Ever since Cartier released the 41mm-wide version of the Cartier Clé watch with the “mysterious hours” complication (hands-on here), I’ve been quietly in love with this still newer case design as the foundation of interesting, more high-end models that are nevertheless simple in their presentation (the Cartier Clé collection as a whole was introduced at SIHH 2015). SIHH 2016 sees the debut of the Clé de Cartier Automatic Skeleton, which takes Cartier’s now popular in-house-made and distinctly skeletonized watch movements a step further by adding automatic winding – a first for a movement of this type produced by Cartier.
Skeletonized mechanical watches are enjoying a sort of new golden age because the visually very satisfying decoration process also happens to help watch lovers justify why they spend the big bucks on luxury timepieces. It isn’t always enough to have a mental reminder that your high-end timepiece contains a nice movement – sometimes you want a constant reminder on your wrist. Moreover, the skeletonization process offers a very real view into the operation of these tiny machines which track the time. The emotional enjoyment one receives from viewing the moving gears, beating regulation system, and hand-finished surfaces should never be underestimated.
The challenge in offering a skeletonized movement is in making it both visually attractive, as well as legible and practical. Sometimes movements that were never meant to be skeletonized receive the decorative process and aren’t that amazing-looking as a result. Over the last few years, we’ve seen more and more movements designed from the ground up with skeletonization in mind. Cartier isn’t shy about the fact that it meant for the in-house calibre 9621 MC to be cut up and decorated. In fact, the signature Roman numeral hour markers are actually part of the movement bridge structure itself.
With that said, the challenge in maintaining a high degree of legibility in the Cartier Clé Automatic Skeleton is due to the fact that the face is really a skeletonized dial that sits on top of a skeletonized movement. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this from Cartier, and the result is something that does feel beautiful albeit impractical from the perspective of daily utility. Granted, this isn’t going to be the most precise-to-read timepiece you’ll probably own, but the blued steel sword-style hands over the full scale of Roman numeral or baton hour markers make the Cartier Clé Automatic Skeleton watch convenient to live with, at least.
With its retro-style cusion-shaped case and wide lugs, the 41mm-wide (water resistant to 30 meters) size feels good even if the strap feels a bit proportionally narrow given the overall size of the case. The case is also a stately 11.45mm thick, which is a size that makes itself known, but also isn’t overly thick by any means. Of course, despite all my talk of practicality, the Cartier Clé Automatic Skeleton arrives exclusively in a 950 palladium case. If you prefer, Cartier also offers a version of the Cartier Clé Automatic Skeleton with brilliant-cut diamonds set on the case.
The in-house-made Cartier 9621 MC is both attractive and practical, operating at 4Hz (28,800bph) with about 48 hours of power reserve. Produced from 165 parts, the automatic rotor is also highly skeletonized being produced from 22k white gold. Given the gold’s weight, I am sure it provides enough mass for appropriate automatic winding efficiency.
Don’t forget that, because this is a Cartier Clé case, you get the nifty Clé (“key”) winding key-style crown. This rectangular-shaped crown has a fixed resting position to fit evenly with the case and a very interesting tactile experience when being wound. Yes, it is fun to use the crown, but I prefer not being forced to use the crown all the time, which is why I am happy the 9621 MC movement is an automatic.
Minor downsides of any dramatically skeletonized watch such as this is that your wrist will always provide a backdrop as your peer through the timepiece. The notion of being able to see right through the movement and inspect all of its little angles is great, but oftentimes you need to beautify your own wrist in order to make it work properly. The approach Arnold & Son took with their Time Pyramid is one that I would like more companies to explore. The newest version of the Time Pyramid in steel has a piece of “one-way mirror” that when viewed from the dial side is literally a sort of silvery mirror, and when viewed from the caseback offers an only marginally opaque view through the rear of the watch. Just throwing that out there because I know how sexy watches like the Cartier Clé Automatic Skeleton (and many other skeletonized watches) look in the abstract – only to result in a different consumer opinion once they put the watches on their own wrists.
In any event, Cartier does not exactly venture deep into new territory with the Cartier Clé Automatic Skeleton, but this is nevertheless a useful and beautiful evolution that appropriately extends the focus on their haute horology work in the right direction – for those who can budget for timepieces at this level. Price is $56,000 in palladium and $119,000 with diamonds. cartier.com