History often treats the engineering marvels of the 21st century as exponentially more virtuosic than what came before, but consider the tourbillon. Created in 1795 by the Paris-based watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet, a favourite of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the mechanism (French for “whirlwind”) is perhaps the most esoteric and elegant watch complication ever conceived. Born of horology’s obsession with maintaining accuracy to the millisecond, the tourbillon counteracts the effect of the earth’s gravity by constantly rotating the cage that holds the timepiece’s balance wheel, balance spring and escapement while the movement is running. The idea was to eliminate errors in rate — the loss or gain in time that would arise if the watch stayed too long in one position — by crafting an internal apparatus that continually turned on an axis. Such a marvel of intricacy must be witnessed to be fully understood: It is as transfixing as watching a heart beat. In this new incarnation by the Swiss company Vacheron Constantin, which has specialized in rarefied timepieces since its founding in 1755, you can stare at it all you want through the round porthole at the bottom of the blue lacquer dial or through its sapphire crystal back. Because the case is fashioned from stainless steel instead of the platinum or gold used for most tourbillon watches, this exemplar of late 18th-century ingenuity seems decidedly contemporary — and, perhaps, ever so slightly less beyond our grasp.
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