It’s early morning December 2, 1805, the sun is not yet up but the sky is getting light. Shivering with cold, the young Jean-Pascal Dupin, soldier of the Napoleon’s Grand Army is hiding, on the look out for the troops of the Russian, Austrian and British allied forces. He does not know it yet but he is about to witness one of Napoleon’s greatest victories: the Battle of Austerlitz.
Dupin however is facing a huge problem, his riffle is damaged and he needs bits of metal to repair it, but where to find the desired elements? Looking at his pocket watch he has a stroke of genius. An engraver by profession he is good with his hands, so why not give it a try he thinks? It is better than certain death. He takes his knife and gently starts removing the metal from his watch’s movement making sure that no metal is taken from the vital (or what he thinks to be vital) parts, non content to only remove the metal he does so also by engraving the remaining parts with curves reminding him of the red curls of his fiancée Mathilde, waiting for him back in his native Provence.
History does not tell us if Dupin survives the battle of Austerlitz or his role in it, all that remain is his diary and the watch he left behind (both are exhibited in the museum of the Napoleonian Army in the Invalides in Paris).
click on the scans for a bigger view
|Battle of Austerlitz by Baron Pascal|
The creation of the first skeleton watch has the inimitable ingredients of a good classical story: history, poetry and romance echoing the timepieces themselves.
This would have been the perfect story if it was anything other than the fruit of the warped mind of yours truly! The true history of the skeleton watch is unfortunately more down to earth.
But what exactly is a skeleton watch?
The Barber of Seville’s Father
There is no definitive definition of a skeleton watch but it is generally agreed that it is a watch with a movement whose plate and bridges have been cut away to expose the wheels and gears, leaving only the substance which the watch needs to function. An opendial watch is sometimes erroneously called a skeleton. In the former, the bridges and plates have not been cut away, but the dial of the watch has been totally or partially removed as to see the inner works.
The father of the skeleton watch is considered to be André-Charles Caron. Around 1760, master watchmaker André-Charles Caron conceived of an astute way of sharpening the public’s interest in the watches he turned out in his shop on rue Saint-Denis in Paris: he would expose henceforth their innermost secrets. And expose he did, methodically openworking plates, bars and bridges to reveal what lay underneath, and for the first time, the wheels and gears of time were there for all to see.
Father of Pierre-Augustin, born in 1732 and known to history as the dramatist Beaumarchais (to whom we owe the Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro), Caron had in fact instinctively followed the age-old human urge to decorate and otherwise embellish domestic implements and dwellings. As befits rare and precious objects, watches have been decorated practically from the start. Their balance cock was often elaborately wrought and embellished as were the case backs or even dials.
Now that they could easily be seen, gearwheels and pinions had to look their best. They were carefully shaped, their angles beveled and surface polished. But simple polishing and buffing wasn’t enough for watchmakers. They aimed at turning their movements into true works of art, showcases for their many talents. Plates, bridges and bars were thus pared down and streamlined then worked into elegantly and even exuberantly curvilinear compositions.
Together, these operations removed over half of the movement’s original metal. From its mainplate, bridges and bars emerged an intricate pattern of gilt or even solid gold lace. All visible areas were then expertly and minutely engraved and chased by hand.
Watchmakers gradually began referring to this kind of decorative work as “skeletonizing” and the resulting timepieces “skeleton watches”.
The Angel’s Stroke
Skeletonizing a watch movement into a piece of scintillating metal tracery demands exceptional deftness and precision, generating considerable added value in the process. Scrupulous observation of a series of mandatory steps is vital to the successful production of that delicate combination of airy transparency and delicate lacework that mark Vacheron Constantin’s skeleton pieces.
The process begins with the drilling of holes in the bridges, bars and mainplate on a jig boring machine, preluding more elaborate machining sequences. Following a precise cutting plan, the various workpieces are subjected to a slow electro-discharge process according to a predefined pattern in order to remove part of the metal. In fact, these components lose up to half of their initial volume in the course of the skeletonizing process.
Now machines yield to craftsmen. First they need to check that the components have not be deformed in the cutting process, then their job is to embellish everything the eye can see. The surface of every previously pierced and machined part is methodically touched up, circular grained then painstakingly bevelled by hand.
These components are then sent for engraving. Vacheron Constantin is one of the very few manufactures with an inhouse engraver: 25 year old Jeanne Ulrich who joined the brand two and a half years ago after completing a 4 year course in engraving.
Vacheron Constantin likes to point out that the founding event of the brand dates from September 17, 1755 when 24 year old Jean-Marc Vacheron hired an apprentice to pass on his savoir faire and perpetuate his craft. This is the reason why Vacheron Constantin pushed Jeanne Ulrich to continue her apprenticeship (while working with the brand) with her mentor Jean-Bernard Michel for the past two years as to enable her to perfect her skills and aim to go from excellent to exceptional engraver!
“Sensitivity, rigor and exactitude in striving to attain perfection are the qualities which make a good engraver” says Jeanne Ulrich.
