Robb Read: Inside The World Of Bespoke Watchmaking
Why elite collectors often see elements of their supposed one-of-one on someone else’s wrist?
“I made the mistake, no one else,” says former Hollywood power agent Michael Ovitz of the several dozen custom watches he commissioned from Patek Philippe about six or seven years ago. It was the first time Ovitz, who has been collecting for 35 years, placed a bespoke order, but his goal was ambitious: He requested several different references, each in a variety of metals, with one-of-a-kind dials. “They were terrific,” he says of Patek, “and accommodated everything I wanted.”
His regret is not foreseeing two problems. The first was misunderstanding his own psychology: Too afraid he’d bang up his special treasures by wearing them, he never even took some of them out of the packaging. In hindsight, he says he would stick to one version of each reference. “My second mistake was that I didn’t ask them for an exclusive on the design,” says Ovitz. “So I saw a lot of [Patek] watches showing up with my design, and I didn’t want that. I wanted unique pieces.” (Patek Philippe declined comment, citing clients’ privacy.)
Navigating the pitfalls of the world of bespoke watchmaking can be tricky, even for experienced collectors like Ovitz, who also has a major trove of modern and contemporary art. Commissioning can lead to the ultimate in bragging rights—influence over a genius creator’s oeuvre and legacy—or total dejection. Nearly every luxury firm is capable of taking customisation to the next level for those willing to spend whatever is required, which can run to millions, but when the client’s and the brand’s expectations are not aligned, the project can backfire.
Ovitz’s response has been to part company with some of the Pateks, recognisable for his “MSO” initials discreetly placed at six o’clock. Several have quietly popped up on the market, both privately and publicly, through notable auction houses. In 2018, his 36mm Ref. 5004J, in 18-carat yellow gold with a perpetual calendar and split-seconds chronograph, fetched about $484,000 at Phillips’s Hong Kong Watch Auction: Seven. A Ref. 3940 in 18-carat rose gold with perpetual calendar and a Ref. 5059 in 18-carat yellow gold with retrograde perpetual calendar were sold through European Watch Company for undisclosed amounts. But despite the less-than-ideal outcome with his initial foray into bespoke, Ovitz says he has not soured on the concept. Asked if he’d try again, he replies, “Yes, but one-offs that I co-design and that are not duplicated.”
That can be easier said than done. Across the industry, this type of project requires not only a significant investment, with a hefty deposit paid upfront—it’s expensive to develop a new complication or rearrange elements on a dial—but also a certain level of blind trust in the watchmaker’s word. In some cases, collectors report having agreed to allow a company to create an ultra-limited handful of slightly tweaked versions of their originals but still ending up feeling burned.
One New York collector, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, recounts how he felt betrayed when a watchmaker began producing more and more pieces with his concept. They had entered into a loose agreement allowing for four additional versions to sell to other clients, which later grew by several and eventually resulted in an ongoing series. “At first, I thought it didn’t matter if he increased the production a little bit, because I got the watch that I wanted,” he says. “But the thing is, it was a little bit like pulling teeth to try to get him to do this thing, and ultimately, it put him on the map, and then he just started cranking them out. I was kind of bummed.” The collector was so disenchanted with his experience that he ended up selling it. The approx. $97,000 price was almost double what he had initially paid, but the piece was the first and last one he bought from that particular maker.
Not every collector minds seeing their ideas on other people’s wrists. The relationship between brand and client can be mutually beneficial. Occasionally, a bespoke commission is so inventive that it wields influence over the brand’s repertoire for years to come. That collector can serve as muse and visionary, investor, guinea pig and sounding board.
Take, for instance, Bovet’s Récital timepiece (top image), an ultra-high-complication design that has received multiple accolades, including several Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Gèneve awards (the GPHG, the highest honour in watchmaking). Its origins date to 2006, when one of the brand’s biggest collectors came to owner Pascal Raffy asking for a tourbillon timepiece that featured a hefty seven days of power reserve along with a crown positioned at three o’clock in a pure and simple design. “He asked me, ‘How do you imagine the dial?’” says Raffy. “I said, ‘The tourbillon is the tank of the timepiece. It is the power, the energy, the generosity. Extending from its cage, let’s design a beautiful and simple blackened Côtes de Gèneve finishing.’” Together, they gave birth to the first Récital in 2007.
The collector was so pleased with the outcome that he suggested Bovet do other iterations, according to Raffy. The prototype was then presented to select retail partners and VIPs. “We were happy if we could sell a few of them,” says Raffy. “It would be a gift [to us] from the collector. That week, 50 models were sold.” The piece has spawned 22 editions to date and has become one of Bovet’s most recognisable designs.
Collaborations such as these have sometimes been so crucial they have lifted a watchmaker out of relative obscurity. When Kari Voutilainen ventured out on his own after honing his craft behind the bench under master watchmaker Michel Parmigiani at Parmigiani Fleurier, a single client’s wish propelled him into the spotlight. Before he began making his own movements, a client came to him wanting an old Peseux 260 calibre—an observatory-competition movement used by brands for entries in chronometry competitions—in a time-only watch with straight lugs.
