In the late 1700s, famed watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet came to the realization that gravity was having ill effects on the accuracy of his timepieces. Horology at the time was confined to clocks and pocket watches, the latter of which were constantly stored vertically in the user’s pocket or horizontally on a table. Spending the majority of its time stuck in these orientations put strain on the hairspring inside the escapement, causing it to oscillate at an irregular rate, decreasing the accuracy of the watch.
Breguet’s solution was to create an escapement (the structure that regulates timekeeping and which you can often see oscillating through display casebacks even on basic mechanical watches) that was itself constantly in a state of motion. Called the tourbillon (French for “whirlwind”), the escapement is housed in a rotating cage that, because of the constant motion, averages out the effect of gravity when the watch is stuck in different positions.
Breguet’s invention worked for the pocket watch. But wristwatches, with the wrist’s constant movement, naturally offer the same gravity-fighting effect as the tourbillon mechanism. In fact, it's been proven that tourbillons offer no more accuracy than a traditional escapement on a wristwatch, and are in some cases even less so.
In spite of the tourbillon’s evident uselessness, it's become common among the upper echelon of the watch market. Most Swiss-made examples start at around $40,000 and price tags often break the six-figure barrier. You'll find that many of the most expensive modern watches that cost well into six figures (and sometimes even more) at least include a tourbillon.
This is because tourbillons are arguably one the most difficult features for watchmakers and require expert hand-assembly. The tourbillon mechanism is tiny, weighing in at under a gram, and is usually crafted with more than 40 parts, typically finished by hand and made from lightweight metals like aluminum and titanium. They require a special set of tools and a lot of time to make — by only the most highly trained craftspeople. At least, that's the way toubillons are traditionally made and understood.
Due to the cost of these features and their eye-catching complexity, they've become a prestige symbol that many watchmakers choose to display twitching away right on the dial. It's a little ironic that the tourbillon has become part of almost every high-end watchmaker's repertoire. Just about any watch brand operating in the "haute horlogerie" space will make this feature part of their halo product offerings — to the point that the tourbillon might not seem that exotic anymore.
Unsurprisingly, the tourbillon's status has also created the drive for brands to offer more affordable versions. Some Swiss brands are even in this game, and manufacturers in China have managed to create respectable tourbillon movements that retail for under $5,000. Meanwhile, you'll find brands you never heard of selling tourbillon watches for hundreds rather than thousands.
“Today we have production methods which allow us to produce spare parts in extremely high precision and acceptable quality,” independent haute watchmaker Thomas Prescher said in an interview with Europa Star. “So it is already possible to have extremely cheap tourbillons from the Far East for about $250.”
So, if the value of a tourbillon stems from the fact that it is essentially art — painstakingly crafted expressions of the pinnacle of watchmaking, even if they don’t have any real useful function — affordability comes at the cost of creating a less complex and less beautiful timepiece. It renders a mostly pointless movement entirely pointless.