The engraving process begins with the “cementing” of the component to be engraved; this consists of firmly fixing it on a previously heated wax type material which solidifies once cooled. The piece is then placed on a rotating bowl shaped tool enabling the engraver to hold the component in the desired position.
The metal is then removed by applying firm precise strokes from the exterior towards the interior as to give the movement the same light airiness transparency as in a Gershwin tune. The tools used have hardly changed since Albrecht Dürer’s time and are often customised by the engraver to fit his/her method of working.
Like the last penalty shot in the Word Cup Football (or soccer for the American Loungers) Finals you don’t get a second chance in engraving. You miss, you loose and the slightest error in a stroke results in the component being sent back to be melted.
Before and after: notice the way the light plays on the engraved plate and rotor:
“It is as difficult to work on a time only movement as it is on a tourbillion or a minute repeater because of the small surfaces and thin components” says Ulrich. The main difficulty resides in the type of metal worked on, gold is a regular metal and easier to work with than maillchort (or German silver) which has an irregular surface and hardness.
Once the components engraved (a single rotor can take up to half a day!), it is un-cemented and bathed in different solutions to clean them of particles.
The watchmaker in charge of the watch now takes over, further refining the work and adding various finishing touches: the sink, or concave chamfer, around each hole (in which the watch jewels are fitted) receive their final polishing with a diamond-tipped tool. The mainplate, bridges and bars, mainspring barrel and hour wheel are then plated (either rhodium or red gold as for the new Patrimony Traditionnelle Perpetual Calendar).
Skeletons of Yesterday….
The roaring 20s and the Art Deco era were sources of great creativity for Vacheron Constantin, it is therefore of little surprise to note that the brand’s first skeleton watch dates from 1924. It is however not “simply” a skeleton pocket watch (with caliber RA 17’’’, the same found in the first Chronomètre Royal models) but one in a rock crystal case circled in a platinum ring and set with Burmese sapphires!
When you start with such a masterpiece you set a very high standard for the future generations of watchmakers and engravers!
The brand continued producing skeleton pocket watches for about a decade, often in lavishly worked gem set cases of crystal or enamel.
The threshold to a higher level was reached in the early 30s when Vacheron Constantin merged its technical savoir faire with Verger Frères’, the Parisian case makers, unequalled design savvy to create some of the most delightfully refined and creative constant force table clocks.
Held in cases inspired by the exotic orient (very much en vogue in Europe then) the vertically set movement is held between two sapphire panes and is as much functional as it is sculptural.
These clocks were magnificently finished, skeletonized and engraved, the movement with double-barrel featured a remontoire d’égalité with constant force applied to the escape wheel via a spiral spring wound by the going train. According to the Vacheron Constantin archives, twelve ebauches were produced in 1929, with this double-barrel, special remontoire with straight lever escapement but only five are known to have been finished. Three, completed in 1932 and 1933 and two which were cased in the 1990s.
Even once the wrist watch had become the norm, Vacheron Constantin continued making the odd skeleton pocket watch in the 50s throughout the 70s which however lacked, in my opinion, the grace and enchantment of their forefathers.
Vacheron Constantin’s first skeleton wrist watch was created in 1964 probably as a special commission with a 9’’ caliber derived from the famous 1003. However, you will notice that this model lacks the engraving work which enables a skeleton timepiece to reflect light in such a particular manner, it is as such more an open dial model than a skeleton timepiece per se. In a way it’s a nice “draft” of better things to come.
In 1955 Vacheron Constantin had created a stir by presenting the thinnest watch movement ever, the 1.64mm thick caliber 1003. Approximately 15 years later in the early 1970s the brand created another feat by skeletonizing this superb movement renamed for the occasion caliber 1003SQ (SQ for squelette, French for skeleton) launching at the same time their first “serial” production of skeleton wrist watches. The 1003SQ was followed a decade later by the skeleton version of another iconic movement the automatic caliber 1120.
|1977 cal 1003||ref13012, 1982 cal 1003||ref 33058, 1984 cal 1003|
While until now skeletonising and movement engraving were reserved for time only pieces Vacheron Constantin decided to broaden its offerings and produce skeleton versions of complicated timepieces such as the perpetual calendar (ref 43032 from 1984) or the chronograph (ref 47102 from early 90s). However, it was the creation of the bewildering skeleton versions of the double barrel tourbillon (ref 30021 from 1991) and pink gold minute repeater (ref 30030 from 1994) which struck the watch world with awe and sealed Vacheron Constantin’s reputation as THE reference in skeleton watches.
|ref 43032||ref 47102|
Skeleton Minute Repeater, rose gold
scans courtesy of Deniz
Skeleton double barrel tourbillon, rose gold
scans courtesy of Paul Butros
In the mid 90s Vacheron Constantin started also adding skeleton/engraved rotors to full dial limited edition timepieces such as the Audubon series (with cloisonné enamel dials) and the jump hour Saltarello.
