The trend for exclusivity
It doesn’t matter what a collector collects: watches, cars, paintings, first editions or marbles - the most favoured objects will always be those that are the rarest and most exclusive. In a world that appears to be growing forever smaller, there is a certain gratification in knowing that only one, or seven, or even 99 people in the whole world are walking around wearing the exact same watch.
The ladies watch brand DeLaneau has recognised this particular consumer fancy and has created a ‘Pairs’ collection with limited series of two timepieces. There is even the opportunity to connect to the person who purchases the twin timepiece, creating a bond between two women and their similar tastes.
The concept of limited editions has become a huge success story and it is rare to find a company today that doesn’t offer some of its collections as a limited series. As this passion for uniqueness has become prolific throughout the watch industry, a few watch brands have seen the opportunity to become even more exclusive with one-of-a-kind timepieces, where the probability of crossing someone with the same timepiece is reduced to zero.
Jean Dunand, is one such brand whose USP is to create unique 1/1 timepieces that combine state-of-the-art mechanisms with a variety of different Art Deco inspired crafts such as enamelling, lacquer, guilloché, engraving, gem-setting and more.
The bespoke piece
For some aficionados who have extensive collections, or watch lovers who have a dream watch in mind, the ultimate in exclusivity is a custom-made timepiece. Bespoke watchmaking is not something new, as long as there have been watch collectors, there have been bespoke watches. Famous commissions include the Breguet pocket watch ordered for Queen Marie-Antoinette in 1783 by an admiring Officer of the Queen’s Guard, and the more recent Patek Philippe Graves Complication, which was commissioned by Henry Graves Jr in 1930 and fetched an astounding US$11 million at auction in 1999. With modern day production methods, a bespoke piece doesn’t necessarily need a mortgage to finance either, and an increasing number of collectors are taking the plunge. Although caution should be taken as the production of a dream watch can be fraught with hazards for both the client and the watchmaker.
One of the problems with making a custom timepiece is that the finished result may not match what the client had in mind. “Imagine a client asks for a dragon holding a globe,” explains Peter Speake-Marin, “there are a zillion potential ways it could turn out. So far none of my clients have ever been disappointed with the outcome, but the possibilities for disappointment are always there,” he shares. With drawings and computer renditions, these risks can be reduced, but they can never be totally eliminated.
Another problem that can occur is that what seems like a simple project at the start can turn out to be far more complicated in practice. Christophe Claret shares one of his experiences: “We had a request for a DualTow with SuperLumiNova numbers on the belts, which we accepted without a surcharge. But the realization of this piece became a real challenge as SuperLumiNova breaks easily and isn’t compatible with a supple belt. It took us close to a year to develop an elastic SuperLumiNova that could be applied onto the numerals on the belt. In addition, a solution had to be found to harden the belt to be able to engrave on it. We ended up freezing it,” he details. “Special orders may appear simple at first but can turn out to be very complicated to produce in reality,” he warns.
Other concerns worth mentioning are that the watchmaker should think carefully about the projects he or she accepts, making sure that they are in line with the brand’s philosophy. Creating a watch that goes against the brand’s values can be detrimental to the brand and result in a bad experience for the brand and the client.
Patience is a virtue
One of the biggest misunderstandings between clients and manufacturers is how long things take. In the business of fabricating time, patience is key, and the client who wants to embark on a watchmaking adventure needs to be prepared to wait. However, as with many things, the journey can often be just as fun as arriving at the destination, and many companies welcome their bespoke clients into their worlds, communicating regularly on the progress of the piece and inviting the client into the decision making process, resulting in a greater experience than the purchase of a simple watch.
It’s not about the money
Creating bespoke watches is not always a profitable business and most brands don’t advertise this part of their business, even if they do accept the odd challenge here and there. “Special orders are obviously technically interesting but not generally financially interesting,” notes Claret, “They create an important surcharge that we can’t claim back from our retail partners, that’s why we try to avoid them where possible. However, when necessary, we take on the challenge positively,” he adds.
There are advantages though, as the exposure that these special orders bring to a brand can increase the visibility of its savoir-faire. “I enjoy these mini collaborations although, for the most part, the work involved is disproportionate to the return,” says Speake-Marin. “There is diversity in my work thanks to these mini collab-orations which have resulted in a far greater presence than perhaps the reality,” he admits.
