During my latest Marie Kondo fueled closet purge I discovered a repressed relic from my past crammed into the side of a worn-out moving box. It was a 17 jewel skeleton dial pocket watch from a random Amazon brand called Avalon.
Way back before I was even remotely interested in watches, I had it in my mind that I need some sort of timepiece to make me look cool. This was back in 2011 when I had no common sense and about zero self-esteem. What I did have though was about $45 and an Amazon account.
I remember scrolling through men’s watches on Amazon for anything that caught my eye. The whole world of watches meant nothing to me back then – I knew nothing. I didn’t know what a chronograph was nor did I fully understand all the bullshit around the “Swiss Made” label or even how to use a bezel. All I knew is that I just needed something *cool.*
Inevitably the timepieces that always caught my eye in that horologically primordial time of my life were skeleton watches.
Basically, a skeleton watch refers to any watch that has the gears, jewels, springs, bridge plates, and everything else under the hood visible through the front of the watch. In essence, the stuff you normally don’t see behind the watch dial becomes the visual focal point of the timepiece’s design.
I remember digging deeper into Amazon’s offerings. Any sort of skeleton dial mechanical watch that showed me its inner workings was a timepiece worthy of my attention. Eventually I found that Avalon pocket watch and purchased it. I honestly don’t even think it’s stainless steel – it’s probably just recycled soda can aluminum that they plated. But I didn’t care about that – I just knew it looked cool.
I ironically wore it once, felt ridiculous trying to wear a pocket watch with cargo shorts in public and interred the timepiece back in the flimsy box it arrived in never to be seen again. Until I unearthed it 10 years later from my closet, which is why I’m talking with you all today.
It got me thinking, I know I’m not the only one who looked at a skeleton watch in the early days because I thought they were cool. But honestly what actually attracted me to skeletonized dials back in the day? Are they actually cool or are they maybe misunderstood?
Understanding Movement Decoration And What To Look For In A Skeleton Watch
Movement decoration on both a manual and automatic watch refers to the level of intricate detail that’s generally been applied to the movement’s most visible and largest surface area parts. These are generally the bridge plates, mainspring barrel, fasteners, and rotor (in the case of an automatic skeleton watch).
Please see the most common types of decoration below.
Côtes de Genève
This is the most well-known decoration applied to watches. Côtes de Genève is a series of stripes or bars which generally create a wave pattern that’s best seen in certain angles of light. You’ll usually see Côtes de Genève on the largest surface area pieces of a movement like bridge plates.
Stippling (or Spotting)
You can actually see this one in the Avalon pocket watch that sparked this whole thing. This technique is characterized by a series of swirling concentric circles that overlap. The effect actually brings a lot of texture and visual movement to the movement. However what I’ve noticed is that it’s often not applied very well and looks sloppy in lower quality watches.
The one is where watch makers can often get creative. It can also help you better understand when you’re dealing with a lower or higher quality skeleton watch. Basically, engraving is exactly what it sounds like – a pictorial or representational image created as a hollowed out relief or even a basic cut-in design. Generally you only see engraving on high quality movements.
Obviously engraving isn’t just limited to the movement. Stainless steel cases and case backs can also be engraved.
The is a more subtle watch decorating technique and it’s one I didn’t appreciate for a long time. Basically beveling refers to the softening of hard or sharp edges on the watch movement. So instead of looking like pieces of metal that were just stamped out, they look more intentional and nuanced. This of it as a watch brand going above and beyond and putting in that extra attention to detail.
Understanding How To Spot A Well Designed Skeleton Watch
It’s hard to design a skeleton watch well. But again, what does a well design skeleton watch look like? Amongst enthusiasts, the Zenith Defy Skeleton often gets cited as an excellent skeleton watch example.
The Zenith Defy collection features some of the Swiss watch legacy brand’s most innovative and thought-provoking timepieces. From the use of advanced materials like silicon to pushing the limits of traditional mechanical timekeeping, any Zenith Defy skeleton dial is a masterpiece and it’s just going to be in a league of it’s own.
However there is one issue. If you like one of the Zenith Defy skeleton dials, you’re most likely going to pay between $10k – $20k USD depending on which model you want – pretty far stretch from looking at $50 skeleton watches on Amazon.
Here’s the reality, none of the inexpensive skeleton watches on Amazon are going to be designed well. If there’s anything you should understand about a skeleton watch it’s that a watch brand chooses to skeletonize their dial when they actually have something to show off. And by that I mean a properly decorated and unique movement innovation. The best skeleton watches are generally those that are incredibly expensive.
The only brands that are pushing the envelope with movement innovations are the same brands that are going to charge you an arm and leg for the watch. There’s no reclusive, secret watch brand that painstakingly pushes the envelope on their watch designs waiting for you to discover them in order to have the privilege of only paying a $50 for their work.
So, how do you spot a well designed skeleton watch? Look at the price tag – you need to pay for good design.
There is an exception to price though. A well designed skeleton watch can also rely on what I’m going to call a “partial dial” design. Basically, if the dial of the skeleton watch is designed in such a way so as to accentuate the experience you get by seeing the movement, then that qualifies as a well designed Skeleton. Hell, even an open-heart dial fits this bill in my opinion.
