Just like cars, stripped-back 'skeleton' watches look very cool | Top Gear
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Tuesday 26th September

Just like cars, stripped-back 'skeleton' watches look very cool

Raw and uncompromised, it’s a formula that works for watches too

Published: 17 Aug 2023

Driving a skeleton car has very obvious pros and cons, as any Ariel Atom owner will tell you. It saves weight and looks cool. But it’s also noisy and lets in all of the weather. Skeletonising a watch does not come with these disadvantages, but the process of stripping it back to the essentials has long been a great challenge. The reason for early skeleton clocks was simple. Nowadays if you want to let people know how well business is going, you can buy a Bugatti. Around 200 years ago a good way of making people jealous was a fancy clock. Just owning one set you apart from the masses, but clockmakers, looking for new ways to stand out, hit upon the idea of stripping away the metal casing so you could admire the gears and springs at work.

Pocket watches were also given the skeleton treatment – the most famous is a masterpiece made by Abraham-Louis Breguet for Marie Antoinette. It was commissioned in 1783 by an unknown admirer of the young queen, with a fully skeletonised movement boasting 823 tiny components. It was so intricate that 10 years later, with the French Revolution in full swing, the queen was executed before she ever got to see it. Breguet, as a friend of the royal court, was himself lucky to escape the guillotine. He survived until the age of 76, but died before the watch was finished. It was finally completed by Breguet’s son, more than 40 years after it was ordered.

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When wristwatches took over in the early 20th century, skeletonising was rare, bar a few pieces by the likes of Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe. Then in the late 20th century something changed. Quartz became better in every measurable way than mechanical watches, so the traditional industry was forced to pivot. This meant making a virtue of the analogue innards: if you take the dial off a quartz watch, you see an ugly battery and circuit board, on a mechanical watch you see the watch’s little heartbeat.

This saw open-worked wristwatches start to take off in the late Nineties. And coupled with the trend for open casebacks, that meant many watches allowed you to admire the movement from both sides. Now any watch company worth its cogs has at least a few skeletons in the cabinet. So whatever your budget, a pared back watch is within reach. And without the drawbacks of a skeletonised car, less really is more.

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