If watchmaking were a branch of modelling, the Health and Safety Executive would be railing against the skeletal look sweeping through the ateliers of Switzerland. The skeleton watch is one of fine watchmaking’s most traditional and beautiful expressions; and now, a new generation of horological X-rays has been born of the volte face that has overtaken the prevailing notions of timepiece aesthetics.
Until a few years ago, watches were aggressively large, with as many functions as possible. Now it seems that watchmakers have gone all Wallis “you can never be too rich or too thin” Windsor. In truth, the situation is much more nuanced, and while the craze for truly baroque ziggurats on the wrist has passed, there is still a place for big watches, provided they have a reason to be big. While the slim watch, for years an outcast, has been back on the catwalk of horological fashion.
During the supersize years, watchmaking savoir faire was signalled by a complications race – the more bells and whistles you could cram into one timepiece the better. Now top watch houses pride themselves on their ability to take as much out of their creations as possible.
Of course, openwork watches are nothing new. The first watch made by the founding eponym of Vacheron Constantin, Jean Marc Vacheron, in 1755, was partially openworked with an engraved movement. But the trend really came into its own during the art-deco years, when Vacheron Constantin and others made ultra-slim, fully skeletonised dress pocket watches, the delicate tracery of the mechanism sandwiched between two planes of crystal. Since then, the skeleton has gone in and out of fashion; it last peaked in popularity about 40 or 50 years ago.
Skeletonising a movement is not technically difficult, but it is delicate work, and, inevitably, requires great care as anything up to 70 per cent of material can be removed compared to a standard model. So, while historic marques such as Vacheron continued to produce exquisitely crafted skeletons – such as the Patrimony Traditionelle Openworked (£51,250) – as the modern mania for complications and sports models took hold, the skeleton movement became less mainstream. Moreover, its raison d’être of transparency became harder to achieve: with movements becoming ever thicker and with a greater number of components, light had a hard time making it through the three-dimensional maze of bridges, arbors, pinions, wheels and so on.
That is not to imply that watchmakers lost interest in making the movement visible to the wearer. Some adopted a peep-show approach: rather than the full mechanical striptease, they created apertures in the dial that offered a tantalising glimpse of the machinery within; Zenith’s El Primero Chronomaster 1969 (£5,800) is a good example.
For Richard Mille, who has done much to shape the techno-look of 21st-century watches, making as much of the movement as visible as possible has been a leitmotif of his aesthetic. “My movements are in three dimensions, but you have to take off the dial to appreciate that,” he says. “If you want really to be three dimensional it is very important that you take off everything you can to reveal the different levels of the calibre. That means no compromise in terms of finishing and polishing, microsanding, satin finishing, brushed finishing, etc. This finishing comes at a huge cost, so I would be stupid not showing it. It also gives a real dimension, an architectural approach. The objective is to find the right balance between the necessity of components being extremely rigid and the fact that you take off a lot of material.”
Another marque that has done much to proselytise an aggressively technical aesthetic is Hublot. But while its Big Bang, launched in 2005, may be, as its name suggests, a big watch, Jean Claude Biver, Hublot’s chairman, says that his most successful watch so far this year is a skeleton ultra slim featuring his new proprietary hand-wound Classico movement, the Classic Fusion Extra Slim Skeleton (£25,000). “This is a more modern-looking skeleton; a technical skeleton,” explains Biver. “In the past, people were taking a movement that was full, from which they made a skeleton movement. Here the concept and construction are the opposite. We have built the movement in order to be skeletonised.” He acknowledges that this is made easier by advanced component manufacturing technology, which permits parts to be made in their finished form, rather than being painstakingly cut from a piece of steel or brass.
Another ultra-slim skeleton to make its debut this year, at Baselworld in April, is the LUC XP (extra-plate) Skeletec from Chopard (£13,830), its first skeletonised movement. According to Karl Friedrich Scheufele, Chopard’s co-president responsible for the men’s watch division: “About a year and a half ago I asked our team to look at skeletons. It was a logical step if you think thinner watches are ‘in’. This one is a bit more of a contemporary skeleton. I did not want to get into the classic skeleton look with engraving and decoration, I wanted to do something more clean and sleek. We use new technology to cut out the bridges and so on, and while there is plenty of hand finishing, I don’t want to pretend that it is all done with a saw by hand. New technology allows you to do things that you could not do before, and you have this precision aspect. It is this rather than the artisanal aspect that comes to mind when you look at it.”
