The Lovely Bones: Skeletonization and Skeletonised WatchesBy Ken Kessler
Above: The original Breguet Marie Antoinette watch was commissioned in 1783 and was designed to contain every watch function known at that time. Queen Marie Antoinette never lived to see the watch, as it was completed 34 years after she had been executed. Now residing in Jerusalem’s LA Mayer Institute for Islamic Art, it is a skeletonised masterpiece cased in gold and today is valued at in excess of $30 million.
Throughout the past two decades, exhibition casebacks have become de rigueur, allowing the user, and his or her confidants, to examine a watch’s innards without resorting to opening the case and exposing the movement to the elements. The nearest we have to a “skeleton back” in other fields are pens called “demonstrators” – made of transparent material, originally produced to show how a pen works but now offered by brands like Visconti or Omas – and the odd Ferrari or Bugatti with a clear panel over the motor.
But that’s only half of what a skeleton achieves. Remove the dial entirely, and both sides of a movement are on display. It was used to good effect by Bulova, when the Spaceview allowed the curious to examine that new-fangled electronic movement, with its resistor, tuning fork and coils there for all to see. But there was more to “skeletonised” – a.k.a. “open-worked” – movements than simply revealing the movement.
Fully open-worked watches are nothing new, dating back to the earliest pocket watches. Skeletonising became a goal to attain, in and of itself, reducing the plates and bridges to their minimum, while still offering support for the moving parts. The purpose is wholly aesthetic, unless one wishes to argue that the excision of a few grams of metal somehow improves the watch’s ergonomics because of lightness.
Skeletons exist purely as visual delights, like the ultra-thin watches that are once again all the rage. It has been noted, too, that skeletons have something else in common with ultra-thins in that they make life more difficult for the watchmaker. Ultra-thin movements require tighter tolerances because the height of the case has been condensed, so moving parts must operate in reduced circumstances.
With skeletons, because most – or all – excess metal has been removed from the plates and bridges, the watchmaker has to consider how this affects the structural integrity of the part on which the surgery has been performed. This isn’t as paranoid as it may sound: in the microscopic world of a watch movement, even air currents around the moving parts are measured for their effect on velocity, power demands and the like, so tensile strength is an issue.
While the most basic of skeletons is a watch without dial and glassed on both sides, the plates and bridges remain full. The use of the term “skeletonising” has come to mean only those where the excess metal has been removed. But that, too, is not enough for the highest level of the craft: I cannot recall a true skeleton where the remaining, thin struts haven’t been decorated or even bejewelled.
Just as a normal ébauche contains plain metal surfaces that beg for engraving or polishing, so do the bare-bones networks of a skeleton invite it. Having eliminated all surplus metal, the watchmaker has created a lattice reminiscent of fine lacework, only made of precious metals. Even without added decoration, the benefits include the exposing of parts that would otherwise be hidden by the plates to all but a watchmaker, while allowing light to shine through when the watch is off one’s wrist.
Yet, even with so little left to decorate, the finishers angle, engrave and polish every millimeter of surface, often paving them with tiny gems. This, too, applies to watches that are best described as “inherently skeletonised” because they do not employ conventional dials, plates or bridges at any stage. Among them are Roger Dubuis, Richard Mille, Greubel Forsey, Manufacture Royale, Cvstos and a handful of others for whom every watch they make is a skeleton. A perfect example of decorating such a minimalist lattice is the Richard Mille RM 19-01, where the super-skinny frames are set with diamonds, forming the shape of a spider.
Intensive labour adds to the cost of a skeletonised watch, though the makers do have a small financial gain that’s rarely discussed: skeletonise a gold movement and all the material that has been removed can be reclaimed and recycled. With gold prices being what they are, that’s a major consideration. For those buying a skeleton, however, less costs more.
Six Skeletons to Rattle You
Blancpain Villeret Squelette 8 Jours
Blancpain has a deep respect for centuries-old traditions, so skeletonising is a natural route for the maison to follow. But while one might expect a skeleton in keeping with convention, Blancpain added a few aesthetic flourishes that eschew symmetry or adherence to order for something more flowing.
Manual winding seems more popular among skeletonisers than automatic, so the Blancpain Squelette uses the hand-wound Manufacture Calibre 1333SQ. It is equipped with a titanium balance, a Breguet balance spring and three barrels to achieve a healthy eight-day power reserve. The craftsmen skeletonised the entire movement and decorated every surface, filling the 38mm white gold case but allowing enough light through to create the dazzling effect that makes any skeleton so alluring.
For Blancpain, the decorating of the movement was paramount, the company citing, too, the importance not only of peerless engraving but of sublime chamfering. The Blancpain movement looks as light and delicate as a spider’s web – surely the design from nature that all skeletonisers emulate – while still offering the structural integrity the movement demands. In this watch, the bridges and mainplate feature a scrolling motif that adds delicious, feminine curves, almost floral in their shape. Eight days running time and the looks of an orchid? Skeletonising justified – period.
Breguet Classique Complication Skeleton 3355
Breguet has featured a number of skeletons since the brand made its astounding comeback in the 1990s. Indeed, its Heritage model is intrinsically skeletonised by virtue of the hours-and-minutes dial being a small sub-dial floating above the main plate. Though the word “conventional” has no real use in this august company, the Classique Tourbillon open-worked wristwatch in platinum is conventional in that it takes a watch with a normal dial and skeletonises it completely.
