Watch Customization: Give People The Watch They Want
Watch design and modern manufacturing technologies have finally morphed imagination into reality: customizing your own watch is here. Not only has this capability allowed watch connoisseurs an outlet for their horological tastes, it has also breathed new life into several manufacturers and created some new competitors in the customization arena.
I must admit that I found customizing a watch somewhat intimidating. Who was I to say I know better than Christian Knoop, head designer at IWC, or Roland Murphy, founder of RGM Watch Company? Or the others on the short list of those who set the design standards of the watch industry.
Even (dare I say?) with a flick of the finger you can customize the Apple Watch dial right out of the box.
Still, the technology is there. So why not take advantage of it?
Most of the players in watch customization such as Ochs und Junior, Bamford Watch Department, and Armin Strom have websites that serve as configurators; they walk customers through the customization process to begin their personal watch designs. These are easy to use, fun, and something of an adventure.
I showed my wife my first stab at watch customization using Ochs und Junior’s site. “That’s what you came up with?” she queried. “Let me try.”
It took her just thirty seconds to figure out how the configurator worked and another two minutes to come up with her own design. I must admit it was quite an improvement over what I did. By the way, this design has a price tag of about $10,000 and a delivery time of about six weeks.
Others without a configurator website, such as Lundis Bleus and RGM Watch Company, want to speak personally with those considering a bespoke piece.
There is a caveat, though. Each customizing shop I spoke with put a limit on the amount of customization they would do. Most – such as Bamford and Ochs und Junior – suggested their customization remain outside the case: dials, dial elements, hands, special engraving, and straps were all fine. But customizing movements was not generally something they wanted to become involved with.
For good reason: first, it’s complicated. Second, and foremost, it’s costly for the company as well as the customer. Finally, who is going to provide warranty service for a customized movement unless it’s the watchmaker?
This happens to be the case with Ochs und Junior, RGM, and Lundis Bleus – they are watchmakers. As is Armin Strom, whose configurator begins with the choice of several in-house base movements from a time-only manual wind all the way up to a tourbillon.
Ochs und Junior uses three different movements depending on the complications ordered: ETA 2824-2, Ulysse Nardin UN-118, or the UN-320. These seem fairly flexible, allowing them to add or remove complications relatively easily.
The more reasonably priced Lundis Bleus uses two movements: the Miyota 9105 automatic, manufactured in China by a subsidiary of Citizen of Japan, and for the pricier models a Swiss-made ETA 2892.
Assembler vs. watchmaker
I spoke with Roland Murphy, founder and CEO of RGM Watch Company. “Most watch customizers are assemblers,” Murphy said. “They deal only with watch aesthetics. RGM is a watchmaker. There’s a big difference.”
It made sense that a watchmaker who produces most everything associated with the watch and sources only specific components would be in a better position to become involved with the movement. RGM also services the watches it makes, as do most top-flight customizers.
The extent of RGM’s customization capabilities includes most of what you see on the outside. Inside the case (and viewed through the exhibition case back) are potential options such as hacking seconds (which stops the second hand when the crown is pulled out for precision setting, $1,250), wolf’s teeth winding wheels ($850 and super cool looking), custom-engraved balance bridge ($850), and RGM’s optional motor barrel system ($1,700).
Customers first select a base watch from RGM’s beautiful collection, then discuss which custom features they wish to include. For me, it was hard to think of customizing anything on these already exquisite watches. But many do.
Then I gravitated to my favorite in the collection, the PS-801-CE. “Nice piece,” I told Murphy, “but I’d really like a date window. Can you do that?”
“Okay,” I said, “what about making the movement an automatic instead of a hand wound?”
“The customer is always right. We don’t often say no. But we always work in the client’s best interests.”
I took that to mean these might be significant (costly) changes to an already really nice piece so why mess with it? Yet, when pressed on my two requests he replied, “We could make a similar looking dial and use the Model 25, it can have a date and is automatic, of course you give up the in-house movement . . . ”
I thought, and who in their right mind would deliberately do that with America’s premier watchmaker? The lesson here is to seek your customizer’s counsel, listen closely to what is said and not said, then decide.
Ming Thein of Ming Watches said, “Visible, conspicuous-consumption luxury is for those who must have fashion decided for them by arbiters of taste.”
I say, conversely, true luxury is being able to have something made to your specifications, just for you. Essentially telling those arbiters of taste, not for me, I know better. That is the vein tapped by customizing watches.
Several of the customizers I spoke with told me they would produce whatever the customer had in mind within reason. That meant two things: first, the project could not suck up so much shop capacity that other customer’s watches would be delayed. And second, they would do no project that they found personally offensive.
