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Watch customization is gaining ground
Trend Forecaster

Watch customization is gaining ground

Monday, 12 February 2018
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Carol Besler

“Watches are functional art.”

Carol Besler covers watches and jewelry worldwide.

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6 min read

Luxury brands return to their bespoke roots, with new levels of customization.

In the late 1990s and early aughts, fashion watches (mostly inexpensive ladies’ watches) often came in packages that included two or more interchangeable straps and sometimes click-on bezels in various colors and patterns – a sales gimmick in a low-end price range. Changing the strap often required a special tool (perfect for scratching lugs) or worse, they required you to dig into a tiny button wedged under the strap just below the lug to release the spring bar, often losing a fingernail in the process. But times have changed. Luxury brands have resurrected the art of customization, beginning with the concept of the interchangeable strap, and this time, they work. No tools required; no broken fingernails. And they are not just for women, because men like options too. Nor are they just about color options, but also material, texture and stitching.

The QuickSwitch strap system is the defining element of Cartier’s newly designed Santos collection, something that makes sense not just from a functional but from an historical point of view, since the Santos is widely credited as the world’s first wristwatch, the strap being the feature that separates it from a pocket watch. It works via an invisible mechanism that blends into the structure of the case. Just press a button to remove a strap, and click another into place. Options include steel, gold, calfskin or alligator in a wide range of colors. As an added bonus, Cartier also made the new Santos bracelet self-fitting, with a system called SmartLink that allows the wearer to remove or add links without using a tool.

From the straps to the watch

Panerai’s new 38mm Luminor Due was a hit as much for its quick release strap system as its new size this year. Panerai’s system is likewise operated by pressing a button to remove a strap and then clicking in another, locking it into place horizontally. There have been variations on it for a few years now, and it has become an important draw for Paneristi. Piaget’s new Possession line is also equipped with a self-changing strap system, something previously used on its Miss Protocole line. It is obviously a fashion element, in a collection that is quartz, but the watches also contain diamonds, gold and mineral dials – and for that matter, high-end straps – so the strap system is designed accordingly. It is highly engineered and easy to use.

The concept of strap-change options is extended to the customization of the strap itself.

The concept of strap-change options is extended to the customization of the strap itself on the Roger Dubuis Excalibur Spider Pirelli limited series. It features rubber inlays from certified Pirelli Formula 1 Race tires that have competed in actual races. Each strap is stamped with the Pirelli identification code that corresponds to the tire. The different colors represent different tire types, each used for distinct terrain and driving conditions, and can be interchanged by the wearer using a quick release system. Changing the strap takes three seconds, says Roger Dubuis – the same amount of time it takes to change a tire during an F1 pit stop. The watch is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity… made of rubber. Roger Dubuis sweetens the deal by offering each buyer of a Pirelli limited edition the opportunity to attend his choice of an F1 race or Super Trofeo event as a VIP guest. The rest of the watch can be customized as part of Roger Dubuis’ bespoke program, called Rarities, in which dials, case engraving and other elements can be swapped out or made to order.

Roger Dubuis Excalibur Spider Pirelli limited edition
Roger Dubuis Excalibur Spider Pirelli limited edition

Parmigiani Fleurier’s customization service was emphasized in its SIHH presentation of the Bugatti Type 390. Owners can choose case material, color of side inserts (in carbon, gold, steel or platinum), the sapphire crystal (which can be smoked, in any desired color), the color of the lume on the indexes, hands and numerals (Parmigiani can scan any color desired), and the strap colors, including the stitching. There are more than 1,000 possible combinations, narrowing down the likelihood of any two watches coming out the same.

Vacheron Constantin’s Atelier Cabinotiers Special Order division elevates the concept of customization to the level of bespoke.
Bespoke is a natural fit for jewellery watches

Vacheron Constantin’s Atelier Cabinotiers Special Order division elevates the concept of customization to the level of bespoke. It is broken down into two areas: Metiers Cabinotiers makes one-of-a-kind pieces dreamed up by the company’s master watchmakers, and then made available for “tweaking” by consumers, with each version limited to one; Atelier Cabinotiers pieces are entirely dreamed up by clients from start to finish, and can be quite elaborate, harkening back to the days when Patek Philippe made special complications for James Packard and Henry Graves: an example of this is the Vacheron Constantin Ref. 57260, aka the world’s most complicated watch, with 57 complications, made for an anonymous client.

When it comes to jewellery watches, bespoke is a natural fit. In fact, depending on the size and color of the gems to be matched, making two jewellery watches the same might be more of a challenge than making each one unique. Backes & Strauss, a diamond company founded in 1789, has access to the world’s top stones, and frequently makes unique pieces using rare gems. This year’s noteworthy pièce unique is the Empress Rose, set with 608 diamonds totaling 30 carats, including pear, cushion and round shapes. The company has done countless bespoke pieces, giving clients access to its large inventory of rare, high quality gems in sizes that only a few dealers in the world can source.

However, at any level of customization, there must be limits to giving customers anything they desire, mainly for the sake of brand integrity. Vartkess Knadjian, CEO of Backes & Strauss, admits it “can be a nightmare” if a customer requests something that doesn’t work either aesthetically or technically (a weighted-down counterbalance on a seconds hand, for example). “The wearer of a bespoke watch will be your best ambassador, so you don’t want to do anything vulgar, and you want it to work,” he says.

Vacheron Constantin goes so far as to add this disclaimer in its Atelier Cabinotiers brief: “All requests, from the most simple to the most ambitious, are meticulously examined by an ethical committee set up specifically to ensure that only projects that correspond perfectly with the values and traditions of Vacheron Constantin are approved.” This protects all bespoke customers, even while serving the individual client. It’s a standard that should be kept in mind as we enter a new era of customization.

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