Cheaper skeleton dial watches will just flash you the whole movement and make you think you’re seeing something special. But a properly designed skeleton watch will create something unique between the relationship of the dial and the movement.
10 Quality Skeleton Watches You Can Buy Right Now
By now some of you may be saying, “Kaz, you know what? I don’t care – I still want a skeleton watch!” That’s great – awesome – totally buy one. But for the love of crap, don’t buy a cheap $15 – $200 one on Amazon from a no-name brand. Be prepared to spend between $300 – $1200 for a watch. Check out these options below from proper brands doing high quality, well-designed skeleton dials.
Bulova Skeleton Watches
This is a great example of a partial dial skeleton watch. See how the dial isn’t just an open window showing you a bunch of gear? There’s an interplay between the visible portions of the dial and the intricate workings of the movement. Plus, the Bulova Sutton addresses the legibility issue raised by several of the watch nerds above with very bold Roman numerals.
Coming in at 43mm in a stainless steal case, it’s probably more suited to larger wrists or anyone that knows 43mm works for them. Check out the circular display video on the Amazon listing page in order to get a good idea of how this watch looks.
This Bulova doesn’t have as much movement showing through the dial, but it has enough to still really capture your attention if you’re looking for a skeleton watch. Plus it has the added visual flair of multiple subdials (just don’t confuse these for Chronograph subdials – they’re totally not).
At 41mm in a stainless steel case on a leather strap, this would be a good automatic movement timepiece to use as a dress watch or at least a less casual occasion. Oh, and it’s hard to tell, but the movement has some pretty cool looking Côtes de Genève through the exhibition caseback.
Ok, so off the bat – this watch is rose gold plated. Please don’t think it’s real rose gold. Regardless, for someone that did want something in this rose gold hue that had almost a bit of a power-watch Hublot vibe, you can’t go wrong with this.
At a whopping 46mm everyone in the room will know you’re wearing this thing if that’s what you want. This is certainly not a timepiece for someone who wants something more subtle. Just be aware that with an integrated rubber strap like this, you won’t be able to use any other standard straps on this case.
Ok so this is my favorite Bulova option. The hue of blue with that style bezel and the nature of how they designed the partial skeleton dial speak to me. The bracelet style with those H-Links and butterfly clasp are also very pleasing. Overall, this would be an excellent everyday wear piece, especially at 42mm in diameter and 12.7mm thickness.
With Hamtilton we’re in a different price tier vs. those Bulova pieces from before. As such, there are some higher end features which we’re going to see. For example, this Hamilton Skeleton features a sapphire crystal and unique movement decoration in the form of some cool Hamilton branding on the self-winding rotor and the bridge plate in the front.
At 42mm this is another casual, everyday wear that honestly has some Fossil watch vibes in the design. That’s not a bad thing in my opinion. But if you had more cash to spend and wanted something that evoked the everyday wearability of a Fossil watch, this Hamilton would be a great option.
This is a terrifically ugly watch, but it fits the criteria that we’ve been talking about for a high quality skeleton watch. So here we are. With all the visual design luster of super shredder from the 1991 TMNT flick, the Ventura XXL is a larger interpretation of the classic Hamilton Ventura model.
If you’re looking for something more classic, let’s talk about this Hamilton Classic piece. Check out the front and the back of the movement – it hits on most of our target criteria for a high quality skeleton watch. It has Côtes de Genève, stippling, and engraving.
At 42mm with polished center links all around the butterfly clasp bracelet, this is an excellent dress watch candidate with some x-factor that will work in any sort of professional or formal occasion.
While this is being labeled as an open-heart watch, there’s enough movement showing in order for this to be qualified as a skeleton watch. And honestly the partial dial design and way that Hamilton designed the interplay between depth in the watch makes this a very visually pleasing option.
It’s not showing you in the face with “I’m a skeleton watch!” while still showing off some beautiful stippling decoration in the open portions of the timepiece. At a very respectable 40mm with a pressed alligator leather strap, this would work incredibly well as a dress and/or everyday casual watch. Plus you could always grab a black leather strap if you didn’t like the dark brown one that it comes with.
Swatch Big Bold Analog Timepieces – Ref. Multiple
Ok, I may have inadvertently lied before when I said you couldn’t get a good skeleton watch for around $100. But these Swatch Big Bold pieces may not immediately register to folks as a skeleton watch. But I’ll argue that these are Skeleton timepieces even though they’re quartz calibres and not mechanical movements.
Available in a variety of colors, these 47mm (with the crown) pieces are really designed to attract those who are looking for something a bit fashion forward first with a skeleton watch vibe second. But when you’re buying from Swatch you know you’re buying from a reputable, Swiss legacy brand that’s honestly not afraid to do their own thing. If I had $100 to spend I’d rather buy a Swatch than a random Amazon brand.
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Kaz has been collecting watches since 2015, but he’s been fascinated by product design, the Collector’s psychology, and brand marketing his whole life. While sharing the same strong fondness for all things horologically-affordable as Mike (his TBWS partner in crime), Kaz’s collection niche is also focused on vintage Soviet watches as well as watches that feature a unique, but well-designed quirk or visual hook.