Cartier combines two of its signatures in an enigmatic watch that draws you in for a closer look.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Cartier combines two of its signatures in an enigmatic watch that draws you in for a closer look.

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The world of haute horlogerie is full of enigmatic workings. How does a watch run without a battery? How does it track the phases of the moon or the time zones in 24 cities? To some extent, watchmakers have already showed their hand, proudly displaying the numerous components they employ to create their little mechanical wonders. But there’s one trick Cartier will never reveal in its entirety, and it’s the secret behind its Mysterious watches. How do their hands appear to float in a transparent dial?

The details are concealed, but the Rotonde de Cartier Skeleton Mysterious Hour Watch is the closest they’ve come to a real show and tell.

But first, a little background. The idea for these suspended hands came to founder Louis Cartier when he was inspired by the clocks of French illusionist Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin. In 1912, he partnered with gifted clockmaker Maurice Couet to create the first Mystery clock.

The principle behind it was simple but ingenious: The floating hands are mounted on two crystal discs, each one affixed to the movement. The edges of this sapphire sandwich are notched with gear teeth so they work like cogs, with one disc moving the hours and the other, the minutes.

The clocks that followed were splendidly decorated, with frames of lapis lazuli, jade, obsidian and coral. In addition, golden hands were paved with diamonds and faces crafted in a variety of shapes.

It was in 2013 that Cartier took on the daunting task of miniaturising it all for the wrist, creating the first Mysterious watches. What it lacked in sparkling embellishment it made up for in technical achievements, with Mysterious watches boasting tourbillons and minute repeaters over the years. But this year, the maison has combined for the first time two remarkable engineering feats: a mysterious display with a skeletonised movement.

Skeletonisation is a display of finesse, and Cartier developed its own patented signature style in the 1930s. Rather than follow the highly detailed cut-out latticework of more traditional patterns, Cartier chose to sculpt its movement in the shape of Roman numerals, allowing the wearer a stylised view of the hours. And it is through this unique architecture — the bridges and base plate crafted in German silver for added rigidity — that we are finally able to view the gear train of a Mysterious watch, which was previously hidden beneath the dial. Despite what it shows, the actual point where the discs meet the movement is still hidden.

The calibre in question is the 9983 MC, made up of 192 parts and 27 jewels. The hand-wound movement beats at 28,800 vbh (or 4Hz) and provides a minimum power reserve of 48 hours. Its 30m water resistance will serve you well on a yacht party, but not a diving trip. The case it’s housed in is another Cartier signature: the classically round Rotonde de Cartier, which long-time fans will recognise for the sapphire cabochon on the crown and sword shaped hands. Adding to the allure is the fact that the 42mm case is crafted in palladium, platinum’s far rarer cousin.

When it comes to showing off, Cartier once again takes it to a new level.