For the past few years, luxury watchmakers have been indulging horology fanatics’ desire to uncover the mysteries behind their timepieces by trimming away all the non-essential metals, leaving bare the cogs and wheels which keep those hands ticking. The extent to which public interest in skeleton watches has accelerated can be observed in the sharp increase of search engine activity since mid-2012. Peak points of activity correlate within the December period, when much of the discussion about upcoming trends for the coming year began.
In many ways, the recent resurgence of the ‘skeletonising’ of wristwatches mirrors how it organically came to be in the 1700s – when André-Charles Caron envisaged reigniting public interest in mechanical watches by exposing all the innermost secrets of haute horology.
In May it was measured that the value of Swiss watch exports had dropped 9.7% compared to last year, with the industry facing changing circumstances in the political and societal structures of China, the emergence of a stronger grey market for luxury timepieces, and the advancements of highly technical devices coming from the likes of Apple, Samsung and Huawei. To combat these developments, watchmakers find themselves needing to push the boundaries of design and style. When discussing smartwatches, Jean-Christophe Babin of Bulgari stated “first and foremost, people should buy their watches for the timelessness of the design, of the materials, and not functionality, because functionality to me is always secondary.”
So, while the tech industry prioritises advancing the functionality of the smartwatch, luxury watchmakers are returning to traditional practices (such as the skeleton look), and reintroducing them in a modern form for the new generation of watch buyers. Beyond merely showcasing the craftsmanship of haute horology, the skeleton design forces the watchmaker to be creative and imaginative in how they can perform the momentous task of skeletonising in an aesthetic and creative manner.
While in the past it was the likes of Vacheron Constantin with their intrinsically designed Les Cabinotiers that was generating buzz for skeleton design, now it’s the more youthful brands like Richard Mille, Hublot and (most notably) Armin Strom who are building excitement among watch communities. That being said, a few of the more traditional jewellery and watchmaking brands are breaking new ground with skeleton models in 2016, as seen with Cartier creating a notable buzz at this year’s SIHH with one of their new pieces.
While skeletonising watches has a rich heritage, there is still a need to find cutting-edge ways to approach this practice for the new generation of watch buyers. Brands like Armin Strom, which were founded on skeleton watchmaking values, must develop new techniques in making skeleton watches.