June 26, 2018 marks the 217th anniversary of the patent of the Tourbillon, a revolutionary invention by Abraham-Louis Breguet, father of modern horology. The occasion was celebrated as the ‘Tourbillon Day’ in Breguet boutiques in Zurich, Taipei and New York. Here we look back at this landmark innovation in the history of timekeeping.

Portrait of Abraham Louis Breguet

AbrahamLouis Breguet, the founder of the House of Breguet, is arguably among the greatest horologists of all time. The late 18th century watchmaker whose moniker is still famously associated with components that bear his name, like the distinctive apple-shaped Breguet hands and Breguet overcoil balance spring, also pioneered the self-winding `perpetuelle’ watch, shock-prevention balance pivots called `parechute’, the gongs in repeater watches, the chronograph etc. But his most famous invention was the Tourbillon, a revolutionary mechanism that he unveiled in 1801, which for the first time neutralized the effects of gravity on precision timekeeping.

The original Tourbillon drawing of Abraham Louis Breguet

 For 300 years before that, watchmakers had unsuccessfully battled the problem of gravity in the mechanism of mechanical watches. To solve the problem, Breguet had the idea of installing the entire escapement (meaning the balance and spring, the lever and the escape-wheel, the parts most sensitive to gravity) inside a mobile carriage that performs a complete rotation each minute. 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 also ensured enhanced lubrication. This invention was an engineering feat which cemented Breguet’s standing as one of the most innovative figures of all time.

Based on a principle that was brilliant and yet extremely complex to actually produce, the Tourbillon was far from operational in the summer of 1801. After two experimental models (the watch No. 169 gifted to the son of Londonbased horologer John Arnold in 1809, and watch No. 282 completed in 1800 and sold much later by Breguet’s son), the Tourbillon would not be commercialized until 1805. The following year, the invention was presented to the public at the National Exhibition of Industrial Products held in Paris on the Esplanade des Invalides in September and October 1806. Described as a mechanism by which timepieces ‘maintain the same accuracy, whatever the vertical or inclined position of the watch’, the Tourbillon regulator was a constant source of fascination thereafter.

Breguet Tourbillon N°1188

The greatest devotees of horology were unable to resist its appeal: the famous patron and Italian collector Sommariva, Monsignor Belmas, Bishop of Cambrai, the Bourbons of Spain who were to own up to three Tourbillons acquired between 1808 and 1814, or the PrinceRegent of England who acquired a large-sized Tourbillon in 1814, mounted on the top of a gilt bronze cone.

Breguet Boutique & Museum, Place Vendome, Paris

The Tourbillon was perhaps too technically sophisticated for civilian use; only 35 were sold between 1805 and A.L. Breguet’s death in 1823. But it came into its own hands of successors, who recognized it as horology’s most ingenious invention. The House of Breguet continues to be among the biggest manufacturers of Tourbillons in the world.

Fewer than 10 of the Tourbillons that Breguet made in his lifetime are known to survive. Among them is the Tourbillon precision pocket watch No. 1188 sold to Don Antonio de Bourbon, Infante of Spain, in 1808, which is currently on show at a special exhibition on the Tourbillon at the Zurich Boutique and Museum. The House of Breguet possesses two other historical Tourbillon pocket watches, No. 1176 sold by Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1809 and No. 2567 sold in 1812, along with original records listing every single historical creation.

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