Tourbillon Returns, Defying Economic Gravity

New York Times, January 16, 2011

GENEVA — In the high-end watch trade, few designs captured the brashness of the economic boom years better than the tourbillon. The beautiful revolving mechanism patented by the watchmaker Abraham-Louis Bréguet in 1801 counteracts the effects of gravity on the gears of a mechanical timepiece.

Often made visible through a cutout on the dial of a modern watch, the showy device was designed to improve the accuracy of pocket watches, which tend to be carried upright. In a wristwatch, the tourbillon is superfluous. That did not stop watchmakers from flooding the market with exorbitantly priced models, the ubiquity of which became a source of scorn when the global economic crisis ushered in leaner times and tastes.

Now, one sign that the industry is confident about the nascent economic recovery is the unabashed pride that many makers are taking in touting their newest tourbillons.

“I was told that the tourbillon was going to be a staple, like chronographs, and it does appear to be going that way,” said Joe Thompson, editor of Watch Time, a specialty watch publication. He acknowledged that the trend seemed to conflict with the news of government budget cuts and debt elimination. “It doesn’t match the new austerity.”

Visitors to the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, opening here this week, could be forgiven for thinking, “What austerity?” At Greubel Forsey, a boutique brand that produces about 100 complicated timepieces a year, the big news is the introduction of the Invention Piece 2. The limited edition model features two double tourbillon systems arranged head to tail across its dial — a quadruple tourbillon, in other words — for the anything-but-austere price of $800,000.

“People who have great passion for timepieces understand and appreciate the art of authentic watchmaking and look for high-end watches,” said the firm’s co-founder, Stephen Forsey. “They pay attention to new technical developments, to the highest level of finishing and decoration, to refined aesthetics.”

Judging by the flurry of exclusive introductions in Geneva this week, brands at the top of the watchmaking pyramid believe there are plenty of affluent buyers to go around. The German brand A. Lange & Söhne is unveiling its new Richard Lange Tourbillon “Pour le Mérite,” for example.

Inspired by the creations of Johann Heinrich Seyffert, an 18th century watchmaker-explorer from the firm’s native Saxony, the pink gold version will cost buyers a comparatively affordable $175,600.

Watchmakers intent on producing tourbillons yet mindful of the Zeitgeist are placing an emphasis on models bearing slimmer, more understated profiles.

Take the new Piaget Emperador Coussin Tourbillon Automatic Ultra-Thin, for example. Billed as the world’s thinnest automatic tourbillon, the watch is just 10.4 millimeters, or two-fifths of an inch, thick. Industry-watchers have speculated that it will cost about $225,000.

Thin is also in at Richard Mille, which is unveiling its RM 017 Tourbillon Extra Flat this week. The manual wind titanium timepiece measures just 8.7 millimeters from top to bottom, a feat of engineering that is as much about watchmaking competence as aesthetics.

As a general rule, sober, unadorned styles are the defining looks for 2011.

Whether that is a concession to the post-crisis mood or an attempt to appeal to the fast-growing ranks of classically minded Chinese buyers, depends on your outlook. “The global view is that the crisis is over, the industry is well on its way to recovery and thank God for the Asians,” Mr. Thompson said.

It does appear that the Swiss owe a debt of gratitude to someone. From January to November 2010, watch exports grew 22 percent from the level of the previous year, to 14.6 billion Swiss francs, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.

“In terms of exports, the industry will finish at the same level as 2007, the second best year in Swiss watch history,” Mr. Thompson added.