While some watch brands and die-hard collectors argue that aftermarket customization of watches is blasphemy, certain brands are trying their hands at creating their own personalization projects.
For years, the watchmaking world has frowned on aftermarket customization. You know, buyers who take their Rolex or Audemars Piguet, for example, to third-party artisans to have them decked out in diamonds, gemstones, or even blackened and engraved with tattoo-like designs. Most of those watches, though, could not hold their value on the secondhand or auction market because the modifications are a personal preference. However, strong demand on the part of watch lovers for an individualized look has prompted some brands to start their own personalization processes.
Watch brands at ultra-high echelons such as Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe have been known to create one-of-a-kind highly complicated watches for special customers over the years. (Consider the fabled 1900s battle between these two brands and business magnates James Ward Packard and Henry Graves Jr. to see who could build, and own, the most complicated watch in the world.) Today, these companies continue to quietly produce one-offs for preferred customers, but sometimes those watches take years to complete.
So, for the purposes of real watch lovers who want something personalized at a level they can afford — and not wait years for — some brands have developed programs to let consumers customize certain elements of a watch, from selecting the dial color, to the strap, the engraving, the metal for the case, and more. These varying degrees of customization are beginning to garner a lot of attention and, depending on the provenance of the watch, some even hold their value on the auction market.
In the realm of artistic customization, Jaeger-LeCoultre has long offered personalization of its Reverso design (rectangular watches whose case swivels open and can be reversed to show a second side); they can be hand-painted with scenes or portraits that customers provide. The brand also offers hand-engraving on the Reverso. In similar fashion, Corum offers customization of its Golden Bridge Dragon watch. The dragon that curls around the caliber is available in special Pantone colors. Each color is exclusive, meaning the brand will never issue the same color to any other customer. Certain independent watch brands like Kari Voutilainen and H. Moser & Cie. also offer personalized dial colors and hand-guilloché finishes in very limited amounts.
The independent brands have it a little easier when it comes to making customized pieces simply because their production levels are not as large as the mainstays — meaning they don’t necessarily have to stop creating a particular watch to retool the machinery and create a one-off. Their master watchmakers and artisans are equipped for one-of-a-kind finishing, for instance, without shutting down production like a larger brand would have to do.
On a more commercialized level, some brands are offering online configurators for customization. Watch buyers can select a host of different details to personalize, including dials, straps, stitching accents, colors of bezels or chapter rings, and in some cases, even movement parts. For instance, IWC Schaffhausen, a Richemont brand, introduced an online customization configurator where buyers could pick the aspects they wanted to customize for their Ingenieur timepieces.
Porsche Design recently joined the configurator pack. The Porsche Design Chronotimer Chronograph chronometer is fully customizable; customers can pick PVD (physical vapor deposit) case coatings, bezel colors, bezel functions, dial colors, hands, straps, and stitching. They can even pick the paint color for the winding rotor inside the Caliber WERK 01.100, which matches the options available for the Porsche 911 car. With so many elements to customize, Porsche Design says there are 6 million possible combinations.
Another of the most successful providers of custom watches is London- based Bamford Watch Department, known for issuing small collaboration series. The company has worked with LVMH brands including Zenith, TAG Heuer, Bulgari, and Hublot as well as with Girard-Perregaux and others. Additionally, Bamford’s eponymous brand provides more than a billion different combinations for its sport and lifestyle lines.
With so many companies offering these services, and more on the horizon, the new question is: Why not customize your time?
This article appeared in our August 2022 issue.