What is a Tourbillon?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A tourbillon is a small piece of equipment which can be included in the casing of a watch to house the balance wheel and escapement. At one time, tourbillons were viewed as critical for timekeeping accuracy, in addition to being a very fine example of a watchmaker's art. Modern watches do not require this piece of horological equipment, although luxury watches are sometimes made with tourbillons to make them seem more precise and valuable.

Modern watches do not require this piece of horological equipment, although luxury watches are sometimes made with tourbillons.
Modern watches do not require this piece of horological equipment, although luxury watches are sometimes made with tourbillons.

The idea behind the tourbillon was that the effects of gravity on personal watches had to be offset by something in the mechanics of the watch. Watchmakers believed that personal watches grew inaccurate over time because of the fact that the watch was kept constantly in motion, with innumerable tiny shifts over the course of the day which would slowly pull the workings of the watch out of sync. As evidence to support their claim, they pointed to fixed city clocks and standing clocks which managed to keep time very well, suggesting that the key different between fixed clocks and personal watches was the constant movement on the part of personal watch owners.

Traditional clocks and watches use a system of gears and pulleys to keep time.
Traditional clocks and watches use a system of gears and pulleys to keep time.

In 1895, watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet came up with the idea of a tourbillon, a rotating cage which was used to keep the workings of the watch balanced so that gravity would not pull a watch out of time. The word “tourbillon” means “whirlwind,” and it is a reference to the motion of the device inside the watch. Watchmakers quickly caught on to the introduction, and tourbillons became a must-have for anyone who wanted an accurate watch.

In actuality, research would seem to suggest that the tourbillon actually has a minimal effect on the function of a watch. In fact, early personal watches were simply unreliable because of the nature of their construction, and as watchmakers refined their art, they were able to develop more accurate timepieces. The inclusion or exclusion of the tourbillon appears to have made minimal difference when it came to accuracy.

The precise and detailed machining of the tourbillon, on the other hand, is a testimony to the skills of the watchmaker. Even after watchmakers generally accepted that the device did not serve a function, they continued to include it in their watches to indicate high quality and to assure their customers that they were purchasing the very best. Luxury watch companies have maintained the fad for the tourbillon, listing it as a notable feature in their high-end products to appeal to consumers.

The tourbillion was once commonly used in watches.
The tourbillion was once commonly used in watches.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


@Kristee – You would be lucky to find a tourbillon watch for even as little as $5,000. You will never find one in the hundreds, I'm afraid.

I was looking at expensive watches online the other day, and I came across a Swiss tourbillon watch that was marked down from $47,000 to $30,000. Yes, it was incredibly fancy, but I could't see paying this much for a watch, even if I were a millionaire.

Some tourbillon watches cost even more. I saw one that was going for $100,000. I was shocked to read that it wasn't even waterproof! Can you imagine spending that much and then getting it wet and ruining it?


I'm trying to pick out a very nice watch for my dad to give him as a birthday gift. I'm really unfamiliar with watches, but after reading this, I think that the tourbillon type might be a good choice.

Can anyone tell me what I could expect to spend on one? I have a budget of a few hundred dollars. Will that be enough to purchase one of these watches?

I know that it is a luxury watch, but I can't imagine any watch costing more than maybe four hundred dollars. Is it possible to get a tourbillon for this price or lower?


@Oceana – No, they don't spin around that quickly. My dad owns a tourbillon wristwatch, and his only rotates once a minute, so it takes its time.

You only notice the motion if you are checking your watch often. Otherwise, it is just something that happens in the background of your life. I can't imagine anyone being dangerously distracted by a tourbillon.

It looks really neat. There are so many styles of tourbillon watches out there, but all of them look so complex and full of intricate parts. I haven't seen a tourbillon watch that I didn't like.


So, if “tourbillon” means “whirlwind,” does this mean that the tourbillon rotates very rapidly within the watch? I have never seen one of these, so I am curious.

When I think of a whirlwind, I think of something that spins around so fast that all you can see is a blur. Do tourbillons spin around like this?

If they do, it seems like that would be distracting to the wearer of the watch. I know that if I had something constantly spinning on my wrist, it would always be catching my eye while I'm trying to work. This could be dangerous for some people.


is it the same as CD or DVD? the picture is not clear :-?

Post your comments
Forgot password?