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Tourbillon is the most prestigious complication in a wristwatch and has been an unrealizable dream for many watch aficionados due to the astronomical prices they are sold. The value of these types of watches is sometimes difficult to comprehend, especially given the lack of purposefulness the complication has these days.
The emergence of affordable tourbillon watches, however, has made them available to a wider public, which inevitably raising concerns about whether they’re worth the money.
Before digging into the worthiness of the cheaper-end tourbillons, we need to uncover the complication itself and the reasons behind the astronomical prices of traditional models.
What Is a Tourbillon Watch?
Tourbillon was developed in the 1790s and was patented by Abraham-Louis Breguet. It stands for “whirlwind” in French, where the balance wheel and escapement are placed in a cage to deny the effects of gravity, for the sole purpose of enhancing accuracy. The cage rotates continuously at a slow pace to average out positional errors.
The complication is visible from the dial, so it’s rather easy to recognize tourbillon watches. The mechanism is present in mechanical timepieces only.
The accuracy enhancement through the tourbillon was considered quite a big deal in the early days, although it was a rarity among the wearers of pocket watches. After countless developments in mechanical movement, and with the emergence of quartz movement, the accuracy of wristwatches evolved to the newest heights, which made the initial purpose of a tourbillon complication pointless.
In fact, there’s even debate amongst horologists as to whether tourbillons ever improved the accuracy, or were the wristwatches inherently inaccurate due to manufacturing techniques and design.
Whatever the truth is, tourbillons are not valued for their accuracy, but for the watchmaking virtuosity that takes to construct such a complicated mechanism.
If such a small element with no real functional intention costs huge amounts of money, then it’s quite reasonable for individuals to wonder over the driving factors behind the enormous price tag.
Why Are Tourbillon Watches Expensive?
Tourbillon is the most complicated mechanism to construct by hand in the watch industry. Not every watchmaker can do it so that only top professionals can take on the building of a tourbillon. Typically, they take months to construct from start to finish.
The apparatus consists of about 40 hand-treated parts with a total weight of around one gram – the job is literally done under a microscope with a special set of tools.
Also, the watches are of valuable materials that are light in weight, or just luxurious, thus cost a great amount of money.
Combining the long hours with expensive materials, and adding the standard of quality together with a brand name, we end up with prices that are out of the league for many of us.
Affordable Tourbillon Watches
The method that Swiss watch manufacturers apply to make tourbillons is very costly. However, no real breakdown of estimated input items has ever been published, which ineluctably generates doubts on whether the astronomical price even justifies itself. Part of the value is hence expressed in sophistication and craftsmanship.
In recent years, though, there’s been a shift towards more affordable tourbillon watches in the Western hemisphere.
Tag Heuer, for instance, constructed a tourbillon watch with a 16,000$ valuation. Needless to say, but for the majority of customers, even that is not affordable enough to persuade them into buying.
China has made giant leaps in the last couple of decades, slowly but firmly closing the gap with the renowned markets in the watch industry. They’ve also entered the prestigious mechanical movement sector and are now the biggest producers of affordable tourbillon watches in terms of items sold.
Chinese versions cost anywhere between the upper half of hundreds to several thousand.
If the rest of the world, and especially the Swiss industry sells tourbillon watches for tens of thousands of dollars, then how have the Chinese been able to manufacture them at such a low cost?
Factors Defining Affordable Tourbillon Watches
Labor costs in China are dirt cheap as compared with the rest of the world. A typical tourbillon takes a tremendous amount of time to manufacture, and that is the most significant cost component.
The difference between a Swiss watchmaker working on a timepiece and a Chinese doing the same work can be more than ten times in wages. Hence, nearly half of the price could be cut through labor costs only.
The materials that feature in a high-end tourbillon watch are exclusive and expensive. The likes of titanium and platinum, for example, belong to the category of premium materials. Chinese, however, use inexpensive and simpler options, such as stainless steel, for casing the wristwatches.
Another cost-cutting factor is mass production which has streamlined numerous time-consuming tasks. Although tourbillon watches are not entirely serially produced, some parts of the mechanism do come from large-scale production.
