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“There’s no earthly way of knowing… which direction we are going. There’s no knowing where we’re rowing… or which way the river’s flowing. Is it raining, is it snowing; is a hurricane a blowing?”

Thus begins a mind-job like none other, a journey down a darkened tunnel, images racing by with disturbing visages that stick in your brain like that song in the elevator this morning. People screaming, children crying, all the while a boat they’re riding, going faster, moving deeper, fearing they will meet their maker!

Phew, sorry about that, got a little into the rhyming mood with that quote from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory bouncing around my head. That scene, a psychedelic trip into the mind of Wonka himself, is probably the most memorable scene from that movie. Take a look to jog your memory.


But why is that scene of any relation to this article? Well it’s that first sentence in the quote, a perfect description to the wonder that people experience when they first see the subject of today’s article. Little machines that move like magic, rotating and spinning in different directions that make your mind freeze so that you don’t miss a second. Today I don’t want to talk about one specific watch. Instead I want to discuss the invention that made me cross the line from watch fan to Watch Idiot Savant – the Tri-Axial Tourbillon!

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Now to be fair, I call it that because the first version I saw was the Franck Muller Revolution 3 Tri-Axial Tourbillon. It was the most amazing mechanism I had ever seen in my life and caused me to go from a simple boy who liked watches but didn’t know much about them to a man who made it his life mission to understand every aspect of horology that he could! To some, that is when I lost my mind, but to other WIS, that is when I found my home. I was a modelmaking student at the time and even took an entire semester to make a desktop model of a Tri-Axial Tourbillon for myself. That semester I knew I had a long way to go to truly understand the magic behind this little mechanism.

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My Student Model

Jump forward a few years and I discover more brands and more versions called the multi-axis tourbillon, triple axis tourbillon, gyrotourbillon and the love affair is cemented. Here is where it gets complicated though. As I delved into the world of horology, I learned many a technical fact about movements, their features, and what aids in accuracy and consistency. So imagine my surprise when I discovered the modern day tourbillon in a wristwatch was pretty much useless as a means of making the watch more accurate. It was a sad day indeed. The inclined double tourbillon of Greubel Forsey does aid in accuracy however, proven by their 2011 International Timing Competition victory with an astounding score of 915 out of 1000.

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Even with this new found knowledge, I cannot be swayed. When I see a 3-axis tourbillon, I find myself incapable of speaking. I just want to stare for hours and hours! First let’s break down what a triple-axis tourbillon is, what it does, and how it stands out as the pinnacle of tourbillon manufacturing. Then I’ll get back to why I love it so much.

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A 3-axis tourbillon or tri-axial tourbillon are the same things made by different watchmakers or companies. By definition, it is a balance wheel that is mounted in a series of cages that rotate the balance over a defined period in 3 different axes (yes that is the correct way to spell axis plural). The basic setup is like this: In the center you have a balance wheel mounted in a standard tourbillon cage rotating at a specified rate, usually in the 30 second to 2 minute range. This varies depending on model, balance wheel, and intended purpose. Next, this rotating cage is mounted in a second cage that usually rotates in the opposite direction at a much slower pace, usually 2 to 4 times as slow. That cage is then mounted, depending on construction, to a third rotating gear or cage that completes the dance in another direction, usually rolling the two interior cages. Here are a few different examples of the tourbillon cages.

The Franck Muller Revolution 3 Tri-Axial Tourbillon

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The Thomas Prescher Triple Axis Tourbillon

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The Harry Winston Histoire de Tourbillon 4

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The Vianney Halter Deep Space Tourbillon (Probably the biggest watch-NERD watchmaker and watch out there, and that is a good thing!)

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The Bexei Primus Triple Axis Tourbillon

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And for good measure even though it’s a double axis tourbillon, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Gyrotourbillon 3

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I have to admit that I love the Gyrotourbillon a lot simply because it looks like and moves similarly to a triple axis tourbillon so it’s my honorable mention in the category. (Seriously though, at this point it’s all ridiculously awesome so who cares, really?)

