Breguet: Centre of the Horological Universe

by Pearlyn Quan

On the 220th anniversary of the tourbillon, we revisit the historical milestones of arguably the most important invention in watchmaking.

The year is 1795, six years into the tumultuous French Revolution, and Abraham-Louis Breguet is returning from two years of exile in Switzerland and England. He is returning to his original watchmaking workshop at 39 Quai de l’Horloge in Paris (which is immortalised as an engraving on the back of the Classique Double Tourbillon 5345 “Quai de l’Horloge”), and he is mulling over the first details of a new invention, eventually to become the legendary tourbillon.

Long hailed as the father of modern watchmaking, AL Breguet is already two decades into a highly illustrious career in horologie – his so-called Perpétuelle, or self-winding, watch had so enchanted first King Louis XVI and Queen Marie- Antoinette and eventually the entire court at Versailles.

His two years in exile would turn out to be a most fruitful sabbatical, a period of intense intellectual work and exchange with the Swiss watchmakers of the Geneva and Neuchâtel Jura regions. Upon his return to France in the spring of 1795, his various observations lent a spectacular new lease on life to his career.

Extraordinary Machine

Assuming that the idea for the tourbillon first sprouted in Breguet’s mind between 1793 and 1795, its realisation then took six years, from his return to Paris until the patent on June 26, 1801 was obtained.

An astounding feat of science and engineering, the tourbillon was a testament of Breguet’s high level of erudition, decades of horological experience and strong foundation in the sciences, particularly mathematics and physics.

Through study and observation, Breguet had perfected his understanding of the factors – especially those affecting the escapement – that might impair the precision of a timepiece. He was without question the only watchmaker of his time who had, through first-hand experience, absorbed and synthesised the achievements of the three major contemporary watchmaking nations of Switzerland, France and England.

In his letter to the Minister of the Interior upon application of a patent for his extraordinary invention, AL Breguet states: “By means of this invention, I have successfully compensated for the anomalies arising from the different positions of the centers of gravity caused by the regulator movement.”

The Tourbillon Timepiece is Born

Despite being awarded the patent in 1801, it nevertheless took another five years before Breguet was able to produce his first commercial tourbillon timepieces. The master watchmaker mentioned his invention at every opportunity and promoted it at the French industrial fairs held in Paris in 1802, 1806 and 1819.

Originally designed for the pocket watch which is worn upright, the tourbillon was praised as a reliable mechanism which allowed timepieces to “maintain their accuracy, irrespective of whether the position of the watch is upright or tilted.”

The invention was a success, with famous collectors such as the Italian Sommariva, the bishop of Cambrai and the Bourbons of Spain all acquiring tourbillon watches between 1808 and 1814.

Convinced of the significance of the invention, which could be installed in different types of timepieces, Breguet and his staff went on to produce 40 Tourbillons between 1796 and 1829 – plus nine other pieces which were never finished and appeared in the ledgers as written-off, scrapped or lost.

A Modern Revival

The House of Breguet not only preserved its founder’s pieces with great care, but it also created a selection of new Tourbillon pocket watches that were sold from the 1920s into the 1950s.

In the mid-1980s, the Tourbillon enjoyed a significant comeback in the smaller cases of wristwatches that were ironically far less sensitive to gravity. Since then, the triumph of the Tourbillon has proved unstoppable, and year by year, it gains ground.

Today, the Tourbillon remains a most covetable invention and authentic hallmark of haute horlogerie, for amateur collectors and aficionados alike who take delight in the beauty of a brilliant invention, and a momentous chapter in watchmaking history which, 220 years later, continues to bear witness to the remarkable spirit of human endeavour.

Did you know?

The main objective of the tourbillon is to minimise and correct the effects of gravity on the accuracy of mechanical timekeeping. As Breguet was unable to alter the law of gravity, he chose to “tame” its effects – he concocted the idea of installing the entire escapement (meaning the balance and spring, the lever and the escape-wheel) inside a mobile carriage that performs a complete rotation each minute. Thus, since all the flaws are regularly repeated, they are engaged in a process of mutual compensation. Moreover, the constant change of point of contact undergone by the balance pivots in their bearings ensures enhanced lubrication.

When the tourbillon invention was finally presented to the public at the National Exhibition of Industrial Products in Paris in 1806, it was described simply as “a mechanism called tourbillon by which timepieces maintain the same accuracy, whatever the position, vertical or inclined, of the watch”. 

