If you are a collector or at least a fan of tourbillon-equipped big-brand watches, you’ll know that their prices start at over $20,000. Even the hitherto most affordable TAG Heuer Heuer-02T that retailed for $15,950 upon its debut in 2016 now starts at $20,650. All this is to say that if you are after a Swiss tourbillon watch from a large brand and manufacture, the Frederique Constant Manufacture Classic Tourbillon Anniversary (reference FC-980N3H6) at $15,695 is one of your more competitively priced options. But how good is it, not just as a tourbillon, but as a near-$16,000 watch? That’s what this review is to find out.
Some appear to find pleasure in arguing over whether the tourbillon is a “true complication,” or not — it does not, after all, provide any additional indication or functionality like complications tend to do. However one desires to classify it, the tourbillon remains one of the most captivating and fun features in mechanical watchmaking, if you ask me. A perpetual calendar is fun exactly five times a year when the calendar function adjusts for a non-31-day month, and it remains a static complication the rest of the time. Sure, knowing that it is capable of performing those five acts when needed is cool in a way only we watch nerds will truly ever understand, but horological appreciation and fun can, thankfully, lie in more exciting-looking and actively captivating functions. The tourbillon is the crème de la crème among them, short of a chiming complication.
If all that is true, then a tourbillon only makes as much sense as you get to see it and enjoy it. Although some historic brands have only revealed it on the caseback side and — rather pretentiously — just put the word “TOURBILLON” in tiny letters on their watch dials to differentiate the 0.1% from the rest of the 1%; other than “if you know, you know” bragging rights, paying for a tourbillon and then not seeing it all the time is a waste. Although this one is difficult to verify, Frederique Constant has been credited with inventing the open-heart watch, which features a solid dial with a small cutout to reveal the balance bridge and the oscillating balance wheel on the front. At the time, in the early 1990s, the company was still in its infancy — it was established in 1988 by Peter Stas and Aletta Stas-Bax — and probably had neither the means nor the foresight to patent this design.
The Frederique Constant Manufacture Classic Tourbillon Anniversary (what a mouthful that is) reveals the tourbillon in this on-brand fashion: with a cutout between 4 and 8 o’clock. Because this watch is rather modest in its external dimensions at 39mm wide, the cutout and, therefore, the tourbillon, appears expansive, but not obnoxious or oversized. It looks proper, and in this sense, it beats the TAG Heuer Heuer-02T that, for technical reasons, had to have a smaller balance wheel and tourbillon. That watch is also a whopping 6mm wider, making the proportions of this Manufacture Classic Tourbillon that much more favorable for a tourbillon.
The tourbillon poses unique challenges in movement design, assembly, and regulation. Sure, you can throw one together and watch it spin around, but it will almost certainly be fragile, unreliable, and an inaccurate timekeeper. The tourbillon places the balance wheel and escapement inside a constantly rotating cage that revolves around what would traditionally be the fourth wheel of the movement which, in this instance, is fixed. Invented by Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1795 and patented by him in 1801 (some say it was invented in 1801, which is not the case), the tourbillon has the captivating motion of a device that appears to have been invented specifically just to please the human eye.
It has the frantically moving balance wheel — in a polished, golden hue with a steep chamfer, a very nice touch — whose quick oscillations are almost impossible to make out, while the triple-armed cage follows every tick and tock and glides in a resilient and poised fashion, drawing a full circle in 60 seconds. There is something truly neat to these co-axial motions, with a little escape wheel running around as though it’s possessed. The cage and the openworked cock (it would have been called a bridge had it had two ends secured to the movement) securing the tourbillon assembly from above are nicely finished with beveled and polished edges and even a polished countersink for the massive jewel at the very center. It’s a microcosm of order, balance, and mechanical beauty.
A tourbillon is a microcosm of order, balance, and mechanical beauty.
It could be argued that a minimalist dial is an intelligent choice for drawing maximum attention to the beauty of the tourbillon, and normally, I’d agree. With the Frederique Constant Manufacture Classic Tourbillon Anniversary, however, the dial feels a bit too simple, a tad too basic, once the $15,695 price tag is taken into consideration. It is a very elegant hue of blue with what could be best described as a combination of sunburst and satin finishing. Under most lighting conditions, the refined finishing techniques simply can’t be seen well enough even with good near-sight vision, and so the overall effect remains rather close to what one would see on a much less expensive watch from the brand. The equal-length indices and the tone of blue all imply an intelligent and calculated approach, I just wish the base surface looked a touch more exclusive and expensive.
