Why the tonneau watch is a barrel of intrigue

One of watchmaking’s most classic and eye-catching shapes encourages you to think outside the circle.

By Norman Burns, November 1 2019

Thank goodness for French, that most romantic language, which makes a tonneau watch sounds a whole lot sexier than a barrel watch.

Tonneau is the French word for cask, or barrel, and in watch-speak refers to the case shape. Tonneau cases were integral in some very early wristwatches; the shape not only exuded a certain elegance, it was considered a more natural, comfortable fit on the wrist.

The barrel shape also gives watch designers a more creative canvas. And in the mainly masculine world of mechanical watches, the tonneau’s svelte curves make it a natural choice for more feminine timepieces.

In modern watches, tonneaus are very much the exception rather than the rule, although top-end manufacturers including Richard Mille and Franck Muller have created entire collections around the tonneau shape. That rarity helps to create impact and desire.

Cartier's seminal Tonneau, released in the early 1900s, set the tone for the entire genre that continues in the Tonneau in Platinum model.
Cartier's seminal Tonneau, released in the early 1900s, set the tone for the entire genre that continues in the Tonneau in Platinum model.

There are some truly spectacular tonneau pieces on the market today, kicking off with the soon-to-be-released Cartier Tonneau in Platinum. It was Cartier’s seminal Tonneau, released in the early 1900s, that set the tone for the entire genre.

Cartier keeps it simple but striking, with blued steel Breguet-shaped hands gliding across a silvered, sunray-patterned dial, all set in a platinum case. The watch has a manual movement, and the finishing touch is the ruby cabochon set on the crown – like a cherry on a cake.

Tonneau watches are an integral part of Franck Muller’s eye-catching, bespoke, collection – in both men’s and women’s timepieces.

Franck Muller likes to inject a bit of fun into his watches, and the Vanguard Crazy Hours Lady is a great example.
Franck Muller likes to inject a bit of fun into his watches, and the Vanguard Crazy Hours Lady is a great example.

Geneva-based Muller also likes to inject a bit of fun into his watches, breaking the stereotype of stuffy Swiss brands. The Vanguard Crazy Hours Lady is a great example, with its ‘jumbled’ Arabic numeral hour markers.

‘Crazy Hours’ refers to a special complication whereby the hour hand jumps from one hour to the next – but following the random numbers on the dial.

This model is the tip of the iceberg for Muller tonneaus – he has skeletonised models, pure dress watch versions and even a chronograph/dive watch, the Skafander (42-hour power reserve, water resistant to 100 metres, and with an internal rotating disc to show dive times).

The Franck Muller Skafander mixes beautiful aesthetics and practicality in a dive watch.
The Franck Muller Skafander mixes beautiful aesthetics and practicality in a dive watch.

Longines has long sported some stunning tonneau models, and its 2019 Evidenza collection includes a classic men’s chronograph, water resistant to 30m and powered by an automatic movement.

The combination of Arabic hour markers, blue steeled hands and patterned dial, paired with a traditional leather band, is striking.

Longines' Evidenza collection includes a striking men's chronograph.
Longines' Evidenza collection includes a striking men's chronograph.

Mido, a Swiss brand under the Swatch Group umbrella, has been in the watch game since 1918 but is only a relative newcomer to the Australian market (2017). It makes only automatic movement timepieces and the lovely tonneau women’s model from its Baroncelli collection is elegantly understated – the white grained dial features 12 diamonds as hour markers.

The Mido Baroncelli is an elegantly understated women's watch.
The Mido Baroncelli is an elegantly understated women's watch.

Breguet is another watchmaker with an incredible history (dating back to the 1700s) and its Heritage Collection has some beautiful tonneau models.

The women’s automatic watch dazzles not only with the outer ring of 140 diamonds framing the 18K white gold case, but a cheeky moon phase display at 1 o’clock that’s neatly slotted into the artisan frosted silvered and mother-of-pearl dial with its cleverly designed Roman numeral hour markers.

Breguet's women's tonneau dazzles with an outer ring of 140 diamonds.
Breguet's women's tonneau dazzles with an outer ring of 140 diamonds.

The men’s Heritage chronograph (automatic movement, 52-hour power reserve) features an 18K rose gold case and intricate curved (and hand-engraved) silvered gold dial. As well as a discreet date display at 4 o’clock, the dial has separate seconds, 30-minute and 12-hour counters.

Breguet's men’s Heritage chronograph features an 18K rose gold case and intricate curved silvered gold dial.
Breguet's men’s Heritage chronograph features an 18K rose gold case and intricate curved silvered gold dial.

Hublot brings a 21st century twist to the tonneau-shaped Spirit of Big Bang Yellow Sapphire (42mm, limited to 100 pieces worldwide); the case and bezel are made of polished yellow sapphire crystal and the automatic chronograph movement, which provides 50 hours of power reserve, has been ‘skeletonised’ – making this quite the star attraction on the wrist.

Hublot's eye-catching Spirit of Big Bang Yellow Sapphire is quite the star attraction on the wrist.
Hublot's eye-catching Spirit of Big Bang Yellow Sapphire is quite the star attraction on the wrist.

Last, but by no means least, are two pieces from Vacheron Constantin. A luxury watchmaker for 260 years and with a credo of ‘nothing less than perfection’, all Vacheron Constantin timepieces are a work of art in themselves, and its tonneau models are no exception.

The women’s Malte Manual Winding is exquisite in 18K 5N pink gold, offset perfectly by a pink alligator leather strap. The watch case back is made of transparent sapphire glass, allowing a ringside view of the amazing mechanical ‘dance’ inside.

The Vacheron Constantin women’s Malte Manual Winding is exquisite in pink gold, offset perfectly by a pink alligator leather strap.
The Vacheron Constantin women’s Malte Manual Winding is exquisite in pink gold, offset perfectly by a pink alligator leather strap.

Vacheron’s Malte Tourbillon, also in 18K 5N pink gold and powered by a manually wound movement with 45 hours’ power reserve, could be the ultimate tonneau model.

Vacheron Constantin's Malte men's model features a tourbillon, one of the most technically difficult of mechanical watch complications.
Vacheron Constantin's Malte men's model features a tourbillon, one of the most technically difficult of mechanical watch complications.

It features a tourbillon, one of the most technically difficult of mechanical watch complications. A tourbillon is designed to offset the effects of the earth’s gravity on the sensitive mechanical movement, thus assuring accuracy.

Norman Burns

Norman Burns’ career in journalism has taken him around the world, covering everything from the Olympics to international watch fairs, although he’s still hoping to one day escape the bonds of gravity and review a 'space tourism' flight.


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