Luke Waite, founder of Titan Black, showing a client his newly customized Patek Philippe watch at the Titan Black showroom in London. CreditTom Jamieson for The New York Times

Luke Waite, founder of Titan Black, showing a client his newly customized Patek Philippe watch at the Titan Black showroom in London. CreditTom Jamieson for The New York Times

Custom Timepieces Seize the Moment

New York Times, Sept. 7, 2017

In 2003, when George Bamford founded Bamford Watch Department — a company that specialized in customizing Rolex sports watches by applying industrial case coatings, special finishes and unique dial treatments — the notion that consumers wanted products no one else had, and a part in the process that created them, wasn’t commonplace in the luxury watch industry.

The rogue nature of Mr. Bamford’s operation, which flourished because he offered a service that Rolex did not, was part of its appeal.

The onetime outsider announced in June that he had signed a deal with Jean-Claude Biver, president of the watch division at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, to customize and sell Zenith watches on the Bamford website and through its retail network. (As part of the arrangement, Mr. Bamford removed all Rolex images and information from his company’s website.)

“People are looking to be treated individually, to have something other people don’t have,” Mr. Biver explained in July from St.-Tropez, France, as he prepared to welcome Mr. Bamford to his vacation home for dinner. “The trend is not going to weaken; it’s going to increase.”

Strictly speaking, customization always has been available, provided that someone was willing to spend a considerable amount of money and time for a bespoke timepiece. Today, however, thanks to the demands of millennials and their Gen Z counterparts, whose interest in personalized goods far exceeds that of their elders, the industry has realized it needs to make customization more readily available.

A Patek Philippe with a dial customized by Titan Black.CreditTom Jamieson for The New York Times

A Patek Philippe with a dial customized by Titan Black.CreditTom Jamieson for The New York Times

“The movement is of course quartz, but as I have said many times before, this watch is not about the movement,” Cara Barrett wrote at the time on the influential watch site Hodinkee. “It is about the market changing and offering women more options for watches and creating an interactive buying experience.”

Fendi is also favoring a brick-and-mortar approach with its Policromia Made to Order program, introduced last year and showcased to the trade at Baselworld this year. At exclusive Fendi boutique events, clients are invited to choose from a box of luxury elements that offer more than 100,000 potential combinations — pieces like 18-karat gold buckles, exotic leather bands, detailing with diamonds and precious gems, and offbeat dials cut from malachite, opal, jasper and fossilized coral.

“Once a combination is created, it is unique and not replicable by anyone else,” said Domenico Oliveri, chief executive of Fendi Timepieces, a division of the Italian fashion house.

Watchmakers in the luxury space are hardly the only ones to recognize the importance of customization. All Shinola stores — including the American brand’s SoHo boutique that opened in New York in June — feature the Willard Bar, a spot where customers can choose watch cases, straps and buckles.

Named for Willard Bixby, one of the founders of the shoe polish brand that inspired Shinola’s name, the bar is designed to be “an environment in which you can really engage with the Shinola store team while you’re having a Shinola Cola and listening to records on the Shinola turntable,” Jacques Panis, the company’s president, said. “After you get your watch put together, you can go right around the corner to the embossing station and get your initials or symbol put into the strap.”