The massive hands impress with their volume, intricate shape, and noticeable lengthwise bend. They are also a show of force for the FC-980 in-house movement that is charged with carrying not only these massive hour and minute hands but also the tourbillon assembly. Power reserve is a measly 38 hours, which is very short, but at least it is replenished automatically. The FC-980 movement is adjusted to heat, cold, isochronism, and three positions, but there is no word on whether it is a certified chronometer.
Despite the tourbillon’s original goal, as well as the overly confident marketing presentation as a device for increased timekeeping accuracy, COSC-certified tourbillon watches are few and far between — even at the very high end. Still, Frederique Constant fitted a seconds hand atop the tourbillon assembly, so the watch does have a seconds display. Better still, it combines that with a stop-seconds mechanism, another rarity among tourbillons, so the watch can be synchronized with a reference time. Reading the time with to-the-minute accuracy isn’t easy, for there is no minute track printed on the dial, and reading the time between 25 and 35 minutes is especially challenging. Objectively, this is absolutely an issue, and yet, it somehow does not come across as something offensively bad. The minimalist design, despite its aforementioned drawbacks, does complement the dial cutout and the tourbillon beautifully.
The 39mm wide stainless steel case of the Frederique Constant Manufacture Classic Tourbillon Anniversary looks virtually identical to those found on other Manufacture Classic models of the brand. Frederique Constant sort of struck gold with this design and execution — there aren’t too many cases that could be passed off on a $3,000 watch and a $15,695 watch without any discernible modifications. Developing a new case, even when based on an existing design, is an expensive proposition and certainly not a feasible one to accompany a movement of which fewer than 1,000 will be made per year. The watch we are looking at here is limited to 350 units; a silver-dial version makes for another 350, while the solid 18k rose gold-cased version is limited to 150 pieces. Even with another tourbillon reference or two in the pipeline for the year, the tourbillon very much remains a niche within the Frederique Constant brand. That said, it would have been nice to see a beveled edge on the lugs, some alternating finishing, or, if none of those things, then an even sweeter price.
On the wrist, the Manufacture Classic Tourbillon makes the impression of a genuinely elegant timepiece designed for daily wear — daily wear in the office, that is. It’s not a “look at this!” sort of presentation of a tourbillon just for the sake of having it in the range to rip off bitcoin millionaire impulse buyers. It’s a relatively humble-looking and restrained watch that looks complicated and expensive but never obnoxious or in-your-face. One can easily imagine a higher-level manager or engineer wearing this at a multinational company. Neat details include the fact that the individual production number can be read not just on the caseback, but also on the top of the tourbillon carriage — it is rare for functional movement components to have this level of customization. The escape wheel features the Frederique Constant logo glistening in purple and blue, which is only possible because it is crafted from silicon. It’s not just this component that the brand uses — read about their 40Hz (yes, forty Hertz) Monolithic escapement in silicon here. The folding clasp also has the brand logo, a nice idea even if the execution is not as sharp as some might expect it to be.
The Frederique Constant Manufacture Classic Tourbillon Anniversary is, indeed, one of the more competitively priced tourbillon offerings from the established Swiss watch industry and yet it does not disappoint in the way the tourbillon is presented. The cutout and the assembly are nicely finished and the operation and regulation of the movement are on par with what one would expect to meet quench their tourbillon thirst. As impressive as that is, it must be said that the Manufacture Classic Tourbillon brings a hefty premium over other models with a virtually identical case and dial execution from the brand, putting a $10,000-$11,000 premium on the tourbillon itself.
The final conclusion after having worn Frederique Constant’s most expensive stainless steel watch is that the brand should see absolutely no trouble whatsoever luring 700 (350 per reference) luxury watch shoppers away from the competition. The last few years have given us fierce competition in the $10,000-$17,000 segment, and although more complications, complex metal bracelets, and higher-tier brand status can be had in this segment, Frederique Constant has put together a package that, despite its shortcomings, will prove to be elegant, sophisticated, and mechanically fascinating enough to attract customers away from the innumerable chronographs and integrated steel bracelet behemoths. The Frederique Constant Manufacture Classic Tourbillon Anniversary watch (FC-980N3H6) is priced at $15,695. You can learn more at the brand’s website.