Review: Omega De Ville Tourbillon
Stop the average person on the street and ask them if Rolex is better than Omega, and there’s a high chance they’ll agree. Rolex is a bigger brand, sells more watches, has a stronger following—yet here’s something that proves that Omega is, in fact, the champion.
It’s an inevitability that the awareness of time and the dedication to recording it leads to the pursuit of accuracy. No matter how precise a clock is—it can be more so. Today the most accurate timekeeping device, which cools strontium atoms into a -273°C quantum gas and shoots them with a laser, yields only three-and-a-half errors in every 10 quintillion ticks.
But in the 1800s, three-and-a-half errors per day was still the work of science-fiction; that is until the Board of Longitude offered a £20,000 prize to persuade inventers to build a chronometer accurate enough to stop mariners getting lost and perishing at sea.
British clockmaker John Harrison rose to the challenge, and although the Board of Longitude managed to weasel out of paying the lump sum, Harrison’s clock demonstrated that it was indeed possible to push accuracy further than ever before.
And the more precise clocks became, the more important it was to have an accurate source from which to set them in the first place. The observatories of the world were tasked with the measurement of Earth’s journey around the sun, data used to establish the foundations of time.
So, it made sense for chronometer watches to be tested at these same observatories—and when does testing not end up getting competitive? Manufacturers from across Switzerland competed to be crowned most accurate through a series of gruelling tests held over forty-five days.
It was the Formula 1 of watchmaking. The movements on trial bore no resemblance to those on sale, bare engines built with only one purpose: winning. The tourbillon was a staple of the competition, an intricate, complicated, excessive thing constructed at huge expense just to eke out a little bit more performance.
This is what it took in the 1940s to win the chronometer trials. Patek Philippe built tourbillon movements to compete, as you’d expect, but so did Omega—and it still builds them to this day.
In the late 1960s, an unknown Japanese watchmaker called Seiko was awarded seven of the top ten places at the Geneva trials—including the number one spot—and so the Swiss didn’t want to play anymore. But although the competition was done, the spirit of engineering lived on in watches like this, the Omega De Ville Tourbillon.
Omega was actually the first Swiss watchmaker to produce a tourbillon wristwatch, casing up a set of its competition movements in 1947 long before Patek Philippe ever released anything of the like, so it stands to reason that the brand continues to make such a thing.
Rolex, by comparison, has never manufactured a tourbillon and probably never will—it’s not the way of the brand for a start, being more about simplicity and functionality than outright technical expertise. Omega, on the other hand, has a past steeped in precision and competition, and a whole stack of awards to prove it.
The De Ville Tourbillon, first introduced in 1994, takes the tourbillon to the next level of complexity as the world’s first centrally mounted example, and is rumoured to have been the most expensive movement the Swatch group produced at the time.
It’s a sixty-second tourbillon, as most are, which is handy because the central second hand can be mounted straight onto the Omega logo tourbillon cage that sandwiches the balance against the hand-engraved baseplate. Not so simple for the minutes and hours, which seemingly float above the guilloché dial—and it seems that way because that’s exactly what they do. Each is printed onto a sapphire disk, driven from the outside.
This required the mechanism that drives the hands to be situated around the outside of the dial, hidden behind the chunky bezel, relegating the time-setting function of the crown to a secondary device hidden on the case back. The primary crown, along with the platinum rotor weight, continues to wind the movement.
Only twenty of these watches were made by Omega every year of production, making them not only one of the rarest Omegas, but rarest watches, period. It’s an expression of not only engineering prowess, but artistic ability as well, no surface left without a finish to rival the very best. Rolex produces good watches, excellent in fact—but there’s nothing the five-pointed crown makes that’s anything like this.
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