Today, Vacheron Constantin is practically the sole full-fledged watch manufacturer to make skeleton watches available throughout its model range—from the simplest to the most complex. Its management, in a way, considers that the brand has an obligation to conserve and encourage the often centuries-old arts crafts that define Genevan watchmaking, in which it has from the start had a stellar role.
A look at the current collection of Vacheron Collection shows that the brand offers 6 skeleton models, each very different from the other in terms of design and execution.
Malte Openwork with caliber 1120
Malte Openwork small model with caliber 1003
Malte Openwork Tourbillon with caliber 1790.
One of the most beautiful tourbillons currently on the market, this version is a sight for sore eyes. Flawlessly finished (just the tourbillon bridge takes over 11 hours of finishing to give it its perfectly cylindrical tapered shape) the movement looks like a layered sculpture and you are left wondering how these thin pieces of lacework actually keep the movement together!
A special 20 piece edition was also launched in 2007 as a request from the Turkish market. The back bridges of this model, with full dial, are beautifully engraved with motifs inspired by the arabesques found in Saint Sophie’s cathedral in Istanbul.
Métiers d’Art $20 Openwork with caliber 1003
Sketelonising of the calibre 1003 is a feat but Vacheron Constantin took the difficulty one step further by creating a wrist watch totally hidden inside a $20 goild coin. To do so two coins are necessary, the first one is drilled and the movement subsequently fitted into it, serving as a regular "case", a second coin is then cut and fitted atop the case and acts as the cover!
This explains the reason why $20 gold coins were used because they fulfilled 2 necessities: they had the desired size and thickness as to serve as a "watch case" and were available in sufficient numbers as to create the watches.
Scans courtesy of Derek Pinto, a 12 year old with amazing photo skills !
Cabinotiers Openwork Minute Repeater caliber 1755
Probably one of the most amazing watches of all time, launched in 2006 in only 15 pieces, this watch is the epitome of Vacheron Constantin’s art. Ethereal beauty merged with the voices of angels once you pull the trigger which sets the chimes: clear and crystal like! In the late 80s Vacheron Constantin decided to focus attention on creating a minute repeater, something which it was famed for but no longer offered. A 1940s movement (the same used by the brand in its superb vintage repeaters) served as benchmark, it was disassembled and studied, plans were drawn, machines and tools were bought and most importantly a team that could bring such a marvel to life was put together. After four years of research, in 1993, the company unveiled its first piece, the caliber 1755, in honor of the year Vacheron Constantin was founded and it is this – the exceptional final series of the caliber 1755 – that is to be found in the platinum Les Cabinotiers Openwork Minute Repeater watch.
Assembled from over 330 parts, its movement is barely 3.30 mm thick, making it the slimmest in the world. It takes between 2000-2500 hours to build this timepiece from the drilling of the 1st hole to final assembly, that’s almost a year and a half of work!! Only 4 watchmakers have the requested skills to work on this timepiece and each assembles between 2-3 of the skeleton minute repeaters each year.
Asked about the phenomenal chimes and consistency in the sound of Vacheron Constantin minute repeaters Chrystian Lefrançois, head of the complications department says: “Our goal is not to have the loudest chime but the one who has the best tone”. To obtain such a clear chime each movement and case are made together, each case is modified to respond to the specificity of each movement as such if you take two movements and switch cases the chimes may not be as clear and pure!!
Patrimony Traditionnelle Openwork Perpetual Calendar
The latest model to join the skeleton family is the Patrimony Traditionnelle Openwork Perpetual Calendar whose calibre 1120QPSQ (with Geneva hallmark), is decorated with an Art Nouveau motif inspired by those of the Eiffel Tower. It took Jeanne Ulrich over 3 months of tests to finally reach a result which perfectly suited her aspirations and the brand’s expectations. The engraving of the whole movement (on both sides) takes about a week and consists of over 8000 strokes!
The dial was designed to provide an excellent view of the skeleton movement and perfect legibility of the perpetual calendar indications. To achieve this, Vacheron Constantin opted for a transparent sapphire dial enhanced by a silvered ring integrating the hour markers and minute-track. The perpetual calendar indications, transferred on the dial, consequently gained in both size and legibility. Transparency was also used with the moon phase indicator, whose two discs can be made out through the frosted glass.
Vacheron Constantin’s specificity in skeleton watches is twofold: (i) the brand, in its own original manner, calls them openwork models and (ii) they are probably the most beautiful models on the market today. In Vacheron Constantin’s skeleton watches the skeletonizing/engraving do not seem to be an afterthought but rather a carefully planned act of artistic creation with a final result which is both sophisticated and subtle, blending perfectly in a harmonious whole. The expertise involved is truly representative of what constitutes a fine timepiece: functional, rare, personalized, highly skilled, beautiful and uncompromising in its craftsmanship and if Dupin had existed he would agree that like Napoleon’s Grande Armée in 1805, Vacheron Contantin in terms of skeleton timepieces, today, has no rivals.