronometer detent escapement.  Breguet made tourbillons with one, four, and six minute carriages and used a variety of escapements, including the lever, échappement naturel, and Peto cross-detent but according to Daniels he seems to have concluded that “earlier refinements were not necessary, and did not contribute to an improved rate,” and no. 2567, with its carefully made lateral lever escapement, is one of the purest examples of a garde-temps tourbillon in existence.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADetail showing club-toothed escape wheel and one of the steel pallets of the lever. The lever pivot and escape wheel pivots are jeweled, and the banking pin for the lever is visible at 2:00.

It’s a very sober watch –none of the decorative flourishes we usually associate with fine watchmaking are present; the movement is a pillar-and-plate, 3/4 plate construction, with a plain gilt finish, and is clearly intended as a precision instrument, not a visual entertainment.  Interestingly the engine turned dial is clearly marked “Regulateur à Tourbillon” which rather disposes of the idea many modern collectors have that mentioning the tourbillon on the dial is a modern decadence.  Obviously the tourbillon was a selling point in Breguet’s day as well and no doubt the original owner looked with some pride at the inscription.

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One other interesting feature is that the watch, like most of the four thousand or so made with Breguet’s name on them while he was alive, was not made by Breguet personally; this was not at all unusual and again, as Daniels points out it is absurd to think a single craftsman could have made so many watches.  The movement of no. 2567 was made to his specifications, of course, but actually came from the workshop of one Jacques-Frédéric Houriet, a Swiss horologist who lived and worked in Le Locle and who is the subject of Jean-Claude Sabrier’s book, Jacques-Frédéric Houriet: The Father Of Swiss Chronometry.  Jacques-Frédéric Houriet made nine tourbillon movements for Breguet and was a tireless horological researcher (which probably goes a long way towards explaining his collaboration with the like-minded Breguet) and is credited by Sabrier with, among other things, inventing the spherical balance spring.

The modern tourbillon is the Breguet Grande Complication reference 1907BA12 –it is an exceedingly lavish and very complex watch, and one of the very few pocket watches still in series production by a major haute horlogerie manufacturer.  Certainly, it is one of the most complicated: a large and heavy clockwatch, it combines a tourbillon regulator with a grand et petite sonnerie and minute repeater, in a massive 56.50 mm wide, 21.95 mm thick heavy gold case.  The crown winds the going train in one direction and the strike train mainspring barrel in the other and no expense has been spared in either the complexity of its construction or the lavishness of its finish –the movement is a glittering paean to the various classic Swiss horological decorative arts.

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Breguet’s garde temps tourbillon watches could be exceedingly complex as well although understandably, in the first decades of its existence Breguet largely devoted himself to obsessively trying out different variations on the configuration of the tourbillon regulator rather than combining it with other complications.  One of the most distinctive examples of this tendency is the famous no. 1176 tourbillon, sold to Count Stanislas Potocki, a Polish nobleman and patron of the sciences who founded the University of Warsaw (among other things.)  The watch, sold in 1809, is a 65mm garde temps tourbillon with a four minute carriage and fitted with Breguet’s échappement naturel, one of his most sophisticated and difficult inventions.  Significantly, it sold for the enormous sum of 4,800 francs and if Daniels is correct would not actually have been a superior rate-keeper to the much less expensive and far less complicated no. 2567.

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The modern Breguet Grande Complication grand strike pocket watch is, therefore, both evolution and homage –combining the tourbillon with the single most difficult, complicated, and demanding complication in watchmaking.  We’ve mentioned that this watch is part of the current catalogue, and it can be ordered from Breguet but you will need patience and very deep pockets –the current wait for delivery is around nine months, and the most recent price we were quoted from Montres Breguet was $875,400.  These two watches taken together show two very interesting moments in the history of the tourbillon –both in terms of how our expectations of the tourbillon have evolved over the centuries, and the connection between past and present at Breguet.

Jack Forster is the Editor in Chief of Revolution USA.  Download Revolution Magazine’s international digital edition with the Zinio newsstand app, for iOS, Android and desktop, and follow revolutionmag on Instagram and Revo_online on Twitter for news and views from the world of fine watchmaking.

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