It took a year of negotiating and waiting to source the movement before it was delivered as a unique piece. The collector then brought it to the Besançon Observatory in Besançon, France, to be officially tested and certified as an observatory chronometer. The test goes a step further than the standard COSC certification, widely used in the industry, in that it inspects the entire watch for high-level accuracy rather than just the interior movement. The unusual piece went on to spawn not only a newly established Besançon Observatory chronometer certification but also Voutilainen’s coveted Observatoire series, which now encompasses 50 iterations of the original.
The Observatoire is not a singular story at Voutilainen’s workshop; other client requests have spawned series. “It has happened many, many times,” says the watchmaker. “One customer wanted to have a GMT but something a little unusual. He said, ‘Make me a watch where the whole dial is turning at six o’clock. That will be cool because it is like it’s living and changing its face all the time.’” So Voutilainen set about redesigning the second time zone to be replaced with a rotating disc integrated into the small seconds, with an arrow to read the GMT time. After the client shared photos on a watch forum, Voutilainen was inundated with requests. “That was purely the idea of our customer, and actually, I myself didn’t even believe that it could be so successful,” says Voutilainen, who has since produced 25 GMTs with the same function. As for the man who came up with the idea in the first place, he adds, “it wasn’t an issue for the customer at all. He has a unique piece with an engraved dial.”
Duplication is not the only drawback of bespoke commissions that serve as research and development for small independent brands. Allen, a San Francisco collector who spoke on the condition of not using his surname, says that sometimes the complex new technology simply doesn’t work. “We’re basically the beta testers,” he explains. “These are not big manufacturers that are able to do all sorts of testing to make sure they are running smoothly before they deliver them. If there’s a problem, we have to send it back.”
Even at major companies, such as Audemars Piguet, which produces about 40,000 watches a year at its sprawling manufacture in Le Brassus, Switzerland, complex customisations remain rare but influential. Despite making only unique pieces until 1951, the brand says this level of attention is now reserved for the very elite few. “Capacity is always the issue, because of the amount of hand-finishing we do,” says Michael Friedman, head of complications. “It’s a long back-and-forth process, because you still have to keep a balance between the design language of the brand and what the client wants.”
Currently on the docket: a larger, easier-to-activate minute-repeater slide for a client’s Royal Oak Grande Complication. “That’s a cool idea, and it’s something we very well could propose in the future, perhaps not his exact design,” says Friedman. “It’s a customisation which we hadn’t considered yet on the Royal Oak.” But it won’t be as simple to execute as it sounds. The entire piece will have to be re-engineered to adjust the pocket where the lever is activated and still meet its water-resistance standards.
Similarly, Vacheron Constantin—the third member, along with Audemars and Patek, of the “holy trinity,” horology’s anointed crème de la crème—has produced custom pieces for centuries. Its clients, however, usually have high expectations for their commissions to remain singular creations. The company’s Les Cabinotiers atelier builds one-off complications from the ground up for its bespoke watches, many of which remain out of the public eye in private hands.
But for independents, which lack the infrastructure of vast facilities and armies of employees, the time and resources required to create complex bespoke projects add up to significant investments. To make the math work, they may have little choice but to repeat innovations. In the case of Voutilainen, who makes only about 60 watches a year and is intent on building movements in-house, committing to a one-off piece is an enormous personal sacrifice as well. “The time is missing, but also it’s my personal time,” says Voutilainen, who just bought a new building to expand his workshop and house a few more employees to work on bespoke pieces. “During all these past years, I’ve been doing the casing, finishing of the hands and fabricating some components for the hands myself.” It takes him an entire day to complete one set of hands, meaning he dedicates 50 to 60 days of his year solely to that task. He says he spends more than half his time on the bench, working well into the evenings most days.
As a result, a custom order from an independent can take longer than earning a college degree. Hickcox, the London collector, says he waited five years to receive his customized open-dial Roger W. Smith Series II timepiece after commissioning it in 2012. By the time it was ready, he had lost interest. He had also had some temporary financial reversals and so decided to sell the Series II to dealer Silas Walton, owner of the high-end vintage-watch e-tailer A Collected Man, rather than pay the balance and take delivery. “Silas made sure it went to a deserving client, so Roger was pleased with where it ended up.” (Smith declined to comment on the record.)
Smith makes just 12 watches a year, and they are highly coveted, enabling Hickcox to easily unload his for about 30% more than the roughly $163,000 he says he paid. “It worked out really well from a financial point of view for me, even though I’m not a watch speculator or investor,” says Hickcox.
