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There are many choices for captivating watches that help make a lasting impression: moonphase watches, deep-sea divers, and – most impressively – exposed-gear watches. Even from a distance, they’re very eye-catching and unique. Let’s find out what they are, and if they’re a good choice for you.
Watches with visible gears are often called Skeleton Watches because the dial is removed in order to expose the “skeletonized” mechanical internals.
If you’re captivated by these tiny machines, you’ll be happy to know that a quality visible-gear watch can be had for relatively cheap. This guide will help you identify the high-quality ones that look great.
You can skip ahead using the table of contents, or check out a summary of the best picks here:
Full Skeleton Watches
- Luxury Homage with Exposed gears: FEICE Skeleton Oak
- Minimalist and Most Transparent Watch: Forsining Bridge
- Most Affordable Exhibition-Gear Watches: Forsining and Winner Golden Gears
- Best Design with Exposed Gears: Bulova Skeleton Automatic 96A187
- Most Classic Watch with Exposed dial: Invicta Hand-Wind Exposed Dial
- Most Complicated watch with visible gears: Stuhrling Original Sun and Moon
Why Do Some Watches Have Exposed Gears?
Watches with visible gears started out as a luxury novelty in 1700’s France. Back then, pocket watch-makers invented it to compete for the attention of the king and French elites. Quite literally, they were invented to stand out from the crowd.
Like in the past, today’s watches with exposed gears are also made to stand out from the crowd. Additionally, they offer the wearer a view of the mechanical gears, wheels, switches, and levers that power the watch. Thus, skeleton watches become both a statement piece and a work of art.
Three Degrees of Gear Exposure
When you’re looking for a watch with visibly-moving gears, there’s basically three different degrees of exposure you’ll find: fully exposed, partially cut-away, and open-heart.
Functionally, all three are the same; however, the vibe and message they convey will vary based on how much of the dial is cut away.
Full Skeleton Watches
A full cut-away skeleton watch allows a master watchmaker to hand-craft each piece of visible metal to perfection. They will etch, carve, shine, and polish every aspect to a fine level of detail. This is called the “level of finishing“
More affordable Chinese watches with a fully-exposed dial will have a nominal level of finishing to them, but they will still look decent. Most of the finishing is only visible with a loupe (or magnifying glass).
More reputable Swiss and Japanese brands will avoid producing affordable Skeleton Watches because they only want to put out a product where they can show off their prowess; thus, they often opt to produce semi-skeleton or open-heart watches to stay affordable.
Chinese watches, however, are known for imitating luxury goods without the level of luxury quality. While the look and feel seems similar to the inexperienced, they ultimately remain a temporary novelty rather than a long-lasting quality timepiece.
Some watches stick to only partially-exposing the internal mechanism. These are sometimes called “Semi-Skeleton Watches.”
The purpose for these is that the watchmaker wants to show off the moving gears, but does not feel comfortable fully exposing the dial. (We’ve all been there). The reason is that in a full-on Skeleton, it’s not just the dial that’s cut away, but every other part that is not vital for the minimum operation of the watch.
A full skeleton watch is a great choice for a watch that wants to show off how meticulously it can groove metal, but this is not a point of pride for more affordable and mid-level watches; their best work is in the dial and it’s artistic presentation; thus, many will opt to leave most of the dial intact and expose just a sliver of the internals.
The plus side is that they expose particularly those elements in the dial through which you can see the most interesting (and moving) parts, leaving you to enjoy both of best worlds – a beautiful dial and a beating mechanical heartbeat.
For a much more conservative application of this style, many watches opt to only cut away a small circle to showcase the perpetual motion of the balance wheel and escape wheel. These are called “Open-Heart Watches.”
Watches with an open heart have a different objective than fully-exposed skeleton watches. Their purpose is to incorporate a dynamic (visibly moving) element onto an otherwise static (unmoving) dial.
The watchmaker takes care to balance the open heart with the rest of the dial elements – usually the balance wheel is gold with a ruby at the center, so the rest of the dial has to match to bring this out in the best light.
Open-Heart watches give you a viewport into the heartbeat of the watch, without having to live with a fully (or partially) exposed skeleton [watch].
Luxury Homage with Exposed gears: FEICE Skeleton Oak
For a watch that looks like a million bucks that also puts it’s internal gears on full display, the FEICE Skeleton Oak is a fan favorite. Besides the skeletonized dial, the biggest selling point of this watch is that it’s a homage to the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Skeleton, which sells for close to $100K.
For less than a percent of the cost, the FEICE Skeleton offers a convincing homage that gives you the look and feel of an exclusive ultra-luxury timepiece without trying to be a copy. While the fit, finish, and accuracy can’t compare to the AP, the vibe and style are spot on.
