Bespoke watch production is growing as more customers want something that no one else has. Some companies have been doing it their entire history, while others have started responding to this demand.
More and more luxury watch companies are making it possible for customers to have unique timepieces, made to their own specifications. At the most basic, customers can make alterations and modifications to existing watch collections to make them different. This personalization takes longer and costs more, but for many customers it’s worth the wait and the extra money.
- A close-up of Patek Philippe’s Henry Graves Supercomplication
with the night sky of New York City ©Sotheby’s
Some companies have taken this a step further, by allowing customers to create their own bespoke timepieces from scratch, including the movement. The price is steep, but for some it is worth every penny to own a one-off timepiece.
Companies like Cartier, Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe, have been doing this since their inception. Perhaps the most famous bespoke timepiece in history, the Henry Graves Supercomplication by Patek Philippe, is up for auction in November with an estimate of $15 - $20 million.
Bespoke is relatively straightforward for shoes, clothes and other products that are already largely hand-made. The extra steps involve different materials, special touches, unique designs and made-to-measure fabrication. Watches, however, are a different case altogether. Mechanical watches are micro-machines that are designed to last virtually forever, so a great deal of testing goes into everything – the ruggedness of the watch as a whole, the water-, temperature- and shock-resistance of the case, the wear-resistance of the strap, the accuracy and precision of the movement and more.
- Atelier Cabinotiers: Vladimir and Philosophia by Vacheron Constantin
Some companies allow customers to create their own bespoke timepieces from scratch, including the movement.
Producing a completely bespoke watch is a huge endeavour that is supremely expensive, as the entire cost of the research and development and testing has to be borne by each bespoke timepiece. “What makes it so difficult is that each time, we are trying to create a completely new, original watch, and this is very rarely done today,” says watchmaker Roger W. Smith, based on the Isle of Man. “We do one completely bespoke watch every two to three years, because of the complexity of it - it’s a massive undertaking, taking about three years from start to finish.”
About 15% of the Armand Nicolet turnover is in bespoke, focusing on refurbishing vintage movements and constructing a modern timepiece around them. “Watches are no longer devices that people buy to know the time - nowadays everyone owns a smart phone that is much more efficient when it comes to time keeping,” says Rolando Braga, president of Armand Nicolet. “Watches have now become personal items that reflect the personality of the people wearing them. They tend to represent more and more each individual’s uniqueness and for this reason they can’t be produced in huge lots. They have to be special, just like a piece of jewellery. We are an artisanal company that works with great passion aiming for uniqueness and rareness. If we were to compete with the mass production of the big brands, we would lose for sure but thanks to our niche market, our work is recognized and appreciated worldwide.”
Theoretically, any company that controls its own production can do bespoke work. “Bespoke is a small portion but it remains important for Cartier to meet the needs of all our clients, even those who wish to acquire something very unique,” says Elisabeth Guérin, PR specialist at Cartier. “We do not follow trends. Bespoke has always been part of the culture of our Maison. The Maharajah of Patiala, Alberto Santos Dumont, Maria Felix, and so many more have all requested a bespoke creation at Cartier.”
At the highest end, bespoke is not really a business model, but a way to satisfy the best clients. Some companies don’t market that they do bespoke, but do it for their best customers.
- Bespoke by Piaget
Bespoke can be a good opportunity for retailers to solidify their relationships with consumers, by getting them something that no one else has.
“Bespoke is not a trend but a request coming from customers,” clarifies Vacheron Constantin’s retail director, Dominique Bernaz, who also manages the Atelier Cabinotiers department. “Furthermore, it is very important to differentiate bespoke from personalization. Personalization is indeed quite common and popular nowadays, and has become a trend. But bespoke, the way we see it at Vacheron Constantin, is exclusive and has no limitation to the possible watches we create: it can go up to developing a new movement from scratch, in respecting of course the aesthetic values of our Manufacture. This service has always existed, and our Chief Executive Officer, M. Juan-Carlos Torres decided in 2006 to create and name a specific bespoke department: Atelier Cabinotiers.”
