Ever owned a watch that would be perfect but for one small niggling design element? It might be a date display that brings disharmony to the dial, a bezel that lacks pop, or a set of hands whose lume has faded faster than your bank balance after a trip to Watches of Switzerland.
Or maybe you’re just not pleased at having bought a model you now see on so many other wrists, and you want to make it your own it with some new parts – the horological equivalent of a Pimp My Ride soup-up.
Then allow us to introduce you to the practice of watch modding. A burgeoning subculture within a subculture, watch modding has countless online forums dedicated to it, and there are a growing number of companies offering an array of modification options, from the aesthetic to the functional.
Perhaps the best-known – and priciest – among them is Mayfair-based Bamford Watch Department, launched in 2003 by JCB heir, George Bamford. When Bamford, who had been given a steel black dial Rolex Daytona by his parents, found himself turning up to dinner parties with several of his fellow guests wearing the same model, he turned to the designing and engineering department at his family’s company for help in setting himself apart.
“We found a process used by the mining industry, which was a DLC process (Diamond-like Carbon), an anti-friction lubrication system for drill parts,” explains Bamford. “I tested it on a vintage Rolex GMT Master and a Submariner.”
Bamford gave one of these newly lacquered watches to his father one summer and they both wore them for the duration of the season. “That [same] summer I received 25 orders, realised that [watch modding] was serious and I had to take it further.”
The most popular request at Bamford Watch Department, he says, is for initialled dials. “This adds a beautifully subtle but ultimately personal touch to a watch. I’ve also had clients who want to match [their watch] to the exact colour of their car.”
As well as its DLC coating, the company has also developed a wide range of colours in materials like MGTC (Military Grade Titanium Coating) and GPC (Graphite Particle Coating).
But don’t start digging out your battered old Timex for a freshen-up yet. The company’s modifications are done on brand new Rolex models they procure themselves (so you can’t simply hand them the family heirloom you’ve been wearing for the past 10 years), plus a smattering of other high-end brands including Audemars Piguet and Panerai.
The price for a Bamford watch starts at £8,500.
If your pockets aren’t that deep, or you’re simply looking to dip a tentative toe into the world of watch modding, you’d be better off enlisting the skills of someone like Jay at MotorCity WatchWorks in Detroit, Michigan.
A ubiquitous name on mod forums, Jay (whose surname remains mysteriously elusive) offers a range of services including Cerakote-coating (a ceramic-based substance commonly used in the US to coat small firearms), bead blasting (giving steel a matte finish with minimal light-reflecting properties), various coloured lume replacement, plus case work like polishing and brushing.
The two basic modification options, according to Jay, are the Cerakote-coating or blasting, which cost from just $50 to $150.
A quick scan of the watches modded by Jay on his website suggests that Seikos are the most popular brand to be customised. Is there a reason for this?
“All watches can be modded when you are doing [Cerakote-coating or blasting],” says Jay. “But if you want different parts, then Seiko is the watch of choice because of the easy availability of lots of custom parts, such as the dial, hands and bezel inserts.”
There’s also the fact that Seiko watches are so affordable compared to Swiss ones and that several million are made a year – so people are more willing to experiment on them than that Submariner that cost them a couple of months’ salary.
Seiko watches are also commonly used as a ‘base’ for so-called ‘homage watches’ – watches modded to resemble existing iconic (and far pricier) models. Images often crop up on mod forums, for example, of the Seiko “Fifty Five Fathoms” – a dead ringer for Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms dive watch, but costing a fraction of the price. Made by an elusive Hong Kong-based Seiko modder, Harold Ng, who goes by the name ‘Yobokies’ (read it backwards), they are now highly sought after.
“One thing you can purchase now on my website, which I will be expanding very soon, is ready-made mods, mostly Seikos,” says Jay of MotorCity WatchWorks. “I’ll be doing commonly requested modifications to brand new watches.”
Osie Bhurgri, a Northern Irish watch collector based in Dubai, has himself had a Seiko modded by the Detroit company. “I sent them a 1982 Seiko Automatic Dive watch (ref 6309-729A F1),” he says. “This was the only watch I have ever had professionally modded but would love to get more done in the future.”
Bhurgri was turned on to modding when a watch he bought on a drunken eBay binge turned out to be in poor condition. “I had been on eBay and had seen what looked like a decent Seiko 6309-729A F1 Scuba Pro limited-edition dive watch,” he says. “I didn’t do any due diligence and bought the watch without getting proper images of its condition. It was cheap – less than $100, so not a painful cost to swallow if things went pear-shaped.
“I got the watch and it turned out to be a total shambles. The crown threads, movement and bezel were awful. I was in two minds whether to just throw the watch in the bin. But then it occurred to me… why not get it professionally modded by a leading modder and have the watch rebuilt from scratch the way I wanted it?”
Osie sent the watch to MCWW who overhauled the movement and coated the case in Cerakote in a colour of his choice – Coyote Tan. “As I’m basically living in the desert I wanted to mod it into something Desert Storm-like.”
Anyone seriously considering getting their watch modded, however, should be aware that any work done on the watch will void the manufacturer’s warranty. But the modification company usually offer their own warranty: MotorCity WatchWorks offers 90 days, while Bamford Watch Department offers a lifetime guarantee on the coating plus a five-year guarantee on the watch itself.
If you’re of a particularly artistic bent you might even want to have a stab at modding yourself. There are countless DIY videos on eBay and you can buy basic watch toolkits on Amazon for just a few pounds. But you might want to practice on that worse-for-wear Timex before dismantling the Seiko your other half bought you for your birthday.
Are you interested in having your wristwear customised? Or is all this watch modding madness? Or maybe you’ve had a watch undergo surgery already?
Let us know below.