The Art of Skeleton Watches: When Craft becomes Art

By Montredo in Watch 101
May 13, 2019
The Art of Skeleton Watches: When Craft becomes Art

Skeleton watches demonstrate great art in a miniature format: since the parts of the movement, which are already filigree, are carved down to their elemental structure, they allow the wearer fascinating insights into their micromechanical cosmos. Their subtle language of form also offers myriad design options, which underscore the artful presentation.

Real watch connoisseurs can be voyeuristic when it comes to the watch mechanics that lies beneath the dial. The complex mechanics of the movement, in which dozens of tiny little components interact with harmonious precision to display the time accurately are a vision of joy. This masterful choreography is infinitely more fascinating when one viewed it through a skeleton movement. In this traditional artisanal craftsmanship, which has always held its elite position in the world of Haute Horlogerie, each component such as plate, bridges, cocks and gears are filigreed and each individual part shows its function in stunning beauty. The artist intends to push the limits of what is technically feasible. The first to initiate this unique aesthetic, by the way, was the brilliant Abraham-Louis Breguet, himself. The master watchmaker and inventor of the tourbillon created a pocket watch for the French queen, Marie Antoinette, and decided to skeleton the movement. The open display of the French queen’s namesake watch was copied in pendulum clocks, mainly in the first half of the 19th century in France. In the 1930s, this artful finishing touch found its application in the casings of the first wristwatches.

The Champions League of Watchmaking

Although modern technology can be used to produce movement parts quickly, efficiently and with low reject rates, manual skeleton work is the royal discipline among watchmakers. Almost all Haute-Horlogerie brands cultivate this noble tradition in their manufactures, often they even maintain separate studios dedicated to the creation of these delicate timepieces. There is no official occupation called “Skeletteur”. The demanding discipline falls within the job of a watchmaker. It goes without saying that not everyone is suitable for this exceptionally skillful work. Exceptional dexterity and tactile agility as well as extraordinarily steady hands (both essential qualifications for any watchmaker) are necessary to carry out the filigree ornamentations manually. It also takes the imagination and creativity of an artist, to design a dramatic and harmoniously integrated presentation of the whole mechanism. Therefore, in this time-consuming manufacturing process, craftsmanship and art combine to form a superior kind of artisanal craftsmanship which requires quite a bit of experience and talent. If you remove a fraction of a millimeter too much, you compromise the accuracy of the gear. If you work on a part too courageously, there is a significant risk that it will end up as scrap in the waste bin.

Charisma down to the smallest detail

First, the expert disassembles the movement into its components and then he drills tiny holes into each part to allow entry for the diminutive blade of his watchmaker’s saw. He painstakingly removes the inside piece by piece with utmost precision until he exposes the desired design, which he previously engraved with a tiny little needle. The tolerance range we are talking about here is in fractions of millimeters. The watchmakers magnifying glass is the only instrument for enlargement that can be applied in this process. Usually, the component is also adorned with elegant engravings or decorative cuts such as delicate lines, opulent ornaments or even individual motifs. The finishing touches are considered customary in the trade for quality skeleton watches. The sharp edges are angled by the master hand before they are polished with a polishing file to a smooth and shiny finish. Signs of master craftsmanship are not only the precisely worked out angles, but also the exactitude of congruent parts. It goes without saying that in this meticulous work, every single element must be executed with perfect precision. Before the subsequent assembly, the mechanism is usually galvanized, so that the filigree mechanics, which allow the viewer to gaze into its innermost heart, shine in golden tone. Since most of the watches in the genre are equipped with a sapphire crystal floor, they offer an unobstructed view of the interior from both the front and the back. No matter which side you look at it, you are surly admiring an impressive work of art.
Give me six! Six expressive Skeleton Watches across various price ranges, partially and wholly skeletonized

Tissot Chemin Des Tourelles Squelette 42 Skeleton Dial

The venerable Swiss brand proves convincingly with this hand winder that skeleton watches do not have to be exclusive to the upper price segment, but can be quite affordable. The name is already a reference to its traditional character: The timepieces of the line Chemin des Tourelles pay tribute to the street in Le Locle, where the company built its manufactory in 1907 and which it still calls home today. The dial showcases the picture perfect Unitas pocket watch caliber superbly. As called for in the prerequisites for a skeleton watch, it is splendidly finished. The bridges and the board are pearlized, while the spring housing shines in an elegant sunburst cut. The Roman numerals at the cardinal points further underscore the classic appearance. The transparent watch face is framed by a 42mm stainless steel casing.

