Make time for me: bespoke watches for everyone
New tales of customisation in the world of fine watches
Until fairly recently, the concept of customising luxury watches was the preserve of elite collectors – a small and rarefied branch of haute horology catering to those who could afford exquisite one-off creations, often commanding six-figure sums. Customisation in the wider world of luxury is, of course, big business – from monogrammed bags to personalised vintage whisky, there’s something for everyone, with your name stamped/engraved or sewn on for added authenticity – but in the world of fine watches there are other things to consider, namely the desire to protect the traditional codes of design.
The case against customisation is a valid one in relation to the great horological brands that move stealthily when it comes to aesthetic changes and new releases. Put simply, you wouldn’t expect to find a customising tool on the Rolex website, because each model conforms strictly to in-house standards that are set according to heritage, design and technological advancements.
Interestingly, the flipside of his argument is gaining traction: a number of prestige brands are keen to appeal to a younger generation who expect variety when it comes to their luxury purchases – and naturally a bespoke piece is the ultimate signifier of choice and personal taste. As such, a number of watchmakers have embraced customisation as a means of creative expansion and business growth, particularly brands with a strong couture/high-jewellery division.
Dior has entered this realm with a brand new bespoke service for its Grand Bal collection. This smartly engineered watch places the oscillating weight, otherwise known as the rotor, on top of the dial, transforming it into a canvas for intricate decoration. The rotor swings gently as you move, mimicking the sway of a Dior gown. Given the couture credentials of the timepiece, customisation was a natural progression for this model: the new Dior ‘created-to-measure’ service allows clients to pick and choose their own adornments for the rotor, from feathers and delicate lace motifs to pleated, painted and pearlised textures. The customisable components, which also include a variety of straps as well as dials in coloured lacquer, mother-of-pearl or gemstones, are neatly stored in a large black leather-clad coffer – a bit like a portable specimen cabinet for Dior horologists.
Bulgari’s classic Serpenti watch features a single or double wrap- around interchangeable bracelet, making it one of the most versatile jewellery watches around: the simple structure of the timepiece allows you to seamlessly slide the oval-shaped face onto a different leather or gold chain bracelet for a brand new look. You can go a step further, too: in 30 Bulgari boutiques worldwide, customers can create their very own Serpenti model thanks to the in-store My Serpenti app, a game of mix’n’match that allows customers to digitally mock-up a whole variety of case, dial, gem-setting and strap configurations until they find their perfect match – apparently there are 312 combinations to choose from.
The art of bespoke luxury runs deep at Hermès. The famous French maison has a specialised workshop in Pantin, on the outskirts of Paris, where skilled artisans conceive exceptional objects that are tailored to the desires of individual clients. This little-known division, named Le Sur-Mesure, specialises in unique creations: everything from one-of- a-kind bicycles and boxing gloves to the interiors of private planes and superyachts. Hermès watches are made in Switzerland, but the spirit of Le Sur-Mesure reverberates through the horological division, too. As Laurent Dordet, managing director of the luxury house’s watches division, explains, “In Hermès boutiques, customers can buy additional straps in 32 colour variations. Special orders can also be arranged if a client wants a different colour strap altogether, or one in a different size, or indeed one made from a different kind of leather. We can also change the finer details, including the colour the loops and the stitching.” It seems that anything is possible as long as you have the budget, though Hermès is one of the few luxury investing in its signature Cape Cod, Nantucket and Heure H timepieces.
If you can’t quaff Cartier champagne (reserved only for esteemed clients and presented in beautifully faceted crystal bottles) head to the Cartier Strap Bar, the inspired name of the maison’s bespoke watch service. In store, you can ask for the inside of your Cartier watch strap to be laser-engraved with your own handwriting in a selection of four fonts. There are 23 strap colours, 20 stitching colours and two lining options to choose from, but, of course, no happy hour deals. Alternatively, watch straps in a rainbow of colours are available for most Cartier models online, where you’ll also find a digital engraving tool to compose a message on the caseback of various models including the Tank Solo, the Ronde Solo and the Santos de Cartier.
Jaeger-LeCoultre’s famous Reverso watch is the Swiss horological superstar of hidden messages: for almost 90 years, skilled engravers and enamelists have decorated the model’s iconic swivel face with commissioned symbols, words and initials. In fact, there is little that these expert craftspeople can’t do on this tiny format – ultra-special models feature reproductions of famous paintings by the likes of Van Gogh, Seurat and Alphonse Mucha in miniature on the backs of the ‘flippable’ Reverso watch case. Jaeger-LeCoultre recently launched an online commissioning tool that makes the process of personalisation more accessible to those looking to embellish their own (vintage or new) Reverso timepieces with a chic design – shoppers can choose from dates, initials, cursive lettering and Chinese zodiac symbols, along with coloured lacquering.
But what about watch brands that don’t offer their own bespoke options? Innovative modification specialists are the answer. Bamford Watch Department (BWD), a London-based operation widely regarded as an expert tinkerer of high-end watches, became the official customiser for LVMH brands TAG Heuer, Zenith and Bulgari in 2017. The business is known for its edgy and inky renditions of classic models, with dials electrified by accents of bright glow-in-the-dark Super-LumiNova, often in aqua blue, a Bamford trademark. The BWD website takes customising to a new level with options to change almost every aspect of each watch, from the case coating to the colour of the seconds hand.
Those determined to get their hands on a customised Rolex should look to horological saboteurs MAD Paris – an avant-garde ‘upon order only’ outfit that isn’t exactly popular with purists. The clue is in the name: MAD adapts elite models – anything Rolex, as well as rarities produced by the likes of Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Cartier – into subversive art statements for the wrist. Some are laden with high-carat jewels, others have blacked-out dials or rainbow hands, and others still have skeletonised dials in lieu of their historical configurations. This rare pre-designed model below is on sale at Matches Fashion and priced at £51,000.
For traditionalists, this is the stuff of nightmares; judging by the comments on the MAD Instagram feed, these modified timepieces are contentious to say the least. But then, ruffling a few feathers is all part of the fun, and when it comes to customising, surely the point is to do exactly as you please.