I gathered that this mostly meant particular written elements or images that the company didn’t want to be associated with. Beyond that, everything seems fair game – for a price.
Among the most famous customizations in history was the timepiece Patek Phillipe made for Henry Graves more than 80 years ago called the Supercomplication (see The Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon Earns A Place In Horological History).
That time has come and gone. Though, even today the high and mighty in the industry do consider – and complete – custom commissions from the right clients. The most complicated portable watch in the world, Vacheron Constantin’s Reference 57620, which was crafted by the Geneva-based manufacture at the behest of a collector, is one such timepiece.
So who customizes on a regular basis today? Many more companies than you might think. They run the gamut from very high-end bespoke customization running in the six figures to minor off-the-shelf changes in dial colors and straps.
Let’s have a look at a handful I talked to for this article.
George Bamford has a swift and efficient business model; ordering a pizza should be so easy. An approved collaborator for LVMH-owned brands TAG Heuer, Zenith, and Bulgari, Bamford buys the watches it customizes directly from the manufacturer, which carry a Bamford warranty.
On Bamford’s website customers look up the model they’re interested in customizing. Up pops the watch as it comes from the manufacturer with a menu showing the color choices for such things as case coating, dial, hour markers, lume, text, date background, hands, and maybe your own initials.
Once you’re done, the price totals up. You check out, pay with a credit card, and about six weeks later your brand-new custom watch arrives.
CEO Beat Weinmann is the public face of Ochs und Junior. He’s one of those friendly, super enthusiastic people who generates confidence and with whom you’d enjoy having a beer.
The company builds intelligent watches for people who don’t always take life too seriously. This philosophy shows in the relaxed atmosphere of the atelier. The company deliberately restricts production to just 130 watches annually.
Such a small production commitment allows Dr. Ludwig Oechslin, Ochs und Junior’s cofounder and watchmaker – the freedom to produce some super innovations for a select few customers.
Like most customizers who are also watchmakers, Ochs und Junior offers color choices for straps, dials, hands, case engraving, and a short menu of complications. These generally run to date, moon phase, and a second hand.
These options certainly offer plenty of choice to personalize a timepiece. Prices seem generally in the $10,000 range.
Ochs und Junior can and does offer a limited number of ground-up builds, see one in Design Your Own Watch? A Collector Explains The Pros And Cons With Ochs Und Junior.
This is more of a rarity since it consumes already limited production capacity. But if the project interests Oechslin and the price is right, I imagine the company can do pretty much anything a customer wants.
RGM Watch Company is the only true American watch manufacture. RGM is located in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. CEO and founder Roland Murphy seems to me the watchmaker’s watchmaker. He’s experienced, thorough, and unrelenting in his pursuit of quality.
Murphy adheres to the great traditions of fine watchmaking. Some of his production facility employs very modern manufacturing techniques and equipment. Some of it uses antique, hand-operated machinery dating from the early 1900s.
The hand-blued screws and hand-polished components are examples of the traditional elements that fit side-by-side with the company’s automated machines. See more about RGM’s production capabilities in RGM Watch Company: American In-House Manufacturing Case Study.
Among the many impressive capabilities of RGM is its ability to produce guilloche patterns on cases, dials, and movements with the company’s own vintage rose engines. I believe Murphy has seven of them right now along with personnel who knows how to use them.
There may be no other watch company offering pieces designed, assembled, and decorated with guilloche all done by the same individual.
Unlike other customizers, RGM’s website does not offer a configurator to help you create an image of the piece in real time. Instead, customers look through the models and styles to get an idea of what they want. The collection is extensive. My opinion is that if a customer cannot find what they’re looking for already in the collection, then they must be a highly discerning collector indeed.
With that in mind, they contact Murphy to begin the process of modifying the chosen piece to suit their particular specifications. This usually involves removing a watch at the right stage of normal production to modify it according to the customer’s specifications.
In this way RGM does not have to charge for a completed watch before customization as some companies do. If customers don’t find what they’re looking for in this way, then RGM is capable of conducting a ground-up build of a truly bespoke piece.
Costs for RGM watches depend on the model, metal (usually steel or pink gold), and customization required. Murphy says most commissions run $5,000 to $20,000, and the time required to complete them is usually six to eight months.
Quick Facts RGM Pennsylvania Series 801 Classic Enamel
Case: 43.3 x 12.3 mm, stainless steel
Movement: manual winding American-made RGM manufacture Caliber 801
Functions: hours, minutes, seconds
Price: $11,900 in steel, $24,700 in pink gold
The Lundi Bleus name as well as the case back logo (of an alcohol molecule) translates to “blue Mondays.” Lundis bleus was a historical practice in Switzerland started in the sixteenth century where freelance skilled workers took Mondays off (and sometimes Tuesdays and Wednesdays too).
