It is the year of the tourbillon, this complication that is added into the mechanics of a watch to increase its accuracy. Tourbillon means whirlwind in French and that is one of the most fascinating things about this complication as it seemingly moves about on the watch in a whirl. It was patented by the French-Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet on June 26th in 1801, so the key word this year is celebration for the tourbillon, regarded as one of the greatest watch complications of all time and it continues to flourish at the house of Breguet which remains its custodian.
The complication has been adopted by a host of other brands as well for when Breguet patented it back in 1801, he only did so for 10 years. It is the invention of a man whose life was singular. Abraham-Louis Breguet was born in 1747 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland and was apprenticed to a watch maker and at the age of 15 he would travel to Paris and Versailles to continue his apprenticeship, studying notably at the Mazarin school which offered a strong foundation in mathematics and physics giving the young Breguet all of the elements of an engineer. He set up his own watchmaking affair on the Ile de la Cité on the Quai de l’Horloge (The Clock Quai), a hotbed of watchmaking in Paris, back in 1775, so when he patented his tourbillon he already had a long career behind him, with the self-winding watch, his perpetuelle, that enchanted King Louis XVI and eventually the entire court at Versailles.
He fled to his home country of Switzerland in 1793, during the French Revolution before returning to France in 1795 and rolled out a host of innovations like the tactile watch and a new mechanism known as the Tourbillon regulator, this Breguet observed would compensate the effects of the law of physics that effect the inner workings of a watch and its accuracy. The word tourbillon at the time was an astronomical term referring to the planetary system and its rotation or to the energy that causes the rotation around the sun, not the whirlwind term or violent rotation meaning ascribed to the word today. Although the tourbillon acts as if it is alive, furiously alive.
Breguet and his staff produced 40 Tourbillons between 1796 and 1829, all designed as pocket watches. Clients included monarchs like George III and George IV of England. But it recently came to light that a quarter of these Tourbillons were used for naval purposes for navigating at sea and calculating longitude. And in line with the inventor’s own classification they fell into the category of watchmaking for scientific use, although they were works of art in and of themselves with their gold or silver case. No less than 12 of the Tourbillons created at the time are found in museums, including three in the collections of the Breguet Museum and five in the British Museum. Almost 30 of the original 40 pieces have survived.
The house would continue to produce tourbillon pocket watches from the 1920s to the 1950s and they made a comeback, on the wrist in the 1980s at the house. More than accuracy, they became a source of beauty and fascination right on the wearer’s wrist. A recent addition to the Tourbillon saga is the Breguet Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat 5395, an openwork extra-thin wristwatch with a tourbillon nestled into a rose gold case.
© Trish Valicenti for The Gourmet Gazette
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