The mechanical internals of the movement are on full display, and you can watch the balance wheel and escapement operating in real time like a living and breathing thing.
Minimalist and Most Transparent Watch: Forsining Bridge
For a unique presentation of the internal mechanism of an automatic watch, the Forsining Bridge is a gem. Here, almost all of the “extra” parts of the watch have been stripped away, leaving a minimalist assembly of gears and wheels.
The Forsining Bridge lets you see the basic components that power the watch, so that you can stay fascinated every time you look at your wrist. It’s arranged like a “bridge,” showing just the powertrain as a linear arrangement (rather than dense circular one).
While there are many variations for this watch, this steel one is my favorite – the gold elements have a nice pop against the silver steel, and the bridge spans diagonally (with an accompanying crown at the 2 o’clock position).
Forsining is another affordable up-and-coming Chinese brand. While the quality of the materials and movement aren’t as good as some Swiss and Japanese brands on this list, Forsining delivers excellent value for the money; their focus is on a good-looking wristwatch over flawless functionality.
Many folks are drawn to watches with exposed gears due to the regal and luxurious style that they communicate. That’s why a golden skeleton may be a good option; it’s extremely eye-catching, and triggers some primal respect from onlookers seeing a gold timepiece.
The Forsining Skeleton above and the Winner Skeleton below are both manufactured by the same Chinese company – they have subtle differences, but are very similar.
The Forsining Skeleton is entirely golden, with intricate ornamentation carved into the movement on both sides of the crystal. The hands are white and lume-filled, and have a blue border – this makes it very easy to tell the time despite the golden chaos. The strap is attached to the watch like a golden compass or converted pocketwatch – a distinct design that further communicates luxury and exclusivity.
The Winner Skeleton dial and skeleton are similar to the Forsining, but the bezel has two faux-diamonds encrusted at each hour marker. The hands have a gold border around white-filled lume, which make it difficult to tell the time, but they also provide an undisturbed golden canvas. Finally, the leather strap has a more traditional attachment style, which makes it more versatile with any other straps you own.
Depending on the style you prefer, both watches are a great value watch for the money – they have exposed and visibly-moving gears. The balance wheel and escapement are constantly in motion, and the rest of the gears move slowly throughout the day.
Best Design with Exposed Gears: Bulova Skeleton Automatic 96A187
For a quality timepiece with exposed gears, the Bulova Automatic Semi-Skeleton is a great watch. Unlike the watches in the previous sections, the Bulova is the highest-quality watch on this list so far, and features a partially-exposed dial.
This watch has a distinct design: while still showcasing the moving gears, it coalesces a blue-white motif through the blue roman numerals and blue hands, which complement the silver/white dial and case elements beautifully.
The Bulova Semi-Skeleton is elegant, and avoids being gaudy. Unlike other watches in this article, the Bulova is the watch to get for yourself. Some of the others on this list are mainly to impress others.
Bulova is a quality watchmaker owned by Citizen – one of the largest watch manufacturers in the world (based in Japan). Their Automatic watches are a great value for the money.
Most Classic Watch with Exposed dial: Invicta Hand-Wind Exposed Dial
This is one of Invicta’s most conservative (and best-looking) designs: it’s nearly a full skeleton, with the exception of the outer dial of roman numerals. It’s an impressive presentation with a classical appearance for a very affordable price.
Invicta makes some decent watches under $100, but starts to get overpriced over that – this watch fits the bill for great value.
For an affordable skeleton watch with visible gears, this Invicta Skeleton is my favorite on the list – it’s elegant and satisfying without being gaudy. It’s also a hand-wind (manual wind), meaning that there is no rotor in the back to obscure the view of the skeleton dial. However the downside of this is that you do have to manually wind it nearly every day for it to keep ticking.
The balance wheel on the Invicta is especially huge (near the 10 o’clock position), which is great for a timepiece of this kind. You really get your money’s worth.
Most Complicated watch with visible gears: Stuhrling Original Sun and Moon
While other brands dabble in skeletonized dials, they are Stuhrling’s bread and butter. Not content with merely injecting another plain old exposed-gear watch, Stuhrling goes all out with their Sun and Moon Skeleton.
This is a large mechanical watch that has many complications (“features”). At the top is the sun-and-moon indicator: the two astral bodies chase each other around the subdial all day (and night) long, indicating roughly their position in the sky.
At the bottom of the Stuhrling Sun and Moon, the balance wheel is on full display, with bridged attachments to the dial with blued screws. That’s going to be the most eye-catching element – constantly in motion, and with a loud gold contrast against the rest of the blue-silver motif.
