Like tiny Rube Goldberg machines, mechanical watch movements can be captivating. They’re so cool that many people feel it’s a shame to keep them hidden away under a dial — after all, these intricate mechanisms account for much of luxury watches’ prices when compared to cheaper and more accurate quartz alternatives. Whether you enjoy micro-engineering and craftsmanship or just want to make a statement, a skeletonized watch can serve both purposes.
Skeleton, skeletonized, or openworked are terms often applied to watches without conventional dials; watches with cutaway dials; and watches with hollowed-out movements, to varying degrees. Skeletonization, the practice of taking away unnecessary material in a watch’s tiny components to allow a view of what’s underneath, can be delicate, tricky, and expensive. On higher-end watches, every facet of almost every last part might be polished or otherwise finished.
Watchmaker André-Charles Caron is credited with creating the concept of horological skeletonization back in the 1700s. It’s only in recent decades, however, that it really caught on: Following the Quartz Crisis, traditional watchmakers found it a cogent way to differentiate their craft from mass-produced, inexpensive quartz watches. Thus the extravagant look has become representative of high-end watches and is sometimes seen as ostentatious.
Skeletonization opens up a vast realm of creative freedom for watchmakers. However, a word of warning is in order: It takes strong contrast to easily find the hands on a watch face that has criss-crossing and zig-zagging metal parts staring back at you — so legibility is one of the most common victims of skeletonization. And, if you plan to enjoy a watch by actually wearing it, legibility should’t be overlooked.
The watches below represent a sampling of what’s available among the many skeleton watches out there, as well as a variety of price points and styles. Whether or not they fit your personal style, taste or budget, the best skeleton watches are undeniably compelling to observe.
Swatch’s Sistem 51 collection of famously machine-assembled automatic watches made mostly of plastic offers a rare affordable example of a semi-skeletonized watch. Through some cutaways in the dial, one can see the full date wheel and elements of the movement beneath it. Ostentatious it’s not, but it does offer a casual wearing experience and a little bit of horological interest at an approachable price.
Tissot’s take on the skeleton watch remains well within the brand’s comfort zone of entry-level Swiss luxury, but it jumps right up to a retail price around two grand. Here, little remains of a dial but an outline and indices, but the hand-wound movement beneath is only minimally skeletonized and decorated. A relatively simple design makes the movement’s industrial finishing feel consistent, and blued hands provide welcome contrast that’s lacking even on many much more expensive skeleton watches.
Legibility. Raymond Weil got it right with blued hands and indices that contrast well against the backdrop of the exposed movement. And you get a pretty clear view of key movement elements like the mainspring, gear train, and, emphasized at 6 o’clock (imitating the common presentation of tourbillons), the escapement. Automatic winding’s a handy bonus. Like Tissot above, the movement’s finishing is basic and industrial, but it seems to fit with the design — and more skeletonization here means more to see.
When Jean-Claude Biver took control at TAG Heuer, he applied the same formula that had worked well commercially at Hublot to a reimagined Carrera line. Bold, edgy, motorsport-inspired and semi-skeletonized, the new era of TAG Heuer Carrera watches are nothing if not polarizing — there’s even a relatively affordable tourbillon version. Through the dial’s cutouts, glimpses of the in-house movement are visible and more of it is on display through a caseback window past a skeletonized rotor — but the movement itself isn’t skeletonized. It’s priced similarly to non-skeletonized TAG Heuer watches with chronograph and GMT complications.
Oris has a pretty unique offering among skeleton watches, with something that feels modern, sporty, technical and actually pragmatic. In other words, it fits right in with the independent Swiss brand’s range of tool and pilot watches, but also offers an openworked look at the movement. In a lightweight titanium case, the finishing of the brand’s exclusive, hand-wound movement is intentionally spartan and industrial but executed in a way that jibes with the tool watch vibe Oris is going for.
If you look closely (and you should), you’ll notice that the beveled edges of the movement displayed on this Altiplano watch by Piaget are polished and contrast with the brushed finishing on top. On a watch at this price level, you should expect that those tasks were performed by hand. Piaget is known for its ultra thin watches, and this is one of the thinnest in the world at only 4.3mm. To achieve this, the in-house movement is actually integrated into the case. This is high-level, technical watchmaking coolness that anyone — even those who won’t be buying one — can appreciate.
Based on a British clock from around 1830, Arnold & Son’s Time Pyramid is avant-garde and classical at the same time. With a symmetrically designed in-house movement, it’s easy to appreciate how it works, as almost every mechanical part is visible. It’s skeletonized to the point that only necessary elements remain, resulting in a minimalist look and a lot of negative space. If you don’t want to see straight through the watch’s transparent caseback to your flattened arm hair, Arnold & Son offers a mirror-finished option for the movement’s backdrop.
Audemars Piguet has an entire department dedicated specifically to skeletonization, and it does some of the best work in the business. Legibility is sufficient here thanks to strips of luminous compound on the hands that feel appropriate to the sporty nature of the brand’s tentpole line, the iconic Royal Oak. This particular model adds some further value and interest with an unusual technical feature: the movement uses two balance wheels instead of one, the purpose of which is to help even out any differences in timekeeping and thereby improve accuracy.
Just for the hell of it, here’s an example from Roger Dubuis, known for bold and sporty watches that are mostly skeletonized and often built around an automotive theme. This one was made as a collaboration with Italdesign and features a large tourbillon at 7 o’clock. While edgy in attitude, all the brand’s watches are finished and tested to meet the incredibly demanding standards of the Geneva Seal. This may be a watch for billionaire playboys with supercars, but it’s interesting as an example of the directions modern horology can take.