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?

Bamford TAG Heuer Autavia

Bamford TAG Heuer Autavia (photo courtesy Bamford Watch Department)

Begin online

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.”

Chris Malburg's customized Ochs und Junior V2

Chris Malburg’s wife’s fantasy Ochs und Junior created using the brand’s website configurator

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.

RGM MM2 Pennsylvania Tourbillon

RGM MM2 Pennsylvania Tourbillon

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.

Visible luxury

Ming Thein of Ming Watches said, “Visible, conspicuous-consumption luxury is for those who must have fashion decided for them by arbiters of taste.”

Ming 17.03 GMT on the wrist

Ming 17.03 GMT on the wrist

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.

Who customizes?

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).

Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Mécaniques Sauvages Parrot

Vacheron Constantin’s Les Cabinotiers Mécaniques Sauvages Parrot is a unique piece crafted for a single customer; in fact the entire ‘Les Cabinotiers’ program exists just to serve such customers

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.

Bamford Watch Department

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.

Bamford Zenith-El-Primero

Bamford Zenith El Primero

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.

Ochs und Junior

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.

Ochs und Junior Moon Phase Watch Nebra Titanium proposal

Ochs und Junior Moon Phase Watch Nebra in titanium

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 Date Watch Bronze Rust

Ochs und Junior Date Watch Bronze Rust

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

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.

RGM custom pendant

RGM custom pendant

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.

Three types of guilloche dials on the RGM Model 25: Silver Barley, Copper Moire, and Silver Swirl

Three types of guilloche dials on the RGM Model 25: Silver Barley, Copper Moire, and Silver Swirl

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.

RGM Caliber 801 Classic Enamel

RGM Caliber 801 Classic Enamel

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

Lundis Bleus

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.

Lundis Bleus Malachite

Lundis Bleus Malachite (photo courtesy Lundis Bleus)

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.

Lundis Bleus Lundis 2 Sea of Japan

Lundis Bleus Sea of Japan (photo courtesy Lundis Bleus)

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.

Armin Strom

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.

Armin Strom Dual Time Resonance Sapphire wristshot

Armin Strom Dual Time Resonance Sapphire

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).

Armin Strom Manual wristshot

Armin Strom Manual from the Configurator

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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:

  1. Waterproof
  2. Shockproof
  3. Visible in the dark
  4. Sweep second hand
  5. Dial color preferably blue
  6. Bracelet/strap easily interchangeable and waterproof
  7. Case: rugged steel or titanium
  8. Complications:
    1. date
    2. moon phase might be fun but not really needed
    3. 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.

Author Chris Malburg's customized Armin Strom Mirrored Force Resonance on the brand's Configurator with specifications and price

Author Chris Malburg’s customized Armin Strom Mirrored Force Resonance from the brand’s Configurator

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.

You may also enjoy:

Watch Modding By The Brand: Quill & Pad Team Members Play With The Armin Strom Watch Configurator And Share Their Results

Design Your Own Watch? A Collector Explains The Pros And Cons With Ochs Und Junior

RGM Watch Company: American In-House Manufacturing Case Study

Lundis Bleus: Relatively Affordable Swiss Independent With Eye-Catching Enamel And Engraved Dials

TAG Heuer Monaco Chronograph Forged Carbon Bamford Edition: LVMH & Bamford, A Match Made In Heaven Or . . . ?

9 replies
  1. Alex Wolff
    Alex Wolff says:

    I would like to offer one more “step for customisation” for your consideration: do bear in mind the potential difficulties regarding maintenance and repair, particularly when the movement has been customised with non-standard additions and complications. Finding a good watchmaker is hard enough as it is, and very few of them will feel happy to take in a bespoke watch for revision or even repair.

    Secondly, I would like to offer up one more name for the list: Habring. They are an utter pleasure to deal with and are always happy to discuss and enable custom versions.

    • Chris Malburg
      Chris Malburg says:

      Thanks for the response Alex! You’re right–customized movements are difficult to get serviced. Unless you’ve got a customizer like RGM that is also a watchmaker and makes a business out of servicing all watches they sell, you may be up a creek. Thanks for the lead to Habring. I’ve not heard of them yet–tho I’m sure our esteemed editor is right there as she is with all things watches. –Chris

      • Eugene Pomeroy
        Eugene Pomeroy says:

        By way of contrast to high-end watch configuration, take a look at the Zazzle website for configurable watches for under $100. They even have discounts of up to 40% from time to time. The trouble with Zazzle, is that there is no guide whatsoever about aesthetics, with the result that you can stick a photo of Fluffy your pet cat on the face and that is exactly what you’ll get. I started out like that and came up with a design that I cringe every time I think back to it. The trick is to do some serious scouring of the internet for dial designs (blank Submariner, Explorer and a host of others) as well as backgrounds (I have a collection of textures of various types and colors) and you can come up with a watch face that is pretty cool. You’re given a choice of about 14 men’s watches, 15 women’s watches and 14 kids’ watches. You’re only getting a photo stuck on a face, but as configurators go, it’s the most flexible I’ve seen anywhere.

  2. Gil
    Gil says:

    I’ve spent ages on Ochs & Junior’s customisation page, lots of fun. Good article, btw – I’ll give RGM and Bamford a shot to see if I can come up with anything nice.

    • Chris Malburg
      Chris Malburg says:

      Hi Gil,
      I believe these online configurators pull potential customers into their clutches. What fun designing your own favorite. Then we begin wondering why the mainstream manufacturers don’t have our watch savvy and taste. It’s downhill from there. I imagine soon I’ll commission a custom piece somewhere. Best, Chris

      • Gil
        Gil says:

        It certainly is an oversight for the bigger manufacturers not to offer something on at least one of their model lines. Up until recently Vacheron offered options for the Quai de L’ile, but sadly no longer do, and LeCoultre had/have some options for the Reverso, but you’ve got to download some app for that and I never did, so not sure if it’s still an option. Pretty threadbare offerings from an industry capable of more.
        Reckon I’m going to get an Ochs & Junior annual calendar at some point soon – just need to be 100% sure about the options chosen, which is bloody difficult with my nature!

    • Chris Malburg
      Chris Malburg says:

      Hi Ian,
      No, I haven’t yet pulled the trigger on my Armin Strom customized piece. Would you believe I’m currently hard at work on my next watch customization article. This one deals with the upper stratosphere of customization — those pieces costing well into the 6 and 7 figures by the world’s most sought after manufacturers. Yes, some will undertake a custom project for the right client and the right price. What fun this is!

  3. Paul
    Paul says:

    I had the pleasure of customizing an RGM A160 watch dial. It was a longer than expected process but Roland was great to work with and accommodating. I couldn’t be happier with the results..


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