As luxury becomes more mainstream, the demand for bespoke services will continue to grow. “Genuine luxury is above all a question of education,” says Bovet’s Pascal Raffy. “It can only be magnified if it is manufactured to the highest quality and in discretionary quantities. Bovet timepieces, whether being unique pieces or not, reinforce these criteria indispensable to the most beautiful expression of time, thanks to our incredible wealth of techniques and decorative arts. With the prestigious history of the House of Bovet and my passion as a collector, I naturally feel it is my duty to sustain the skills inherent in the art of watchmaking, to continue to manufacture timepieces that will fire the passion and curiosity of future generations.”
Bespoke can be a good opportunity for retailers to solidify their relationships with consumers, by getting them something that no one else has. At the same time, however, working in such proximity with the brand might endanger that relationship or supplant it entirely.
The bottom line, however, is that if customers want a bespoke watch, they’ll find a way to get it, whether the retailers help them or not.
Also, it’s in the brand’s best interest to have a retailer involved because they can bring more customers for bespoke to them, and they have experience dealing with consumers. “The majority of collectors who purchase a Bovet timepiece have an excellent watchmaking education and they know that our House has the expertise to personalize unique timepieces like no other manufacture,” says Bovet’s Raffy.
- Bespoke at Bovet
“Bespoke should remain an exception, meaning exclusive.” Dominique Bernaz
“Our partners have a key advisory role to educate collectors about the many possible personalization options related to the specificities of each timepiece. Realizing unique pieces often requires many exchanges between the client and our artisans (sometimes several studies or drawings are necessary). Our partners are the messengers of our expertise and have excellent training to provide a personalized response to the wishes of each collector.”
Some companies work through retailers, while others also work directly with customers. “The bespoke service is offered to customers directly from our Manufacture in Geneva or through our Boutique-network throughout the world,” says Vacheron Constantin’s Bernaz. “Retailers are welcome to accompany their customer along all the steps of the bespoke process.”
Smaller brands like Armand Nicolet rely on retailers to spread the word about bespoke services. “Only the best retailers have such loyal customers who trust them for the production of special watches, especially considering that this type of project always requires a remarkable investment,” says Braga.
Keeping retailers happy and involved in the bespoke process is important, especially for the lesser-known brands. “Many end consumers ask my retailers who then contact me, and of course my retailers get their margin,” says Yvan Arpa of Artya, which does unique pieces as part of its regular collection. “If you have this link with the customer base, bespoke can be a n ever-ending business model, benefiting both retailer and brand.”
As customers clamour for the unique, and bespoke and limited editions continue to do well on the auction market, there is no danger that watch companies will stop producing these fantastic watches.
“Bespoke should remain an exception, meaning exclusive,” says Vacheron Constantin’s Bernaz. “As it has always existed and still exists now: bespoke will remain!”
As long as there is demand for the highest level of watchmaking, there will be a demand for bespoke. “Bovet’s identity is based on the manufacture of timepieces that magnify the arts of watchmaking,” says Raffy. “Beyond fashion trends, which by their very nature are ephemeral, our watchmaking art is increasingly respected for the authentic values and the cultural dimension it conveys among an ever-growing body of collectors and future generations. Patrimonial Art always lasts.”
Unlike cars, where customization after the purchase is commonplace, watches, until now, have been left pretty much alone, except for replacement straps. There are companies now that will do basically whatever you want to your timepiece.
Wish you had diamonds on it? Like black DLC coating? How about the all black look? Black-Out Concept, Bamford Watch Department and Titan Black are three examples of companies that offer bespoke services using a customer’s watch, or a variety of in-house customization options on some of the most popular watches from established companies like Rolex and Audemars Piguet. All of these companies acknowledge that this customization will void the manufacturer’s warranty, and they replace it with their own.
As you can imagine, some watch companies don’t like this very much, feeling that it is tampering with their proprietary designs. The companies doing the work hold that the product is now the customers’ and they are free to do whatever they want to their property.
Source: Europa Star October - November 2014 Magazine Issue