The incredible intricacy behind skeleton watches

They are the bare bones of watchmaking; a mesmerising dance of micro-mechanical precision.

November 2, 2016

Halloween has come and gone and around the world those that celebrated the occasion are tossing out their pumpkins and returning their monstrous costumes to the store.

But skeletons of another kind are still out on display. I’m talking about the ones found on the wrist in the form of skeleton watches. No they don’t strictly have anything to do with actual skeletons or Halloween, and if you don’t already know, the term ‘skeleton watch’ refers to a timepiece that has the inner workings (or the ‘skeleton’) on display behind the crystal.

It also has nothing to do with a ‘Frankenwatch’, which is something else entirely (an old watch that has parts which have been cannibalized from other models, mashed together like Frankenstein’s body parts.)

Most of us think of watches as having either a plain or a decorated face, but skeletonized watches are popular too and offer a real treat to the eyes. As the miniature cogs and wheels carry out their functions, it creates a mesmerising dance of micro-mechanical precision. You can see the inner workings without having to remove the case. As a watch enthusiast, this is one of my favorite things to observe. It never gets old. 

But where did it all start? And which are some of the best examples? Let’s take a look at the story of the skeleton watch.

Probably the first skeletonized watches were made by André-Charles Caron around 1760. Yes, that far back! Watches and clocks of that period were typically very ornate, and the exteriors were embellished with swirls and decorations on every surface. Caron wanted something new, so he decided to show off the interior of the watch instead. It was as if he was revealing a secret to the world.

During the 1920s, Vacheron Constantin made a number of exquisite watches that were skeletonized and encased in rock crystal or white gold (below). There are some notable vintage models featuring this kind of design, but it seems to have fallen out of fashion for many years. 

The last two decades have seen more and more of these kinds of timepieces re-appear. They are often produced in limited numbers. It’s understandable, given the incredible amount of work that goes into each one. 

Patek Philippe, Vacheron, and many other leading brands compete for the most beautiful and most intricate movements on display. Even the robust Panerai turned their iconic Radiomir shape into a skeletonized version – and it is quite something, in my opinion - see for yourself; it is the main image. 

So how are they made?

Plates, bridges, bars, cogs and wheels are polished and sculpted, combining the functional with the aesthetic. More than half of the original metals are cut away, very carefully, and the heart of the watch is exposed.

First the plates and bridges are drilled and machined, then expert craftsmen painstakingly finish each detail by hand. This means an incredible amount of work. No detail is left out. Each surface that will be visible, or even partly visible is worked to perfection.

Sometimes the entire dial is removed and sometimes the manufacturer will opt to cut away only a portion of the face instead. In other models the interior is visible from the back only. The design process is crucial, because each element needs to be perfectly aligned so that exactly the right details will be visible, and present the watchmaker’s craft in the best light. 

There are many techniques used by master watchmakers to refine the metals that will be displayed. One of my favourites is called Guilloche, which is a type of engraved pattern, typically comprised of interwoven lines.

Another is Perlage, which is a little cheaper to produce, forming overlapping circles on the surface. This also helps trap any minute particles of dust, saving the machinery from additional wear.

The jewels that are used as bearings in the mechanism are generally synthetically made these days, though in the past they were often sapphire and ruby. Though they are eye-catching, their purpose is more function than art. They create the perfect bearings for the smooth movement necessary in a watch.

Many of the components are delicately engraved. The motif is first traced on using a scribe, and then finished with a burin (much like a chisel). Sometimes chemical etching is used to create an artistic flair, or UV sensitive varnish is applied to create the desired effect. It is all very intricate and labour-intensive. 

Only a few brands have the facilities to do this kind of work in-house. Each step is incredibly time-consuming, and adds much to the final price tag. Boutique watchmakers are generally the ones who create this kind of work, while the brands that produce thousands of watches per year opt for more traditional designs instead. I enjoy both kinds of watches, but the workmanship on display in a skeleton watch is matchless.

On the high-end of the watch market, this kind of intensive technique is taken to the extreme. Brands like Patek Philippe produce limited numbers of watches, and pride themselves on the uniqueness of every piece. What is on display is art, not mass production with a gold plate.

Indeed there is nothing scary about these skeletons – may they continue to be displayed on our wrists throughout the calendar year.