At the 9 o’clock, there is a dual time indicator, with it’s own set of visible gears and wheels. The entire arrangement is visibly driven by a powertrain extending from the crown, and will set the gears in motion when you spin it. It’s also got a rotor in the back for automatic winding.
Best Value watch with exposed gears: Orient Esteem Open Heart
Let’s say you wanted a watch with the internal mechanism visibly moving that was high-quality, affordable, and beautiful all at once. If you’re not necessarily set on a full skeleton, the Orient Esteem would be at the top of that list.
Orient does make a full skeleton, but it’s nowhere near affordable. However, their open-heart models allow the brand to manufacture a durable and long-lasting high-quality timepiece without cutting corners like some Chinese skeletons.
Orient is one of my favorite brands (owned by Seiko) because they deliver amazing value-for-the-money; I have never opened a watch box with an Orient and been disappointed; on the contrary, they always defy expectation.
The Orient Esteem has a conservative and classical style with a modern twist of the open heart. It puts the balance wheel (the only constantly-moving part) on display, which attracts all of the attention. At the base of the open heart you will also be able to view the constantly-moving escape wheel in action.
If this is up your alley, be sure to check out their blue version as well – they make some of the most stunning reflective dials in the industry.
Premium Swiss Made Pick: Hamilton Jazzmaster Viewmatic
For a premium Swiss Made watch with exposed gears, the Hamilton Jazzmaster Viewmatic delivers, although above our budget. This watch delivers an entry-level Swiss brand name, with the accompanying quality and price tag.
Hamilton is an old (formerly American) watch company that dominates the entry-level Swiss watch segment (along with Tissot). While predominantly known for their army field watches, the Jazzmaster line offers a unique take on classical dress watches.
In that vein, the Hamilton Jazzmaster Viewmatic is both conservative and extravagant; while the watch is understated and elegant with a 40mm diameter, the cutaway dial exposes (rather, showcases) the most important parts of the mechanical internals.
Like a Terminator whose human skin was cut away to show the robotic skeleton, the Hamilton Jazzmaster both captivates and fascinates, while still providing an impressive and stylish outward appearance.
Features of Watches with Visible Gears
When looking for a quality watch where you can see the moving gears, there’s a few things to keep in mind when making your purchase.
Does it have a seconds hand?
Skeleton watches are a type of dress watch. That means that tool-watch elements are less important. Specifically, telling the precise time is less important. Sometimes you’ll find that a skeleton watch omits the seconds hand altogether. Make sure to double check if it’s got one, and decide if it’s important to you.
Thickness vs. Price
Generally it takes a master watchmaker every iota of skill to hand-make a skeleton watch. For that reason, they’ll typically sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Therefore, affordable watches with exposed gears will be either really expensive (and very thin) or affordable (and somewhat thick).
For my taste, a watch should not exceed 14mm in thickness, and the ideal range is 10-13mm. In most mechanical watches, the thinner the movement and the case, the more expensive the watch. Be sure to check the thickness in the product descriptions prior to committing, to avoid disappointment.
Flashy Bling or Cool Mechanism
Many of today’s watches with exposed gears are huge, gold, and blingy. Their main purpose is to catch a lot of light, sparkle and shine on the wrist, and attract attention. This was always the purpose of a skeleton watch, so there’s nothing wrong with this.
On the other hand, you can still get an exposed-gear mechanism while remaining conservative. You can go with a full skeleton, a semi-skeleton, or an open-heart. These will all still attract attention, but generally won’t be as gold and blingy.
Just keep in mind that there’s two kinds of watches, and see which one you prefer.
Manual vs Automatic
Like a car, you must decide: manual transmission, or automatic?
A manually-wound watch will only run of you wind the crown. An automatic watch will also have this capability, but additionally will also self-wind when you wear it (due to a spinning internal rotor that converts wrist motion to wind a tiny spring).
Luxury skeleton watches are almost always manual-wind because the rotor of an automatic adds extra thickness, more parts, and weight. Remember – a true skeleton removes everything that’s not essential. Furthermore, a rotor obscures the view of the mechanism on the other side.
However, affordable skeleton watches will generally be automatics. They don’t remove every unnecessary component, and you generally can’t through the entire watch anyway. Just keep in mind what the rotor action will look like on your watch. The rotor is that semi-circular part at the rear of the watch.
My name is Tom Leto, and I’m a watch enthusiast at heart. I’m here to steer you in the right direction when looking for your next watch, and to help you avoid common newbie mistakes. Right now my favorite brands are Orient Star, Longines, and Nomos.