What Is A Tourbillon?

Mens Skeleton Tourbillon Mechanical Automatic Movement Open Face Watch Gears

GQ's Watches of the Week included a post this week by Cam Wolf featuring Post Malone and Danny Green's Tourbillon watches.


Now if you're not familiar with the term "Tourbillon", a tourbillon is an added feature in the mechanics of a watch, originally developed in 1795 to aid in the accuracy of pocket watches.


Richard Mille - RM 052 Tourbillon Skull "Asia Edition"

The Richard Mille RM 052 Tourbillon Skull "Asia Edition" is an impressive wristwatch from one of the most innovate haute brands, Richard Mille.  The impressive and original aesthetics of Richard Mille watches are only outdone by the brands dedication to innovativeness.  Both of these attributes a culmination of the manner in which the brand prides itself on its philosophy of liberty and nonconformity. 

In all of their release of timepieces, from the day the first one was introduced in 2001, three crucial elements are apparent.

  1. A commitment to advancing innovative technology
  2. A strong artistic and architectural dimension
  3. Watches designed to be robust, easy to use, yet also highly sophisticated

Perhaps considered too new to be one of the top haute brands, Richard Mille continues to challenge long-standing perceptions in this market segment by focusing on ever-lighter ever-higher performance materials. 

And all of this is apparent in the RM052. 

Introduced in 2012 and not straying from the traditional Richard Mille tonneau-shape styling, the baseplate appears to be mangled into a detailed skull, exemplifying Richard Mille's design approach, that form follows function. 

In typical Richard Mille fashion, the RM 052 is assembled and hand-finished.  The baseplate and bridges take the form of a grade 5 titanium skull.  The upper and lower jaws hold the ruby of the tourbillon cage.  The back of the skull is the movements centre bridge.  The entire movement is connected to the case by 4 bridges that are inspired by the crossed bones from flags on pirate ships. 

Creating all this in a design envelope to fit on your wrist is no easy undertaking.  It's accomplished by multiple stamping, cutting and milling operations.  86 to be exact, of which 46 processes are used for the bezel, case middle and case back alone.  Another detail hard to miss is the Richard Mille famous spline screws.  Not only used throughout the movement but also visible on the exterior <<case>>.  The tiny little <<work of wonder>> require an incredible 20 operations to manufacture.  The finished product is absolutely impressive.

Panerai PAM 578 "Lo Scienziiato" Luminor 1950

Equally impressive is the The Panerai PAM 578 "Lo Scienziiato" Luminor 1950 Tourbillon GMT.  Unlike Richard Mille, the Panerai Brand has one of the longest histories in watchmaking.  Panerai history dates back to 1816, however their first watch was prototyped in 1936 for Royal Italian Navy. 

An innovator from their early beginnings, Panerai patented many watch features including "Luminor", a  self-luminous compound introduces that was eventually used in the Luminor watch and launched in 1950 with the "Luminor 1950" series.

The PAM 578 "Lo Scienziiato" Luminor 1950 Tourbillon GMT sported by Danny Green shares many of the attributes of the early 1936 designs with the exception of modernizing the bezel design by thinning the bezel and adding the crown-protecting bridge. 

Titanium was the material of choice for the case and bezel on this model.  Encasing a manual wound movement that has been optimized to provide a 6 day power reserve.  Although these days Panerai has been able to extend this to a 10 day power reserve in newer models. 

In all, only 150 units of the PAM 578 were produced when released in 2016, making it an extremely rare find. 

Why So Expensive? 

So what makes these watches worth a second mortgage on your house?  Well, to answer that question, we have to go back to the Tourbillon.  That tiny little gravity-defying mechanism we introduced at the beginning of this article. 

The making of any mechanical watch is an intricate process.  "Machine building" is complicated.  With its gears and pinions, springs and plates.  But when you take the scale of machine building and reduce it to a miniature scale, things just start getting inherently complicated. 

Every miniature component needs to be precisely designed, machined, assembled and finished to produce a perfectly synchronized machine.  But even at this miniature scale, these components cannot escape this thing we call gravity.  At least that was the thought back in 1795. 

That's when Abraham-Louis Breguet came up with the ingenious idea of housing the escapement and balance wheel - the impulse driving force of a mechanical watch's movement - in a constantly rotating cage.  It was believed at the time watches, specifically, pocket watches which sat at rest in one position for prolonged periods of time lost their time-telling accuracy due to the effect of gravity on the pallet fork, balance wheel, and hairspring. 

Thereby reducing the effect of gravity when the watch is at rest in any one position. 

With such a beautiful movement and ingenious idea, it certainly would not make sense to cover all that up with steel and enamel.  Hence the "skeletonization", further complicating our machine by limiting where and how components can be set and mounted. 

Introducing more and more complications drives up the cost but the result is a beautifully complicated marvel of watchmaking.

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