How watch customisation came in from the cold

The world of haute horlogerie is responding to the call for customisation with a cornucopia of options for making an original statement. Nick Foulkes reports

George Bamford, founder of Bamford Watch Department, with LMVH CEO Jean-Claude Biver at Baselworld this year
George Bamford, founder of Bamford Watch Department, with LMVH CEO Jean-Claude Biver at Baselworld this year

Dressed in a blue needlecord suit, white shirt, black tie and black sneakers, with his hair slicked back and his eyes framed by a pair of lightweight oxidised-titanium spectacles, George Bamford looked precisely like the leading member of the creative class that he is. The only aspect of his appearance that rebelled against this carapace of urban cool was a gap-toothed grin that bisected his face from lobe to lobe. But try as he might he was unable to suppress his pleasure at sharing a stage with maverick visionary watch boss Jean-Claude Biver at the Tag Heuer stand at Baselworld this year.

Zenith leather Chronomaster El Primero, from £8,000 each
Zenith leather Chronomaster El Primero, from £8,000 each

In 2004, George Bamford, then a photographer, entered a concours d’élégance with his father Lord Bamford of JCB. Their car won and they were given a watch and a trophy. Bamford Sr kept the trophy, Jr got the watch, but felt that he would like to change its appearance.

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“I spoke to the coating department at JCB and they told me about something called DLC, used in mining for anti-friction on drill bits.” It was a conversation that changed his life. First, friends asked him to make black watches like his for them, then news spread by word of mouth and gradually he found himself doing fewer photographs and more custom watches. His company, Bamford Watch Department, was one of the instigators of the black Rolex trend, and as he became more experienced he experimented with different colours, finishes and treatments. However, he was regarded with suspicion by the industry, which tended to frown on what it saw as unofficial after-market modification, until Biver came to London to see him and everything changed. 

Vacheron Constantin stainless steel Quai de l’Ile, £13,700
Vacheron Constantin stainless steel Quai de l’Ile, £13,700

Bamford describes it as being like a visit by the man from Del Monte. “For years, I was beating this drum saying, ‘Personalisation is coming,’ and then Jean-Claude came to see me. If Jean-Claude likes what you are doing, you feel like the sun is shining.”

Parmigiani Fleurier provides a high-end customisation service for its Bugatti Type 390, from £245,000
Parmigiani Fleurier provides a high-end customisation service for its Bugatti Type 390, from £245,000

Further validation followed when Biver appointed him the official customisation and personalisation partner of LVMH’s watch division, after which they went on stage together to announce their first collaboration – a sellout run of [Tag Heuer] Monaco watches. “Working with Jean-Claude, creating that Carbon Monaco and launching it at Basel… how cool is that? It was a real ‘pinch’ moment.” And the choice of the model was personally significant: “The reason I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face was because the first watch that I customised all that time ago was also a Monaco. Life comes full circle.”

Parmigiani Fleurier Bugatti Type 390
Parmigiani Fleurier Bugatti Type 390

“Everybody tried to stop him doing what he was doing,” says Biver, but where others saw an infringement, he spotted an opportunity. “As a brand, Tag Heuer is driven by quantity, but there is an appetite for individualism, particularly among the young who are Tag’s customers. However, when you are doing 600,000-700,000 watches a year it is almost impossible to stop and do unique pieces or small series of watches.”

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Classic Large on alligator strap, from £3,505
Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Classic Large on alligator strap, from £3,505

Brands with smaller production numbers tend to have greater flexibility. While Biver considers Tag Heuer’s LVMH stablemate Hublot – already famous for limited editions – to be a custom brand, he sees plenty of value in having BWD as a custom partner for Tag Heuer and Zenith. Tag Heuer and Bamford have a new limited edition in the pipeline, but details will remain under strict wraps until launch. Zenith, meanwhile, has a number of custom editions created with Bamford (Chronomaster El Primero, from £8,000) with colour options for hands, dials and markings, and a choice of case finishes and straps.

Omega steel Speedmaster Moonwatch, £4,160, and a selection of straps, £120 each
Omega steel Speedmaster Moonwatch, £4,160, and a selection of straps, £120 each

As usual, Biver’s timing was perfect. Customisation is everywhere, whether in the stripes and initials painted onto a piece of Louis Vuitton monogram luggage, or a pair of Tod’s famous Gommino moccasins individually designed on an iPad in store and ordered from the factory. It marks a subtle shift in the relationship we have with branded goods. Increasingly, we expect even relatively modestly priced items to be personalised: whether it is the way that you set up the face of your Apple Watch, or the new, highly affordable sub-brand of Baume & Mercier, called simply Baume, that offers an online configuration (from £430) and added eco-spin for the much-courted millennial market with the use of upcycled materials.

 Panerai steel Luminor Due, from £5,100
Panerai steel Luminor Due, from £5,100

Of course, at the upper end of the watch industry, special customers have always had special things made for them. The most expensive watch ever sold at auction was made bespoke by Patek Philippe for American banker Henry Graves during the 1930s. Occasionally, Patek still entertains requests for special watches from valued clients: the most famous contemporary examples are watches made for Eric Clapton.