Also, we can’t let the secrecy behind the real production costs of Swiss tourbillons be unmentioned. Given that the watches are for the wealthy who above all appreciate style, luxury, and brand name over anything else, the additional “cost” materializes from precisely these factors.
Since China has been able to significantly lower the production costs of any timepiece on the market, several experts have raised concerns over the Swiss watch industry’s adaptability in dealing with the overflow of cheap but already somewhat reliable wristwatches.
Some have even predicted a new “quartz crisis” for the Swiss industry unless they find a way to adjust to the forthcoming changes.
Differences in Quality & Appearance
Considering that tourbillon is just a visual addition to a wristwatch, the price gap between expensive and cheap models is so vast that it’s difficult to comprehend.
Previously, we discussed the reasons why China can sell its tourbillon watches at such a low cost. But are there any differences in quality and appearance as well?
The majority of high-end tourbillon watches are of either reliable or very luxurious materials. Titanium, for instance, is known to be extremely durable and light, suiting perfectly into the tiny mechanism.
Another solid metal in a tourbillon, platinum, is highly resistant to physical and chemical factors and possesses high market value. And as it is with most luxury brands, a variety of watches are of different types of gold, adding the prestige many customers are after.
Affordable tourbillon watches, on the other hand, can’t employ such costly materials and are made of more modest options price-wise. Stainless steel is thus the prime content in cheaper-end models.
In essence, steel has all the favorable characteristics to be called reliable. However, it lacks prestige due to the mass production and wide range of use.
Despite the absence of prestige, stainless steel is actually better suited for a wristwatch than platinum, titanium, or gold – it resists wear, dents, and scratches a lot better.
It may not be as light as titanium, nor possess the luxuriousness of gold, but stainless steel provides the reliability that a wristwatch demands in everyday use. And above all, the price is much affordable.
Attention To Detail
The Swiss watch industry is famous for its attention to detail when even the tiniest of components receive precise fine-tuning and quality control. High-end tourbillon watches are detail-rich, presenting the well-known craftsmanship of Swiss watchmaking. Every model is as if you’re looking at a masterpiece of a world-class painter.
China, on the contrary, produces some parts of tourbillon complications through large-scale manufacturing, in that offering less artistic visual concept and quality assurance. Which, of course, doesn’t mean they necessarily look plain and provide no quality at all.
It’s just impossible to accomplish the highest grade in all the manufactured products without turning concentrated attention to every little detail.
Proven vs Unproven Quality
Probably the most significant factor determining the difference between high-end and affordable tourbillons is the proven quality.
Swiss watchmaking history stretches to centuries, whereas China has been truly active in the industry for only a couple of decades.
Quality comes with time. The continuous developments and enhancements during these centuries have guaranteed the proven quality of Swiss watchmaking. It’s no secret, or even a topic of debate that they offer the most evident reliability in the wristwear you can find.
China, with due respect, is not able to do that. At least not yet. The tourbillons out of the production line lack consistency in quality.
While the majority of watches are genuinely excellent in having precise timekeeping and looking awesome, some faulty and unreliable models cause damage to the overall rating. In the stringent wristwear sector, such mistakes take a long time to fade away.
Are Affordable Tourbillon Watches Worth the Money?
In a nutshell, affordable tourbillon watches are of stainless steel, run on Chinese technology, are more straightforward than typical high-end models, and provide better value for money.
The major downturn lies in inconsistent quality. You may receive a perfectly operating timepiece that will last for years, but you may also end up with an opposite example.
That’s the reality with the raw and developing Chinese watch industry. Proven quality will only be achieved after decades of research, progress, and skillfulness.
A wristwatch with a tourbillon attached to the mechanism is purely a visual addition. It doesn’t provide any functionality nor guarantees preciser time. Therefore, paying $50,000 for a watch just because it has a fancy tourbillon would not be suited for a person on a limited budget.
But if you’re a typical lad who wishes to go for affordable tourbillon watches because of the prestigious looks, the $1,000-$1,500 timepieces would be money well spent.
Yes, the quality may not be as high as for the pricier equivalent, but you can never expect a mid-range commodity to last for 20-30 years these days.
