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The tourbillon, more art than science
Point of View

The tourbillon, more art than science

Wednesday, 12 December 2012
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

“The desire to learn is the key to understanding.”

“Thirty years in journalism are a powerful stimulant for curiosity”.

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3 min read

For Vianney Halter, in Paris for Belles Montres, the tourbillon is an exercise in style that makes no contribution to precision, but beautifully demonstrates the watchmaker’s savoir-faire.

“The tourbillon, as seen by an independent watchmaker” announced the programme of talks given at Belles Montres watch fair in Paris. Visitors’ curiosity was further piqued on reading the speaker’s name: Vianney Halter, one of the most talented watchmakers of his generation, who has personally never made a tourbillon! “Over the past ten years, the majority of watchmakers, brands and independents alike, have put the tourbillon centre-stage,” he explained. “Yet strictly speaking, the tourbillon isn’t a complication in the sense of an additional function to the basic indication of time. Rather, it is a technical device whose purpose is to resolve a problem.”

Vianney Halter went on to describe the history of the watch’s regulating organ, from the ingenious Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) to Isaac Thuret (1630-1706), who made the first balance and spring for Huygens, ending with Abraham-Louis Breguet, inventor of the tourbillon. “Poising an annular balance wheel is made all the more difficult by the fact that the spring moves the point of gravity off-centre. Breguet had the idea of having the balance turn on itself.” At this stage, three hypothesis coexist. Either Breguet wanted to make a more precise timekeeping instrument; or he wanted to build a system that could do without an imperfect regulating organ; or he had imagined a system to counter recurrent problems of lubrication.

The tourbillon isn't such a good idea after all?
A feat of technique

As Vianney Halter reminded his audience, the tourbillon was devised to function in vertical positions, when watches were tucked inside a waistcoat pocket, thereby compensating errors of rate caused by the earth’s gravitational pull. This explains why the tourbillon swept the board at timekeeping competitions in the nineteenth century, when tests in vertical positions outnumbered tests in horizontal positions. “When the watch migrated to the wrist in the early twentieth century, the tourbillon lost much of its relevance in terms of increased precision, particularly as machining techniques continued to progress. Does this mean the tourbillon isn’t such a good idea after all? Clearly it can imply greater difficulties when adjusting a movement. Scientists in the 1920s even dubbed it nothing more than a historical curiosity.”

“We do owe Breguet one thing,” declared Halter, “and that is a reputation that earned the tourbillon recognition beyond its actual usefulness. In this light, to make a tourbillon is above all a feat of technique, a little extra touch of the watchmaker’s art which, provided the movement is properly constructed, proves the capacities of this or that firm. It’s a kind of pedigree, a title that a watchmaker adds to his name. ” In conclusion, Vianney Halter answered three questions: no, the tourbillon brings no real improvement to the watch’s precision any more than it is a major innovation. But it remains worthy of interest in contemporary watchmaking as an “exercise in style”. Will Vianney Halter let himself be tempted? Not so sure…

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