For centuries watchmakers have known that the definition of a timepiece need not include a face. In fact, many designers have found that removing this façade only enhances the magic in the beautiful contemporary design of skeleton watches, writes Madeline Hoskin.
The skeleton watches movement has come a long way since its inception by André-Charles Caron in the late 1700s. What started as a genius marketing ploy to enchant the Parisian elite with the mysterious inner workings of a timepiece has now become one of the most esteemed design ethics in the industry – and when you look at the calibre of creations produced, it’s not hard to see why.
Up until the early 2000s, it took horologists months of delicate work to achieve Caron’s stripped-down aesthetic. One would take a completed timepiece and carve each diminutive piece down to its elemental structure, removing plates, dials and much of the bridge.
Not only was this process time consuming, it wasted precious materials. That’s why watchmaker Richard Mille’s breakthrough for skeleton watches in the early 21st century was so revolutionary.
Man meets machine
Driven by his love of racing cars and a fascination with seeing what lay beneath their bonnets, Mille was inspired to develop a watchmaking method that did away with non-essential parts such as baseplates and mainplates. In doing so, he developed technology that allowed a timepiece to be stripped to its skeleton by default.
This achievement not only allowed for bolder, more daring construction, but it also meant the open-worked look of skeleton watches was suddenly achievable to a wider number of ateliers, and they leapt aboard the bandwagon with enthusiasm. Today, customers are spoilt for choice when it comes to such designs – with everything from the stark, masculine lines of Ulysse Nardin and most of Swiss luxury watchmaker Hublot’s Big Bang series to the intricate designs of Audemars Piguet and Cartier.
The latter particularly proves that Mille’s influence does not necessarily come at the cost of existing aesthetics and complications. The Rotonde de Cartier Astrotourbillon Skeleton is a stripped-back marvel, housing its moving parts in a frame of empty space, with the bridge extending elegantly into two skeletonised Roman numerals.
Alternatively, other brands have made bold steps forward since adopting skeleton watches. The release of Bell & Ross’ BR-X1 Tourbillon Sapphire marked a turning point in its designs. Pairing a transparent exterior with flying tourbillon, mono-pusher chronograph and a translucent rubber strap, the watch sets a new bar for contemporary styles.
Some connoisseurs fear that the ‘Mille effect’ has led to the loss of a time-honoured art form, but there will always be a place for this heritage. Patek Philippe, for example, still keeps this old method alive – even if the final result requires 14 months of painstaking crafting.
This process will no longer be the norm, but the art of the skeleton is far from dead. It has simply evolved.
This article appeared in volume 29 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.