Also launched at Basel was a gorgeous and traditional Blancpain Villeret Squelette (£43,930) with a finely worked eight-day movement in a discreet 38mm case. Meanwhile, at the Geneva Fair at the start of the year, there were more skeletons to be held up to the light. Jaeger-LeCoultre, for instance, unveiled a skeleton edition (£38,100) of its recently launched ultra thin. Conceptually you could say that Jaeger sees the skeleton as a flatteringly cut dress that best shows off a svelte figure. “Last year, we launched the ultra-slim movement for the 80th anniversary of the Reverso, and in its second year we were very happy to underline how thin the watch is,” says CEO Jerome Lambert. “The skeleton movement is the very best way to express the theme of the watch and the thinness of the movement in the watch; it was another kind of ‘reveal’ after the watch itself.”
But as well as revealing the movement, this intricately worked skeleton reveals just how time consuming and labour intensive traditional skeleton work can be; only 50 examples of this watch will be made in white gold, and yet Lambert believes it will take at least two years to make them. As he explains, the investment is not in the development of the movement but in the hours of craftsmanship. He estimates that it takes at least five times as long to make as a non-skeleton version and, of course, the number of people who can do this sort of work is limited. He believes that, in terms of difficulty, the order of work is comparable to making a tourbillon.
Further skeletons are also on offer at Audemars Piguet. This year the Le Brassus brand presents skeleton (£99,090) and skeleton tourbillon versions of its Royal Oak, to mark the model’s 40th anniversary. The Oak is a defining piece in the history of modern wristwatch design. With its octagonal bezel and faceted, brushed and polished integrated bracelet, it looks as daringly contemporary as it did in 1972. However, the skeleton work is of a highly traditional kind, which, says chief designer Octavio Garcia, is the perfect metaphor for the brand. “To integrate this savoir faire in a watch so modern is, for us, such a beautiful contrast because it exhibits the duality of the brand, which is 137 years old and yet breaking new ground with materials and design.”
And amid the gleaming bevelled edges and artistic engraving, it is possible to discern a new horological battlefield. As Philippe Merk, Audemars Piguet’s CEO, explains, the difficulty is the hand work demanded by the internal angles, sometimes as small as 20 degrees. Dozens of these interior angles are to be found and the finish cannot be replicated by machine. He is particularly proud of the skeletonised tourbillon: “If you look at the geometry of the entering angles, they are proof that it is not a machine skeleton and that the work was done by hand. I counted 100 entering angles,” which, he says, is “a record in the watchmaking industry”.
Meanwhile Piaget, which has an historic expertise in the field of slim watches, has recently launched a stylish skeleton version of its automatic Altiplano (£42,300), which CEO Philippe Metzger has claimed is “a double world record: the world’s thinnest self-winding skeleton movement in the world’s thinnest self-winding skeleton watch”. The movement has a height of just 2.4mm and the overall thickness of the watch is less than 5.5mm.
Indeed, it seems that the modern skeleton offers plenty of scope for individuality and expression. Cartier, for instance, has patented its instantly recognisable skeleton system in which bridges form the shape of roman numeral hour markers (from £30,000), and last year at Basel I came across a new dimension in skeletonising, when Patek Philippe premiered its covetable Ref 5208P triple complication featuring minute repeater, instantaneous perpetual calendar and chronograph (about £640,100). Although it is not technically a skeleton (the movement was not skeletonised), an extra lightness was imparted to the whole timepiece by having pierced lugs – a fine detail that would escape most people’s notice, but which is really rather chic.
Indeed, having skeletonised the movement, it would appear that the next target for the skeleton look is the watchcase. This year, Richard Mille launched the RM 052 (£365,000 in a titanium case; white gold and diamond Skull version), which as well as having a skeletonised movement, features a bezel that has been skeletonised, too. You could argue that this is a triple skeleton as Mille has, with his usual sense of wit, shaped the bridges of the watch to represent a skull and crossbones.