The tourbillon is an amazing feature typically only found in fine luxury timepieces. This classic watchmaker’s complication was invented in around 1795 by the French Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Luis Breguet, inspired by an earlier clock design by Englishman John Arnold. The mechanism of tourbillon is very complicated and extremely difficult to manufacture. It can only be crafted by highly skilled watchmakers with specialized tools and machinery.
Over the generations since Breguet, very few watchmakers, probably only a couple of hundreds of them, have been able to manufacture tourbillon watches. The ability to make tourbillon watches is highly regarded as the consummation of one’s craftsmanship, as a certificate of competence in fine watchmaking. The mechanism of tourbillon is often shown off on the face of the watch as a demonstration of its maker’s watchmaking virtuosity.
Even the most basic tourbillon design contains well over a hundred small parts. These delicate parts are made of exotic metals. For example titanium and beryllium are used not only for their durability but their flexibility and light weight. Jewels such as rubies are used everywhere possible in the mechanism for preventing and reducing wears and tears. The assembling and testing of a tourbillon watch mechanism is also extremely complex and time consuming – it takes as long as four months to hand craft each watch. Disassembly of the tourbillon is required at any stage when adjustment is needed and when a problem is detected regardless how small it is. To add value to the watches, precious metals such as gold and platinum are often used to make the casing which is housing the tourbillon. In fact, for many instances, the whole watch is made of precious metal except the straps which are often made from leathers such as alligator hides.It is very expensive to maintain the ability of manufacturing tourbillon watches. Very few watch workshops in the world have the capital and time to make tourbillon watches even if they have the technology and skills. It was estimated, in 1980s, that only around 600 tourbillon timepieces had ever been produced in tourbillon’s past 200 years of history. Although tourbillon manufacturing seems profitable enough, the market is very small. And the high price means only very few watch connoisseurs can afford to buy one of these watches. This further limits the production and therefore pushes the price higher.
Some also believe in the theory that the high tourbillon watch prices are partially due to the price fixing controlled by the monopoly of the Swiss watch industry. However the when Chinese watchmakers tried their hand and entered the luxury watch market with Chinese tourbillons, the prices of high end tourbillon watches have not dropped at all.
What ever the price, each piece of tourbillon watch is a piece of fine work of art made of expensive materials, time and expertise. There is nothing like the appeal of the mini museum of mechanics visual effect that distinguishes these watches. Like Ferrari cars, tourbillon watches are not for everyone because they are extremely expensive, typically carrying a six figure price tag. In fact tourbillon prices can be much higher than Ferrari cars. The Breguet 2755PR, for instance, bearing the name of the tourbillon inventor, is more expensive than a Ferrari California. The Piguet Jules Audemars Tourbillon Chronograph watch is priced at $500,000 US dollars whereas a 2010 Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano only cost around half of that money.