The Market of Affordable Tourbillon Watches
The market of affordable tourbillon watches is variegated, so it’s crucial not to mix a tourbillon with a visualized version of it.
Some extremely cheap watches seem to have it on the dial, but it’s actually an open-heart timepiece with a replica of tourbillon looking back at you. They usually cost between $20-$200 – certainly not enough for a real-deal version.
Expect affordable tourbillon watches with okay quality in the $500-$2,000 price range.
The best provider of cheap tourbillon complications is Seagull. The Chinese manufacturer has the most reliable production line in the country, exceeding the likes of the Shanghai Watch Factory and Beijing Watch Factory.
Stuhrling Original is the most notable exploiter of Seagull tourbillons. The American-based company has been around for two decades and sells its awesome-looking watches for an attractive price.
For a closer look into the brand, visit our dedicated post on Stuhrling watch review.
Other tourbillon-providing brands include the likes of ERA, Akribos XXIV, and Reef Tiger.
Following, we’ll present a couple of affordable tourbillon watches that are worth a try.
Stuhrling Devilray Tourbillon 407A
Warranty: 2 years
This tourbillon watch from Stuhrling Original sure knows how to live up to its name. The black matte 44mm case comes with a bold sharkskin band attached to it, while the bottom half of the dial features the prestigious tourbillon window surrounded by fish scales.
The Chinese Seagull mechanical movement has a 40-hour power reserve and runs on a 4 Hz frequency (8 ticks a second). You’ll also find an exhibition case back showcasing expert craftsmanship.
Sapphire crystal, the highest quality crystal in modern wristwatches, covers the dial, as well as the case back.
Check out the full specs on Stuhrling’s page.
Akribos XXIV AK493
Warranty: 2 years
This Akribos AK493 is one of the most affordable tourbillon watches around, despite its very luxurious aesthetics.
The gold-toned 42mm stainless steel case houses a mechanical automatic tourbillon movement, moon phase complication, and dual time. The Roman numerals with golden hands go astonishingly well with the overall posh looks.
You can expect high durability from the crystal as it’s made of sapphire glass.
One of the downsides of this Akribos watch compared to typical timepieces is the relatively heavy feel on the wrist, at about 12.5 ounces (350g). But that’s the case with basically all the tourbillons – they weigh more than common timepieces.
ERA Prometheus Tourbillon
MSRP: from $1,500
Warranty: 2 years
What’s unique about the Prometheus model is that you can configure it to your exact liking. Whether you prefer a manual wind edition or fully automatic movement, or a platinum-plated case over the stainless steel one, the final decision is up to you.
But it has to be mentioned that the extras won’t come without an additional charge. The cheapest variation, however, is available for $1,500.
The most affordable one comprises a 44m stainless steel case with a manual self-wind mechanical movement. The dial features skeletonized apparel with three distinctive windows – one for the single-axis tourbillon and the others for sun/moon time of day indicator and dual time function.
If you wish to opt for an automatic watch that runs on in-house custom ERA-004 caliber, expect to pay a couple of hundred dollars extra.
Feel free to try out the various configurations on ERA Timepieces homepage.
Reef Tiger Tourbillon RGA1930
Warranty: 2 years
Reef Tiger is another brand that offers very appealing and affordable tourbillon watches. That particular model, the Reef Tiger RGA1930, catches an eye with a very blue-ish design.
The sapphire-covered dial is rather minimalistic, except for the mesmerizing tourbillon complication at six o’clock of course. The deep blue color harmonizes well with rose-gold 40mm case and lugs, making it stand out among other timepieces.
The automatic movement that makes this watch tick eliminates the need for manual winding, thus providing not only extravagance with its apparel but also convenience.
Tourbillon is a mysterious term in the watch industry. Not only the complicated name creates the conundrum, but also the unique aura surrounding it.
Despite the little use of the initial purpose of it, people still value them, mainly due to the craftsmanship and artistry they offer and are willing to pay fortunes for them. However, the times when tourbillons were the flamboyant accessories only for the wealthy are over.
With the arrival of much more affordable tourbillon watches provided by the Chinese, the rest of the people can now enjoy and show off the appealing looks. Although the quality may not be as proven as for the high-end models, they’re undoubtedly worth a try.
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