Buying Guide 8 Skeleton Watches, from Ultra-Luxury to Ultra-Accessible

When the absence of a dial really makes the watch.

calendar | ic_dehaze_black_24px By Erik Slaven | ic_query_builder_black_24px 13 minute read |

Well-executed dials, decorated with classic Grand Feu enamel or elaborate guilloché, can add thousands to the price and define the character of a piece; however, there are times when the sheer absence of a dial can result in the most intriguing aesthetic. André-Charles Caron, legendary clockmaker for Louis XV of France in the mid-18th century, developed the first skeleton watch around 1760. The style adds a visual sophistication that few dials can compete with and creates the ultimate horological spectacle. Here’s a list of eight great skeleton watches available today, ranging in price from “money is no object” to surprisingly accessible. 

WHEN THERE’S ALREADY A BENTLEY IN THE GARAGE

Some of the most prestigious brands in the world have unleashed skeletonized pieces that exemplify design prowess. Showcasing the best calibre designs and advancements in openworked form is arguably the best way to flex horological muscle (and your bank account). These two watches highlight the ultimate in high-end skeletonization in current mainstream production.

Roger Dubuis Excalibur Skeleton Double Flying Tourbillon

Ample negative space combines with flawless finishing and design to create a deceptively complex engine of 301 parts and 1,200 hours of manufacturing. The result is a masterpiece that carries the Hallmark of Geneva (Poinçon de Genève), a certification dating back to 1886 with strict criteria involving finishing and decoration of the movement. As of 2012, performance and durability standards apply as well, covering the watch as a whole. Of over 20 million Swiss watches produced annually, only 24,000 bear the Hallmark of Geneva and the entire portfolio of Roger Dubuis meets this strictest of standards. 

Twin flying tourbillons at the bottom are the focal point, surrounded by a titanium case with the mainplate reduced to a thin web holding it all together. Dating back to 2009, skeletonized movements have become a hallmark of Roger Dubuis and the Calibre RD01SQ really puts a spotlight on the brand’s efforts. Finishing includes charcoal rhodium coating and circular graining, and the “Astral” theme from prior designs is evident. A star-shaped bridge at the top supports the barrel with tips ending at hour markers like a constellation. The tourbillon cages are also shaped like a Celtic cross. The unfettered view of this minimalistic, highly complex and exceptionally finished movement in the Excalibur Skeleton Double Flying Tourbillon collection is a testament to the over-the-top, horological mastery of Roger Dubuis. The price is… substantial. 

Quick Facts: 47mm diameter – DLC titanium case – Calibre RD01SQ – hand-wound – twin flying tourbillons – stamped with the Hallmark of Geneva – 28 jewels – 21,600vph (3Hz) – 50-hour power reserve – water-resistant to 50 metres – USD 267,000

Breguet Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat Squelette 5395

The tourbillon was patented by Breguet in 1801 and has since become one of the most exclusive complications a watch can carry. This skeletonized Calibre 581SQ is one of the thinnest tourbillon movements at 3mm (the Bvlgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon is the thinnest at 1.95mm) with 50% of the material removed for a lesson in sophisticated minimalism. Visual symmetry is out as the left side sports a lot of negative space with a series of rubies cleverly dancing around it to support the gear train. The real action is on the right side with large twin apertures holding the barrel at the top and modified tourbillon at the bottom.

The titanium tourbillon carriage connects directly to the wheel train and the silicon escapement has an angled shape to save space. Flip the watch over and you’ll see serrated teeth at the outermost perimeter for the platinum peripheral rotor. This allows for an unimpeded view and extreme thinness of the movement, all while maintaining the desirability of an automatic. Capping all of this is an extraordinary level of hand-guilloché and finishing. The extreme skeletonization of this piece is a radical departure from Breguet’s classic designs and perhaps a bit polarizing, but also showcases a stratospheric level of haute horology in Breguet fashion. 

