Although the market offers thousands of watches, if none of them look quite right, you can design your own.
There are different ways to go about it: You can design a watch based entirely on your vision and imagination, or tweak a version of an existing watch. The process can take hours or years. It can cost from the low four figures to a sum with almost too many zeros to count.
The desired design can be turned into a timepiece by an independent watchmaker, or by a watch house, or by you. Almost anything is possible.
Ahmed Rahman, a London businessman, followed one popular route, using a watch created by an independent brand as the starting point for his own ideas.
While Mr. Rahman was attending the 2018 Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie fair (now called Watches and Wonders) in Geneva, “I saw De Bethune’s DB25 Moon Phase Starry Sky,” he said. “I thought it was stunning.”
Stunning but not quite right.
“My biggest gripe was the watch is too big,” Mr. Rahman said. It is made in 42-millimeter, but he wanted 40. It came in white gold; he wanted platinum.
At the fair, Mr. Rahman met De Bethune’s chief executive, Pierre Jacques, who said the brand would work with him to create the watch he desired.
And so began months of back and forth. Because the case size was being reduced, there would be no room for the power reserve indicator on the front; it would have to move to the back. Mr. Jacques proposed encircling the case with diamonds. No, Mr. Rahman said, but Mr. Jacques had another idea: What about diamonds instead of white gold for the stars on the dial? Done.
One special design idea really made the watch unique to Mr. Rahman. “The dial would show the constellations exactly as they were at the time and place of my birth: January 31, 1978, in Bangladesh,” he said.
Eight or so months later, when the timepiece finally arrived, Mr. Rahman said he was delighted. “It was more than I expected,” he said. “The diamonds against the blue titanium sky is gorgeous.”
The price for such a personal treasure? “It cost about 15 percent above the catalog price,” Mr. Rahman said, which he recalled was about 75,000 Swiss francs (about $81,420).
Another London-based watch collector, Michael Hickcox, has designed two watches with the respected independent watchmaker Kari Voutilainen — both times in a group project with five fellow enthusiasts.
About 10 years ago, each man in the group designed his own version of a chronograph, a process one of them, Gary Getz, a noted California watch collector, described in an online post. Mr. Voutilainen then made the pieces.
The project was so successful that the group is at it again, but because the base watch they are working from involves a new movement and is still being developed, Mr. Hickcox said he had to be rather hush-hush about the plan. But he was happy to share some of the lessons he has learned.
Be open to change, he said, because what seems like a good idea does not necessarily turn out that way.
“Most of the ideas I wanted to incorporate didn’t look right” when they were rendered, Mr. Hickcox said. “There was a watch that I referenced that had a black dial, and I wanted the same indications on my watch. But transposed on a rendering, it was way too busy. It didn’t work on this watch.
“I went from a very busy indication of minutes on the dial, to just having minute markers every five minutes,” he added. “It sounds like a simple thing, but where it ended up makes my watch so beautiful. It’s a very restrained, almost stark approach. It’s not where I started.”
Designing your own watch isn’t for everyone, Mr. Hickcox cautioned.
Deliberations on the new design “wouldn’t keep most people up nights,” he said, but he noted that he had done lots of tossing and turning, deciding whether to go with Mr. Voutilainen’s new squared lugs, which are “rather sporty,” or the watchmaker’s signature teardrop shape. The originals won.
“It all takes time,” he said, “and not everyone wants to wait. Discussion for this new watch started two years ago.” The piece, though, won’t be ready until 2021 or later.
And although he won’t say how much the collaborations cost, he does concede that the process is expensive. “The pressure can be quite difficult,” he said, adding, “You don’t want to make a 100,000 Swiss franc mistake.”
There are, however, significantly less expensive ways to design your own watch. You can even build it yourself.
“We don’t make you a watchmaker,” Gilles Francfort, the business’s co-founder, said. “You choose what you want from different watch parts. We have many, many hands and cases, millions of possibilities. At any one time, we might have 150 bracelets to choose from, 23 cases, 13 movements, 25 hands and 45 dials.”
With those extensive combinations, he said, “our aim is that every participant makes a unique watch.”
Initium offers a half-day program in which “you won’t touch the movement,” Mr. Francfort said, “but in the full-day option, our best seller, you get to assemble the movement. We focus on everything that makes you understand how it works — wheels, escapement, gears — you will assemble all of that. You understand each part of the watch.”
The cost ranges from 1,690 Swiss francs, for a half day working with a manual winding movement, to 2,690 Swiss francs, for a full day making an automatic winding movement. In time for holiday gift giving, or for those who can’t travel to Switzerland, Initium plans to offer a home kit; it is also adding a new tourbillion watch course. (At the moment, Switzerland does require visitors arriving from some countries to complete a 10-day quarantine.)
And then there’s Les Cabinotiers, Vacheron Constantin’s elite group of master watchmakers and artisans, whose job is to create one-of-a-kind masterpieces. When it comes to fulfilling a collector’s dreams, there is almost nothing its members will not do.
“The sky’s the limit,” Christian Selmoni, Vacheron Constantin’s style and heritage director, said. “We do unique pieces that combine watchmaking complications and decorative arts, whether engraving, guilloché or enameling.” (He declined to discuss price.)
It is white glove service all the way. Those with watches on order are invited to come to the atelier in Geneva and see their designs being made, or, if traveling to Switzerland is not possible, Vacheron Constantin will send someone to them.
The process can take “at least 18 months,” Mr. Selmoni said, although one notable project took eight years. “A very important collector requested a bespoke pocket watch,” he said. “He wanted a perpetual Hebrew calendar” — and much more.
“Vacheron Constantin offered a combination of complications,” he said. “At the end of the day he chose 57 complications. He wanted the most complicated watch ever made.” And he got it.