Made-to-measure The many faces of bespoke
Bespoke services are not just for serious collectors. There’s a wide range of options, taking a variety of approaches, for every price range.
Sometimes the reality is different from what we assume it to be. Officially, there are very few brands that offer custom watches. But unofficially, most of the major brands do it. We’ve seen the proof at auction, where a Rolex might turn up that was made for an African head of state, or a Patek Philippe for a Sheikh, or a Montblanc for a wealthy Asian collector. These events provide rare visible evidence of a practice that manufacturers prefer to keep quiet. There are two reasons for this.
Preserving production and collections
First: made-to-measure is not what watch brands are set up for. A special dial, an extra engraving, modified hands – exceptions such as these can seriously disrupt production lines that are supposed to run like... Swiss watches. The efficiency (and thus the profitability) of a watch brand is measured by its ability to plan and deliver, just like any other industry. Bespoke production is the spanner in the works of a well-oiled machine.
The second reason is to prevent dilution and maintain the coherence of their collections. By its nature, bespoke creations must remain extremely rare or (apparently) non-existent. The aim of a watch brand is not to sell unique pieces, however profitable they may be, but to sell collections.
The prestige of manufacture made-to-measure
Despite this, some companies are nevertheless happy to engage, largely to showcase their artisanal savoir-faire. This is the case of Blancpain, whose farmhouse in Le Brassus houses a number of artisans capable of producing specially commissioned dials and complications. Dial techniques include engraving, enamel painting, damascening, Shakudō and Binchōtan, used individually or in combination to produce dials according to clients’ specific requirements. In terms of complications, Blancpain is known for making automata and erotic watches – a specialty of the maison for almost 30 years.
Shakudo trio Chèvre Bonsai Coelanthe © Blancpain
Jaquet Droz has similar capacities through its Ateliers d’Art. This unit is equipped to customise the manufacture’s celebrated automata with painting, engraving and sculpture, although its main focus is enamelling and paillonné enamel, artisanal techniques regularly seen on the dials of Grande Seconde watches.
Armenia © Jaquet Droz
Other pieces can be customised with the mineral dials that Jaquet Droz has made its own. Aventurine, bronzite, imperial jasper, lapis lazuli, meteorite, onyx, coeur de rubis, stromatolith, covellite and, of course, mother-of-pearl – the possibilities are virtually endless, in keeping with the Philosophy of the Unique that Jaquet Droz cultivates every day.
While Chopard doesn’t make a habit of it, the watchmaker and jeweller announced a rare bespoke piece in 2018: the L.U.C Perpetual T Spirit of La Santa Muerte. The manufacture adopted an uncharacteristic aesthetic vocabulary, based on skulls, flowers, suns and guitars. It’s a rare and whimsical piece made for a collector at the SIAR.
L.U.C Perpetual T Spirit of La Santa Muerte © Chopard
For anyone unable to buy (or even to see!) this piece, Chopard’s sister company La Chronométrie Ferdinand Berthoud has you covered: all its models feature a small detail that can be customised. The barrel bears two cartouches: one notes the number of the limited series, but the other can be personalised. If they wish, clients can have their initials engraved on it. It’s a discreet and elegant solution.
Cartouche to be personalised © Ferdinand Berthoud
Personalisation as a maker’s mark
Apart from the dial and the case, it is – sometimes – possible to customise the movement. This is more usual for brands that operate at a more human scale, like H. Moser & Cie. The Schaffhausen manufacture produces just 1500 watches a year, and makes all the movement components itself, which allows ample leeway for personalisation. Customised dials, engraved signatures, custom components, even a one-off piece entirely made to measure – it’s all in a day’s work.
Dragon, one-of-a kind ladie's watch © H. Moser & Cie
The ability to personalise all or part of a movement is the focus of a public programme – “HYT Bespoke” – launched by HYT in 2016. It has two levels. Customisation of the dial, fluid, strap, materials, engravings etc. are part of the basic service. Then there’s the Bespoke One programme, which covers movement personalisation and development, and modifications to component shapes – the only limit here is the client’s imagination.
HYT Bespoke © HYT
Rare brands born for bespoke
Golay Spierer is even more extreme. This Geneva watchmaker has produced almost exclusively bespoke pieces for nearly 20 years, and has more than 150 original creations to its name. Dial, hands, skeletonisation, various complications – anything is possible. The company’s rare niche positioning places clients, rather than collections, at the heart of its business model.
Hibben © Golay Spierer
Kerbedanz, based in Neuchâtel, has developed the concept of MIPs or Most Important Personalities, around whom it creates and sells around 50% of its watches. They are all completely unique (more than 400 have been produced to date), and can generally be delivered in around ten weeks.
Sagrada Familia © Kerbedanz
More commonplace, more affordable
Sometimes, customisation opportunities are natively built into the watch itself. They usually come in one of two forms: the “officer” caseback or the case. The former has become quite rare, but can still be seen on Patek Philippe watches. The most famous implementation of the latter is the Reverso by Jaeger-LeCoultre. This watch, which was launched in 1931, provides great latitude for engraving or painting on its reversible case, and the service is now available directly from the company website.
Baume & Mercier also provides the option of having the steel or sapphire caseback of its pieces engraved, as does Zenith, on its website. It’s a simple and inexpensive way of treating yourself to a 100% bespoke watch.
© Baume & Mercier
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