Inside The Manufacture With Breguet In Switzerland, Pt. 3: Two Centuries Of Tourbillon Creation

Tourbillons. It’s impossible not to have a conversation about Breguet without mentioning them, much less walk through that manufacture without seeing them. The tourbillon is Breguet.

movements breguet manufactory

Breguet first wrote about the tourbillon in 1795 and his patent was granted six years later. The tourbillon is a mechanism that constantly rotates the balance wheel, balance spring and escapement to counter the negative effect of Earth’s gravity. More exactly, it produces a single, average rate for all the vertical positions of a watch, rather than a different rate for each position (traditionally a watch is timed in four vertical positions: crown up, down, left, and right). 

The idea is simple: if you have a single average rate for all the vertical positions, then all you need to do is adjust the watch in the flat positions to match the vertical rate, and you should have a very good timekeeper. The tourbillon will not give optimum long term stability, however, if it uses an escapement that needs oil (the oil will deteriorate over time) so ideally the tourbillon would be matched with an oil-free escapement, like the detent or Daniels co-axial. It improves the overall precision of pocket watches, although the usefulness of the tourbillon in wristwatches is, to this day, very much a subject of debate.

Breguet 1176

A classic example of an ultra high grade Breguet tourbillon: No. 1176, sold to Count Stanislas Potocki by Breguet’s agent in St. Petersburg, 1809

movement breguet 1176

The movement of no. 1176 features a four minute tourbillon with chain and fusée.

The first two known completed tourbillons were nos. 282 (which in the opinion of George Daniels, writing in The Art Of Breguet, was a prototype and never intended for sale) and 169. No. 282 was cased and sold in 1832 by Breguet’s son. No. 169 has an interesting history. It’s not known when the carriage was made, but it was placed by Breguet, in 1808,  into a movement made in 1774 by John Arnold (according to the catalogue essay for 169 in the British Museum). Daniels is of the opinion that no. 169 is “obviously” a later work than no. 282, despite the fact that the movement of no. 169 is inscribed, “1ERE REGULATEUR A TOURBILLON DE BREGUET (along with a dedication to John Arnold, who was a close friend of Breguet’s).

Breguet no. 169.

Breguet no. 169: a very early Breguet tourbillon cage in a John Arnold movement.

Breguet still makes tourbillon pocket watches, and some pretty special ones too. During my visit, I encountered a Classique Grande Complication Ref. 1907 (also known as the million-dollar Breguet pocket watch), back in the manufacture for a service. This is not a vintage pocket watch (it was released just a few years ago) and it is not based on a previously existing pocket watch. This is a minute repeater with grande sonnerie, and with the tourbillon at 5 o’clock, and the beautiful, regulator type, engine turned dial, it’s a classic example of Breguet’s two-plus centuries of design purity.

Classique Grande Complication Ref. 1907

A private collector’s Classique Grande Complication Ref. 1907

It was actually Audemars Piguet, not Breguet, who made the first series produced tourbillon wristwatch in 1986 (others, such as Omega, had previously made tourbillon wristwatches for observatory trials. Omega cased a few of its 1947 30I calibers for sale, in 1987 but they had not been originally made for this purpose; Patek Philippe made a series of observatory wristwatch tourbillons as well, from the late 1940s through the 1980s). AP’s watch was remarkable not only because it could be made in commercial quantities, but also, because of how thin it was. Calibre 2870 was (and still is) the world’s thinnest tourbillon wristwatch at 4.8mm. One of the reasons it is so small is because AP developed a lightweight tourbillon carriage in titanium, reducing the amount of energy required and allowing for a very flat mainspring.

audemars piguet 2870

Audemars Piguet 2870, 1986

Breguet’s first tourbillon wristwatch came just two years later, in 1988, though presumably it was already in development, and was not made in direct response to AP. In fact, Ref. 3357 was a very different watch. It used a movement made in Breguet’s current manufacturing site when the building was owned by Nouvelle Lémania (the company folded into Breguet when the two were bought by the Swatch Group in 1999), and it was this version of a tourbillon wristwatch which became the blueprint for other manufacturers: positioned at 6 o’clock, on the dial side, is a one-minute tourbillon with three arms, one of them acting as a seconds indicator; and the balance wheel, lever, and escape wheel all within the cage. It looks very much as if it could have been made in Breguet’s lifetime (except for a few modern touches, like a shock absorber). 