The result is as complex-looking a timepiece as can be while offering only basic time telling. Its running-seconds tourbillon is located at the 6 o’clock position, the hours-and-minutes dial situated at 12 o’clock. The movement is manually wound, and every exposed part – comprising all of the areas around the mini-dial and the tourbillon – is fully hand engraved.
Although this is a seemingly compact watch at 35mm, this model – offered in platinum on a strap or a bracelet – is a statement watch that grabs the attention. All skeletons do that, but this is enhanced with Breguet signature touches, from the hands to the style of the chapter rings. Purists may balk at skeletonising, but this model lives up to its name with such authority that the showiness will seduce even someone whose idea of “cluttered” is a Movado Museum watch.
Chanel J12 Ceramic Flying Tourbillon Skeleton
If the current fascination with skeletonising is producing its own memes, this group identifies flying tourbillons as go-to forms, and motifs for bridges, like the five-pointed star used by Chanel and Roger Dubuis. I like to think it’s coincidence, but then who knows what goes on behind the scenes in Switzerland?
Chanel has been obsessing over haute horlogerie for some time, having mastered ceramics with a facility second-to-none. Its J12 is so recognisable that it acquired “classic” status almost upon its initial release. As it is now the platform for a vast range of models, a high-end mash-up of ceramic, skeletonising and flying tourbillon could only come from this house.
For the Chanel J12 Skeleton Flying Tourbillon, the case material is black ceramic, enhanced with a white gold diamond-set bezel, with its flying tourbillon in a diamond-set cage. It resides in an open-worked dial, providing that much-coveted feature of the boldest skeletons: lots of see-through areas. The skeleton watch equivalent of kicking tyres is to hold it up to the light to see how much shines through. And Chanel passes with, er, flying colours.
Its bezel, hands and “shooting star” tourbillon cage have all been set with brilliant-cut diamonds, nicely contrasted against the black ceramic of case and bracelet, while the back of the case is made of titanium. The manual-winding movement with 40-hour power reserve was developed by the masters: APRP Renaud et Papi.
Parmigiani Ultra-thin Tonda 1950 Squelette (Women’s Version)
Now here’s a twist for the shy types: If skeletons are, in part, about showing off a movement, one would have thought that adding a veil would be counterproductive. That, however, is to underestimate the wiles of women going back to Salome. For Parmigiani Fleurier, the skeletonized version of its sleek Tonda 1950 can be acquired as a normal skeleton, with clear crystal, or with a frosted crystal that hints at the movement beneath. The sheer coyness of this arrangement renders the watch noteworthy, and few connoisseurs will deny the wry humor of it all.
It starts with the company’s ultra-thin PF 705 automatic movement, offered in two versions: women’s and men’s in 39mm cases, but the ladies’ version, in white or rose gold, is slightly thicker (and more expensive) because it wears a bezel encrusted with 84 diamonds. Underneath the frosted glass is a fully skeletonized, beveled and decorated movement with off-centered micro-rotor made of solid platinum.
Functions are restricted to hours and minutes, power reserve is 42 hours and each watch is engraved on its caseback with its individual number and the words “Edition Speciale”. Completing the design is a brown Hermès alligator leather wristlet with ardillon buckle, the overall effect elegant and minimalist, the antithesis of the more complicated skeletons. And as for the frosting of the dial, yeah: it is kinda sexy.
Ralph Lauren RL Automotive Skeleton
While one might presume that only a complication-filled watch merits skeletonizing, time-only movements are worthy, too, for their simplicity lends itself to making a movement that’s barely there. This handsome offering from Ralph Lauren, which is also rather large at 45mm, is noteworthy because, on the wrist, one sees the owner’s skin through the dial.
Finished in black, the Automotive Skeleton is Ralph Lauren’s first open-worked model. Inside is the hand-wound Calibre RL1967 movement enhanced by an oversized logo, in the form of the letters “RL” located at 12 o’clock on a circular platform in gold-against-black. As with its non-skeletonized siblings, and what identifies this family of watches inspired by the design details of Ralph Lauren’s prized 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic, is a handsome bezel in solid Amboyna Burl wood, recalling a steering wheel of the era.
All of the surfaces are finished in a black that contrasts with the stainless steel shot-blasted case. The movement itself features steel and brass components providing further visual contrasts, highlighting the large balance and the gear train. The black hands are filled with Super-LumiNova in a beige hue to add to the 1930s feel. More than most skeletonized watches, which provide a sense of fine jewelry, this masterpiece suggests the Industrial Revolution, Charlie Chaplin crawling over the gears in Modern Times and, yes, vintage cars that were mechanical poetry.
Roger Dubuis Excalibur Spider Skeleton Double Flying Tourbillon
Nearly every watch now bearing the Roger Dubuis name proudly shows off the movement in its leanest form. As with its past concerns – tourbillons, enamel dials and other practices – skeletonization is part of the eponymous founder’s ethos, that of championing the skills and traditions of classic watchmaking of yore.
The company has created a design language throughout the ranges, using architectural lines and a five pointed-star shape made up of the struts over the barrel that focuses the eye. Every surface of the remaining structure on the 45mm Excalibur Spider Skeleton Double Flying Tourbillon has been engine-turned, the various shades of the materials creating a 3D effect within the titanium and black DLC-titanium case, highlighted by red aluminum accents between the hour-markers.
Two flying tourbillons in full view ensure that this is a connoisseur’s eyeful, but the colors and the sheer techy-ness of the design also provide it with a sporting air. If this were a car, we would be talking about a Lamborghini Aventador, with its chassis lightened to the limits and its structural integrity maintained.
**A full version of this article with 12 skeleton watches profiled was published in issue #7 of Revolution UK Edition.