In 1795, ingenious inventor Abraham-Louis Breguet had the idea (patented on June 26, 1801) to neutralize a cause of inaccuracy, namely the influence of gravity on the centre of gravity of the balance, through a special device. Here escape wheel, lever and balance wheel are placed on a small plate in a so-called bogey, a cage sitting on the shaft of the seconds wheel. As the seconds wheel turns, now also the bogie itself turns once per minute (hence also minutes tourbillon), so any position or centre of gravity errors are compensated.
Due to the high accuracy now also reached by usual mechanisms the tourbillon is now just a highly exclusive luxury addition. However, he is regarded as the summit feature of exceptionally valuable watches. Development of this mechanism took many years, and after two experimental models were created (the first of which was given to the son of John Arnold in 1809), a commercial model was created in 1805. This watch was shown at the National Exhibition of Industrial Products in October 1806. 35 examples were built and sold before Breguet's death in 1823.
In the 1920s, Alfred Helwig, specialist subject teacher at the German Watchmaker School Glashütte, invented the Flying tourbillon, which in contrast to the simple tourbillon is suspended only one-sided.
A double axis tourbillon is one which rotates in two directions at once. Invented and patented by Anthony Randall in 1977, it was first constructed the following year by Richard Good. The first watch to include a double-axis tourbillon was created by Thomas Prescher in 2003, who also created the first flying double axis tourbillon the following year. Also in 2003, Greubel Forsey introduced their “Double Tourbillon” which inclined a tourbillon inside a rotating cage. They followed up in 2003 with a “Quadruple Tourbillon à Différentiel”, two double tourbillons connected together. Other well-known double tourbillons in this era were created by Franck Muller and Jaeger-LeCoultre with their 2004 Gyrotourbillon and later Spherotourbillon models.
One issue with tourbillon movements is the difficulty in implementing a hacking or “stop seconds” feature. Because the escapement is in constant motion, it is difficult to position a lever to stop it. It was not until 2008 that A. Lange & Söhne implemented a stop seconds feature on a tourbillon, and 2014 when the same company added a zeroing feature.
As early as 1876, Ernest Guinand of Le Locle created a 14 ligne (31.9 mm) tourbillon movement. He would build two more compact tourbillon movements in later years. Girard-Perregaux created a three-bridge tourbillon movement with a detent escapement in 1890. Although wrist watches did not exist at that time, this 30 mm diameter movement could be considered the first movement small enough for use on the wrist.
The first successful tourbillon wristwatch was created by Dr. James Pellaton, director of the watchmaking school in Le Locle. His prototype was created in 1927 and was tested by the Swiss Horological Research Laboratory in Neuchâtel. It measured 10.5 ligne in diameter, and Pellaton confidently predicted that no smaller tourbillon movement was possible. Coverage in 1958 claimed it was the most expensive watch in the world due to the complexity of its creation, at over $7,500. In 1945, Pellaton's apprentice Robert Charrue, created a tiny 8.75 ligne movement, which remains among the smallest ever.
In 1930, Edouard Belin of the Besançon Watchmaking School created a compact tonneau tourbillon movement on a Lip ebauche. Lip would later create wristwatch prototypes using their T18 shaped movement, including a fully-cased tourbillon wristwatch prototype in 1948. But Lip did not produce a commercial watch using their movement.
Omega is commonly recognized for the tourbillon movement they created for chronometer competition in 1947. Omega Cal. 30l set a new record for performance at the Geneva Observatory in 1950 and was even cased as a wristwatch at that time. But there was no market for such a watch so the project remained a curiosity, with an under-developed competition movement.
Patek Philippe was actively developing a tourbillon pocket watch in the 1980s, with a skeleton model shown in 1981. A one-off “grande complication” pocket watch from Dominique Loiseau, with a detent escapement and tourbillon, was shown in 1982. It incorporated a grande sonnerie and perpetual calendar with moon phase and used over 600 components. A similar detent-escapement tourbillon pocket watch with three golden bridges from Girard-Perregaux was exhibited at the Basel Fair in 1983, reminiscent of their movement of nearly a century earlier. This watch was stolen in 1990 while being mailed to a buyer.
Audemars Piguet was the first to create a tourbillon wristwatch for the market, however. Launched at the Basel Fair in 1986, the Audemars Piguet Tourbillon featured automatic winding and was paired with an unusual rounded rectangular case. The open heart aperture at the 11 00 corner of the case shows the tourbillon rotating, with guilloche rays emanating from it. This was the smallest tourbillon ever created as well, and represented the rebirth of mechanical watchmaking.
Franck Muller presented a jumping hour tourbillon watch with a regulator dial in 1986. It was a one-off creation, but he would return with a minute repeater tourbillon in 1987 and would add a perpetual calendar in 1989. He returned to Basel in 1991 with a split-seconds chronograph tourbillon, and added a perpetual calendar to that watch in 1992. This rapid development was the basis for his epithet, “Master of Complications.”
Gérald Genta was next to produce a tourbillon wristwatch, in 1989, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the brand with a minute repeater. Consisting of 628 components, it was developed in Le Brassus, perhaps by Frédéric Piguet. Blancpain supplied a similar tourbillon minute repeater to Asprey's of London in 1990. Blancpain would offer their own tourbillon wristwatch using the Frédéric Piguet movement in 1991.
Daniel Roth was famous for his tourbillon wristwatches, with his 1991 Tourbillon Chronometer being the first of a series of such watches and the first in modern times to be awarded a chronometer certificate.
The next great tourbillon wristwatch came in 1992 from IWC. Il Destriero Scafusia was a grand complication with a tourbillon, perpetual calendar, split-seconds chronograph, and minute repeater. That same year saw a new automatic tourbillon watch from Audemars Piguet which was more conventional than their groundbreaking first model 6 years earlier. The resurgent Breguet brand created a skeleton tourbillon in 1993, reuniting the complication with the brand named for its creation. Finally there was Jaeger-LeCoultre which fitted a tiny tourbillon into the Reverso case in 1993.
Another important development at that time was Kiu Tai Yu's No. 4, a tourbillon with minute repeater and perpetual calendar. It was the first tourbillon watch developed in Asia, and helped earn the watchmaker a place in the AHCI.
With every brand seeing a tourbillon as their entry into haute horology, many more brands jumped into the field. In 2005, so many tourbillons were shown at the major watch shows that the industry declared it the “Year of the Tourbillon”, though the complication had been appearing every year for two decades.
A similar mechanism is the carousel which uses a gear to drive the rotating balance and escapement, typically attached to the fourth wheel. In contrast, a true tourbillon rotates on its own on its bogey. Because they appear and function similarly, carousels are often called “tourbillons” by unsophisticated commentators.