Feature: Cheap VS Expensive Skeleton Watch
It’s the ultimate watchmaker flex; never mind minute repeaters and perpetual calendars, hidden deep within the movement—if you want to show off your skill as a watchmaker, you do it with skeletonization. Here are two such skeletonised watches. One costs £1,500, the other £43,000. Can you tell the difference?
You would imagine watchmakers to be the quiet, reclusive types, holed up in winter cabins deep in the mountains, scratching away a living making tiny devices whose complexity can never truly be appreciated—and you’d probably be right. But that doesn’t mean that a watchmaker can’t want a little recognition once a while, a chance to demonstrate what they can really do. This is where skeletonization comes in.
It’s simple, really—at least in theory. You take a watch, one that contains your pride and joy—a beautiful movement—and you remove everything that gets in the way of it, opening it up and revealing the guts within. More often than not this makes the actual functionality of the watch pretty tricky, being infinitely harder to read, but this is a statement piece—the statement being, “Look how damn good I am at watchmaking.”
This tradition has been in play since the 1700s, when clockmakers rallied against each other to earn a place in the courts of the kings. When anyone who’s anyone was making normal, plain, boring clocks, if you wanted any hope of being noticed, your work needed to be noticeable. And so the very best of the best hacked material away, peeling back the hidden layers below the skin to validate just how deep a watchmaker’s skills can really go.
And so it was for centuries, this achievement defining the pinnacle of art and engineering in timekeeping. But now there’s a new kid in town, and it speaks in ones and zeroes; no longer is the skeletonised watch the reserve of the wealthy elite, because now watchmakers can use computer-aided design and machining to achieve the same premise. Automated cutting blades, jets of water and even lasers can replicate the handiwork of the watchmakers of old, stripping a movement of its unnecessary weight and bringing the inner workings to light.
Considering a skeletonised clock was the worth of a king, it is surprising to learn that this Oris Artelier Translucent Skeleton costs a mere £1,500. And everything is revealed, from mainspring to escapement, for all to see. Where solid metal once stood, holes gape wide, offering a view that was once only the privilege of royalty. It’s the mark of a new time, one of automation and technology, married to the tradition of centuries before.
It seems that watchmakers can no longer express their creativity, have been relegated back to their winter cabins to resume their work, unknown and unappreciated. If machines can do all they can, then who’s to say that they can do anything at all? It’s a lost cause, the rise of the machines, the end of times. That is, unless the watchmakers still have the edge.
What you’re looking at here is the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked. In the quest for ultimate accuracy, the watchmakers at Audemars Piguet discovered that pairing two balance wheels together not only increased rotational stability, but by having opposing balance springs, also evened out imbalances in friction during the expansion and compression phases. Think of both springs pulling against each other and pushing towards each other to keep the force on the balance wheels equal.
Of course, this unique and complex approach to escapement manufacturer deserves more recognition than the name on the box, and so these watchmakers decided that the balance wheels—both of them—should be out on show for all—well, those who can afford it—to see. And so, the watch was—in Audemars Piguet terminology—openworked, with good, old-fashioned hands.
But what about our robot overlords? Why bother going to all that effort when you could just hit ‘print’ instead? This is what we’re here to find out, because clearly something had better be better about the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked, or it’s £41,500 down the drain.
There’s actually a mix of approaches at work here with the Royal Oak. In much the same way that a fine woodworker wouldn’t cut down a tree with a penknife, the bulk of the material in the bridges and plates of the Openworked is removed by machine, leaving a rough outline for skilled hands to take over. This is where things get a little—how can I put this nicely—tedious, because it’s with hand tools that Audemars Piguet’s finest watchmakers begin the process of taking the movement down to its final dimensions.
You can imagine how slow and painstaking it must be to shape these pieces by hand, under magnification no less. One slip and it’s finished, game over, start again. And it’s not just a game of patience; those inside edges, the ones that come to a point, just think about those for a minute. How do you even make those? The answer is even more tedious still, because the only way that the material can be carefully abraded from those nooks and crannies is with thin hand files. There’s just no other option. And the, erm, “fun” is only just beginning.
What you’ll notice as you take an oblique view across the movement, as the light plays over what’s left of the metal, are the shiny bevelled edges. Nice, aren’t they? You’re looking at weeks of work there. Every single one of these angles is shaped and polished by hand. If you’ve ever tried to polish metal, you’ll know how painstaking it is to get to a mirror finish; now imagine having to do that on every single one of these parts. And remember—make a single mistake on a component and that means throwing it away and starting over.
Honestly, it makes me feel a bit sick the thought of approaching a task this daunting. Machines may be able to replicate something of the look and feel of skeletonization, but when it’s done properly, by hand, it elicits a whole new universe of reverence. So painstaking and so precise must a person be, and for such a duration. It’s intense. I can barely concentrate long enough to finish this sentence.
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