For most watch enthusiasts, the exposed innards of skeleton watches are a hypnotic work of art; however, for some, the dials are too cluttered, and therefore hard to read. If these watches don’t attract the same crowds as divers, pilot’s watches, and other more traditional designs, then why do so many brands still have at least one skeleton watch in their portfolio? While these timepieces may be a rare sight out in the wild, they still play an important role in the industry all the same. Let’s revisit the history and craftsmanship behind these fairly divisive pieces, and whet our appetites with a look at some of the best skeleton watches on the market for both men and women.
The ultimate display of craftsmanship?
Although the art of skeletonization dates back as far as 1760, skeleton watches only really started to take off in the 1970s. These were dark and pivotal days for the Swiss watchmaking industry, which was trying to keep its head above water in the throes of the quartz crisis. Needless to say, Switzerland still had an edge over the revolutionary (and more accurate) quartz watches flooding the market, namely excellent craftsmanship and an unwavering dedication to the time-honored tradition of haute horlogerie. Traditional brands needed to play to their strengths to survive, and what better way than to showcase their artistry – literally.
What is a skeleton watch?
The premise of a skeleton watch is a relatively simple one: scale back the dial to reveal the movement working away within. While that might sound straightforward and similar in principle to a display case back, the movement itself also needs to be reduced to achieve the skeletonized look. What’s more, dials can be completely or partially skeletonized. Partially skeletonized dials, or “open heart” dials, offer the wearer a bird’s-eye view of a portion of the inner workings, usually the balance wheel, but still retain enough real estate for other design elements. For full skeletonization, the components are generally stripped right back to the bare bones to create openings – no surface is superfluous. The end result comes in varying degrees of mesmerizing intricacy and can be achieved either by machines or the handiwork of master watchmakers. Of course, varying degrees of intricacy also mean varying price points, which makes for an interesting comparison, which we’ll get to a little later on.
Why buy a skeleton watch?
As I mentioned, skeleton watches are not to everybody’s taste. Some enthusiasts in the watch community find the visible mechanical components excessive or distracting, and since skeleton watches tend to focus more on awe-inspiring aesthetics rather than functionality, many find that they don’t provide all the features they want in a practical timepiece. For those looking for something special, however, skeleton watches make great statement pieces with their unique, elaborate designs. And contrary to popular belief, even with their more intricate and exposed movements, these watches are not any more fragile than a standard mechanical timepiece. Neither is water-resistance affected; the calibers are protected by a sapphire crystal as usual. A lot of watch models compromise with a display case back, but do you really want to have to take off your watch to sneak a peek at its best asset?
Now we’ve gotten the lay of the land, let’s have a look at what are arguably some of the best skeleton watches out there in their respective price segments.
1. Hamilton Jazzmaster Viewmatic
There are no two ways about it: Skeleton dials are busy. That said, the Hamilton Jazzmaster Viewmatic ref. H42555751 does offer a relative degree of law and order with a chapter ring and cohesive color scheme. The manufacturer knows that the automatic movement is the star of the show, so the silver diamond-shaped indices and hands are relatively incognito. This means that depending on the time of day, it might take you a second or two to find the hour hand, but that’s part of the fun.
Hamilton also produces a women’s version of the Jazzmaster Viewmatic, which likewise displays the automatic in-house caliber H-10-S in all its grandeur. Another great feature of these watches is their price tags. Skeleton watches are often more expensive than traditional watches due to their complex design and specialized manufacturing process. But at around $1,100 apiece, Hamilton is making skeletonization accessible to more enthusiasts who appreciate the masterpiece tucked away in mechanical watches. An affordable brand with American roots, what’s not to love?
2. Zenith Defy 21
I can’t go much further in this article without mentioning Zenith. After all, the brand is renowned for creating some of the most recognizable skeleton watches out there. Their Defy collection boasts skeletonized dials with intricate designs that are very hard to tear your eyes away from. The Zenith Defy 21 proves that a skeleton watch can still offer the same box of tricks as a timepiece with a “normal” dial. The color gradients for the different subdials make it (relatively) easy to keep track of elapsed and real-time. And a first-row ticket to view the fabled El Primero caliber at work really is quite the treat. The case is on the larger side at 44 mm, so women looking for something a bit more compact can turn to the Defy Skyline Skeleton instead, which Zenith markets as a unisex watch.
3. Cartier Santos Skeleton
Cartier’s popularity is well and truly on the rise. While there are many reasons for this phenomenon, it can be largely put down to the company’s long history and the breadth of men’s and women’s models they’ve brought to the market over the years. The French jeweler and watchmaker also has a few skeletons in their closet, and what better model for us to highlight than the Cartier Santos ref. WHSA0019. With a price tag around $25,500, this timepiece bumps us up to the next price segment. You’ll notice that this take on the Cartier classic is refined and balanced thanks to the 9611 MC movement, which you might also recognize from the Tank MC Skeleton. What I particularly enjoy about Cartier’s design is the incorporation of the Roman numeral indices into the skeletonization, and that the two-tone design is carried over to the screws.
Of course, there are plenty more where those came from. Did you know that there are even skeletonized versions of the Omega Speedmaster? Skeleton watches are gaining a lot of traction and going off the new releases from LVMH Watch Week 2023, we’ll probably be seeing a lot more of them soon.
Do you think the rise in popularity is justified, or do you prefer your watch fully dressed?