Breguet – Inventor of the Tourbillon

I’ll start this with a little confession: I was never into watches. I couldn’t understand what’s so special about an expensive time piece. I mean does it do anything more than tell time, like any other watch? Now before any watch enthusiasts answer that and start an argument, I have to say I recently changed my mind. A wristwatch seems like such a simple accessory these days that you never quite stop and wonder what’s behind the tiny glass casing and how people ever managed to tell time before technology dictated everything. One day I found Breguet’s explanation of the Tourbillon in a video and I started to understand how difficult it was to create every tiny component and make them work so accurately together for long periods of time.

You’ve probably heard of Breguet as a famous brand responsible for luxurious, complicated and expensive watches. But what exactly does that mean, what makes a watch so special? Well, Abraham-Louis Breguet was a Swiss watchmaker whose talent made his life sound like a bit of a fairytale. I won’t give you a history lesson, but it should be mentioned that his 13-year apprenticeship at the Court of King Louis the XVI, among some of the most talented people in the fields of art and technique, resulted in high praise from Queen Marie-Antoinette and various European kings and aristocrats but also other artists like Balzac or Jules Verne. In time, his ingenious nature led to many innovations in watchmaking and improvements on existing technology.

Tourbillon

Why is an invention from 212 years ago so appreciated today? With all technological and manufacturing advances, the tourbillon makes a wristwatch tens of times more expensive than a regular watch. Like in any artistic industry, you have to pay for the craftsmanship that goes into the value of the product. To this day, you can’t make a tourbillon in any other way than by hand, and the kind of skill and attention that goes into its creation is present only in some of the finest watchmakers in the world. The purpose of the tourbillon was to regulate the effects of gravity on the accuracy of the mechanism. Back in Breguet’s time, this was a real issue for pocket watches, usually carried in varying vertical positions. The fix he came up with was a small mechanism where the balance and escapement turned on a common axle within the movement, usually a full rotation per minute (but the timing differs in various models). This compensated for alteration in the vertical inclination of the watch, helping it maintain its timekeeping accuracy no matter where you would place your pocket watch. The constantly revolving cage also improved lubrication and distributed the wear evenly on the seat and pivot.

Classique Complications - Tourbillon Messidor

In truth, the tourbillon is said to be less effective for modern wristwatches because of the complexity of movements they‘re subjected to, but the intricacy of the work became more of a myth. The display of such a mechanism on a luxury watch is proof of the skill involved in the creation of such a masterpiece more than an accurate performance measure.

While his most important and renowned invention was the tourbillon, Breguet previously came up with shock resistance for balance bearings, so that a simple fall wouldn’t ruin the mechanism, he was the first watchmaker to integrate a perpetual calendar or a moonphase indicator and invented la repetition, a pocket watch that chimed on demand, so people could tell time in dark conditions. And it wasn’t just about the technology; having to deal with the standards of illustrious royal customers, he was one of the first to use materials like gold and silver in the casing of the movements and offer luxurious packaging. Whether we consider the intricate mechanism inside the golden case or the depths Breguet went to charm his customers, attention to details and ingenuity are the words that would best define a brand that actually needs no definition.

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