Breguet Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat Squelette 5395

Quick Facts: 41mm diameter x 7.70mm height – 18k pink gold (or platinum) case – Calibre 581SQ (3mm height) – peripheral automatic – flying tourbillon in titanium carriage with silicon escapement – 33 jewels – 28,800vph (4Hz) – 80-hour power reserve – water-resistant to 30 meters – EUR 219,500 (18k gold model)

WHEN YOU’RE DRIVING A MERCEDES E-CLASS

Stepping down a bit to a more grounded yet still expensive tier are skeletonized pieces that define luxury and style without pushing the extreme limits. These remain luxury pieces for the well-to-do, but you also don’t have to be a millionaire to acquire one. I’ve again narrowed this down to two and they represent some of the best in this price range. And they already are watches with very refined movements.

RGM 801 Skeleton

Founded in 1992 by American watchmaker Roland G. Murphy, Pennsylvania-based RGM is one of only two vertically integrated brands in the United States – Weiss Watch Company in Los Angeles is the other. The first of several in-house movements was the Calibre 801, introduced in 2007 and the first new American calibre in decades. The RGM 801 Skeleton removes much of the mainplate for an openworked evolution, inspired by early 20th century designs with a deliberate lack of decoration. Several intriguing design elements include the seconds “sub-dial” that’s an inverted solid gold arch with three rows of twenty-second tracks.

A wheel of three seconds hands of differing lengths sweeps across the plaque, expanding to each row. The keystone hour and minute hands are a signature RGM element, made of blued steel that contrasts well against the matte silver plates. The movement is hand-finished with a matte grain theme and polished bevels, perlage and an engraved balance bridge with swan neck regulator. The case is 316L stainless steel with an 18k rose gold option, and although sizeable at 43mm, a slightly smaller 42mm case is also an option. This in-house skeletonized American calibre reinforces the fact that haute horology can exist in unexpected places. 

Quick Facts: 43mm diameter x 12.3mm height (optional 42mm diameter x 10.5mm height) – 316L stainless steel case (optional 18k rose gold) – RGM Calibre 801 Skeleton – hand-wound – 19 jewels – 18,000vph (2.5Hz) – 44-hour power reserve – water-resistant to 50 metres – USD 21,400 (steel)

Chronoswiss Flying Grand Regulator Skeleton 

Like RGM, Chronoswiss is a relatively young brand founded in 1983. Since 1987, it has embraced the regulator style (all hands in separate registers) and designed a brand identity around it. The Flying Grand Regulator Skeleton in steel pushes this design to an almost futuristic aesthetic, sporting three-dimensional sub-dials and skeletonization for multiple levels of depth. The hands consist of a centralized minute hand, hour hand in a large funnel-shaped sub-dial at the top and seconds hand in a smaller counterpart at the bottom. The dial has been stripped down to a minimum to reveal the movement and in-house regulator module underneath. The case is bold at 44mm in diameter and features the brand’s signature side knurling, oversized onion crown and large, curving lugs. The back also displays a customized bridge design that’s far removed from the base ETA/Unitas 6498. This piece is a big departure from classic regulator designs and comes in multiple colours, finishes and limited editions, and demonstrates the brand’s ongoing commitment to pushing the style forward. 

Chronoswiss Flying Grand Regulator Skeleton Limited Edition

Quick Facts: 44mm diameter x 12.48mm height – 316L stainless steel case (optional 18k red gold) – Chronoswiss calibre C. 677S (Unitas 6498 modified) – hand-wound – 17 jewels – 18,800vph (2.5Hz) – 46-hour power reserve – CHF 9,150 (steel)

WHEN YOU’RE CRUISING IN A WELL-EQUIPPED TOYOTA CAMRY 

The next two on the list prove that well-executed, Swiss skeletonized watches can still be accessible to many. They may not feature in-house creations, but both are equipped with sports-proven, reliable workhorses with impressive openworked customizations. Regardless of your wealth, these are outstanding pieces that either the Marketing Coordinator or CEO would be proud to wear.  

