220th Anniversary of Abraham Louis Breguet’s Invention of the Tourbillon

Breguet celebrates the 220th anniversary of the tourbillon this year. Rather than look to any one new watch, we examine the history of this most important haute horlogerie mechanism as it relates to its emotional home, Montres Breguet SA

May 13, 2021 | By Ashok Soman
Tradition Fusée Tourbillon ref. 7047BR

Usually, what catches the eye in most watches is plainly evident, otherwise why would anyone have taken the trouble to make it pretty. That aside, the hands and the markers are designed to stand out, because these are why people look at a watch. Both these reasons are, in fact, why the tourbillon was moved from the back of the movement and placed dial-side, but we will get back to the why and the hows of this momentarily. The mechanical watch makes the view from the caseback important though, and that is what drew us to the watch on the cover this issue. As usual, we get into more depth about the Breguet Classique Double Tourbillon 5345 Quai de l’Horloge (above) in the cover watch story, but our cover story pertains to more than just one watch. In a few words, it is about both tradition and innovation, and how both find happy homes in Breguet tourbillon wristwatches.

The peculiar construction of the Double Tourbillon 5345 Quai de l’Horloge (or 5345 Quai de l’Horloge as we will refer to it in the rest of this story, to differentiate it from other Breguet Double Tourbillons), means that there is very little action on the caseback. Instead, the expected exhibition feature showcases an incredibly elaborate engraving. In a way, this too is not unprecedented, given that other models of the Double Tourbillon have included a feature like this. What caught our eye this time though was a mysterious feeling that we had somehow seen the scene captured in this engraving.

To explain this, we have to go back in time a little, to the heady days of Revolutionary France, in the sixth year of said Revolution in fact. It is 1795 in the Ille de la Cite, and the tides of history are swirling around this little island in the middle of the Seine. Just two years prior, Marie Antoinette was imprisoned here, awaiting trial and execution, at the Conciergerie at the western end of the island. The renowned watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet is just now returning from exile in Switzerland and Great Britain, his mind preoccupied with watchmaking innovation. Nearby is what he would have been looking for, at 39 Quai de l’Horloge, an actual street in the Ille de la Cite and the proper address of the Breguet watchmaking workshop. Yes, the scene engraved on the back of the 5345 Quai de l’Horloge is of the original workshop, almost exactly as it is described in Breguet: An Apogee of European Watchmaking (2009, Louvre and Montres Breguet SA).

House of Haute Horlogerie

Actually, this was the mystery, because the description of the Breguet workshop in the press materials was relatively nondescript. In my mind’s eye though, I could clearly picture the workshop as it was described in the aforementioned book, which served as a primary source for this story. This synchronicity is fortuitous, for reasons that will become clearer in the next few lines. I would argue that some version of this experience is common to all watch enthusiasts, especially when it comes to how we came to learn of Breguet in the first place. The watchmaker himself was famous in his own day, and his name is attached to much more than just the brand in contemporary times. You may have heard, for example, of Breguet hands, or Breguet numerals – the technically oriented will perhaps be most familiar with the Breguet overcoil that characterises certain balance springs. In short, there are innumerable roads to the heart of watchmaking, and many bear the name Breguet. One such road does not bear Breguet’s name, but it is certainly his invention: the tourbillon.

Exquisitely engraved movement of ref. 5345 showing the keyless work.

“There are innumerable roads to the heart of watchmaking, and many bear the name Breguet”

The year 2021 marks the 220th anniversary of Abraham Louis Breguet’s invention of the tourbillon, the records of which exist today with the Montres Breguet SA, which is now owned by the Swatch Group. We are informed by the firm that the original records are stored in Paris in the archives of the French National Industrial Property Institute (INPI). The tourbillon anniversary explains why the 5345 Quai de l’Horloge finds itself on our cover this issue – it also explains why this story is not a total immersion into a watch model that itself is celebrating its 15th anniversary, having debuted in 2006. Anniversaries are a big deal for us this year because we are celebrating our own 20th anniversary, and we are very pleased to share the limelight with Breguet.