The five years Hickcox waited is nothing compared to what some clients with extraordinary wish lists endure. When F. P. Journe revealed his first Centigraphe model in 2008, about a dozen years had elapsed since the initial request from a mathematician, who had come to him asking for an exceptional chronograph with three hands: The first would make one revolution in a second, another would turn in 20 seconds and a third would do a 360 every 10 minutes. “I could never figure out how to do it,” Journe says, “until one day, I visited the Scuderia Ferrari, where I finally figured out how to have three hands turning at three different speeds.” The client passed away long before he could ever see his concept come to fruition.
Journe is notorious for doing as he pleases. He works on his own clock, so to speak, and often declines projects he considers beneath him. Rushing to find a solution simply to satisfy an impatient client is not an option, and he will never build a watch by adding complications or modules on top of a basic movement. “It’s too easy,” says Journe. “It’s like cars built with these communal platforms. That’s called industry, and that is not the kind of work I do. I always do what I want. Very often I refuse absurd requests or things I do not find interesting.”
The right of refusal remains firmly in the hands of the maker, a power imbalance that can surprise some collectors, who tend to be accustomed to getting their own way in life. Even an offhand comment about where you plan to wear your six- or seven-figure watch could land your project dead in the water. Bovet’s Raffy recalls a time in 2013 when he had agreed to create a bespoke minute-repeater tourbillon for a client, which, in addition to its haute horlogerie mechanics, would feature hand-engravings and an enamel painting. But the collector made a grave mistake when he informed Raffy he was going to be very proud to take it swimming in his balmy locale. Plans for the creation were promptly extinguished. “For me, this is absolutely something you cannot do,” says Raffy. “I said, ‘I’m sorry. I will not do it.’ He thought it was a joke. This gentleman thought I would not refuse an order of two million Swiss francs [about $2.8 million]. I said, ‘Thank you. You have my respect, but this is not the image of the house of Bovet.’”
Questions of aesthetics can also kill a project. Requesting motifs that he considers kitschy is a no-no chez Voutilainen. “I like very classical and technical-looking watches,” he says. You wouldn’t, say, ask Lamborghini to outfit the seats of your Huracán supercar in floral chintz.
Keeping control of the visual design is especially important for independents like Voutilainen, who typically do not or cannot spend a dime on marketing. Collectors act as walking advertisements. But that’s not to say watchmakers have a monopoly on visionary ideas. On the contrary, sometimes it’s the companies seeking out the collectors for their ideas and insights. The industry, like most today, relies on social-media influencers, and in some cases, the mutually beneficial relationship has catapulted both watchmaker and collector to rock-star status.
Silicon Valley collector Gary Getz, who frequently posts about his collection under the Instagram handle @garyg_1 and writes about it regularly on the site Quill & Pad, recalls Petermann Bédat cofounder Gaël Petermann approaching him and a friend at an auction preview in November 2019. “I didn’t know him,” Getz says, “but he recognized me and he asked to show us their watch and asked us for feedback.” Petermann unpacked an early version of his Dead Beat Second, which had a blue dial and gold Roman numerals. Getz, after asking permission to be frank, called the dial “boring” and suggested Petermann add some flare.
Petermann and his partner, Florian Bédat, took the advice to heart. The steel-and-sapphire dial of the finished Dead Beat Second features a cutaway between one and four o’clock that reveals a front-facing glimpse of its manual-winding mechanical movement. In November of 2020, it took home the Horological Revelation prize at the GPHG. Getz didn’t receive a dime for his advice, but Bédat thanked him from the stage. “My friends and I are more than delighted to be asked for our inputs and really pleased to see these independent makers succeed,” Getz says.
Status and recognition are significant ego-strokers, but the ultimate accolade is landing a full-time, paid consulting gig. One of the first people Breitling CEO Georges Kern called as he was preparing to take over the brand in 2017 was Vienna collector Fred Mandelbaum, whose popular Instagram account, @watchfred, has 54,000 followers. Not long after, Kern was on a plane to Austria to woo him for an official role. “They call me the guardian of heritage,” says Mandelbaum, who was tapped to help conceive a line of re-editions based on the brand’s vintage models. The new pieces include the Ref. 806 and AVI Ref. 765, both modern replicas of the 1959 and 1953 originals, respectively. He also consults on design generally, when it comes to tapping into the brand’s history. Why? Mandelbaum’s deep knowledge comes in part from the fact that his collection of vintage Breitlings is more extensive than the brand’s own archive. Over the past decade he has acquired one of each “relevant,” as he puts it, Breitling chronograph ever produced. “I think it’s safe to say that my scope of expertise about the brand heritage is something that wasn’t available when Georges took over,” says Mandelbaum. Many of the heritage models referenced on Breitling’s website and in its catalog are in fact his. So far, Mandelbaum has proved his Midas touch. Both re-editions sold out quickly to retailers and distributors, and a third is in the works for this year.
Collaborating at this level is not for novices. It’s a years-long process with serious money at stake on both sides. But when it works, Mandelbaum insists, more than watches are built. “There is a lot of support, goodwill and friendship that evolves in these circles,” he says. “Ultimately, it is a gentleman’s sport.”