Breguet Ref. 3357

The first Breguet tourbillon wristwatch, Ref. 3357, was made in 1988.

Today, many if not most high-end manufactures have a tourbillon wristwatch in their portfolio (and sometimes, several), even though there is no consensus that they serve a practical purpose (to be fair, there’s no consensus that they don’t either). Still, some swear by this mechanism, and have one in every single watch in their collection. Others, have double and triple-axis tourbillons. And others still (including most notably, TAG Heuer) are finding ways to drastically reduce the production and retail  costs of their Swiss-made tourbillon.

Breguet Factory Vallee de Joux

The Breguet manufacture, in the Vallée de Joux, Switzerland.

The tourbillon is generally considered the ultimate luxury add-on to a watch, but that doesn’t mean it no longer offers any room for technical improvements, and at Breguet, research into new materials is ongoing in the hope that they will provide solutions to problems A-L Breguet did not face. We stepped inside the manufacture to find out what the company has been up to.

Breguet Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat Automatique 5377

Breguet Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat Automatique 5377

The Breguet Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat Automatique 5377 is one of the thinnest tourbillons ever made.

Breguet presented its own extra-thin automatic tourbillon caliber in 2013, and like Audemars Piguet in 1986, the manufacture used titanium for the the tourbillon carriage (though Breguet could not beat AP in terms of size, losing out by 2.2mm). Technically, Breguet’s Ref. 5377, is quite a bit different from AP’s Calibre 2870. For one thing, the balance spring and lever escapement are made of silicon in the 5377. Silicon was first used by Ulysse Nardin in 2001, in the Freak, and since then it’s gone far on the way to becoming common if not ubiquitous in watchmaking.

Breguet began researching silicon’s properties in 2006 for the same reasons other makers have taken an interest in it. It is non-magnetic, non-corrosive, and does not require lubricants, and can also be fabricated into extremely precise shapes. Silicon is also much less massive than steel, which is the material for which it’s most often used as a substitute; the lower mass means more efficient energy transmission. In the case of the Ref. 5377, the teeth of the escape wheel are skeletonized, making it possible for the balance to run at 4 Hz (most tourbillon movements run at 3Hz), for a more accurate movement.

Ref. 5377 has a one-minute tourbillon, with a three armed carriage and straight bridge, and it features a lateral lever escapement. But there are some telling signs of modernity, such as the lack of visible screws on the dial-side tourbillon bridge, and a very unusual rotor on the movement side.

A quick look at the back of the watch and you would think what you have in front of you is a manually-wound caliber. But the rotor is well and truly there: for the 5377, Breguet has used a peripherally mounted rotor. Because of the rotor’s position, you get an unobstructed view of the tourbillon carriage and the movement bridges. Moreover the peripheral rotor does not affect the movement architecture like a micro-rotor would (which is the other way to save a few millimeters in an automatic watch).

However, a peripheral rotor increases the diameter of the case (though this reference is still only 42mm), and presents a number of new problems, such as having enough mass to efficiently wind the mainspring. Breguet addresses this by  making the rotor in platinum, and mounting it on a system of low friction ball bearing rollers.

For Breguet then, the tourbillon is a mechanism that at once defines the company’s history and stimulates more research. More than two centuries seperate Breguet’s first and Breguet’s most recent tourbillon models, during which nothing and everything has changed. So hopefully, next time you see a tourbillon, you will not only think of it as Abraham-Louis Breguet’s invention, but as a mechanism which the watch industry is still trying to perfect (for wristwatches at least), by using technology and materials that simply did not exist during the days of its inventor. 

Part 2 of my visit to Breguet looks at engine-turned dials, a decorative style perfected by Breguet and used in almost every watch the manufacture produces today.

For more information, please visit the official Breguet website.