Engine-turned guillochage
Engraving the back of the movement
Engraving Breguet numerals on the case
Hand-bevelling of the mainspring barrel bridge

These days, the tourbillon wristwatch is a hallmark of haute horlogerie, and exists in various forms, some of which would perhaps have surprised its inventor. This is especially true because the Breguet brand is perhaps the leading purveyor of tourbillon wristwatches, many of which will have amazed the inventor. For the moment, we must begin with the word tourbillon itself, which entered the horological lexicon courtesy of Breguet, its literal author. The term did not exist in horology until Breguet decided to use it, and this points to several important points about the mechanism and its invention.

Even in 19th century watchmaking, innovation frequently took the shape of a slowly rising staircase, with every new invention building carefully upon the last. Developments such as the pendulum and balance spring, both attributed to physicist Christiaan Huygens, were few and far between – fundamental innovations are necessarily rare, we suppose. The tourbillon was one of these rarities though, because it was foundational and functionally important to the pocket watch. We refer here to the letter Breguet submitted in his patent application, seen here courtesy of the manufacture, in which the watchmaker makes his case for the longer term impact of his invention.

“The tourbillon wristwatch is a hallmark of haute horlogerie, and exists in various forms, some of which might have surprised the inventor of the tourbillon”

No Whirlwinds Here

Back to the story of the word though, you will not have failed to notice, dear reader, our decision to use the word whirlwind as the implied translation of tourbillon. This is correct in so far as our current understanding goes, but so much of the language used in horology comes from an archaic background that current language descriptions are not entirely accurate, or even cogent as far as the tourbillon in particular goes. We know, for example, from what the tourbillon does, that it is meant to have a calming and stabilising influence on the regulating organ of the timekeeper. This is hardly a good reason to name the thing whirlwind. A contemporary observer, ourselves included, might associate the hypnotic movement of the tourbillon with the elemental power of the whirlwind, but we should remember, once again, that A. L. Breguet himself never meant the tourbillon to be visible dial-side. As a mechanism to help the regulating organs function better, it was always going to be at the back of the movement, where said organs make their home. It therefore stands to reason that Abraham-Louis did not mean to associate the turbulent whirlwind with his invention.

Pocket watch No 2567

So just what did A. L. Breguet intend? Thankfully, we do not have to engage in feats of imagination here, nor even of extensive research. The contemporary brand responded to persistent queries on this subject with its own research, coming to the conclusion – shared by Jack Forster at Hodinkee – that he must have been making a reference to how the entire system revolved around a fixed point. Emmanuel Breguet, a descendant of the watchmaker working today at Montres Breguet, found several important sources, including one philosophy of science reference (Rene Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy) and two French language references (Pierre Larousse’s Dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle and Emile Littre’s Dictionnaire de la langue francaise, colloquially known as le Littre).

Larousse notes the use of the word tourbillon by Descartes in the following sentence: “Planets turn around the sun, carried by their vortex (tourbillon).” Littre cites Descartes in his definition of tourbillon as well: “Name that the Cartesians use to give to the revolution of a planet, or a star, around its centre, and to the movement of the surrounding material that follows them.” Littre also notes the relevance of another Enlightenment figure besides Descartes here, Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert. Like Descartes, d’Alembert was quite famous in his day, being a co-editor with Denis Diderot of the still renowned Encyclopaedia.

Movement view of No 2567

Littre quotes d’Alembert saying the following: “This great philosopher (Descartes), in an age when astronomical observations, mechanics and geometry were still very imperfect, imagined, in order to explain the movements of the planets, the ingenious and famous hypothesis of vortices (tourbillons).” Timelines will help to explain some of the connections here. Littre completed his Dictionnaire in 1873, while Larousse began publishing his Dictionnaire in 1866, though it was only completed in 1890, after his death in 1875. Descartes died in 1650, and d’Alembert died in 1783.

