Most watch collectors are familiar with the name Abraham Louis Breguet. Considered by most to be among the finest and most talented horologists of all time, his watches became the preferred choice of nobility, with commissions from kings, queens and emperors alike. Today his name lives on through the exquisite and extraordinarily expensive timepieces produced under the Breguet name through the stewardship of the Swatch Group. Even though his watches were, and still are, beyond the means of your average collector, at least his most famous invention, the tourbillon escapement, has been made available to almost anyone who loves mechanical watches.
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So what is a tourbillon?
Basically a tourbillon is a mechanical watch with the timekeeping “assembly” (the balance wheel with hair-spring, the escape wheel and the pallet/lever) mounted within a mobile cage or platform. This cage or platform will rotate on one or more axes to mitigate the effect of gravity on the ticking heart of the movement. To be sure, Breguet’s tourbillon escapement was an amazing feat of both intellect and engineering, one that was particularly appropriate in 1801. Considering the fact that a pocketwatch would likely remain in the same orientation for hours on end, and the wristwatch was 100 years away, the invention made sense and advanced the potential for accuracy in its day.
Fast forward to 1986
In the modern era we have observed the evolution of the mechanical watch as it migrated from pocket to wrist. More recently we’ve witnessed the entry, dominance, and settling of quartz watches launched in the 1970’s, as well as a return to favor of mechanical timepieces a little over a decade later. 1986 was also the year that the historic tourbillon escapement first found its way into a commercially available wristwatch. Produced by Audemars Piguet, this wrist tourbillon punctuated the very beginning of the race to create modern mechanical complications for the wrist. Still well beyond the means of most, AP’s own wrist tourbillon, like the brands that followed, carried a price tag that restricted ownership to a relatively small number of wealthy patrons. As the mechanical watch’s renaissance gained momentum in the 1990’s, the list of brands proposing a tourbillon of their own grew substantially, but with few exceptions these watches remained at or near six figure investments.
Enter the Dragon
As we crossed into the new millennium an unsuspecting Swiss watch industry was about to take a blow to their ego. A Chinese manufacturer (Seagull) had managed to manufacture a tourbillon of their own. Reverse engineered from a standard carrousel type, and later followed by a central axis type. These early models were both mocked and adored simultaneously. Swiss & German manufacturers could hardly believe that the curtain had been pulled back on reality. It was no longer credible to project that the ONLY way this amazing mechanism could be achieved was by the secret arts of horological necromancers as they hunched over a work bench for weeks on end breathing life into Master Breguet’s brainchild. On the other side of the coin from the elitist snobbery were the salivating hordes of everyday collectors. Suddenly that which was only an unattainable pipedream had been brought within reach of the unwashed masses. Costing about the same as a good Swiss sourced chronograph movement, the first commercially available tourbillion movements from the Far East began to appear on the market. In the very early days the price hangover from the European predecessors seemed to have a lingering effect, and even though the movements themselves cost around the same as a decent Swiss Made mechanical chronograph, some of the first Chinese tourbillions retailed for hefty fees around $10,000.
Stuhrling Sets The Stage
Having decided early on to eschew the costs of major sponsorships and ambassadors, Stuhrling’s founder, Henry Fischer had a mission to build a company “that imbued the ethos of affordability, where luxury watches were not limited to distinguished captains of industry”. This ideology was, and is, a perfect fit with AboutTime’s own goal of highlighting watches within reach of the majority, and we are proud to have placed them on the premier issue of AboutTime a little over two years ago. Although Stuhrling’s watches run the gamut from classical to sport, men’s, women’s and unisex models alike, they all share one defining factor; each watch they make has a strong value argument and you always get a lot of watch for the money. With this strategy in mind, Fischer looked closely at the potential of the newly minted tourbillon movments for his own brand.
Back to the Tourbillon
To have an affordable complication like the tourbillon as part of their line made perfect sense for Stuhrling, but quality of construction and accuracy had to be considered. Reverse engineering a tourbillon is one thing, but making it robust enough in mass production had to be confirmed: how did they perform? What was the fit and finish like? How well were they made and what kind of quality controls and accuracy could be expected from the Far East manufacturer(s) were all questions that had to be answered. Stuhrling’s own watchmakers tested, vetted, and even refined certain elements of these watches and continue to visit the production facility at least twice every year to insure that they are getting the best possible movements, as well as discover any new innovations proposed for their watches. Current CEO Chaim Fischer was both excited at the possibility and concerned about his own brand’s image: “We were cautious at first and wanted to be sure that these new movements would perform to Stuhrling’s – and more importantly our customer’s, expectations.”
Full Speed Ahead
Once the new movements passed muster it was time to design face and case to carry the newly demotic engines within. Classicism ruled the day for the most part with elegant guilloche’ pattern dials, windows to frame the tourbillon, and see-through backs to view the nicely decorated plates and bridges. Coin-edge cases and crowns compliment some versions, while ceramic and PVD versions create a modern feel. As you might expect you’ll see skeletonized versions in a variety of looks. Added complications like power reserves, day/night indicators and 24 hour sub-dials are also part of the current variety. Stuhrling even offers an unusual sporty take on the type with their Phantom series.
Although not by definition Swiss-Made, Stuhrling’s tourbillions are assembled in Switzerland and individually tested. The few I’ve personally run through the paces run as accurately as any well-regulated mechanical watch and are robust, well designed, and everything a mid-level watch collector could want. They look great from a distance as well under the loupe and are well worth your attention. All the usual qualities you’d expect: sapphire crystals, 316L stainless steel, water resistance, double deployant safety clasps holding genuine alligator and more are all part of the Stuhrling build. Retail prices can range from $2,000 up to as much as $9,999 for the more complex Saturnalia edition, but savvy collectors will find Stuhrling’s best prices on brand new tourbillions available on Amazon for substantially less than you might expect.