November 6, 2018

Why are Tourbillon watches so expensive?

Tourbillon watches are beautiful. I mean, this kind of mechanism is simply astounding, And there is no point in denying that - it is marvellously intricate, and is bound to attract a lot of attention if you happen to show it - and tourbillon watches are made to show it big time.

If we take a step back and look closer into its history, the tourbillon was patented in 1801 by legendary watchmaker Abraham Louis Breguet. And it became an instant wonder. What you see on top is the watercolors plate he deposited to secure his patent.

Why someone would create such a beautiful and delicate mechanism?

The need to manufacture watches that were extremely precise, for astronomical observation applied to the marine navigation. The Earth gravity interfered with the oscillation of the balance wheel as the watch (which was a pocket model) changed its position while being carried, and this fact reflected itself on the precision of the watch.

Thinking about that today it seems like a pointless exercise - but back then it was extremely important: many ships were lost at sea because their calculations, regarding the exact place they were sailing into, were not as precise as they should (no GPS back then, I am sorry).

So, by letting the balance wheel shift along a radial axis inside a frame, this effect was lessened, rendering the watch much more precise than before.

It was really a feat of “haute horlogerie” at work. But it was amazingly complicated (and costly). The archives say that up to the death of Breguet, in 1835, only 35 chronometres using the tourbillon mechanisms were manufactured.

After the death of Breguet, other maisons began mounting tourbillons in their most precise watches - but it was only in 1980 that this kind of mechanism was successfully mounted inside a wristwatch. And rendered already obsolete, as for precision’s sake, by the quartz movements.

Of course, lots of watchmakers have worked to improve more and more the tourbillon - but the space left for improvement sake is so tiny that it has become like establishing a world record for its own sake (flying tourbillons and all that jazz).

The watch companies, from 1801, have developed many more more effective and cheaper ways to improve the accuracy of the watches: one of the the most important ones is represented by the oscillation frequency of the balance wheel. Amplifying its number of oscillations per second - a feat achieved by using special alloys on the balance spring which were not available in the 1800s - the watch becomes much more precise, because the more “beats” the balance wheel makes, the less it is affected by movements of the wrist.

Watches made prior to the 1970s usually had a rate of 5 beats per second (18,000 BPH). Current watches have rates of 6 (21,600 BPH), 8 (28,800 BPH) and a few have 10 beats per second (36,000 BPH).

So, as you can see, the development of better materials has rendered technical innovations, such as the tourbillon, less effective - and nowadays, almost obsolete in technical terms.

So, today you would not buy a tourbillon watch because it is more precise than other watches - maybe it is, but this amount of added precision is so tiny it would not excuse paying tens of thousands USD for it.

You would buy it because it is an amazing display of technology and creativity, and it is beautiful to look at. A tourbillon is a work of art and genius, more than just a mechanical device, and should be appreciated as such.

So, do not fool yourself, or let others fool you: you buy it just because it is beautiful, and because you can do it.