What is a Tourbillon Watch and Why are They So Expensive?

I know a tourbillon watch is one of the most expensive options on the market. But I was still shocked when I delved into a few online retailers. The most unbelievable example is the Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon Celestial Minute Repeater, which comes in at just under $2,000,000. No, that’s not a typo. Although alternate other options are more affordable, that price point shows you how sought after this complication is. But what it is? What is its purpose? And why does it drive price up so much? I’ll answer these questions and more in the sections below.

What is a Tourbillon Watch?

Before explaining this complication, let’s go over how mechanical watches work. In general, these pieces have an area in them that is called an escapement.

front view of a Tourbillon Watch

It is made up of a hairspring and a balance wheel, and it makes the watch tick through rotating motion. The shortcoming of this design is that gravity sometimes affects it in an unfavorable way, and you get inconsistent timekeeping as a result. What the tourbillon does is put that escapement in a rotating cage rather than being in a fixed position. The result, in theory, is that those changes in gravity have little to no effect. If you trust that theory, these watches should keep better time than their conventional counterparts.

What They Are Technically Used For?

As I alluded to above, tourbillons are supposed to make watches more accurate and do so by negating the effects of uneven gravity and positioning. What is so interesting about their popularity is that in practice, the accuracy of these watches versus traditional mechanical pieces is negligible. So, why do people spend thousands of dollars to purchase them?

Three Basic Variants

If you’re interested in purchasing one of these pieces, you have three basic options to choose from aside from a traditional tourbillon:

  • Flying – This variety allows you to have a better view of the complication, as it removes some pieces of material that tend to keep it out of sight.
  • Multi Axis – While conventional tourbillons rotate in just one direction, the multi-axis variety does so in many planes. While there is no functional use to this method, it makes for a more beautiful view.
  • Multiple – This one is simple. Some manufacturers choose to incorporate this complication multiple times in their watches, rather than just once. Again, whether this has a functional effect on timekeeping is still debatable. People instead purchase these pieces for the feat of engineering that goes into them.

Why People Actually Buy Them

side of a Tourbillon Watch with sea background

Like many other watch complications and features, the reason that people love them is the craftsmanship involved in making them. These little devices can be incredibly hard to create, and there is nothing horology enthusiasts love more than having a complex piece of machinery on their wrists. The fans of tourbillons are really just people that respect the difficulty that goes into building these machines, not people who pay a premium for a complication that may or may not even improve a watches timekeeping ability.

Why You Might Want to Purchase One

Perhaps the most important question is whether you should purchase one of these watches or not. To help you choose, let’s discuss a few reasons why people love them.

brown leather wallet with US dollars inside

  • Craftsmanship – The tourbillon is one of the most impressive pieces of engineering that a watch manufacturer can manage. Some even call it the pinnacle of craftsmanship. If that appeals to you, buying one of these pieces might be a good idea.
  • Aesthetics – One of the most enjoyable aspects of having this complication. As a result, you can watch it spin and work whenever you want.
  • Clout – Lastly, there is a certain amount of clout that comes with owning one of these watches.

Why You Might Not

Despite the positives of tourbillons, many choose to pass on them due to the following negatives.

front view of Blancpain Tourbillon watch

  • Price – These pieces are almost always very expensive. The cheapest of them are in the low thousands, with many Swiss brands offering them for over $50,000.
  • Unnecessary Engineering – Some view the tourbillon as entirely unnecessary and would prefer to have a simpler piece.
  • Flashiness – These watches are usually somewhat large and often show the tourbillon on the dial. If you prefer an understated look, you may want to go in a different direction.

Now that you know what a tourbillon watch is, what they do, why they are so expensive, and why you may or may not want to buy one — you can make an informed purchasing decision. One result may be passing on this complication but still knowing a bit more about the art of horology. The other is falling in love with tourbillon watches and deciding to add one to your collection. Either way, you can’t lose.

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