The retailer view
The work of the retailer is to always keep his or her clients happy and if a client wants to order something unique then the retailer should always do his utmost to help the client. “I never try to steer my clients away from something they are passionate about. If there is something they want, I’ll always try to have it made for them,” says Greg Simonian, President of Westime, which has three boutiques in Southern California. “A client of mine just ordered a De Bethune DB25l with a flamed blue steel dial and gold stars across the dial. For his version, the gold stars will be arranged in a pattern that accurately reflects the way the night sky looked on the day and time of his birth.”
The distributor view
Creating exclusivity for individual retailers can also be a great recipe for success. “As a distributor, I know that my retail clients are happy with limited editions created exclusively for their stores,” explains John Simonian, President of Richard Mille, the Americas.
“Their customers travel the world, and can purchase a watch that isn’t limited in any way at boutiques on five continents. But a limited edition will bring that customer to their front door. We are able to guarantee business to our clients, and this has absolutely no price. During the last economic crisis, this policy saved our distribution and business,” he says. As for unique pieces, “When a client has an idea in mind for a custom order, I’ll absolutely work to make it happen for them. We’ll create a piece unique whenever we can!” he concludes.
Where to go
For the client interested in a bespoke piece, it isn’t always obvious where to start looking. A retailer would be the first port of call or a prospective client could approach one of the independent watchmakers directly, such as Peter Speake-Marine, Roger Smith, Thomas Prescher, Andreas Strehler, The McGonigle Brothers, Bremont, Jean Dunand, Hautlence etc., who have small enough structures and flexibility to create individual timepieces. Most of the larger brands are also willing to discuss the creation of a bespoke timepiece for a client on a case by case basis.
Levels of customization
Acquiring a personalized timepiece, however, doesn’t necessarily have to involve a six-digit investment. The majority of brands are happy to accommodate small changes – an engraving, a different coloured strap, polished or brushed case, another variety of hands – for an additional fee and a little patience on the side of the client.
Customization has become an integral part of the car business, for example, with the choice of engines, paintwork, interior features etc, and now it is starting to occur in the watch industry too. The Richemont Group is leading the charge with Vacheron Constantin’s Quai de L’Ile collection where the client can build his model using touch screen devices in the brand’s boutiques that allow the configuration of one of 700 different possible creations.
And Jaeger-LeCoultre has just launched its online service for personalizing a Reverso (http://personalisation.jaeger-lecoultre.com) which enables future clients to add a ‘virtual’ initial, crest, lucky number, map, picture or portrait (by uploading photographs onto the site) to the back of the Reverso’s rotating case and see how it looks online before purchasing. The decorative options include engraving, gem-setting and enamelling to make each timepiece as unique as the person who wears it.
These kind of customization systems can cut down the costs of special orders dramatically thanks to efficient computer-aided systems that reduce the time consuming toing and froing between the client, the retailer and the manufacturer.
One thing that is clear is that exclusivity sells and companies are going the extra mile to provide additional services to their clientele. “If you had the choice, would you buy a piece that 5,000 or 10,000 people had, or would you pay a little more for something unique?” asks Speake-Marin. A good question indeed.
For retailers, being ready for bespoke requests could be an ideal way to create a very special relationship with a client as you study the options together. Start by talking to the brands that you carry so you know what kind of customization is possible and reasonable. Like this you will be in a position to talk knowledgeably to your customers and hopefully accompany them on the great adventure of designing their own watch.
Vacheron Constantin – Watchmaking Dreams
Historically, many of Vacheron Constantin’s most complex and complicated timepieces have been the fruits of commissions by final clients. It is something the brand has always done and which it continues to offer. In order to better serve these special clients, the Swiss watchmaker has created a special department called the Atelier Cabinotiers, which provides a unique service in contemporary Haute Horlogerie whereby clients can meet and discuss directly with the watchmakers.
“We have several ‘levels’ of bespoke timepieces. Some clients are asking us for a particular dial on an existing model, or another colour of gold, or another type of personalization. Then, we have clients that are asking for a unique creation, which would include an existing movement, explains Christian Selmoni, Vacheron Constantin’s Head of Product Development.
“And, finally, we have clients for who ‘only the sky is the limit’, and that are ready to wait several years to see the final result of their dreams!”
With 40 projects in different stages of development and production, bespoke time is obviously a growing niche.
PHILOSOPHIA by Vacheron Constantin
Source: Europa Star August - September 2011 Magazine Issue