Custom Watches Are Awesome – And Should No Longer Be Taboo

0 comments

Before joining up with HODINKEE, I worked for Levi's. And one thing everybody there agreed upon was that our jeans were meant to be, as we put it, "a blank canvas for personal expression." In the creative department, we practically had that phrase tattooed inside our eyelids. We were always showing our customers how to customize their 501s. Rip them, cuff them, patch them, stitch them. Splatter them with paint. Whatever. Just make them your own.

When I arrived in the watch world, I was startled to see that this is emphatically not how things work. The norm here is to preserve originality at all costs. Watches depreciate in value when you start messing with them. Replacement hands and bezel inserts are anathema. Monogramming a dial is tacky. Aftermarket gem-setting is scorned in the extreme.

And I get it. Painstaking effort goes into making a wristwatch, even one that is mass-produced. I can see how the folks who engineered the thing might be protective of it. They're trying to create a horological masterpiece and don't want anyone drawing a mustache on their Mona Lisa. But this mentality puts the watch industry out of step with the rest of the world, which is hurtling inexorably toward customization.

Today, you can use Nike's website to design your own Air Force 1s. You can pre-select the clubface angle you'd like on your Taylor Made pitching wedge. You can mix and match every conceivable option on your Tesla. You can even customize your dog! The suburbs are overflowing with goldendoodles, puggles, cockapoos, and other hybrid creatures that've been bred to their owner's aesthetic and allergenic preferences.

A silver watch on a red background

A Submariner for John McEnroe.

But if you want a special dial color for your new timepiece, forget it – the manufacturers won't help you. If you love a steel sports watch but think the whole thing would look better in black, you'll have to find a PVD specialist on your own. If you believe, as I do, that Mercedes hands should be reserved for watches sponsored by the German automaker, you can't swap them without turning your timepiece into a dreaded Frankenwatch. And if you decide to go rogue and make these changes anyway, the original manufacturers will refuse to service your watch ever again because, they say, they are only permitted to service original parts.

This punitive stance is anti-consumer and anti-fun. And it means that the only watch enthusiasts who get to choose every detail are the ones who can afford to commission a piece unique. Good for you, VIP client mega-collector! Now what about the rest of us who don't have a decades-long relationship with the brand?

Well, we have a few choices – all of them flawed.

One move is to buy a previously customized watch via the grey market, which at least gives you more choices than are available at retail. You can, for instance, find a Milgauss with skulls on the dial, if for some reason that's your thing. But the grey market doesn't help you design the watch you want, and it inevitably leaves you wondering whether some ham-fisted technician mangled the movement along the way.

A better, albeit much more expensive, choice is to enlist the help of a reliable studio that specializes in watch customization (talk about a niche within a niche). I like three in particular. One is Artisans De Genève, the high-end atelier that helped John McEnroe make his Submariner both skeletonized and left-handed. Another is MAD Paris, which has been known to turn the Royal Oak into a marshmallow. And then there's Cloister Watch Co., a New York design firm devoted to restoring and reimagining vintage pieces. In all three cases, the results often surpass the originals.

And yet, these firms have to tread carefully to avoid being sued into oblivion. Consider this anguished online disclaimer from Artisans De Genève:

ARTISANS DE GENÈVE is an independent workshop. On our website only, we offer a service of personalization of timepieces at the request of our customers within our limited capacities. We do not manufacture or sell watches.
 
We are neither affiliated to nor authorized by the manufacturers of the client's watches, that we accept to customize. They do not approve modifications or personalizations made to their products by unauthorized third parties. 
 
Therefore, our customization services are provided for personal and private use only. Any other use, in particular of a commercial nature, is not approved by ARTISANS DE GENÈVE and will invalidate our warranty.

Note the "our warranty." Since clients who dare to customize their watches will find their manufacturer's warranty null and void, the customizers offer their own. That's a nice gesture, and it mitigates against manufacturer retribution, though if you can afford the utterly discretionary purchase of a luxury watch in the first place – not to mention the extra expense of the bespoke detailing – you could probably spring for a local watchmaker to tune it up.

In any case, it's a lot of hoops to jump through just to get the product you ultimately want. And what's weird is that these byzantine rules only apply to specific parts of the watch. Certain timepiece components are acceptable to modify without irritating the manufacturers or scandalizing purist collectors. If you're new to the watch world you would have no way of knowing which ones are fair game, so here's a quick breakdown.

three gold watches

Three beauties from Cloister Watch Co.