The term “tourbillon” is often translated as “whirlwind” in French, which might seem an appropriate name for the hypnotic movement of the exquisite mechanism. However, perhaps a more accurate interpretation of the name which Abraham-Louis Breguet chose in 1801 might oblige us to dig a little deeper to uncover the archaic background of certain horological terms. According to the major dictionaries of the 19th century, among them Descartes and the Encyclopédie, the word “tourbillon” referred either to a planetary system and to its rotation on a single axis, or to the energy that causes the rotation of the planets around the sun.

Although patented in 1801, the first commercialised tourbillon timepiece wasn’t released until years later. Abraham-Louis Breguet only produced 35 tourbillon watches in his lifetime, of which only 10 are known to survive. Somewhat mysterious and only reserved for initiates, the tourbillon took Breguet more than ten years to develop, and make it reliable enough for production. The incredible complexity of the mechanism also meant that it was notoriously difficult to assemble and regulate. Among the esteemed clientele who got the privilege to own a tourbillon timepiece were monarchs, aristocrats and prominent European figures, like royalty, scientists and explorers. Up to a quarter of the tourbillons were reportedly used for naval navigation and calculating longitudes at sea. British army officer Sir Thomas Brisbane was one of these seafaring owners, and reached the Australian continent using his trusty tourbillon.

When Abraham-Louis Breguet received the coveted patent for the tourbillon in 1801, it was only for 10 years. This means once the decade was up, the design was free to be adopted by other watchmakers, as well as designers, engineers and scientists. Throughout the 19th century, the tourbillon greatly inspired other engineers, among them Bahne Bonniksen who, based on the observations made by Breguet, invented the carousel.

Since then, a large number of patents have been filed along the way by the House of Breguet to perpetuate the most famous invention in watchmaking. Numerous tourbillon models in the current collection attest to the desire of Breguet to perfect the invention of 1801.

Here are seven of them, all of which have added to the fame and glory of this mechanical masterpiece over the years. 

The Tourbillon seems to float in space with no visible link to the rest of the movement. The key to achieving this mysterious construction lies in the use of sapphire. The Tourbillon is mounted between two sapphire plates, while its carriage is attached to a third, representing a novel solution, which has been patented.

This barrel-shaped model has a Tourbillon powered by a manual winding movement. The contours of this caliber are identical to those of the case. Breguet’s watchmakers had to overcome a series of significant challenges to create a movement that perfectly fits the tonneau shape. The architecture of the piece puts the Tourbillon in perspective, accentuating the technical skills that went into making it. A unique element, the Tourbillon bridge, acts as the 6 o’clock marker on the dial.

The Tourbillon carriage of this piece adopts a geometry directly inspired by the first sketches of AL Breguet. A patented mechanism provides anti-shock protection. A veritable feat – the balance spring with the famous raised terminal curve called the Breguet overcoil is made of silicon, a material insensitive to magnetic fields, according to a patented process.            

At the heart of its movement, incorporating a perpetual calendar and the running equation of time, is a cam placed on a sapphire disk. It performs one revolution per year and faithfully reproduces the cycle of the equation of time. This patented transparent disk, which indicates the 12 months of the year on the periphery, offers a glimpse of the Tourbillon below. The indication of the equation of time is provided by the finger-piece, which follows the shape of the cam.

Modern technologies have played a key role in the design of this ultra-thin Tourbillon with a movement only 3mm thick, thanks to a titanium carriage, a silicon balance spring and escape wheel. As the construction of the movement has been redesigned, the rotation of the carriage is propelled by a peripheral toothed wheel.

The extra-thin caliber of this timepiece features a balance wheel oscillating at a high frequency of 4 hertz, while maintaining a comfortable power reserve of 80 hours. This is made possible by the high energy barrel, the design of which is patented. The caliber is fully skeletonized. The gold plate and bridges have been hollowed out and hand-decorated so as to display the mechanical anatomy of the movement.

The astute construction of this movement has been covered by several patents. The two mechanical hearts beat independently from one another, each driven by their own barrel. Like a delicately chased sculpture, the entire movement pivots around its axis to the rhythm of one revolution every 12 hours. The various calibrations are done manually, such as the poising and balancing of the Tourbillon carriages.

Images courtesy of Breguet, artwork by Curatedition. All rights reserved.

Related Links:

Two Faces of a Breguet Icon

Slim Pickings: Breguet Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat Squelette 5395

Breguet Marine: Three Classics in New Guises

Breguet Classiques: Romancing History

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