Skeleton watch movements are small chronomatic works of art. Made by hand, they demonstrate the high level of craftsmanship involved in watch making. However, only a few watchmakers master the sawing and filing required to produce these creations.

Perspective Watches

After cutting or stamping out the patterns from the plate, the edges are refined by hand in the Cartier workshops

A skeleton movement is then engraved at the Cartier workshops to complete its entire beauty

Anyone who likes mechanical watches is always fascinated by the ticking of the movement, from the swinging of the balance wheel and gentle tick tick to the turning of the gear wheels. The view inside a skeleton movement is all the more fascinating with every part of the movement being open and enabling the other parts to be viewable as delicate silhouettes. No watch is as open to view as a skeleton movement: from the watch face, through a glass case back, there is often an open view of the movement, the individual components of which are all open, right down to its basic elements. The aesthetics of this design has its own story to tell: wristwatches have been produced with skeleton movements since the 1930s. This relates to pendulum clocks, so-called pendula, which were popular during the first half of the 19th century in France. The ‘Marie Antoinette’ is also legendary. It was created by unrivalled master watchmaker Abraham Louis Breguet in the 18th century for the French Queen and incorporates a delicate skeleton movement.

This delicate refinement is all part of the craft of the watchmaker and, despite the high level of difficulty involved, is all just part of the process. Engravers too often carry out this skeleton work as there is no effective training program in place. Of course, the art of skeleton work is carried out in traditional companies such as Cartier.

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The Cartier engraver then ‘paints’ his delicate pattern onto the skeleton component with a miniature graver

The hardest part of skeletonizing: Kurt Schaffo smoothes down the contours of the sawn out parts with a tiny file, eradicating and polishing any uneven areas

Art or craft?

One Swiss watchmaker is a master of this discipline and has already worked for virtually all the big watch labels: Kurt Schaffo from the Swiss town of Le Locle has been a renowned master of skeleton working since 1980. The watches which he creates under his own name are small works of art with an air of magic about them. Schaffo saws filigree motifs from the metal, creates decorative images and spectacular ornamentation. Is this an art or a craft? Probably a bit of both. When you meet Kurt Schaffo for the first time, you have the impression that you are meeting a real craftsman. This down-to-earth and astute Swiss certainly has the hands of a craftsman: covered in weals and cuts, able and active. However, at his work desk they become slender and skilled tools which can apply the minute watch components with virtuosity and accuracy. But it’s not just about the skilled processing of metals; fantasy and creativity are also essential for creating an aesthetically pleasing image.

Completely hand-processed rhodium-plated tourbillon movement by Christophe Schaffo in white gold case

Beauty in a square: hand-skeletonized and hand-engraved manual movement by Kurt Schaffo in a square yellow gold case

Charming reverse: view through the glass case back of the skeleton automatic movement of a yellow gold watch by Kurt Schaffo

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A skeleton emerges

At the beginning, the movement is simply separate constituent parts, usually made from brass. The first stage is the design process which Kurt Schaffo carries out without any sketches. “I can see the result before my own spiritual eyes,” says the 71 year old. He draws the pattern he wants to cut out of the plates onto the components with a fine scriber. The aim is to go to the boundaries of functional stability: “At the end, only the most essential connections are left to hold everything together,” explains Schaffo. Once the pattern has been established, the skeleton work begins: Schaffo bores minute holes into the piece with a bench drill through which the sawing blade of a watchmaker’s saw can pass. These holes are placed wherever the blade of the saw will be turned. Schaffo then threads the blade through one of the holes and begins to saw out the material – just like with fret-sawing work but on a scale where a magnifying glass and steady hand are essential. It’s fascinating to see just how easily Schaffo seems to carry out this filigree work. He then moves the blade along the outline of the pattern with a skilled hand while holding the tiny component with his other hand. After a few millimeters, the plate is turned round in his agile fingers, sawn a bit more, turned again… and so on until a minute piece of brass falls out and the ‘skeleton’ of the component remains. A movement is most beautiful when all the individual components are as congruent as possible and provide an optimal view through the movement. After the sawing, the refining work begins: the material is worn away this time with various small files. Any sharp edges are removed, refined and polished with a polishing file.

A well-rehearsed team: Kurt (left) and Christophe Schaffo carry out the skilled job of creating skeleton movements

Skeletonized classic: ‘Tank Louis Cartier’ in platinum

The Cartier engraver always applies his delicate filigree work to the movement components under the microscope

Pure aesthetics: ‘Tank a Vis Skeleton’ by Cartier in platinum

The result is lots of tiny small sawn out pieces which now go to the workshop of Kurt’s son Christophe Schaffo. He is trained as an engraver and, after more than 20 years in the profession, is certainly following in his father’s footsteps – he can create skeleton movements just as skillfully as his father. He also decorates the movement components created by his father with engraved patterns, lines and ornaments. After engraving, the parts are sent to a specialist for gold plating. The parts are then sent back to Kurt Schaffo who now moves to a different work desk. While the first desk is for sawing and filing, the second desk is completely clean and clear. Here, the movement is put together. It hardly looks like the same items, all shiny and engraved. And there’s only a fraction of the original weight left. A movement which weighed ten to 18 grams at the start often weighs just two and a half to four grams at the end. Kurt Schaffo now pieces the components skillfully together – until one of the watchmaker’s favorite moment arrives: “When the balance wheel starts to swing, that’s pure fascination” says Schaffo enthusiastically. “When the movement finally comes to life after all that work, it’s absolutely wonderful”.