6 mins reading

By Victoria Gomelsky


John Isaac, founder of Artisans de Geneve, a Swiss company that specialises in personalising timepieces, first glimpsed the possibilities of custom-designed watches some 20 years ago.

He had bought a vintage Rolex for a friend and, on the advice of his grandfather, flew to Geneva to have the watch restored by a venerable dial manufacturer. Upon arriving at the factory, he recalls: “They said ‘we can do whatever you want’ and it opened my mind.” “My friend was very passionate about butterflies,” he continues. “We restored and customised the dial in blue and placed a butterfly on it. I brought the watch to my friend’s birthday and the women at the party all said ‘I want one, can you make it in yellow?’.” This experience got him thinking about why customisation was not offered by watch brands as standard, until he came to understand the scope of the manufacturing challenge.

“On a watch, you have 40 to 45 different savoir-faires. If you have to respond to demands, it becomes a headache,” he says. That may explain why—in an age when jewellery, sneakers, toys and any number of consumer products can be customised online with a few keystrokes—a bespoke luxury watch instead requires the often time-consuming and costly services of a specialist design house to achieve such personalisation. That was true in the mid-2000s, when most of today’s bestknown watch customisers—Isaac’s Artisans de Geneve, London’s Bamford Watch Department and MAD Paris, among others—got their start, and it’s still true today. The customisers employ teams of artisans to cosmetically alter the dial and/or casing of a watch. In the most extreme examples, they hire watchmakers to augment the movement.

For a recent client, Isaac went as far as adding a moonphase complication (where the current phase of the moon is shown through a window on the watch face) to a Rolex Submariner. “It had never been done before,” he adds. After two decades serving this niche, Artisans de Geneve remains committed to working with the pre-owned watches of its private clients on projects that can take six months or more, requiring the skills of a dozen craftspeople and costing tens of thousands of dollars. Bamford and MAD Paris, meanwhile have scaled their businesses by introducing off-the-shelf options. Under designer Pierre Lheureux, MAD Paris has earned a reputation for creating ultra-contemporary one-of-a-kind versions of timepieces by Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe that retail between A$150,000 and $750,000. One of MAD Paris’ latest designs, a Darth Vader-esque take on Patek Philippe’s soughtafter Nautilus wristwatch, is coated in black diamond-like carbon (DLC) and embellished with 150 baguette-cut black sapphires.

About five years ago, MAD Paris began working with Names, a Londonbased brand development agency that has helped the company maintain an aura of mystery while connecting with a new generation of watch collectors. “We don’t like to share too much,” says Names director Elena Filipponi. “It’s about that element of privacy and exclusivity.” With Names’ support, MAD Paris established partnerships with fashion retailers such as Browns, Farfetch and Dover Street Market. “If you walk into Dover Street in London or Maxfield in LA you’ll find a selection of pieces that we created for one type of customer, where the watch is perceived as a fashion accessory and they don’t mind spending $80-90k [for that],” Filipponi says. “Then there’s the client who approaches us directly to ask for a crazy set of stones—you name it. From there, it’s a [lengthy] process of sitting down with them, understanding the model, the customisation they want.” George Bamford, founder of Bamford Watch Department in London’s Mayfair, was considered a maverick until 2017 when he began partnering directly with the brands whose timepieces he had spent years altering with his trademark black PVD finishes.

That was the year Jean-Claude Biver, then-head of LVMH’s watch division, asked him to serve as the customising agent for TAG Heuer and Zenith. “With brands like TAG Heuer, we’re closer than ever,” Bamford says. “I just had a call with Girard-Perregaux, [and have] been doing stuff with Franck Muller. We did a G-Shock that sold out in 90 seconds! It’s been good, but you make your watchmaking bed; you have to work at every bit of luck.” Indeed, the time and skills required to coordinate a steady stream of custom requests is not sustainable for many. Ben Waite, director at Titan Black, a London-based watch customiser founded in 2009, recently decided to close the business. “We love all the magic of the Swiss handicrafts, but we can’t compete with the big guys,” he says.

“The last watch I made at Titan Black was an amazing L60k (A$112k) Submariner, which took three years and 10 craftsmen. It was one of the most beautiful things I ever made.”

Demand for personalised timepieces continues to rise with young buyers weaned on online configurators having come to expect at least a modicum of choice when it comes to design. Brands like Zenith are doubling down on that demand; the company now offers clients the ability to have Bamford Watch Department customise its Pilot Type 20 Chronograph using an in-store tablet. Biver, who retired from LVMH in 2018 but returned with an eponymous watch brand earlier this year, is convinced that the ability to offer personalisation is what will distinguish watchmakers in a crowded field. “People are looking to have something special,” he offers. “The trend is not going to weaken; it’s going to increase. It won’t [quite] be half our business but it will be important.”