The Mechanics of Time
By Roberta Naas
Watching the clock takes on new meaning when you have a skeleton watch on your wrist. One of the most revered and beautiful feats of watchmaking, a skeletonized timepiece can command tens of thousands of dollars and relegate collectors to waiting lists. Sculpted by hand, a skeleton watch has a movement that has been carved away to such an extreme degree that up to 60 or 70 percent of the metal is gone, leaving an open-faced, mechanical work of art.
Typically, skeletonized movements are housed between transparent sapphire crystals and casebacks so the details are on full display. The bridges, plates and rotors are often intricately etched and engraved by artisans who have spent hundreds of hours on the fine workmanship. Indeed, these exquisite timepieces offer the wearer (and admirers) a special insight into the world of haute horlogerie.
The first skeleton watches in history were pocket watches of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, which had detailed engravings on the backs of the movements. When these pocket watches were opened to view the time, the movement was exposed, leading watchmakers to embellish them with designs that reflected the era. In the early 20th century, when wristwatches came into being, skeletonized movements seemed all but forgotten, as watchmakers focused their artistry on the creation of stunning cases embellished with diamonds and elaborate designs. It was not until the early 1970s that watchmakers—striving to offer something different to collectors—returned to exposing the beauty of the movement, this time in wristwatches. “There are two types of buyers who seek skeleton watches,” says Michael Groffenberger, director of watch operations at Shreve, Crump & Low. “Those who buy for the engineering behind it and those who buy because they love to see the movement. There are watches for both types of customers.”
Skeleton watches range from the highest caliber, top-of-the-line pieces made entirely by hand, to those created by machines. “One of the most avant-garde handcrafted skeletonized watches on the market today is from Jaeger-LeCoultre,” says Groffenberger. “It combines a minute repeater and skeleton, yet it is made in high-tech titanium. It challenges our concept of time and watches as we know them because it is both classical and cutting-edge.” He continues, “Just 100 pieces exist for worldwide distribution, so it is extremely rare and special.”
The Swiss-made Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Grande Tradition Minute Repeater is a mechanical, hand-winding skeletonized timepiece that incorporates another of watchmaking’s most prized accomplishments: the acoustic minute repeater, which chimes the time on demand via two repeater hammers. In an age when phones ping with digital tones but no depth of sound, the clarity of this chime is as alluring as bronze church bells in Europe. The watch features square-section gongs crafted all from one piece, with their heel affixed directly to the watch crystal to create a unique, pure sound. The timepiece houses the JLC Caliber 947 movement with an amazing 413 parts and offers 15 days of power reserve—a remarkable amount of time considering the intricate mechanics this watch has to power.
The skeleton watch offerings at Shreve Crump & Low range from this exclusive handcrafted $164,000 Jaeger-LeCoultre to a machine-cut $5,400 Hamilton Jazzmaster skeleton. “There is absolutely a market for a watch like the Hamilton skeleton,” says Groffenberger. “A customer may love the Jaeger but can afford a Hamilton. He or she can still sensibly buy a piece of what they aspire to and get a wonderful watch in the deal. There is room for the concept, and there is demand for it.” Indeed, you may be so mesmerized by the beauty and genius of a skeleton watch’s mechanics that you’ll lose track of the time.