Tourbillion Fascination

At this year’s Baselworld, watchmakers showed innovation in one of the most traditional of timepiece arts.

By William George Shuster

tourbillon-fascination-1One of horology’s most exquisite mechanisms is the tourbillon. Created 200 years ago to negate gravity’s slowing effects on mechanical watches’ accuracy, it has become one of the hottest categories in fine watchmaking today.

“It isn’t surprising that tourbillon watches remain successful,” says Jean-Daniel Pasche, president of the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. Research shows “consumers remain very interested in traditional mechanical watches, (and that) both mechanical and ‘smart’ watches can develop (on) parallel tracks. They don’t exclude each other.”

Tourbillon timepieces’ ongoing popularity is due to many factors, Pasche says, such as the fascination with the complex mechanism, its history — going back to Abraham Breguet, the tourbillon’s inventor — and Swiss watchmaking. And, because the tiny handcrafted “complication” — a function beyond simple hours, minutes, and seconds — is one of the most challenging to make, a tourbillion has become a display of watchmaker expertise and creativity, captivating many. The visual splendor of the tourbillon, to be able to be seen through an opening on the dial or a skeleton dial, adds to its luxury appeal.


Fascinating, too, is the growing variety of splendidly designed timepieces with tourbillons. A tourbillon is not really essential now for mechanical watch accuracy. However, tourbillon timepieces, today, are less traditional in design, more innovative and indeed, unconventional in their visual appearance, which many watch aficionados now prize.

A variety of tourbillons were on display in March at Baselworld 2016, the globe’s most important and influential watch show, in the charming Swiss stadt of Basel. Here are a few of these intriguing, intricately handcrafted luxury timepieces.

tourbillon-fascination-5ANGELUS calls its U20 Ultra-Skeleton Tourbillon “a beautiful mechanical haute horlogerie sculpture.” With streamlined design and made entirely of lightweight sapphire, carbon, and titanium, it’s also at watchmaking’s cutting-edge. Having no dial, but having a sapphire-crystal dome, allows full view of the 3-D architecture of the movement, which seems to float in the case. The cage of the one-minute flying tourbillon is hand-chamfered and hand-polished. The 42mm watch has a 90-hour power reserve. 18 pieces. US $71,950.

tourbillon-fascination-6ARMIN STROM’S TOURBILLON SKELETON EARTH, in black PVD-treated stainless steel, spotlights its technical prowess through total skeletoniziation of its inner workings, a specialty of the watchmaker. Skeletonization is created by carving away much of the metal from the movement so the wearer can view the beauty of the elaborate gears and wheels. A watchmaker can spend countless hours whittling away as much as 70 percent of the metal — quite a feat of craftsmanship because of the precious nature of creating the detail. The movement’s layered construction and skeletonizing the tourbillon — a technical challenge — is also impressive. The tourbillon’s constant rotation and the movement’s double-going barrel are visible as the watch is wound. 100 pieces. US $86,700.

tourbillon-fascination-7ARTYA’S CUMBERE TOURBILLON, by watchmaker Yvan Arpa, is one of the season’s most avant-garde timepieces. The unique watch is shaped like a guitar, with a crown like a guitar tuning peg. Its case is stainless steel with black PVD and the brand’s own pink-gold alloy. Sapphire crystals front and back display the baguette-type mechanical movement, with 100-hour power reserve. Its 60-second flying tourbillon is at “6,” below the watch’s embossed skulls-and-bones “X” structure.
With haute horlogerie details like hand-beveling and artisan-style aging of the skull and bone engravings, the timepiece is what happens “when art meets luxury,” says the brand. The unique watch’s caseback is hand-engraved. US $185,000.

