Abraham-Louis Breguet, who is often considered to have been the most important watchmaker of all time, designed and built an enormous number of watches in his time. His constant tinkering with his designs led to an absurd number of advances, while simultaneously ensuring that very few of his watches are truly identical. His most famous watch, the ‘Marie Antoinette’, took 44 years to make, and was only completed 34 years after the queen’s head had been inelegantly removed by the guillotine.
Just How Many ?
It would be difficult to describe here just how significant his various innovations have proven to be, especially as so many of them are still in use today. The first self-winding watch, or perpétuelle, for instance, defined the function and essential design for all modern automatic watches. The Breguet hands and Breguet numbers are still popular. The perpetual calendar that accounts for leap years and phases of the moon is almost universal.
Of course, not all of his works of genius are so widely popular today. Of particular note – both because of its complexity and its history – is the tourbillon. Tourbillons, as many watch aficionados will be aware, are mechanisms designed to minimise the effect that gravity has on the timepiece. It was a design that had no real origin: many of his other innovations – and most innovations in general – come from a desire to improve an existing design. The tourbillon, however, appears to have sprung from Breguet’s mind almost fully formed.
Since the introduction of the tourbillon, it’s been one of those mechanisms that polarises watchmakers. It’s not widely considered to have significantly improved accuracy. It’s bulky, making it near impossible to fit into a watch without sacrificing the depth of the mechanism. It’s often considered a mere affectation that the watchmaker uses to show off their particular talent. They’re also rather expensive.
The Most Magnificent of All
Since their invention in 1801, tourbillons have had a few developments – making those little steps that Breguet neglected when he invented it. Extra axes have been added, such as in Thomas prescher Triple Axis Tourbillon, to further diminish the effect of gravity on the mechanism, and multiple tourbillons have been linked together to counteract any errors a single tourbillon might develop. In the modern day, when quartz watches and mobile phones keep perfectly good time, it’s entirely unnecessary to improve on a mechanism that may never have offered a significant gain in accuracy. It is, however, a magnificent example of the art of the movement: if watches do not need to be complex to be accurate, and mechanical watches are increasingly a sign of taste, then why not improve on such designs?
The tourbillon itself is hypnotic to watch: the Vianney Halter Deep Space Tourbillon, which won the Innovation Prize at 2013’s Grand Prix D’Horlogie de Genève, spins for thirty minutes before it finally returns to its original starting point. The tourbillon mechanism itself is now less a tool of the watchmaker’s art than it is the focus of the watch itself.
Credits Images © Breguet, DC, Antiquorum