This two year-old company produces some of the most unique fired enamel dials, most created at the company’s workshop in La Chaux-de-Fonds.
Customization work begins with one of the micro brand’s own production watches. From there clients can change straps, dials, colors of hands, and case back engraving. Lundis Bleus has not done a ground-up build yet.
Pricing of stock pieces range generally from 1,900 to 3,500 Swiss francs. Though there is a piece whose dial features an exquisite engraving of Mt. Fuji for CHF 12,000.
Add to that the customization desired. In some cases, there is no extra charge.
Time to completion is about five months. See more about this company in Lundis Bleus: Relatively Affordable Swiss Independent With Eye-Catching Enamel And Engraved Dials.
If skeletonization is your thing, then Armin Strom is your watchmaker.
Skeletonizer Armin Strom founded the company now located in Biel in 1967. And that was a time in which the proprietor personally headed off in his Jaguar to deliver newly commissioned watches to customers.
Serge Michel and his family took over the company in 2006 – see Inside Armin Strom: Maximum Transparency From The Top Down.
Michel and head of technology Claude Greisler retained Strom’s signature passion for skeleton watches that displayed his expert work. This feature transforms the movement from functionality into a key part of Armin Strom’s design vocabulary.
They inaugurated the customization configurator on their website in 2017, a system also available to use at authorized retail locations. This configurator allows customers to create the color combinations of their wishes (see Watch Modding By The Brand: Quill & Pad Team Members Play With The Armin Strom Watch Configurator And Share Their Results).
Customization is generally limited to the seven models on offer, case metal (stainless steel or pink gold), buyer’s initials on the watch case, main plate color, hand material, strap, buckle material and type, size and buckle style of additional rubber strap supplied.
During my conversation with Greisler, I discovered that, among the bespoke customizations they can do apart from the configurator menu is to open up the dial on a previously closed model, making it skeletonized.
Cost seems to be around CHF 50,000-60,000, with some coming out more depending on the customization required.
Steps to customization
No matter which customizer or watch you choose, there are several steps to consider before embarking on this project.
- Decide on the features of your personally designed timepiece. Go granular. Case size, type of movement, manual vs. automatic, complications, and the many other things you now have control over come into play. Write them down.
- Establish a budget. Customization costs money – in some cases you’ll want stacks of currency close at hand. Be prepared to pay 100 percent of the total cost when placing your order.
- Wait time: patience is a virtue. Your project needs to make its way through the queue of all those ahead of you. Then it needs to be manufactured, tested, adjusted, and finally shipped. Some customizers take just a few months, others can take longer. Establish the wait time with your customizer before you order.
- Utilize the chosen customizer’s design tool on their website if they have one. If they don’t, then describe your project in writing, maybe include images of similar pieces or drawings, and then speak with the customizer personally. I found each of the customizers featured in this article were quite pleased to speak personally with their customers about their projects. George Bamford (Bamford Watch Department) and Beat Weinmann (Ochs und Junior) seemed to especially love having customers visit their facility for a private, personal consultation. Bamford created a special consultation room in his London facility just for this purpose. Weinmann also acts as a personal tour guide to customers visiting the Ochs und Junior facility in Lucerne. The customizers will likely offer different ideas to compliment and enhance your design that maybe you didn’t think of.
- Get a hard copy or digital image of the final piece in your hand and a quote for the cost along with an estimated of time to delivery.
- Pay for the commission, then sit back and relax knowing that your project is in good hands.
Customization wish list
If you’ve read my work, then you probably know my taste in watches: rugged, working man’s pieces. If I were to specify what I want in a timepiece of my own design, here’s my wish list:
- Visible in the dark
- Sweep second hand
- Dial color preferably blue
- Bracelet/strap easily interchangeable and waterproof
- Case: rugged steel or titanium
- moon phase might be fun but not really needed
- second time zone is useful but not essential
I looked over each of the customizers who so graciously gave of their time in preparing this article. Each could have a valued place in my modest collection. At the end of the day, I customized an Armin Strom Mirrored Force Resonance.
As you can see from my wish list versus the specs on my design, it missed on several items. No matter. I now believe that customizing means having the freedom to depart from the rigid structure of taking just what a manufacture’s collection offers. Or, for that matter, what a rigid wish list would have forced.
To me, this is one beautiful watch. It’s nothing like any piece in my small collection so far. To me, such uniqueness is the whole point of customization.