Abraham-Louis Breguet, as an educated and intellectually curious man besides, would have been aware of both Descartes and d’Alembert, and probably decided that tourbillon meant what these two figures defined it to mean. While this is supposition, Breguet’s own description of the tourbillon as a device to correct errors in rate caused by friction due to the effects of gravity leads us to think that the vortex meaning is the most likely one. Additionally, it was well-known that the watchmaker was friendly with figures such as Abbe Marie, and even studied with the scientifically inclined cleric.

Pocket watch No 1188

Ahead of Its Time

That A. L. Breguet was so learned that he understood what gravity was, in the Newtonian sense, and even figured out that it must have an effect on mechanical timekeeping is impressive. Even more impressive, in our view, is the fact that Breguet understood that friction was the real issue; this is summed up in a famous phrase attributed to the watchmaker – show me the perfect oil and I will show you the perfect watch. Even in watchmaking today, friction is understood to be one of the main issues affecting good timekeeping rates in mechanical timekeepers.

Despite Breguet’s 10-year monopoly on the tourbillon, Emmanuel Breguet reports that it was still experimental in 1801. He cites two experimental models (the watch number 169 gifted to the son of watchmaker John Arnold in 1809, and watch number 282, completed in 1800 but sold much later by Breguet’s son) as proof of this. The first commercially available tourbillon watch might have been in 1805, but the public debut was in 1806, at the National Exhibition of Industrial Products in Paris. Emmanuel notes that the invention was a hit, with famous collectors such as the Italian Sommariva, the bishop of Cambrai, Monsignor Belmas, and the Bourbons of Spain all acquiring tourbillon watches between 1808 and 1814.

“Planets turn around the sun, carried by their vortex (tourbillon).” – Rene Descartes”

This is not to say that there were very many tourbillon watches. Montres Breguet SA has records of only 35 models, sold between 1805 and 1823 (the year Abraham-Louis died); the Breguet firm certainly continued making tourbillon watches after the founder’s death, even attempting to improve on it. That is something Abraham-Louis never did, with only the one patent filed with regards to the tourbillon. This fits in well with the late Nicolas G. Hayek’s own thoughts about Breguet under the stewardship of the Swatch Group, which is that the company tries to make watches as Abraham-Louis would have, if he lived now and had access to 21st century know-how.

Contemporary Leanings

LITHO past

The contemporary story of the tourbillon in the wristwatch is much more turbulent than it ever was in the pocket watch. Since complicated watches once again caught the eye of the collectors in the 1980s, these feats of traditional craftsmanship and cutting-edge engineering precision have also captivated the public. In the 21st century, Breguet has celebrated some milestones in this area, including the 200th anniversary in 2001, just two years after the Swatch Group assumed ownership.

Like Abraham-Louis though, it would take a few years before the 21st century tourbillon wristwatch from the most famous maker of such watches debuted. That was the now-famous reference 5317 (right), which gave the world an inkling of where Nicolas G. Hayek wanted to take the brand in 2004. His direct involvement was assured, of course, lending another legendary personality to the already powerful character of Breguet. Indeed, the book Breguet: An Apogee of European Watchmaking makes the case that Hayek had a spiritual meeting with Abraham-Louis, and was now dedicated to furthering his vision.

This brings us back to the engraving of the Parisian workshop on 5345 Quai d’Horloge. The house appears as it did in 1795, when A. L. Breguet returned to Paris, and when he submitted his tourbillon patent. There are plenty of wonderous details, right down to the atmosphere (hazy, according to our reference book) and the windows showing the keyless works of the watch. This is wonderful, from a romantic standpoint as one gets to imagine one can see something of the Abraham-Louis himself hard at work at bench somewhere. It is certainly true that his spirit resides in this movement.

The original version in 2006, reference 5347, caused quite a stir, especially because we were all trying to figure out how it worked! It should be noted that Breguet debuted this piece with silicon balance springs, foreshadowing the brand’s devotion to innovation at the heart of timekeeping. This model remains an icon – a symbol of the tourbillon wristwatch in the 21st century. If anything, its successor the 5345 Quai d’Horloge improves on this by exposing all the workings of the movement, while showcasing the incredible finishing touches deeply associated with Breguet: guillochage.

