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Opinion: Watch Modding raises a Host of Issues But It Shouldn’t

by Jonathan Ho on April 27, 2017

For as long as there have been products, there have been people wanted to bespoke them. Yet, for many collectors, watch modding has sort of been the final frontier in which the watchmaking brands themselves seem reticent if not outright hostile towards the whole practice of watch modding. As a result, an entire cottage industry has sprung up to provide watch mods and watch mod related services to watch collectors looking to make their timepiece a little more personal. That said, watch modding raises a host of issues but it really shouldn’t.

Opinion: Watch Modding raises a Host of Issues But It Shouldn’t

In the world of haute horlogerie, “Mods” or modifications are a relatively new concept. However, owners of Seiko 5 watches have turned watch modding into an artform with wildly experimental and creative expressions since online watch mod suppliers like Dagaz and Yobokies have been supplying not just components (dial, bezel and hands( and assembly but also complete watches which mimic and pay homage to legendary watch grails like the Omega Seamaster 300, the Rolex Mil-Sub and even the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms.

A modified Seiko Five “Fifty Five Fathoms” by Yobokies

For owners of Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Omega and even Panerai, the practice of watch modding is quite rare and even prohibited by the brands themselves. As a result, watch modders or watch specialists began to offer services and complete products for customising watches from these treasured brands.

Inside The Modder’s Mindset: Why on earth would you want to modify artwork the way it was intended?

Psychologically speaking, seeking individuality in ubiquity is not a foreign concept. We all practice it in one form or another but when it comes to mechanical watchmaking – we run into an epic conundrum. First, for most of us, understanding of a brand’s heritage and provenance would discourage us from “vandalising” an artpiece. Second, this conflicts with another aspect of our super ego, the need for self expression and individuality. As with all things, when ubiquity is the norm – there is either acceptance or rebellion. At the price points for Patek Philippe, Rolex, Audemars Piguet and Omega, ubiquity is not really an issue in terms of the ratio of haves and have -nots, the issue or temptation for watch modding and customisation arises when in the pool of “haves” – in a circle where everyone has chosen to commemorate a passion or achievement with something special and everyone has the same thing, just how special can it be if everyone has one?

Enter the Watch Modders

There are many suppliers of watch modding services: Prohunter, Titanblack, Bamford, Blaken, Project X, and Blackout Concept. While they are all fairly reputable, there is a distinction between supplier of modded watch and suppliers who actually provide watch modding. The former will only sell modified watches directly while the latter like Titanblack and Blackout Concept are open to working on an existing watch.

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As a genre, luxury watch modding began in the late 90s, first as an underground bespoke service and then in the 2000s as more specialists started to sell their services. Bamford may not be the first provider of luxury watch modding services but they are the best known (and the most expensive). Set up by George Bamford in 2003, Bamford conceived of the idea when after having received his holy grail gift of a Rolex Submariner from his father, he was quickly disappointed when he noticed how many people owned the exact model he had. After some intensive looking, he found a vendor who could turn his Submariner (and also his father’s GMT master II) into a black, rarely-seen, Rolex. In an industrial process that is commonly used in marine and military applications for anti-corrosion, anti-rust and stealth purposes, Bamford used the DLC or diamond-like carbon process to coat his Submariner in black. The results were head turning and provided the younger Bamford with the vision for a company providing such services.

A modded Rolex Daytona by Project X. This Tribute to Paul Newman crossed the line into “counterfeit” territory when the makers made their own Paul Newman dial as some Singapore watch dealers can attest when Rolex served legal cease & desist letters.

The expense of Bamford DLC watches can be pointed in two factors – Bamford hires only ex-Rolex watchmakers to perform the stripdown, assembly and servicing of Bamford watches and he has also improved the DLC process to a proprietary military-grade titanium powder and graphite powder ensuring uncommon durability for the black coating on his watches.

Typically suppliers like Bamford and Titan Black follow a similar process – they usually order a batch of 10 to 20 watches from retailers (brands would never sell it to them factory direct which is why they cost what they do) and the watches are then disassembled by ex-Rolex staffers or qualified watchmakers and then each stainless steel component – bracelet, case, bezel, etc is then painstakingly transformed using the DLC process. The dials, hands and even the lume is then refinished by hand to achieve a complementary appearance appropriate to the new visage of the watch body.

Titan Black was itself founded by another watch collector named Luke Waite in 2009, London. Thus, it becomes readily apparent that specialist watch modders aren’t your typical “shock and awe” rapper style over the top producers of garish watches (although there are those) and the price of a modified luxury watch that’s ready-to-wear is usually double the value, more if none of the off-the-peg options pique your interest and there are specific modifications you’d like to make.

