For In Voluptas Mors, surrealist artist Salvador Dalí fashioned an optical illusion of a skull. Pablo Picasso featured skulls in several of his works. Andy Warhol revived its function in art as a memento mori; a blatant symbol of war and death. Back in the day, a skull and crossbones signalled danger to sailors on the high seas, at the mercy of pirates. As a modern symbol, skulls lend an air of mystery and provocation. They’re also a badge of honour worn by bikers and other bad boys. Hijacked by Goths in the 70s then by 1980s pop stars (I’m looking at you, Madonna), skulls made their entry into the world of luxury in the early 1990s, first in fashion then accessories, including watches.
One of watchmaking’s most disruptive brands, HYT has made a speciality out of skulls, combining the cranial form with its signature fluidic time display. In the latest iteration, the Soonow, bellows operate like pistons to drive liquids through capillary tubes that form the outline of a skull. Elapsed time is recorded by a transparent fluid; time still to come is shown by a bright green or blue liquid. Look again and you’ll notice a disc behind the right eye socket that indicates power reserve. The other eye corresponds to the watch’s shortest recorded unit of time and makes a full rotation in 60 seconds. As a final touch, 313 tiny pins in 18k gold “flesh out” the skull against the background of a titanium dial. A thousand precisely drilled holes spell the hour around the edge of the dial, with a rotating marker pointing to the centre of each word. This limited edition of 25 pieces comes to us straight out of the future, defying the laws of physics in a deliciously macabre way.
Another artistic interpretation of death appears courtesy of Urwerk and the UR-T8 Skull. Could there be a more elegant way to accept there is an end to everything, life included? In the hands of engraver Johnny Dowell – best-known for his embellishments on the grips of sporting and collectors’ guns, potentially instruments of death – the watch becomes a work of art. As Dowell explains, the process begins with pencil and paper. Once the design is ready, “I scaled everything down to the exact size of the UR-T8. The first thing I always do is cut every outline that includes the scrolls and skull. The next stage for me is the background. I carve everything away to the depth I feel works best. This the most time-consuming part of the whole project for me, removing the background carefully under the microscope to make sure I don’t over run into the important parts such as the scroll areas or the skull. There is no going back if you make a mistake. Once this process is done, I get to do my favourite part, the shading.” The result is a limited edition of four killer watches.
Life is for living
Watchmakers clearly have no intention of relegating the skull to a mere ornament. Instead they treat it as a fabulous vector for showing off in-house technology or creative design. For some this means playing on its “tough guy” connotations. Bell & Ross has proved itself to be particularly good at surfing the skull equals testosterone trend. This is hardly surprising, coming from a brand that loves to go against the grain and which started out with concept watches that are now built into its DNA. The Bell & Ross BR01 Laughing Skull exists as three versions, one of which is limited to 99 pieces and carpets case and bezel with 394 diamonds (2.891 ct). The 100% in-house manual-wind movement in the form of a skull gets the last laugh as it moves the jaw up and down.
Once morbid, the skull is now a life-affirming symbol. Like Six Feet Under, a series set in a funeral home, it reminds us that death and whatever comes after can never be more important than the loved ones around us. Like the vampires in Twilight, skulls are sexy. A hugely popular celebration in Mexico and the United States, the Day of the Dead is a tradition whose origins have been traced to an Aztec ritual. On November 1st, the living take to the streets in costumes and make-up. Candy and tequila are brought to graves as gifts for the dear departed. It’s this joyful attitude towards life and death that Hublot has chosen to celebrate with the Big Bang One Click Calavera Catrina. The white or black lacquered dial brings to life the Calavera Catrina (“the elegant skull”), engraved in coloured lacquer. As for the multi-hued skulls embroidered on the strap, they represent the Catrina’s brightly coloured dress. The whole piece is an explosion of purple, fuchsia and turquoise. Enjoy it while you can!