Of course, this is not the only significant tourbillon wristwatch to emerge from the contemporary Breguet brand in the last 20 years. Coming back to reference 5317, this model demonstrated that Breguet today understands the importance of exceptional timekeeping, which demands innovation, while also keeping things traditional, because that is what collectors expect. Now, tourbillons have taken big hits from experts, collectors, and even watchmakers, because the efficacy of this tool in the contemporary wristwatch is debatable.

However, the Breguet tourbillon adds value to the conversation, and it does so honestly. In reference 5317, here we see a titanium balance bridge for the first time in a Breguet tourbillon wristwatch model. Breguet did this not just because it could, but because there was a real benefit to reducing the weight of the entire mechanism. A lighter tourbillon assembly drains less power from the mainspring, allowing more for the actual timekeeping functions. It also marked a signal from Montres Breguet SA that it was bringing a new and exciting spirit of experimentation to the game.

Elsewhere in the Breguet collection, the brand was using the industrial know-how of the Swatch Group to experiment with the components of the regulating organ. These all came together in reference 7047, which featured the first Breguet tourbillon with a balance spring in silicon and a tourbillon cage in titanium. In 2007, just a year after the seminal Double Tourbillon debuted, this watch brought the aesthetics of old Breguet pocket watches – and the constant force mechanism – into the picture. This look was already in catalogue, and the inclusion of such an important tourbillon here confirmed the relevance of this timepiece to the contemporary Breguet brand. Today, along with references 5317 and 5347, these three models are all recognised on the Breguet website as milestone watches, albeit more for their innovations.

Nuts & Bolts

Close-up on the tourbillon of the Classique Tourbillon
Extra-Plat Automatique ref. 5367

The simplest description of the tourbillon goes something like this: it is a cage to hold the escape wheel, escapement (typically Swiss anchor), balance wheel and balance spring in one assembly. This cage rotates on the same axis as a fixed fourth wheel. The third wheel, which normally drives the fourth, instead drives the cage. As the cage revolves, the fourth wheel makes the escape wheel turn, thus sending energy for regulation to the balance. The regulating effect of the balance thus averages out of the rate across a variety of positions to deliver a steadier beat.

As short and sweet as that was, it requires an understanding of how mechanical regulating organs work, and you can check out a brief summary of that in our continuing story on that very subject in this issue.

As we often do in these situations, we fall back on Berner’s Illustrated Professional Dictionary of Horology, which we reproduce here in full: “Device invented by A. L. Breguet in 1801 to eliminate errors of rate in the vertical positions. It consists of a mobile carriage or cage carrying all the parts of the escapement, with the balance in the centre. The escape-pinion turns about the fixed fourth wheel. The cage makes one revolution per minute, this annulling errors of rate in the vertical positions. This delicate, complex mechanism is one of the most ingenious mechanical devices invented by horologists. To simplify this mechanism and to make it sturdier, so-called karussel watches were designed, in which the carriage is driven by the third wheel, instead of the fourth wheel. The tourbillon and karussel mechanisms are not escapements. Instead of speaking of a tourbillon escapement, as is often the case, it is better to speak of a lever or detent tourbillon, as the case may be.”

Exploded view of the tourbillon showing all components

How did Abraham-Louis Breguet describe it back in the day? He addressed it mainly by what it does, rather than what it is made up of. Here are his own translated words: “By means of this invention, I have succeeded in cancelling out by compensation the anomalies due to the different positions of the centres of gravity of the Regulator movement; in distributing friction over all the parts of the circumference of the pivots of this regulator and the holes in which these pivots move, in such a way as to ensure that the lubrication of the parts that rub together should remain constant despite the coagulation of oils; and finally in eliminating many other sources of error that influence the precision of the movement to varying degrees, which the art (of horology) could only so far attain with a great deal of trial and error and even often with uncertainty of success.”

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