Nobody will call the cops if you swap out your strap. Caseback engravings add character. Tweaking the movement is a no-no, but doing that seems pretty extreme anyway, unless you're treating your watch like an old Mustang with an engine you're fixing up as a hobby – in which case the whole point is to service it yourself, so go for it.

In terms of customization, the most controversial component by far is the dial. Which is funny because, for a trained watchmaker, replacing a dial is not exactly the riskiest procedure – it's a facelift, not a heart transplant.

Imagine how satisfying it would be, as a customer, to select a watch online and be able to design your own dial. If that's not viable for the manufacturers, they could simply sell us the watches in their current array of dial colors (let me guess: black, silver, blue, and green) but allow us to walk into our local authorized dealer and exchange the dial on-site. They could have a dozen or more colors behind the counter, plus a watchmaker in the back delivering same-day service. Think of how much money they could make!

But no. Originality must reign. The designer's intent must be revered. The clenchedness reminds me of Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, who is terrified that communist indoctrination will "sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids."

The fact that watch companies would rather sacrifice a revenue stream than risk losing control tells you just how entrenched the resistance really is. But I suspect that if one brave brand were to break from the pack, like a cyclist pulling away from the peloton, the rest would scramble to follow.

If that's unconscionable for the traditional Swiss, then perhaps we could look to Japan. Seiko has already disrupted the industry once, in 1969, by introducing the first commercial quartz wristwatch – an advancement that threatened to bring Switzerland to its knees. Seiko also already has a thriving modification community, a loose coalition of parts-swapping collectors who only get away with it because Seikos are affordable, so it's no great sacrilege to desecrate one with a new chapter ring. Entire Instagram feeds, like @seikomodder, showcase the boundless imagination of the tinkerers. If Seiko officially sanctioned and supported the mod community, selling loose parts like a horological hardware store, it would generate an enormous amount of goodwill – and a nontrivial amount of cash.

a black seiko watch

Courtesy of @seikomodder

Speaking of cash, surely I am not alone in thinking that a tasteful one-of-one bespoke watch could – and should! – be worth more than a factory-original piece that has hundreds (or thousands) of identical twins. Isn't rarity supposed to increase value?

I will concede that certain watches are so fine they should be left alone. But there's a vast middle ground between the Patek Philippe Grand Complications and the Seiko Tuna. And in that space is where customization should thrive.

Bamford Watch Department has the right idea with its Build Your Own tool, which lets you adjust details like case finish, strap stitching, and coloration for models including the TAG Heuer Monaco, Bulgari Serpenti, and Zenith Chrono El Primero. That's a start. It proves the technology is there. Meanwhile, out in Hong Kong, Undone has built a whole brand around made-to-order watches under $500, which democratizes the whole experience and demonstrates that watches can indeed be customized for less than the price of a speedboat.

So dream with me. Imagine a utopia where the big Swiss watchmakers swap their opaque waitlist system for a transparent made-to-order process. They charge you a fair price, you pay half up front and the other half upon delivery. They are incentivized to hustle to claim the rest of their money, and you are content to wait knowing your day will eventually come – and when it does, you walk away with the exact size, shape, color, and configuration watch that you want.

This is not madness. It is common sense.

a panerai with blue dial

Courtesy of Cloister Watch Co

.At the moment, the only major manufacturer that really embraces wristwatch customization is Apple. Granted, I'm biased (because my career path also included a stop in Cupertino), but I don't think it's a coincidence that the world's most popular watch, by a mile – the Apple Watch – is thoroughly customizable. Faces including Chronograph, GMT, California dial, and World Time come stock, with infinite options to personalize.

For all of the analog watch industry's hand-wringing about the smartwatch threat, I can't understand why nobody is counterpunching with customization at scale. Sure, brands might find the logistics challenging – but no more challenging than being rendered irrelevant by fast-changing consumer tastes. Shoppers today want what they want, when they want it. And if they can't get it through existing means, they will always find some other way.

Bulgari, TAG Heuer, and Zenith are part of the LVMH Group. Although LVMH Luxury Ventures is a minority investor in HODINKEE, we maintain complete editorial independence.

THIS POST WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON www.hodinkee.com

Leave a comment

All blog comments are checked prior to publishing
The cookie settings on this website are set to 'allow all cookies' to give you the very best experience. Please click Accept Cookies to continue to use the site.
You have successfully subscribed!
This email has been registered
ico-collapse
0
Top
ic-expand
ic-cross-line-top