A skeletonised and engraved Lange Pour Le Merite Tourbillon by Grieb & Benzinger

In Southeast Asia, Yobokies (SeikoBoy in reverse) works out of Hong Kong modding Seiko watches exclusively. Internationally, MotorCity WatchWorks founded by Jay Grabowski but quartered in Detroit, USA, takes online orders and commissions. The cost of Seiko watch modding is not as stratospheric as luxury watch modding for purely technical reasons – the steel involved is more malleable as well as the ease of getting components from a large variety of suppliers means customisation work is often limited to assembling although there are bespoke alterations by hand, those are rare considering the premium versus real cost of most Seikos. Bead-blasting, cerakoting and PVD lowers the cost of altering the appearance of the standard steel finish significantly.

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So far, most of the these modifications are cosmetic, reversion to its natural finish is difficult but not impossible; but there are those like Grieb & Benzinger and Jeff Parkes, specialist engraver. Benzinger has skeletonised and engraved to the point of blasphemy (CEO Schmidt’s perspective) Lange & Sohne Pour Le Merite watches while Jeff Parke treats 904L steel like a canvas, plying his artistic vision or commissioned ideas for clients. That said, for each act of creative individualisation lies a serious issue – Brands take a very dim view of modifications.

You own the watch. You can therefore choose to modify it. But be prepared to live with a voided warranty and potentially subpar external servicing for the rest of your time with it.

The Issues: Watchmaking Brands are against Watch Modding

Watch modding of any kind tends to invalidate a watch’s warranty – that means that even if the modification was purely cosmetic, the brands themselves don’t want to be held responsible for any issues, mechanical or otherwise which may arise later. The point of most troubleshooting is understanding how and why certain problems develop without the complication of having 3rd party hands touch the timepiece. Thus, from this perspective, the official brand position is sound. However…

It’s not just watch modders who are getting into the game of appropriating beloved heritage symbols but also wannabe brands like Ancon. Their Sea-Shadow models appropriated and mimicked the desired aesthetics of heritage Rolex models like the vintage Explorer dial and the big crown while applying them in popular noveau case treatments like Bronze and full black DLC

Thankfully Tudor has their own interpretations of beloved icons now.

Nothing is stopping big watchmaking brands in offering their own bespoke options and modifications…

Rolex won’t be making a black Submariner anytime soon but it’s evident in their sister brand Tudor that someone in the company (if not Jean-Frederic Dufor himself) is paying attention to consumer tastes. More importantly, it’s already a practice embraced by another industry – automakers.

Car modding doesn’t automatically void a warranty. An automaker or a dealer has to prove that an aftermarket part was responsible for the damage or need for repairs. In other words, your warranty will be valid when your radiator springs a leak, since your aftermarket exhaust has nothing remotely to do with it.

Car modding is a highly competitive and geek-friendly practice which many car manufacturers embrace and accept – First, it develops a kind of intimacy and community between fellow owners and the brand itself which many marketing chiefs would give their left arm for. Second, consumer engagement, another key barometer of brand awareness and recall is enhanced when customers literally go into the nuts and bolts of their treasured possession. In fact, the best example of this is when Mercedes Benz acquired specialist Benz modder AMG.

Unofficial Bamford Black Audemars Piguet Royal Oak versus official Audemars Piguet Ceramic Perpetual Calendar. It’s obvious which is the clear winner.

Founded as a maker of racing engines in 1967 by former Mercedes engineers, AMG Motorenbau und Entwicklungsgesellschaft mbH (AMG Engine Production and Development, Ltd.), was named for the initials of the owners and a birthplace- Aufrecht, Melcher and Großaspach (Aufrecht’s birth town). By 1993, their modded Mercedes cars became so popular that Daimler-Benz AG and AMG officially worked together to sell AMG vehicles through Daimler-Benz’s dealer network. Eventually, the cars were so good, Daimler-Benz start co-developing cars together with AMG, eventually acquiring 51% shares in the firm becoming Mercedes-AMG GmbH. By 2005, DaimlerChrysler became the sole owner of Mercedes-AMG GmbH, a subsidiary of Daimler AG. But I digress and so let’s get back to modified watches:

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First, It invalidates your warranty. But a reputable watch modder will provide you one, sometimes with servicing provided by former staffers of the brand. Second, nullifying your warranty is the least of your concerns when brands can outright deem it counterfeit. While you might think that it’s not an issue, consider this for a minute – your friendly neighbourhood authorised service provider might get their authorisation to work on specific branded watches revoked because they worked on a product which brand HQ deemed counterfeit. Finally, offical components and parts might not be available to you for vital repairs when you need them, forcing you to turn to third party replica parts and likely endanger the longevity of your beloved timepiece.

 

Personally, I don’t believe brands should punish a customer for their own modifications especially when they could single handedly kill the market for watch mods with their own official “AMG” watches while charging a special premium for these. There’s little downside on both sides of the fence and if you can get a customer deeper into the cult of your specific brand, why wouldn’t you not want to encourage that kind of engagement and devotion? Watch lovers tend to love cars and performance bicycles for the very same reasons that got them into watches in the first place – a fascination with gears; it’s not hard to see how the current formula with cars might work for watches.

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