Tourbillon controversy: Is the famous complication less a solution to a problem, than it is an expression of horological skill?

The other day, I came across an interesting and thought provoking analytical article, written by a certain Mr. Jean-Claude Nicolet, a watchmaker and professor in La Chaux de Fonds.

In the article, the author presents his case that the tourbillon regulator is, for all purposes, a needlessly complex horological device which consumes excessive energy, and conceals (rather than compensates for) positional errors caused by gravity’s pull, thus making the task of the observatories nearly impossible – to evaluate the precise difference between positions, and concomitantly, the true skills of the watchmakers in the demanding task of regulating a high quality watch to a truly supreme level of precision. Ultimately, when tourbillons triumphed over other watches in observatory trials, the author hypothesizes that this is due to the tourbillon’s ability to conceal it’s positional errors due to its constant “cancellation” effect, not because it was truly the ultimate solution to the problem of gravity as Breguet, who invented it, had claimed. Outside of the precise testing conditions of the observatory, the author states, the tourbillon is actually at a disadvantage, particularly within a wristwatch, which is subjected to numerous position changes throughout the day, a situation which is unfavorable to the tourbillon, whose invention came about due to the way pocket watches were worn. Ultimately, the author does not discuss some of the new multi-axis tourbillons (such as the Jaeger Le-Coultre Gyrotourbillon) which are claimed to address the specific positional realities of wristwatches; perhaps he can pick up the ball, so to speak, in a later article.

Not being an engineer nor a watchmaker, I really am not qualified to agree or disagree with Mr. Nicolet’s assessment, but I certainly do find it interesting even as a layperson, and a worthwhile counterpoint to the nearly hagiolatrous adulation often heaped upon the tourbillon. Regarding craftsmanship, the author is in full agreement that hand-crafted tourbillons ARE indeed a masterpiece, and their delicate craftsmanship prevents their construction by all but a select handful of masters. It is certainly an interesting sidenote to consider the authors point of view, and then realize how many new “not-necessarily-artisanal-tourbillons” are being produced – in fact, technology is now making it possible for crude, but functional tourbillon escapements to be produced, a true sign of the celebrity appeal of the tourbillon. Even in these watches, the tireless rotation of the tourbillon itself is most fascinating to watch, but there again, the consideration is raised – is the tourbillon – handcrafted or otherwise – a functional complication, or a highly complex toy for the watch obsessed (like myself) to gawk at through a sapphire caseback?

But, perhaps the obvious question is, “do we care?” The tourbillon is without question a beautiful and fascinating sight, and perhaps that is enough. Whether or not it confers any advantages or in fact introduces disadvantages, as Mr. Nicolet suggests, may be a moot point. One thing I am sure of, the popularity of tourbillon watches and the makers who craft them will surely continue, as long as the fascination with elite mechanical watchmaking remains strong.