Cartier Santos de Cartier, from £5,350
Cartier Santos de Cartier, from £5,350

Meanwhile, Vacheron Constantin has its Atelier Cabinotiers, a bespoke department for customers who are in search of something out of the ordinary and have the means to pay for it. Its monster pocket watch, the Reference 57260, which boasted 57 complications, even included a sui generis Hebrew calendar developed especially for the customer.

The Santos de Cartier’s QuickSwitch strap-and-bracelet system
The Santos de Cartier’s QuickSwitch strap-and-bracelet system

Yet interestingly, Vacheron Constantin was one of the first brands to offer systemised customisation, a decade ago, with its Quai de l’Ile (from £13,700) – not my favourite Vacheron by any means, but a fascinating and prescient concept that offered myriad combinations of materials. Just how forward-looking this was can be gauged when it is understood that Vacheron’s in-store touchscreen configuration system pre-dated the iPad by two years.

Montblanc 1858, £5,100, on calfskin strap, €310. Montblanc 1858, £4,500, on black NATO strap, €150
Montblanc 1858, £5,100, on calfskin strap, €310. Montblanc 1858, £4,500, on black NATO strap, €150

Christian Selmoni, heritage and style director at Vacheron Constantin, was in charge of the project. “We were in the middle of this moment when disruptive watchmaking and avant-garde design were at their height and we thought about what we could do to show that we could be contemporary as well as classic. I think we were pretty much the pioneer in this and we were probably a bit too ahead of what our clients expected of us. What is more, it was launched in the autumn of 2008 at the time of the financial collapse.” 

IWC stainless steel Pilot’s Watch Mark XVIII with Summer strap, £3,875 each
IWC stainless steel Pilot’s Watch Mark XVIII with Summer strap, £3,875 each

A decade on, a similar customer-configuration approach has been adopted at Parmigiani Fleurier for its new Bugatti watch (from £245,000), for which customers can choose the colour of the luminous coating used on the indexes and hands; select different coloured sapphire glass for the front and open caseback; and choose the finish of the material used for the sides of the case – there is also, of course, a range of interchangeable coloured straps.

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Indeed, straps are an obvious way for wearers to personalise a watch and match it to anything from a Bugatti to a ballgown. Jaeger-LeCoultre has offered customisation possibilities since the launch in the 1930s of its Reverso model, which has a rotatable case that presents a surface for engraving. It now has Atelier Reverso (from £3,505), launched with a Christian Louboutin collaboration in 2016, which offers watches with a selection of dials and straps to be mixed and matched, and an engraving service.

This summer, Omega had a pop-up shop in Paris offering rugged, military-style NATO straps (from £120) in a host of colours and patterns: instead of a door, there was a digital screen, enabling customers to scroll through the different options for their watch. Once a customer had made their choice, they were able have the new strap delivered – straps with steel keepers could also be engraved with a name. Omega went on to roll out the NATO strap offer in store and online.

More NATO action is on its way when Montblanc launches its strap customisation programme, offering different colours of NATO straps (€150) made by a 150-year-old French factory that still uses shuttle looms. Special sfumato leather straps (from €310) from the brand’s Pelletteria facility in Florence will also be available.

Moreover, the development of strap-and-bracelet systems that can be easily changed by customers themselves has become widespread across the industry: on feminine creations by Piaget, such as its Possession range (from £3,200); and butch timepieces by Panerai, such as the Luminor Due (from £5,100).

One of the much-lauded features of Santos (from £5,350), this year’s big relaunch from Cartier, was the QuickSwitch strap-and-bracelet system. And, even for those bracelets that need to be changed in store on more classic models, Cartier has, since its London launch this spring, a service (price on request) that allows the wearer to put a message on the back of the strap.

“In 24 hours, you can have the strap of your choice with the coloured stitching you want and a message in your own handwriting embossed on the back of the strap,” explains Laurent Feniou, Cartier’s managing director in the UK. Most messages have been the names of loved ones and family members, but there are some more cryptic examples: “One that I found interesting was the GPS location of the place where a couple met.”

For IWC CEO Chris Grainger-Herr, straps are just the start. “We have a kit system (from £3,875): various colour dials, fabric straps and Santoni-coloured leather straps with different-colour thread,” but he sees customisation “extending hugely”.

“The social element that now exists around boutiques is important. We find that clients buy more and more high-end watches as they become more involved. So I think we have to look at retail boutiques as places that offer hospitality: first and foremost, you welcome guests to the world of IWC, then about two or three years after opening a boutique you start getting requests for something different.” IWC’s almost four-year-old New Bond Street boutique is an example. “For one customer, we are in the process of creating a red-gold bracelet for a watch on which we do not have a red-gold bracelet currently.”

Grainger-Herr’s predecessor at IWC, Georges Kern, is now CEO of Breitling – which has an in-store special order system, where a sales assistant guides the customer through the process on an iPad. Kern plans to take it to the next level. “We are launching our e-commerce site on which you will be able to choose and order your pieces in the format you want.”

For Kern, the catalyst has been technology. “In the digital age, you have a very wide reach but you can also go straight to the individual. People want individualisation – they don’t want to be perceived as mass.” Rather paradoxically, it seems that mass communication and information technology is bringing people together so that they can signal their individuality more easily than ever.

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