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Technical savoir faire: How to hack the tourbillon

A brief survey of watches which can, and how they do it.
by Peter Chong on June 1, 2016
How to stop a tourbillon. A technical discourse.

Hacking watches are commonplace. Many watches offer a way to stop the balance wheel when the crown is pulled. Some brands, notably Patek Philippe, still do not offer this on any of their watches. But watches which offer a way to hack the tourbillon is a much more unusual phenomenon. It was only as recent as 2008 that Lange introduced the Cabaret Tourbillon with a world premiere of being able to hack the tourbillon.  Since then, several other watches have offered the stop tourbillon feature. This is a survey on the prominent ones, and a commentary on the technical savoir faire.

 

Lange Cabaret Tourbillon

Announced in 2008, non limited but discontinued. Approximately €180,000 for pink gold in 2008. Our estimate is about 120 pieces in total were made.

 

Lange Cabaret Tourbillon. The world's first tourbillon which can be hacked.

Lange Cabaret Tourbillon. The world’s first tourbillon which can be hacked.

 

We covered the original launch event of the Lange Cabaret Tourbillon back in 2008, with an almost live post on the watch on our old platform. You can read that report here. As mentioned, this was the first watch to offer a hack the tourbillon feature. Typical of the German reasoning, if the tourbillon was to offer a more accurate and consistent timekeeping rate, there should be a way to set it accurately. In a non-tourbillon watch which does not hack, one can often pull the crown, and turn it backwards. The friction is often enough to stop the balance, and sometimes even cause the seconds hand to go backwards. We recommend doing this as the seconds is near to 12, and hold the position till the time signal beeps top of the minute before giving the crown a quick push to return it to home position, and restart the watch. But this does not work for tourbillons. The cage is driven directly by the third wheel, and often there is too much torque to allow the slight friction from the crown to stop it.

In a tourbillon, hacking was never considered till 2008. So for 200 years since A.L. Breguet invented the tourbillon, a watch so equipped is not able to be set precisely. There was the fear that the tourbillon might not restart after being stopped. And that even if it restarted, the balance and tourbillon cage coming up to operatin speed might cause accuracy issues. The Lange Cabaret demonstrated that these were just fears. And in practice, it could be done without sacrificing accuracy and consistency of the watch’s timekeeping ability.

 

The brass fingers in contact with the tourbillon balance wheel.

The brass fingers in contact with the tourbillon balance wheel.

 

The Lange Cabaret solves this by having a special lever with two asymmetrical and distinctively shaped fingers. In home position, the lever rests with neither finger in contact with the escapement. But when the crown is pulled, the second position causes the lever to be pushed towards the escapement. The fingers are shaped to ensure that either one finger will come into contact with the tourbillon cage, and the other in contact with the balance wheel, or both in coming into contact with the cage and balance. Stopping either the cage or the balance will stop the entire movement, so effecting the hack. So there is double security is built into the patented system. Pushing the crown back to home position, reverts the fingers to their home position, and release the escapement, allowing it to quickly restart. Both actions to stop and restart are snappy, and evokes the impression of precision.

This method uses the friction forces of the contact of the finger to the escapement to stop it. Some critics have voiced concerns that it is brutal, though it is not any more brutal than hacking a regular watch. And there is some rate lost as the tourbillon and balance catches up to speed after it is released. Practically this is negligible, as the balances typically comes to full speed within half an oscillation.

 

Moritz Grossmann Benu Tourbillon

Announced in 2013. Limited edition 50 pieces in white gold. €168,000.

 

The Moritz Grossmann Benu Tourbillon.

The Moritz Grossmann Benu Tourbillon.

 

Moritz Grossmann is also from the Glashütte area. In 2013, they introduced their Benu Tourbillon which also feature a stop tourbillon mechanism. The Grossmann story is quite interesting. We tell that story and a quick review of the Benu Tourbillon here.

In the Benu Tourbillon the way the tourbillon and the way it is stopped is rather interesting. First, the tourbillon is a three minute tourbillon. Not common. The visual impact of a cage making one revolution every 3 minutes is rather less interesting than one which does so every 1 minute.

 

The 20 or so strands of Christine's blonde hair shown here making contact with the balance wheel, stopping the movement.

The 20 or so strands of Christine’s blonde hair shown here making contact with the balance wheel, stopping the movement.

 

And instead of a metal finger to make contact to the cage or the balance wheel, the method Grossmann chose to hack the watch is by a brush made of human hair which makes contact. The claim is that this method is more gentle. In our observation, the snap precision of the Lange system is lacking. Instead, the Benu’s tourbillon slows to a stop gradually, as per the claim. Restart is almost instantaneous, though still lacking the snap and precision of the Lange.

What we find curious is the brush is made of about 20 strands of Christine Hutter’s hair. Who is Christine? She is the CEO and the one who re-founded the brand. Why her hair, we asked Christine. She replied, “oh, we tested several, and found that it had just the right rigidity and flexibility.” Now this author has known Christine since 1997/98, and he loves her to bits, but truth be told, even he is a bit perturbed by the thought of having Christine’s DNA in the watch. Some other commentators have wondered if reviving the brand has gone to her head so much that she thinks her customers want strands of her hair in their watch? Might not an artificial fiber be more suitable? And yet others wonder what happens when the time comes, say 20 or 50 years from now, when Christine is no longer with us, how does one service the watch and enable it to stop the tourbillon?

