With the incredible popularity of mechanical watches, it’s only natural that owners enjoy admiring the turning balance wheel and the movement of the mechanics – pinions, wheels and tiny gears. Many watches have exhibition backs, but that’s not enough for some people – and that’s why skeleton watches have become so very popular.
Skeleton watches range from watches with dial-side openings (partial skeletons, really) to watches with no dial, showing the entire movement. Exposing the movement in most cases means decorating the parts, as utilitarian movements are typically not particularly attractive (aside from brands like Greubel Forsey, Montblanc Villeret and Geneva Seal movements, where all surfaces are finished beautifully, whether or not they are visible).
Focus on the Movement
Because the movement is on display, it’s important for skeleton watches to showcase the movement in the very best way. Says Guillaume Tetu, CEO, Hautlence, “The key consideration is to create a kinetic show in the watch, playing with light and finishing. The goal is to open a maximum of surface to see the mechanism and play with the light on the surfaces of the movement.”
A skeleton watch is all about the beauty of the movement, and can often mean skeletonizing a complication, like a chronograph.
“Besides the thinness and finishing of the movement, the aesthetic of the movement is so important because it is entirely visible,” says Larry Pettinelli, president, Patek Philippe NA. “A skeleton allows the wearer to appreciate the beauty and complexity of the movement. For Patek Philippe, it is the hand craftsmanship and finishing of each and every element that brings this work of art to the highest level.”
Most high end companies choose to highlight their best movements in their skeleton range, liked Zenith’s famous chronograph, the El Primero.
“The Open concept within Zenith’s El Primero Chronomaster collection is the realization of technical prowess: to make the regulating organ visible – the main characteristic for Zenith as it uncovers the very essence of time and reveals, in the opening on its dial, the 36,000 vibrations of its movement: the legendary El Primero,” says Philippe Dufour, president and CEO of Zenith. “The purpose is definitely to reveal the beauty and speciality of the movement and see a mechanical watches’ ‘heart’ beating.”
Armin Strom (Armin Strom AG) made his name skeletonizing movements, making each watch a piece unique. “The purpose of skeletonization is to make the movement and its functions as transparent as possible,” details Strom. “To remove all unnecessary parts of a watch plate. This however never affects the function of a movement.”
The Work Involved
Skeletonizing a watch involves intensive work, as all the surfaces visible to the eye have to be finished, decorated and polished.
“From research and development to final quality control, the entire timepiece can take over three years to complete,” details Patek’s Pettinelli. “Patek Philippe’s Caliber 177 works so well due to the extra thin movement (just 1.77 mm high), it has a traditional shape and has four main bridges that lend a landscape for beautiful hand finishing. The Caliber 240 featured in the men’s Ref. 5180/1G is an equally great example for skeletonizing due to the four bridges (barrel, train, automatic and balance wheel) that showcase hand crafted engraving. It is important to note that a skeleton timepiece does not feature a dial, which allows for an incredibly thin profile.”
“There is considerable work involved in skeletonizing as it involves several additional work-steps on the dial and also on the movement – both have to be perfectly coordinated one to the other,” explains Zenith’s Dufour. “This might seem like just a cut-off of the dial but actually it is a meticulous micro-engineering task as much as art as it has to be harmonious with the design of the dial.”
For watches that are specifically designed to be skeletons, the groundwork needed to realize a beautiful watch is painstaking and difficult. “A very specific study is needed to prepare the piece, a lot of thought to find the chemistry between the design, manufacture and the work required,” says Benjamin Muller, owner of M. Benjamin. “The complexity of maintaining an implementation of the elements while maintaining a solid architecture so as not to weaken the building. Openwork skeletonization involves elements of the movement of plates, bridges -- but the game is to keep enough material so that these elements can be reliably assembled and durable.”
Just about any movement can be skeletonized, but to be supremely beautiful, a movement should be designed to become a skeleton.
“A lot of watches can be skeletonized, but if you really want to have a result, you need to design it especially for the skeletonization,” acknowledges Hautlence’s Tetu. “As skeletonization can weaken the movement, you need to respect mechanical rules, and you need to leave enough material.”
Skeleton watches are becoming ever more popular, as customers really want to see their mechanical movements on display. “Skeleton watches continue to be a novelty for our brand based on their unique aesthetic and the length of time it takes to produce a single timepiece,” says Patek’s Pettinelli. “The production remains incredibly limited.”
There’s definitely something special about having a skeleton watch on your wrist. It doesn’t just give the time, it offers a little bit of “watch joy” whenever you glance at your list. In fact, watch lovers can get lost in the beautiful movements on display.
“For mechanical watch aficionados, skeleton watches are a delight and very popular, but lovers of design are more and more attracted to the exceptional design of skeletonized watches,” explains Zenith’s Dufour. “We can count all our skeletonized watches amongst our Top 10 bestsellers like the El Primero Chronomaster collection, the El Primero Tourbillon collection and also the Academy Christophe Colomb collection.”
If you don’t have a skeleton in your collection, now might be the time with all the great options on the market. If you do own a skeleton watch, wear it and enjoy it!