Tissot T-Complication Squelette

Tissot is not only the largest Swiss watchmaker in terms of production, but it’s also one of the first to mass-produce pocket watches in the 1850s. Skeletonizing a large ETA 6497-1, a movement originally designed for pocket watches is very fitting for the brand. The mainplate has been cut down and shaped to resemble a wheel or turbine, minimized further with openworked sections to really showcase the mechanics underneath. The case is large at 43mm, but the movement virtually fills its entirety for an impressive canvas. Large horn lugs and a turbine-themed crown add to the overall presence, while oversized, openworked blued steel hour and minutes hands are impressively legible against the satin silver background.

The sculpted mainplate combined with well-finished mechanics result in a stunning skeletonized aesthetic that’s balanced, kinetic and among the best in its price range. Everything is large and clearly visible from both sides of the sapphire crystals for a lesson in Watch Anatomy 101. Tissot has taken a simple, even “pedestrian” time-only movement and transformed it into something extraordinary, all for an accessible price. 

Quick Facts: 43mm diameter x 11.99mm height – 316L stainless steel case – ETA (Unitas) 6497-1 – hand-wound – 43 jewels – 18,000vph (2.5Hz) – 46-hour power reserve – water-resistant to 50 metres – USD 1,950

Hamilton Jazzmaster Skeleton

Brand new for 2020 is Hamilton’s Jazzmaster Skeleton and it doesn’t disappoint. The dial has been shaped into the brand’s signature “spiky H” design, providing an immediate visual edge. Following previous unique openworked pieces like the Hamilton Ventura Skeleton Limited Edition and Jazzmaster Viewmatic Automatic Skeleton, this watch really grabs you with the combination of edgy dial elements and a well-finished skeletonized automatic. In this case, it’s Hamilton’s proprietary Calibre H-10-S (ETA C07.111 base) with Côtes de Genève and perlage, and a sizeable 80-hour power reserve.

It is framed by the outer seconds track with applied indices, which continues inward to form the central H section. A second lower level forms the two vertical H crosses. The balance wheel, escapement and mainspring are all exposed for a nice combination of dial and movement. The 316L stainless steel case is a comfortable 40mm in diameter with a rose gold PVD option, and dials come in either black or white. The famously American turned Swiss brand may be best known for its field watches and Ventura collection, but it’s more than proven itself as an openworked design leader in this price range.

Quick Facts: 40mm diameter – 316L stainless steel case – Hamilton Calibre H-10-S – automatic – 25 jewels – 21,600vph (3Hz) – 80-hour power reserve – water-resistant to 50 metres – USD 1,245 or EUR 1,095 (steel, leather strap)

WHEN YOU’RE ROCKING THE ALWAYS RELIABLE HONDA CIVIC

There’s a relative handful of intriguing skeletonized watches under USD 1,000 with designs and finishes that belie their affordable prices. I’ll close with pieces that in many ways are the most impressive as they punch above their weight class. Of course, you won’t find proprietary calibres… Or will you? Let’s finish with a pair (and a bonus) that almost anyone can aspire to with a desirability factor that transcends the “affordability” box. 

WQT Eclipse N.01 Noir Full Skeleton 

WQT is a new brand for 2020 based in Los Angeles with a second headquarters in Dubai. Founders Umar Bajwa and Youssef Ayoub have produced a pair of skeletonized pieces (full and partial) that are a testament to what can be achieved with natural design prowess and ingenuity. They partnered with movement manufacturer Hangzhou Watch Company to produce the proprietary skeletonized calibre HZ9615. Hangzhou is a Chinese manufacturer, which shouldn’t throw you as it’s among the most recognized in the country alongside Seagull (see our in-depth article on alternatives to off-the-shelf Swiss movements).

Founded in 1972, Hangzhou strictly follows the China national accuracy standard of -20/+40 seconds per day, which is further refined by WQT to -15/+35 seconds per day. The brushed mainplate has a darkish silver finish with unobstructed views of the balance wheel, escapement and mainspring through dual sapphire crystals. The crown has also been shifted to 2 o’clock on the 316L stainless steel case (black IP plated) to rotate these elements for an optimized view – balance wheel at 10 o’clock, escapement at 9 o’clock and exposed mainspring at 4 o’clock. A custom Arabic font on the brushed outer dial marks 12, 3 and 9 o’clock, all resulting in a well-balanced, well-executed piece with impressive attention to detail (right down to the packaging).