 

Grönefeld Parallax Tourbillon

Announced in 2014. 28 pieces limited edition in red gold € 137,450. 12 pieces in stainless steel € 134,250, 5 pieces in platinum € 149.850. We understand all the steel is sold out, and only 1 platinum and a few pieces in red gold left. GPHG winner for Best Tourbillon 2014.

 

Grönefeld Parallax Tourbillon.

Grönefeld Parallax Tourbillon. The DNA carried over from their One Hertz is apparent in the dial layout and design.

 

In 2014, the Grönefeld brothers introduced their Parallax Tourbillon. We reviewed the watch here.

 

Grönefeld Parallax Tourbillon, showing the one armed bridge for the escapement of the tourbillon.

Grönefeld Parallax Tourbillon, showing the one armed bridge for the escapement of the tourbillon.

 

The Grönefelds introduce yet another system.  The system consists of a finger which is actuated by pulling the crown. In the home position, the finger is away from the entire escapement. On the second position, it moves into the loci below the tourbillon cage. On the tourbillon cage, the brothers attach another finger, sticking out from under the cage. The two fingers will eventually make contact as the cage revolves, causing the cage to stop once it does. When the first finger is released to its home position, it unblocks the second finger, and the tourbillon spins up to speed again. The location of the second finger is such that it will always be stopped when the seconds hand is at 0. A very simple, but ingenious system. And it works perfectly.

 

Lange 1815 Tourbillon

Announced in 2014, still available in platinum and pink gold. € 132,500 in pink gold. A special version, the 1815 Tourbillon Handwerkskuntz € 186,000 was also announced in 2015, limited edition of 30 pieces and sold out. 

 

The Lange 1815 Tourbillon with stop tourbillon and zero reset.

The Lange 1815 Tourbillon with stop tourbillon and zero reset.

 

Lange installed the stop mechanism in all their tourbillons which have been introduced since the Cabaret Tourbillon. And in 2014, it upped the ante with the 1815 Tourbillon.

 

Lange 1815 Tourbillon

Lange 1815 Tourbillon. The zero reset lever can be seen just below the hour/minute hands ready to strike to reset the seconds hand. The stop tourbillon fingers are not visible in this picture.

 

The 1815 Tourbillon adds an additional layer of complexity. The seconds hand is friction coupled at the arbor to the tourbillon pinion. Affixed on the seconds hand arbor is a heart shaped cam. When the crown is pulled, it not only activates the hacking mechanism as described above, it also activates a spring loaded lever, causing it to strike the heart shaped cam. This causes the seconds hand to return to zero. This same system is first used in the Langematic Sax-0-mat in 1998, and is common use to reset the chronograph hand of a chronograph watch. Elegant, and using proven techniques. But Lange was the first to do this.

The results are very impressive, and re-enforces the teutonic aura of precision. As when the crown is pulled, the tourbillon is immediately arrested, and the seconds snaps precisely back to zero. Allowing time setting at ease. Pushing the crown back releases both mechanisms, and the movement comes back to live. In our view this is the most advanced tourbillon hacking system to date, with the inclusion of its zero reset function.

 

Montblanc  TimeWalker ExoTourbillon Minute Chronograph LE100

Announced 2016, limited edition of 100 pieces in a titanium/carbon fibre case. S$62,000 (converts to € 38,000)

 

Montblanc TimeWalker ExoTourbillon Minute Chronograph LE100

Montblanc TimeWalker ExoTourbillon Minute Chronograph LE100

 

The Montbland TimeWalker ExoTourbillon is a gamechanger. The watch is available for a very attractive price for a chronograph, tourbillon. The speciality on the tourbillon is the ExoTourbillon.

 

The small minute tourbillon cage is the centre piece of the dial, seen here with nicely chamfered bridges.

The small minute tourbillon cage is the centre piece of the dial, seen here with nicely chamfered bridges.

 

The balance is larger than its cage, and sits exposed with the carriage below, carrying the escapement components. To stop the tourbillon, Montblanc uses a system where a brass lever comes into contact with the balance, just like in a non-tourbillon watch. Stopping the balance stops the watch. Interesting variation.

 

Concluding thoughts

 

So the journey and know how to stop the tourbillon has come a long way in its short history. Only 8 years since Lange first showed that the tourbillon can be hacked without any compromise in accuracy and consistency, and we have several methods displayed. The Lange system of 2008 is patented, otherwise we think there may be more tourbillons which will use the Lange system. It is the most direct, and the is remarkably effective. It also offers a visual spectacle to see the snappy stop, and restart. One which evokes a sensation of precision and German efficiency. The Grossmann system is gentler, if a bit icky (yes, the DNA thing). It is also the most expensive, not counting the first Lange Cabaret Tourbillon as the market is not yet established and pricing in 2008 was a guess. Lange corrected this with subsequent hacking tourbillons. The 1815 Tourbillon is considerably less expensive. Though the 1815 Tourbillon Handwerkskundst which features a special dial carries a higher price. The Grönefeld solved it in a very simple, yet elegant way. And the Montblanc method is just an extension of the hacking mechanism of the non-tourbillon escapement, and is the least expensive watch in this survey. Each has its own merits. But for us the system in the Lange 1815 Tourbillon represents the current state of the art.

We think we have covered the current crop of tourbillons which feature a hacking mechanism. Do let us know if you think we may have missed one or two.

 

 

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