Hamilton American Classic Jazzmaster Viewmatic

Equally, this mechanic watch whose manufacturer is also operating under the umbrella of the Swatch Group, fulfills the promise of its name and presents itself at an attractive price point. From both sides, it allows a clear view of the impressive architecture of the H-20-S automatic caliber. Its rotor, as well as some parts of the movement, are decorated with the stylized letter H, a reference to its origin. The emphasis on character design is an excellent example of the endless possibilities that skeleton work offers to individualize and apply a distinctive touch. The American Classic Jazzmaster Viewmatic evokes memories of the golden Times of Jazz in the Roaring Twenties. The association is not at all coincidental, since the roots of this currently Swiss brand are in the USA.

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TAG Heuer Carrera Heuer 01 45mm Chronograph Titanium

This genuine manufacture watch combines the charisma of the athletically inspired race driver line with traditional craftsmanship. The Heuer 01 Chronograph caliber is a further development of the famous caliber 1887. Measuring stately at 45 millimeters in diameter and waterproof to 100 meters, the lightweight titanium casing holds a dial that allows full view, deep into the inside of the caliber. The control elements of the chronograph and the filigree-perforated date disc reveal themselves on the front. On the back you can see the red column wheel, the chronograph bridge and the oscillator. To conceal as little as possible from this traditionally inspired but very modern ensemble, the numerals as well as the hour and minute hands are also filigreed. Of course, a real racing watch, must be equipped with tachymeter scales for calculating average speeds. These are located on the chronograph’s scratch-resistant ceramic bezel.

Zenith El Primero 45 Automatic Chronograph

The El Primero of Zenith is a manufacture watch of the top class, driven by one of the most famous, if not the most famous movement of all time. In 1969, the brand became world renowned for this legendary caliber, because it was the first integrated chronograph with ratchet control and automatic winding. Its high balance frequency of 36,000 half oscillations per hour could accurately measure time to one tenth of a second. With this technical sensation, Zenith became an instant sensation worldwide! To date, this watch has been produced in over 600 variants. One of which is this timepiece in the impressive 45-millimeter large and up to 100 meters waterproof housing, powered by the caliber El Primero 400B, a fully integrated automatic movement, also equipped with ratchet control and a frequency of 36,000 a/h. The sapphire crystal bottom of the case showcases the caliber and the rotor, decorated with the iconic Geneva line finish. The dial presents powerfully and dynamically. Excerpts from the three style defining totalizers show the aesthetics of the technology. As with the TAG Heuer, the date mechanism is visible. Broad rhodium hour markers with faceted edges stand out clearly from the background for easy reading. The long seconds stop hand at the center is painted red and carries the hallmark, a small Zenith star as a counterweight.

Hublot Big Bang 44 Aero Bang Sugar Skull L.E.

The skull as a Vanitas symbol of transience is a favorite template in the elitist circle of skeleton clocks. Also, the Geneva Watch manufactory, Hublot, is not only famous for its expertise in the field of material research and application, but also for the know-how and upkeep of traditional craftsmanship like the skeleton work. The Hublot Big Bang Aero Bang Sugar Skull watch was inspired by the mesmerizing motif of a skull. Hublot would not be Hublot, if the appearance would not be extraordinarily avant-garde. The limited edition Big Bang watch is entirely clad in black ceramics. The 44-millimeter large and up to 100-meter waterproof enclosure holds an automatic chronograph. The date display is located between four and five o’clock and appears through the skeleton dial. The counters form the eyes of the skull. The exquisite presentation is underlined by the marbled bezel and the leather strap embossed with a floral pattern.

Corum Golden Bridge

Presented for the first time in 1980, the Corum Golden Bridge is a real icon of the genre. Its rod-shaped movement, with its components literally reduced to the bare minimum, is attributed to the master watchmaker Vincent Calabrese. According to its name, the finely decorated caliber extends like a bridge from twelve to six o’clock. Therefore, the crown to wind the watch is also located between the upper band hinges. Even the flank of the case has a sapphire crystal window to allow viewing from all sides. In this expressive variant, the Swiss brand from La Chaux-de-Fonds has chosen a flirtatious curved, Tonneau shaped housing. The legendary model is also available with round or rectangular cases. Whichever shape you chose, even after 37 years this mechanical gem is still considered a milestone of high standard in the field of skeleton watches.

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