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What makes multi-axis tourbillons so much more difficult than standard tourbillons and carrousels is the way the cages need to be made. A typical tourbillon is a fight against weight. To be able to provide enough power to keep that cage spinning it must be ludicrously light. Around the same weight as a couple postage stamps light! Now think about adding two more cages to that spinning mass and your heart should sink. The cages are bigger and have multiple parts added to them which drives up weight even further. So they must be made oh-so thin and yet sturdy enough to hold shape and hold tolerance as they spin. New-to-watchmaking materials like titanium and silicon make it easier now than even 20 years ago but it is still very difficult. Now you see why only a few watchmakers have stepped up and completed triple-axis tourbillons, it is more than a little difficult for people with exacting standards like watchmakers.

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That is why I love the triple axis tourbillon first off. They aren’t EVERYHWERE like standard tourbillons and they might actually have some appreciable effect on timekeeping (though it’s still debatable). The Chinese have been making “cheap” tourbillons for years and now they have them selling at around $350 USD. I am not speaking to quality, but still that is enticing for anyone in love with mechanics. At this most recent Hong Kong Watch & Clock Fair the Beijing Watch Factory did introduce a double axis tourbillon but it is still priced at a high $75k to $85k based on the rose gold or platinum case. So a Chinese made triple-axis tourbillon might be coming but even then, it is still a very limited complication compared to single axis tourbillons.

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Secondly I love the triple-axis tourbillon for its sheer watch engineering-nerdiness. There are many movements out there that make me drool because of complicated mechanisms and clever levers (see what I did there?) and this is a fine example of one. The knowledge that has to go into the construction of one of these is astounding, delving into metallurgy, physics, tribology (the study of lubrication, friction, and wear), engineering, and machining, not to mention all of that horology stuff too! If there was a nerd sub-category in horology it would probably be named ‘Super Complications and Multi-Axis Tourbillons.’ In fact, I just invented it! It is now an official category… that is if it wasn’t already.

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Finally, I love the emotional reaction that occurs when you see something moving like that in such a small package (keep your minds out of the gutter gentlemen). All watch complications that show intricate movement fascinate me more than any other aspect of watchmaking, and the tri-axial tourbillon is the only constantly moving super complication in a watch. I loves me a repeater, or a smoothly operating column-wheel chrono, heck, even a good ol’ single axis tourbillon; but nothing moves quite like these cages of wonder. It really is a dance of magic that your eyes can feast on as you ignore the cold world around you!

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But wait, there is another category to these super tourbillons that I haven’t even touched on yet! What is that, you might ask? Well it is the double-axis gimbaled gyroscopic tourbillon otherwise known as the Zenith Zero-G Tourbillon or the Zenith Christophe Colomb. Both models feature the complication that, through a series of conical gears that I have yet to fully dissect and understand, allows the tourbillon to remain in a horizontal position no matter what the watch itself is doing! Basically it was inspired by the marine chronometers and their gimbaled boxes. Here, just look and awe and drool.


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So with that decidedly different addition, the category gets a whole lot more interesting and simply wonderful. The mechanics of these complications look so complex that they rival the “imaginary” mechanics of that recent Omega “Co-Axial World” commercial. A simple look at these things will not unravel the mysteries, a deep understanding of mechanics and horology is the backstage pass into how these things work. I just hope to get my backstage pass someday!

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I urge you to continue on your own to discover the tri-axial tourbillons of these great watchmakers and to dive into the inner workings so as to discover the appreciation I did sitting in my college dorm, at my office at work, or wandering around Baselworld like a 5 year-old boy. It’s a magic that can sit on your wrist, and unless you live in Middle-Earth or ride the Hogwarts express, it might be your best chance!

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Franck Muller
Thomas Prescher
Harry Winston
Vianney Halter
Aaron Becsei
Zenith
Jaeger-LeCoultre

And just for fun because it falls in that watchnerd sub-category, here is the Guebelin Turbulences triple axis tourbillon pocket watch!

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No breakdown this week, there is just too much awesome and it is not possible to judge them against each other as their differences make them even more incredible. As usual, I do not own any of the images and all are found freely on the interwebs.

Come back next week for more, have a great day and DFTBA!

Cheers & Happy Watching,

Joshua
 

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Simply amazing engineering!! you can watch them for hours!! and your student model is mega cool too, would love a foot high model sitting on my desk.. may have to be my next mission...
 

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Simply amazing engineering!! you can watch them for hours!! and your student model is mega cool too, would love a foot high model sitting on my desk.. may have to be my next mission...
Thanks so much! The model actually is about 11 inches tall by 8 inches in diameter, so it is a nice, big desktop model. I'm glad you agree that hours could be lost watching these little marvels :)
 
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