What is a Tourbillon?

By Nic King •  Updated: 06/21/22 •  6 min read

Tourbillons have become a huge flex in the watch-making community over the past few years. Not only is it prestigious to own a tourbillon, but high-end watch houses use them to show off all that they can do. This may leave you wondering though, “What is a tourbillon?” This article will dive deep into tourbillons so you can know all that there is to know about this exciting part of watchmaking.

What We’ll Cover

What is a tourbillon?

First off, we need to discuss exactly what a tourbillon is on a watch. Simply, it is an addition to the watch’s escapement with the goal of increasing the watch’s accuracy. It does this by mounting the watch’s balance wheel and escapement in a rotating cage. In theory, this should allow the watch to keep more accurate tie.

However, we should back up in time a bit. The tourbillon was actually invented in 1795 by watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet for pocket watches. This means they have less effect on modern wristwatches, but we’ll cover that later. Breguet is still around making tourbillons over 200 years after it was invented. They are now owned by Swatch Group.

Montblanc Tourbillon Skeleton Watch

How does a tourbillon work?

Now that you know what it is, you’re probably wondering how a tourbillon actually works and if it actually allows your watch to keep better time.

On modern watches, tourbillons are not very effective. You see pocket watches were always hanging vertically allowing their parts to be pulled down by gravity. On mater watches, the watch is always moving with your arm. This can naturally counter-act gravity on the escapement. Studies have actually been run proving that tourbillons don’t any effect on modern wristwatches.

Tourbillons also add more moving parts to the watch. As you may expect, this can increase the chances of something breaking in your watch. It also increases recommend service intervals on most watches when a tourbillon is added.

Why are tourbillon watches expensive?

So if they have no effect on a modern watch, why are tourbillon watches so expensive? Many modern watches including those from AP, Jacob & Company, and Breguet can easily cross 6 figures. What makes a tourbillon worth this much?

Well, even if they don’t have much effect on accuracy, they are still incredible examples of watchmaking. Tourbillons are incredibly difficult to put together, and they must be assembled by hand. A basic single axis tourbillon has over 40 parts, requires special tools to create, and can only be assembled by the most experienced watchmakers.

With that being said though, that has started to change. With demand comes cost-cutting, and some brands outside of Switzerland have started creating watches with tourbillons that come in under $5,000 and in some cases $1,000. This is done by driving down the cost of part production and training more watchmakers to create tourbillons.

However, it is worth noting that the main point of a tourbillon is how interesting and beautiful it is in the watch. This is why most watches with tourbillons will expose them through the front of the watch. Knock-off tourbillons from unknown brands don’t really have this same feel and prestige.


The Types of Tourbillons

We have covered everything you need to know about tourbillons in this article except for one thing. There are actually seven different types of tourbillons on the market. Now, to say that you could go and purchase a watch with one of these is a stretch. Most are reserved for loyal collectors of the brands that produce them. However, it is still interesting to see what all that is possible.

Single Axis Tourbillon

The original tourbillon was originally created in 1795 and patented in 1801. This has the escapement and balance moving in a single direction. Commonly, the carriage is moved by the fourth pinion keeping the fourth wheel stationary. The escape pinion engages with the non-moving fourth wheel allowing the escape wheel to rotate with the fourth pinion. The tourbillon carriage is locked and released with the vibration of the balance.

Double Axis Tourbillon

Over 200 years after the original tourbillon was invented, Anthony Randal patented the double-axis tourbillon. Richard Good was the first person to actually construct this double axis tourbillon.

With that being said, it took another 27 years for the first double axis tourbillon to appear in a wristwatch. It works by moving around two axes that rotate once each minute. The whole tourbillon is powered by a special mechanism to stabilize the effects of gravity, friction, and the mainspring. This allows even force to constantly be applied to the tourbillon.

Double Axis Tourbillon Originally Installed in a Carriage Clock

Gyrotourbillon

Created by Jaeger-LeCoultre, the Gryotourbillon I is a double-axis tourbillon that features an equation of time and perpetual calendar complication. Since this debate in 2004, Jaeger-LeCoultre has created many variations of their Gryotourbillon including a triple axis version.

Triple Axis Tourbillon

Those Prescher Triple-Axis Tourbillon


The triple axis tourbillon features an external third cage which has a unique shape to provide the possibility of using jewel bearings throughout the tourbillon. This increases service intervals and the lifetime of the tourbillon as well as provides a unique look within the watch.

Double & Quadruple Tourbillons

Stephan Forsey and Robert Greubel debuted the Double Tourbillon 30° also known as the DT30 in 2004. This combined two tourbillon carriages inclined at a 30° angle all within a wristwatch. One carriage rotates once a minute while the other carriage that houses it rotates once every four minutes. This truly is one of the most complicated watch movements ever made.

That is until Greubel Forsey debuted the Quadruple Tourbillon à Différentiel or QTD for short. This adds two of their double tourbillons to a watch having them work independently. They are connected through a spherical differential that distributes power between two wheels rotating at different speeds. This means the tourbillons do use the same power source.

Greubel & Forsay Double Tourbillon

Nic King

My watch journey started when my dad gave me a quartz watch customized with the company he worked for on the face. From there, it evolved into other quartz watches and eventually to the world of mechanical watches. My first luxury watch was a 1960s vintage Omega, and the collection has only expanded from there.

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