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The Art of perfect TimingThe Breguet Tourbillons

A.-L. Breguet’s invention of the Tourbillon revolutionized the art of watchmaking in 1801 and set a new standard for timekeeping. For centuries, scientists and philosophers had used the term Tourbillon to refer to the regular rotation of planets around the sun, despite the world Tourbillon, or whirlwind, being somewhat of a misnomer for the ordered regularity of the universe. Like astronomy, watchmaking has precise and structured systems, so it was unsurprising that A.-L. Breguet borrowed the term to name one of the most significant advances in the industry’s history. In fact, Breguet had created his own little whirlwind, a mechanism that “shook up” the ordered components in a watch to ensure perfect timing.

Before Breguet’s invention of the Tourbillon, timepieces were notoriously inaccurate. Gravity negatively influenced their regularity by altering the rate every time a watch changed position. Well schooled in mathematics and science, Breguet was determined to find a solution. Where other watchmakers had failed, Breguet turned theory upside down; deciding that if he couldn’t fight gravity, he would work with it. He realized that if he could fit the various components of the escapements (the balance whe el, lever and escape wheel – the parts most susceptible to gravity) inside a mobile carriage that could then complete a full rotation, the device would eliminate rate defects by having them effectively neutralize each other. In essence, his invention cancelled the negative effects of gravity.

Recognizing that watches could now run with far greater accuracy, in 1801 Breguet applied to the French government for a patent in the following terms: “I have the honor of conveying to you a note containing details of a new invention which can be used with timepieces”. The Paris authorities swiftly granted him a 10-year patent. So challenging were the mechanical skills involved that when the patent expired, only the very best watchmakers were able to construct the Tourbillon.

Breguet’s power of invention completely changed the nature of watchmaking and the Tourbillon was undoubtedly a measure of his genius . However, the Tourbillon mechanism was not an isolated breakthrough. Breguet had a long list of developments to his credit, including the perpetual or selfwinding watch, the gong spring, a shockproof suspension device and the precursor of today’s chronograph. The Tourbillon regulator still manages to fascinate. It made its way into wristwatches at the turn of the 20th century and gained incredible popularity in the 1980s alongside a renaissance of mechanical timekeeping.

This year at Baselworld 2004, the company again displays its skills with an original Tourbillon design that embodies the symbiosis of styling an d technology. A new movement has been developed for Breguet’s first selfwinding tourbillon wristwatch, the Tourbillon Régulateur 5307.