When most of us think of Omega, the first thing to come to mind is probably the Speedmaster, followed closely by the Seamaster and other tough, technically advanced sports and tool watches. Something that probably does not readily spring to mind is the tourbillon, although it probably should – Omega made some of the very first generation of tourbillon wristwatches, in a time (the 1940s) when the tourbillon was not a visual entertainment for the titillation of horological enthusiasts, but was instead at the cutting edge of experiments in producing better chronometry. Omega’s first generation of tourbillon wristwatches virtually never appear for sale or at auctions, but when one did, at Phillips in 2017, it hammered for the rather breathtaking sum of CHF 1,428,500.
The tourbillon wristwatches made in the 1940s used the caliber 30 I, and they were not made for sale – rather, they were intended to be entered in the observatory timing competitions. They had tourbillons which rotated, rather unusually, once every seven-and-a-half minutes, and they were, in their day, the last word in the pursuit of cutting-edge chronometry. Today, Omega has introduced another milestone in both its own history of tourbillon production and in the history of tourbillon watches in general – the new Omega De Ville Tourbillon Numbered Edition, which is, in addition to being the latest version of the De Ville Central Tourbillon, the first to be Master Chronometer certified and capable of resisting magnetic fields of up to at least 15,000 gauss. This latest version of the Omega central tourbillon has a three-day power reserve and a co-axial escapement, as well.
The central tourbillon was first introduced in the De Ville family of watches by Omega in 1994, and it was both a remarkable achievement and a statement of purpose for one of Switzerland’s largest and most important watch firms. Omega had emerged from the Quartz Crisis having lost much of its internal expertise in movement manufacturing, but the company was determined to distinguish itself in this area again. The De Ville Central Tourbillon of 1994 signified its resolve to make the technical excellence of watchmaking at Omega a theme for its future as well as its past.
The original De Ville Central Tourbillon was, as they say, just what it says on the tin – a wristwatch in which the tourbillon cage is placed at the center of the movement, rather than at a more customary location (often at 6:00). The project began in 1991 and, according to a very in-depth article on PuristsPro.com from 2007, was codenamed Project 33 (P33) by Omega’s Moritz Grimm and André Beyner (an interesting bit of trivia mentioned in the article was that Beyner gave special projects odd numbers starting from the year of his birth in 1927; P33 was his fourth such project). The team had just three years to produce the watch as it was meant to debut in time for Omega’s 100th anniversary in 1994.
The single biggest technical problem was that the hands of a watch are, of course, normally mounted on pivots placed at the center of the movement, and the location of the central tourbillon made this impossible. A solution was found, however, which was to mount the indicators for the hours and minutes on two sapphire disks, which were driven on their peripheries from gearing under the case bezel (a solution similar in some respects to the Cartier mystery clocks).
The project was, ultimately, completed in time for Omega’s 100th anniversary and was released in a De Ville case, with the central tourbillon caliber 1170. The watch was re-released, this time with a COSC chronometer certification, in 2002. The U.S. patent for the central tourbillon was granted in 1995 (no. 5,608,694) and expired in 2015, but central tourbillons remain extremely rare (one notable example, using a different technical approach from Omega, is the Haldimann H1 Central Flying Tourbillon).
The new De Ville Tourbillon Numbered Edition uses a new central tourbillon movement, which keeps the same basic architecture and some of the same basic technical solutions as the caliber 1170, but which is also, in many respects, a new movement. This new movement is the three-day central tourbillon caliber 2640.
De-cased and viewed from the dial side, the system for driving the disks carrying the hour and minute indicators can be seen. The actual driving gears are at the one and two o’clock positions, and there are three retaining guides for the two disks at twelve, four, and eight o’clock; these have two recesses for the two disks. The keyless works for winding and setting occupy most of the space at three o’clock, with a quite beautifully shaped skeletonized cover plate (with integrated detent spring, which is the small, club-like projection at more or less exactly three o’clock). Though it’s a shame this particular element isn’t visible in the finished watch, it’s one of those hidden pieces of craftsmanship which historically has lent so much interest to fine watchmaking.
The two mainspring barrels are prominently visible in recesses in the back of the movement; they are visually connected by an arc-shaped bridge which also acts as the sector for the power reserve. (While the original 1994 model was self-winding, the new model is hand-wound). Based on the placement of the jewels, the barrels appear to run in series, with the one on the right driving the actual going train for the central tourbillon (the jewels and pivots for the train wheels are located under the bridge that makes up the upper third of the movement). Plates and bridges are all in Sedna gold, and the movement in its design and finishing recalls both traditional fine finishing techniques, as well as more modern materials and approaches. The use of a frosted gold finish, rather than more conventional Geneva stripes is, to my eye, a bit reminiscent of the English pocket watch tradition. I don’t know if this was intended by Omega as a subtle homage to George Daniels, the inventor of the co-axial escapement, but it certainly gives the movement a very dignified appearance, contrasting as it does with the large jewels and highly polished steel-work.
This is, I believe, the first version of the De Ville Central Tourbillon to use a co-axial escapement (the first limited edition co-axial watch from Omega having not debuted until 1999), and I would be willing to bet that it is the only central tourbillon with co-axial escapement anyone has ever made. This is also the first Omega central tourbillon to be Master Chronometer certified, and Omega has succeeded in creating a tourbillon which will continue to function when exposed to extremely high magnetic fields (the minimum resistance for Master Chronometer certified watches is 15,000 gauss). The carriage for the tourbillon is made of ceramised titanium, with the entire movement running in 50 jewels. The one-minute carriage also functions as the seconds hand for the watch.
This is a quite major piece of news, albeit in the quite small (relatively speaking) world of high-end horology. The De Ville Central Tourbillon marked an historic moment when it debuted in 1994 for Omega’s centennial, and it remains one of the most groundbreaking tourbillon watches of all time, representing, as it does, a combination of great visual interest and very clever technical watchmaking. The original brainchild of Moritz Grimm and André Beyner has now been brought very much up to date with Master Chronometer certification and a co-axial escapement. It’s a watch I hope very much to be able to see in person at some point this year.
The Omega De Ville Central Tourbillon Master Chronometer: case, 43mm, Sedna and Canopus Gold, 30-meters water resistant. Movement, Omega hand-wound caliber 2640, one-minute tourbillon with co-axial escapement, black ceramised titanium tourbillon carriage, 18k Sedna Gold plates and bridges. 3-day power reserve with power reserve indicator; Master Chronometer certified. Numbered production but not limited edition; price, $ 168,000. See it at Omegawatches.com.