Customizing Time
Watch Time|September - October 2020
As more and more of today’s consumers look for watches that make a truly personal statement, the art of customization is in rising demand. Here we offer one of the most comprehensive looks at customizing time.
Roberta Naas

It’s been a centuries-old trend in clothing: bespoke tailoring is all about making a singular suit or pair of shoes designed expressly for an individual. Today, as more customers are looking to express their individuality, the concept of having a custom-made watch is taking on all-new meaning. People are looking for something edgy, different, and expressive of their own thoughts, hobbies or love. But are watchmakers ready to comply?

“A personalized approach through customization is key for high-end clients, and particularly those with a penchant for Haute Horlogerie,” says Julien Tornare, CEO of Zenith Watch Company. “We see high demand for this service, and delivering it is part of our commitment to fulfilling client expectations. We create custom pieces for clients who are not interested in wearing watches generally available to the public; they prefer unique examples of watchmaking, a way for them to be actively involved in the creation of a timepiece. And this trend is not slowing down; on the contrary, it is rising.”

Having a customized or unique watch is not a new concept. Historically speaking, many of the top watch brands made unique watches a century ago for their top clients. Easily one of the most impressive examples comes in the form of a gentlemen’s race between automobile engineer James Ward Packard and financial banker and art collector Henry Graves, each of whom would regularly turn to Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin to have the most complicated watches built for them.

For about 35 years starting in 1900, the two men commissioned watches that took years to develop and build, and that would go down in history as the world’s most complicated pieces. In fact, the Graves Super Complication pocket watch, built by Patek Philippe and delivered in 1933, held the record as the world’s most complicated portable mechanical watch for 56 years.

This is not an isolated example. Many of today’s most iconic watch collections were initially made at the request of clients. The Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso released in 1931, for instance, was created at the request of polo players who wanted a watch they could wear during play that would not get damaged. The reversible concept was born and the Reverso has been a legendary watch ever since. Similarly, the IWC Portugieser was first built in 1939 at the request of two Portuguese businessmen who wanted a highly legible watch as precise as a marine chronometer for the wrist. The list goes on and on.

In the past, this type of customization was a natural way for a watch brand to grow. However, as time passed and technology progressed, brands became more reliant on machinery and tools for cutting main plates and other components. It became more and more difficult to take on those custom orders.

Today, with nanotechnology high-tech CNC machines and some automated technology (not to mention computer-aided design), big watch brands simply can’t keep up with the request for specially made movements and watches. Just the retooling of equipment to stop producing one watch model and to start cutting parts for another model can take weeks of lost production.

“There are a lot of powerful buyers who would love to get factory-made customized watches by certain brands; they want watches nobody else can get. But most brands can’t do it because they don’t have the resources, or have so many requests,” says Paul Boutros, Head of Americas & Senior Vice President of Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo auction house.

What is Customization

That is not to say that watches customized for individuals don’t get made. They do. More often than we know. Many brands don’t “kiss and tell” about their customization and pieces unique work — often because they know requests would come flooding in if word got out, or out of simple respect for the client.

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