tourbillon-fascination-8BELL & ROSS’S BR-X1 CHRONOGRAPH TOURBILLON SKELETON MONO-PUSHER — one button for all chrono functions , says the brand — is an “alliance of haute horologie with professional instrumentation,” the aeronautical inspiration for which Bell & Ross is known. This the first time in the brand’s history that Bell & Ross has released a tourbillon. The 45mm timepiece, with unique casing and sapphire-crystal caseback, is water resistant to 330 ft., has a four-day power-reserve indicator at 9 o’clock, mono-pusher and 30-minute chrono counter at 10 o’clock, and 60-second counter at 2 o’clock. The tourbillion is at 6 o’clock. Its grey-tinted sapphire-crystal dial has metal appliqué indices; its metal hands are skeletonized.
In titanium or 18k rose gold, with or without diamond bezel. 20 pieces each. $163,000 titanium ($213,000 with diamond bezel); $180,000 gold ($238,000 with diamond bezel).

tourbillon-fascination-9BULGARI’S elegant, ultra-modern OCTO ULTRANERO FINISSIMO TOURBILLON combines stylish Italian design with Swiss watchmaking’s technical expertise. The black DLC treatment — “ultranero” means “very black” — of the titanium case and the black crocodile strap effectively counterpoint the pink-gold hands, hour indices, and crown.
Inside the 40mm octagonal case with round lacquered dial is the world’s thinnest, record-setting movement with a flying tourbillon — 1.95mm thick, with tourbillon cage mounted on tiny ball bearings — a Bulgari exclusive. The timepiece has a 52-hour power reserve and water-resistance to 100 ft.US $115,000.

tourbillon-fascination-10CABESTAN’S TRIPLE AXIS TOURBILLON mixes traditional watchmaking, avant-garde design, high-end mechanics, and innovation. Created by watchmaker Eric Coudray, its design is inspired by a catamaran’s sleek lines. The hand-polished sapphire tube case is sealed by two sapphire, brushed-titanium windows.
The multi-level movement has 1,044 visible parts — all polished and finished by hand — and a tiny triple-axis flying tourbillon, whose three cages rotate at different speeds. The timepiece has a 50-hour power reserve and water-resistance to 100 ft. In 18-karat pink, yellow, or white gold, titanium or platinum. 135 pieces. More than 150,000 Swiss francs.

tourbillon-fascination-11OKLETEY’S MERRY GO ROUND — so called because of the turning tourbillon seen through a dial aperture—is a tribute to Mother Nature, says the brand. The design of the dial’s skeletonized corners is inspired by the giraffes of Africa’s savanna. Its rectangular steel case black PVD treatment counter-balances the silver dial, with a central circle with a guilloché motif. The one-minute flying tourbillon is seen at 6 o’clock, the 100-hour power reserve indicator at 9 o’clock, and the movement’s differential gear system window at 11 o’clock. The watch case has sapphire crystals front and back and water-resistance to 100 ft. Limited series with stainless steel, 18k rose-gold and platinum models. US $120,000.

tourbillon-fascination-12TAG HEUER’S Carrera Heuer-02T Black Phantom incorporates a chronograph, tachymeter, and flying tourbillon — all designed, developed, and produced entirely by the Swiss luxury brand. For it, TAG Heuer fashioned a new case in black Grade 5 titanium, made from 12 separate modular parts. Inside is the brand’s newest caliber, the Heuer-02T chronograph movement, a Swiss-certified chronometer. It uses the skeletonized design of new Carrera watches, with skeleton bridges, open-worked hour circle, geometric bridges, skeleton dial, silver hands, and counters. The 45mm watch has a 65-hour power reserve, sapphire crystals front and back, and water-resistance to 330 ft. 250 pieces.US $21,000.

tourbillon-fascination-13ULYSSE NARDIN’S exotic 44mm ROYAL PYTHON SKELETON TOURBILLON timepiece is an eye-catching beauty. Its 18k rose-gold case encompasses the exposed inner workings — the in-house movement’s maze of individual parts, bridges, and flying tourbillon — which seem less like mechanics and more like art. The movement’s light-weight silicium balance spring, anchor, and escapement need no lubrication and are resistant to conditions like the cold or magnetisim, meaning less servicing and longer life for the watch.
The inside of the bezel features hand-painted python motifs, as do the movement’s hand-painted bridges, also dotted with skillfully set tiny rubies, exhibiting Ulysse Nardin’s métiers d’art expertise. Completing the composition is the python snakeskin strap. The timepiece has sapphire crystals, front and back, and water-resistance to 100 ft. Limited series of 18 pieces. US $75,000.

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