Watches are a constant reminder of our own mortality. Every tick we hear, will never come back and inevitable bring us closer to the end, whatever that may be. Even one of the most successful add campaigns ever launched by a watch brand is referring to this; You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation. Perhaps this is also the consolation we can find in the fact that we are mortal, at least our beloved timepieces will live on even after we are long gone.
The link between death and time has always been quite popular to display on timepieces, actually as long as timepieces have been made. Many pocket watches feature references to death, either in their engravings, enameled decorations or sometimes even in automaton’s.
But even today many watchmakers are so inspired by this interconnection that they use it in one of their watches, and the human skull is often choosen to represent this. Human skulls in general have a strong position in the art world, from the work of Pieter Claesz to Dali, to Damien Hirst’s “For the Love of God”. So perhaps it is also this link that explains why some of the greatest watchmakers are incorporating skulls in their watches.
If there is one watchmaker that likes to display it’s love for skulls, it is Corum. With well over a dozen models it almost seems that they went skull-crazy. Their offerings vary from Jolly Roger’s, in which the crossed bones take over the function of the hands, to the skull of Baron Samedi with some Voodoo-fire in the back ground. For those for who this is a bit too much do they have also Classical Vanitas. This collection of five limted editions, of each fifty pieces each, displays the skulls by using marquetry of marble and precious stones. This also shows through how much trouble watchmakers go to create their skull watches. It is much more than just an image on a dial.
This becomes especially clear when we take a look at Richard Mille’s skull watch, who actually fitted a tourbillon movement in it. All the shapes of the bridges have been crafted so that it resembles a skull, both from the front as well as the back. They even went through the trouble of crafting the bridges that hold the rest of the movement in the center of the watch like bones, creating in fact the image of a Jolly Roger. By positioning the tourbillon in the mouth of the skull, you get the idea that it is actually grinding its teeth on the passing of time.
That skulls and art are closely connected is also something proven by Romain Jerome. For their skull watch they worked together with artist John M Armleder, who frequently uses skulls in his work. The result is typical Armleder, yet at the same time also typical Romain Jerome. A high polished, stylized skull is staring blandly at you from its place on the dial. Again there are subtle details that make also this watch more than just having an image of a skull. The skull is actually crafted as a raised appliqué, where the sides have a lacquer applied. This little dash of color goes a long way, because it really highlights the features of the skull in a watch that is mainly steel polished to perfection.
A more subdued option is also available by Romain Jerome. For their watch dedicated to the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Death, they went for a pvd case and dial in which the only colorful part is a highly decorated skull. These skulls play an important part in a holiday where friends and family go to the cemeteries to remember and pray for their deceased loved ones, and honoring them by bringing for example their favorite food and drinks as offerings. Both Romain Jerome’s are offered on a hornback alligator strap. Those straps are also known as “bony alligators”, since they include the bony horns at the back of the alligator, and could therefor hardly be more appropriate.
Skulls have also long been used in the military, as part of a units emblem. From the hat of German Field Marshal August von Mackensen to the current emblem of the British Queen’s Royal Lancers; Scaring your enemies with a skull and bones has worked since the days of the pirates, so why not now? Inspired by the term “Death from Above”-motto of the USAF 7th Bombardment Wing and the 505th parachute infantry regiment, Bell & Ross created the BR-01 Airborne. In the typical square shape of the BR-01 collection, the dial section is now not round but shaped so that it highlights the form of the skull. Already quite sinister by day, with its pvd-coated case, it becomes really sinister at night because the skull itself is made of luminova and lights up in the dark. Perhaps this brings back memories of childhood, but Bell & Ross went to quite some trouble to create this watch, and this is even accentuated by the fact that there is also a tourbillon version of their skull-watch available.
A tourbillon can also be found in the watch created by candidate AHCI-member Hajime Asaoka and artist Takashi Murakami, but the rest of his approach is quite different. This is once again a blend of art, watchmaking and skulls. The watch is called “Death takes no bribes” and features one of Asaoka’s tourbillon movements that he crafts completely in house. Although a beautiful portion of the left side of the dial is dedicated to this stunningly executed complication, the right side of the dial is for Murakami, who decorated it with his signature skull and flowers. Talking about a signature, Asaoko created a tourbillon that runs at 18.000 bhp, making it relatively slow moving and setting it apart from most of the rest of the tourbillons in todays market.
Even Franck Muller, mostly known for his innovative yet classical inspired styling, also has a darker side. He displays this in his Gothique collection. As part of the Cintree Curvex range it features over sized Roman numerals at twelve, three and six o’clock, but when you pull your sleeve a little further, the nine will be displayed as two crossed bones with a rather sinister skull next to it. Most dramatic is probably the diamond set version of this watch, which features a highly polished skull that is actually capable of grabbing your attention in the midst of the impressive diamond pave-setting.
Diamonds can also be found in one of Peter Speake-Marin’s skull watches. Quite unique since the watchmaker has expressed in the past that he personally does not favor the use of diamonds in men’s watches. But apparently there is a link between diamonds, skulls and watches because almost all the aforementioned skull-watches are also available in diamond set versions. Perhaps because they represent the strongest, natural component on earth and therefor immortality? Speake-Marin added at least quite a bit of this immortality to its watch because the dial inside his signature Piccadilly case features two skulls, each with a pave-setting of colorless diamonds, looking away from each other.
While an impressive piece, it might actually be surpassed by another watch Speake-Marin dedicated to skulls. Here the tables have turned and it looks like the skulls are being excavated out of a field of diamonds. Quite stunning, because the details of the skulls is incredible!
Watches adorned with skulls seem, unlike their makers and owners, to have some degree of immortality. They can hardly be seen as a trend, but more like a niche within the vast world of watches. Contributing to this niche are some of the most respected names and brands in watchmaking, more often than not elevating skull watches into works of art and watchmaking excellence, to be enjoyed by their owners until death do them part.