The skeleton watch screams luxury, but what is it?
In 2018, all the best fashion - from the hottest Nikes in the world and first-class luggage designed by Virgil Abloh - was transparent. So you could say that Frenchman André-Charles Caron was way ahead of his time when he invented the “skeleton” watch, around 1760. Caron’s creation tore away all the window dressing on a timepiece, leaving in its place a clear view of the machinery. Caron’s invention is now known as an openwork or skeleton dial watch.
Like a showy Ferrari or Lamborghini with a transparent window that reveals the engine, a skeleton offers a view of the watch’s equivalent: its movement. The idea is the same in both cases: to drool over the powerful and state-of-the-art machinery behind a given luxury item.
While the skeletonised watch was first invented in the 18th century, the style really only caught on in a big way over 200 years later. When easy-to-make and very accurate quartz watches started coming for Swiss luxury watchmakers’ lunch money, the Swiss fought back with style and craftsmanship. The skeletonised watch - with that dial exposing all its complicated inner workings - was ample and visible proof of a piece’s bona fides. As quartz watches flooded the market, the skeletonised dial became a way for collectors to send up a flare signalling their piece’s superiority.
Watchmakers like Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, and Jaeger-LeCoultre started reinvesting in skeleton watches shortly after the quartz crisis of the ‘70s. Audemars Piguet even created a whole skeletonisation department dedicated to making these watches, either in the form of updated best-sellers or new pieces entirely. And Richard Mille, a luxury junkie who loves cars and planes, has made these transparent pieces a tentpole of the ultra-high-end watch brand he launched in 1999.
Skeletonised watches, more than any other style, seem to be the industry’s most transparent (sorry) admission that the items it makes and sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars are no longer really about keeping time - or at least exclusively about it. Trying to parse out the precise time by following a trio of hands ticking over a transparent face, to be sure, is a much more arduous task than just tapping a phone or glancing at the corner of a laptop - or even looking at a watch with a standard, opaque face. Which is why the best argument for the skeleton watch is also the simplest one: they’re really freaking cool to look at.