A watch moves, a clock doesn’t. Because a watch is in different positions throughout the day, gravity tugs at its components in different directions, and the result is that watches run at different rates depending on the position they’re in. To combat this problem, Breguet invented the tourbillon, patented in 1801 — and with it inaugurated a war against the effects of gravity on a watch that continues down to the present day. They say necessity is the mother of invention.
But it’s not just horological necessity that drives the inventiveness of cutting-edge watch design. The tourbillon may have been born as an attempt to solve a problem, and it may be true that for most of its history it was an exotic rarity that, like any mainly performance-oriented improvement, spent its life under the hood, but as the horological renaissance of the post-quartz era got underway, watchmakers and clients alike started to notice something else: looking at tourbillons is fun. Tourbillons began to move out from their hiding places behind solid casebacks, and both see-through cases and open dials put what was once a piece of ultra-insider exotica out in the open.
It’s not just a matter of having something different to look at, though. The tourbillon was respected as a sign of horological mastery, thanks to the fact that it was, for most of its history, very hard to make one, and the problems that making a tourbillon presents, are amplified in its more exotic descendants.
In the years, beyond creating tourbillons, a few watchmakers have also ventured into taking the entire tourbillon and putting the carriage in orbit around the central axis of the watch. The complexity and cost of such tourbillons result in their questionable commercial viability and they tend to demand correspondingly high prices, but for lovers of the tourbillon who want its magic squared, a few such timepieces exist.
Independent watchmaker Bernhard Lederer has built his reputation on the design of orbiting tourbillons (for some time, he had the field more or less to himself). Lederer’s most recent watch of this type is the Gagarin Tourbillon, in which a flying tourbillon rotates around the centre of the dial once every 108 minutes (which means the gear ratios in the Gagarin Tourbillon are definitely unique). Why 108 minutes? That’s the duration of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering flight as the first human to travel into space, in 1961, aboard Vostok 1.
Another example of taking the tourbillon and putting it in motion is, of course, the Piaget Tourbillon Relatif. This watch, which debuted in 2006, is well known to enthusiasts; it’s a flying tourbillon mounted on one end of an elongated moving platform that rotates once per hour, and which acts as the minute hand of the watch. There are thus two centres of rotation — the axis of the flying tourbillon and the axis of the rotating minute hand, and the two centres of rotation are NOT co-axial. In contrast, double tourbillons such as those by Greubel Forsey also have two axes of rotation, but this is achieved with a cage-in-a-cage construction.
Though not a double tourbillon in the strictest sense of the word, the H2 “Flying Resonance” watch by AHCI member Beat Haldimann bears examination both as a work of horological art in its own right and for the light it sheds on the classification of next-gen tourbillons. The Flying Resonance is a central flying tourbillon with two balances and two escapement systems — as the centre of rotation of the balance wheels is offset from the centre of rotation of the carriage that carries them both, it’s a central flying carrousel tourbillon with double escapements. The temptation to refer to it as a double tourbillon is almost irresistible, but it’s also incorrect, and significantly, Beat Haldimann himself does not use the phrase “double tourbillon” to describe the watch.
Any watch that has, as the Flying Resonance does, two escapements but only one display for the time has to also have some system of averaging the rates of the two escapements. The mechanical solution to getting a single rate out of two escapements is to use a differential gear train. This takes the two slightly different rates of the two escapements as input, and outputs a single averaged product. In wristwatches, the use of a differential system for two escapements was pioneered by Philippe Dufour, who used a tiny differential system about the size of a match head in his Duality wristwatch to average out the rate of two lever escapements and their balances. (This is in contrast to the F. P. Journe Chronomètre à Résonance, which, though it has two balances, does NOT have a differential; instead, there are two distinct movement gear trains that are not mechanically linked except through the claimed resonance effect of the two balances.)
The Breguet Classique Grande Complication ref. 5347PT/11/9ZU, better known as the Breguet Double Tourbillon, combines features of both the Piaget Tourbillon Relatif, and twin-balance watches such as the Haldimann Flying Resonance tourbillon. Like the latter, it has two balances; however, both are encased in tourbillon carriages which themselves orbit the centre of the dial once per hour, while at the same time rotating around their own axes every 60 seconds. It’s undoubtedly one of the most complex tourbillons ever constructed, and to average out the rates of the two tourbillons, a differential system is used. As the orbital period of the tourbillon carriages is one hour, they can be used as the extremities of the minute hand.
Carole Forestier-Kasapi, who stimulated the birth of the Ulysse Nardin Freak and also designed the Piaget Tourbillon Relatif, continues to explore the world of moving escapements in her work with Cartier, where she’s designed the Astrotourbillon. In the Astrotourbillon, the escapement and balance are mounted on the extreme tip of a carrousel tourbillon carriage that has a one-minute period of rotation with its central axis at the center of the dial; the balance thus acts as the seconds hand of the watch. Best classified as a central carrousel tourbillon, the Astrotourbillon is probably the current speed record holder in terms of sheer escape(ment) velocity.
The Freak, the original version of which redefined the way both consumers and designers thought about moving escapements, has continued to evolve and the most recent variation, the Freak Diavolo (introduced at BaselWorld 2010, where it earned a “Best of Basel” nod from REVOLUTION), is as radical a take on the orbiting tourbillon carriage concept as the original was on the tourbillon itself. As in the original Freak, the entire movement rotates, with torque delivered to the going train by the gearing of the first wheel in the train to the fixed teeth on the inner rim of the case; and as in the original, the movement plate acts as the minute hand. Ulysse Nardin has upped the ante by placing the escapement and balance in a flying tourbillon cage. Interestingly, the Dual Ulysse escapement is not used in the Diavolo (we assume because the double-escape-wheel geometry would prove difficult or impossible to adapt to a tourbillon carriage). The flying tourbillon has a one-minute period of rotation as well, which means that this is the first Freak with a running seconds hand.
The period of the orbiting escapement in such watches can be used, as Bernhard Lederer’s Gagarin watch demonstrates, for expressive purposes as well, and one of the most dramatic examples is Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master Grande Tradition Grande Complication, part of the group of concept-watch-come-to-life timepieces the Grande Maison calls the Hybris Mechanica Collection.
The Master Grande Tradition Grande Complication combines a tourbillon with a minute repeater (incorporating Jaeger-LeCoultre innovations such as the new square cross-section “crystal” gongs and trebuchet hammers) and indications for the hours and minutes, with astronomical indications including a star chart for the northern hemisphere, the current sign of the zodiac, a 24-hour hand, and indication of the month of the year. The most interesting detail for mobile tourbillon enthusiasts, though, is the sidereal time indication. One of the rarest of all complications, the indication of sidereal time together with the haunting beauty of the repeater, nocturnal romance of the star chart, and celestial serenity of the astronomical complications, make the Grande Tradition Grande Complication one of the most poetically seductive watches in the world.
[Excerpted from an article by Jack Forster, first published in September 2011]