Quick Facts: 43mm diameter x 10.45mm height – 316L stainless steel case with black IP plating – WQT Calibre HZ9615 – hand-wound – 17 jewels – 21,600vph (3Hz) – 40-hour power reserve – water-resistant to 30 metres – USD 599

Swatch Sistem Thought Skeleton

Swatch is among the most recognizable brands in the industry, founded in 1983 and a subsidiary of the conglomerate of the same name, Swatch Group. Developed to respond to the quartz crisis, Swatch is best known for its playful designs, quartz movements and affordable prices. The Sistem51 debuted at Baselworld 2013 as the world’s first mechanical movement with 100% automated assembly (produced by ETA). The proprietary Swiss-made automatic has only 51 components and a 90-hour power reserve and is comprised of an anti-magnetic alloy of copper, nickel, and zinc (ARCAP).

The skeletonized Sistem Thought has a black PVD stainless steel case with glass exhibition caseback and acrylic crystal. The date wheel is exposed as are the balance and various gears, creating a cool yet unfamiliar aesthetic as the movement layout is unique. The rear glass also displays the balance and gears, and unconventionally shaped rotor. The classic Swatch DNA is definitely evident, but the Sistem51 movement elevates it to a sophisticated and intriguing level that otherwise Swatch naysayers would be enthused to wear. It’s amazing innovation from a traditionally low-tech brand. 

Quick Facts: 42mm diameter x 13.8mm height – 316L stainless steel case with black PVD coating – Sistem51 calibre – automatic – 19 jewels – 21,600vph (3Hz) – 90-hour power reserve – water-resistant to 30 metres – USD 245 or EUR 220


honourable mention

Skagen Holst Automatic Skeleton

Skagen was founded in 1989 by a Danish couple who actually relocated to the United States two years prior. Headquartered in Texas (with additional global headquarters), the brand is known for its distinct, fashionable Danish designs and affordable prices. Now a subsidiary of Fossil, Skagen has recently ventured into mechanical watches and even popular Android smartwatches with the Falster line. The Holst Automatic Skeleton is an eye-catching piece with the unmistakable Skagen vibe showcasing a skeletonized Seagull TY2806.

This movement is comparable to the Japanese Miyota 8215 and is not only a reliable workhorse, but a brand or two even use components (ST-16 ebauche) for Swiss Made labelled calibres. The movement has a nice symmetry with the balance wheel, escapement and mainspring front and centre, with nice plates and bridges that don’t exhibit rough elements. A perimeter dial ring features large Roman numerals and indices, and the hour and minute hands have lume inserts. Legibility is better than expected and good enough to read at a glance. The 42mm 316L stainless steel case is polished with interesting contours on the sides, and the caseback is solid steel. At less than USD 200, it’s a real value proposition and if you’re looking for a stylish, reliable skeleton watch on a budget, this is a no-brainer. 

Quick Facts: 42mm diameter x 8mm height – 316L stainless steel case – Seagull TY2806 – automatic – 21 jewels – 21,600vph (3Hz) – 36-hour power reserve – Incabloc shock protection – water-resistant to 30 metres – USD 195

3 responses

  1. I believe you should include the Arnold & Son Nebula in stainless steel here. Prices at around USD 15,000 it offers much more horological value than the RGM.

  2. I have the Tissot T Complication Squelette and like it very much. Also one under the radar “cheapie” is the Fossil Commuter. While Fossil is considered rubbish the commuter has a Miyota 8N24 calibre. I have had one for a few years now and it’s been great. It does lack some finish but if you are cash strapped but still like to see that heartbeat as the escapment ticks away it’s good. Have received many positive comments about it even from people dealing with high end watches. The Fossil strap is unfortunately laminated rubbish.

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