What Are Skeleton Watches & How Do They Work?

Luxury watches are known for their intricate designs and high-quality materials. Among them, skeleton watches are some of the most elaborate pieces that often must be hand-crafted, putting them in expensive price ranges. For watch enthusiasts, these time pieces that offer a view on the watch’s machinations are some of the most popular models.
What exactly is a skeleton watch, and how are they created?

What is a Skeleton Watch?

As the name suggests, skeleton watches present the ‘skeleton’ of the watch. The term is used to describe time pieces that have cut-outs or see-through elements that let us observe the watch’s inner movement. In these watches, instead of hiding them behind metal casings and decorative dials, the gears and springs that make the watch tick are visible.

This type of watch, also known as an openwork or skeleton dial watch, was invented by French watchmaker André Charles Caron in 1760. In this case, the term applied to skeletonized pendulum clocks.

Later, in 1827 after 44 years of development, the famous Marie-Antoinette pocket watch by watchmaker Breguet, ordered for the queen herself, became the prime example for skeleton watches. It is still considered one of the most exquisite pocket watches in the world.

Wearable skeleton watches rose in popularity in the 20th century, after the easy to produce battery powered quartz watches flooded the markets.

To stay relevant in the industry, the prestigious Swiss manufacturers at the time focused on their well-known craftsmanship and rivaled the more affordable new watches with even more decorative and complex time pieces. Leaving the inner workings visible was the perfect way of showcasing their superior watchmaking skills.

With a skeleton watch, it is easy to realize that watches are much more than a tool to tell time. While a regular watch or a digital display use contrast and clear markings to make the time easy to read, some skeleton watches are barely decipherable.

The distracting movement and no clear distinction between the barely visible watch hands, and the lack of hour and minute markers, can make them impractical in regard to a watch’s original purpose.

Instead, the skeleton watch is a distillation of the pomp and prestige tied to traditional watch manufacturers, using them to present their sophisticated craftsmanship.

What Kind of Skeleton Watches Exist?

Typically, skeleton watches have a mechanical or automatic movement. They are either powered by winding the watch manually or with a movement sensor through the movement of the wearer’s arm. In comparison to a battery powered watch, like a quartz or Apple Watch, the mechanical clockwork allows for a much more spectacular view.

Additionally, the skeleton watches can be classified by their level of “skeletonization”. Some offer insight into the mechanism through a small cut-out (open-heart watches), while others have entirely see-through casings (true skeleton watches) to show the entire movement.

How do Skeleton Watches Work?

When it comes to a skeleton watch, the manufacturer has to balance the filigree and visibility of the gears with the need to create a robust time piece that can withstand movement and impacts when worn in the day-to-day. Depending on the level of skeletonization, this is sometimes harder and sometimes easier to achieve.

High-end skeleton watches, for example made by Audemars Piguet or Patek Philippe, are manufactured by hand. The result are extra-thin watches with multiple complications, like:

  • a perpetual calendar
  • chronograph functions
  • minute repeaters
  • moon phases
  • day of the week displays
  • and more.

In comparison, a skeleton watch that only offers a small cutout to the mechanical movement or a skeleton watch with no additional functionalities next to the watch hands telling the time can be manufactured more easily.

  • Processes like sawing, punching, or milling can be used to create windows to the movement. In true skeleton watches, every bit of non-essential material is removed.
  • Additionally, some watches swap the metal back of the casing with sapphire glass, so the movement is visible when we take the watch off and look at its backside.

Conclusion

Skeleton watches are the peak of the sophisticated and complex watchmaking tradition. The famous Swiss manufacturers created them specifically to underline their craftsmanship when simple quartz watches started to supersede the mechanical movement watches that made them successful.

Open-heart watches show a small window to the inner workings of a watch, while true skeletonized watches remove every non-essential part of metal to leave nothing but the mechanical movement visible. The result are watches that are less used for their time-telling function, and more based on the enthusiasm for watch technology and their prestige. The highest quality skeleton watches are created by the traditional Swiss manufacturers by hand, allowing for the greatest precision and complications.