Spike Lee Among Stars Jumping on Luxury Watch Customization Craze

Courtesy of Marc Baptiste/Artisans de Geneve

Bulgari, TAG Heuer and other top timepiece companies are embracing "modding" as names like Lee and Lenny Kravitz collaborate on unauthorized Rolex redesigns: "There's an extra, extra exclusivity because it's personalized."

The trend of outsider companies customizing luxury-brand watches has come a long way from the days when messing with an iconic timepiece felt almost like sacrilege. In the past two years alone, aftermarket modification — or watch modding — has gained A-list steam, with director Spike Lee and musician Lenny Kravitz each collaborating with Swiss customization company Artisans de Geneve on limited-edition Rolexes. Lee's co-design, dubbed Cool Hand Brooklyn ($39,800, in a limited edition of 40), debuted in November, featuring orange and blue details on a Rolex Daytona.

While stars have had jewelers remake watches for decades — Elvis Presley added diamonds to his in the '60s, and hip-hop artists long have worn iced-out timepieces — a new look kicked off in the mid-2000s when George Bamford of Bamford Watch Department and such companies as Pro Hunter, Project X, Mad Paris and Titan Black started promoting a specific style: a black- on-black look, mostly on new Rolexes, that was created by coating them with DLC (diamond-like carbon) or PVD (physical vapor deposition). The blacked-out watches were discreet enough to be worn in an office and exuded stealth cool: Jennifer Aniston, Mark Wahlberg, Robert Downey Jr., Daniel Craig and Snap chairman Michael Lynton rocked them.

But purists loathed these Frankenwatches, with no brands sanctioning the practice. "For a long time, these companies were the black sheep," says James Lamdin, founder of vintage watch sales site Analog/Shift. Still, customization was very attractive for high-end buyers, especially creative types. "We cater to whims," says Ben Waite, director of Titan Black, who notes that hand-painted camo pat-terns are popular right now. The Chainsmokers' Alex Pall has been spotted in one of 2-year-old brand La Californienne's "restored and remastered" Rolexes and Cartiers, with hand-painted dials and striped leather straps in West Coast pinks and tangerines, says co-owner Leszek Garwacki.

He started the company (whose wares, $3,250 to $13,500, are sold in L.A. at Goop, Maxfield and Elyse Walker) with his wife, Courtney Ormond, a former wardrobe stylist, after she asked him to refashion her vintage Cartier Tank watch, which he had bought her for their anniversary. “It’s a beautiful watch but I wanted something different. I wanted it to be unique and fun,” she recalls. Garwacki had been painstakingly restoring vintage watches for years as a hobby to make them period correct and his first reaction was no. “I said to her that the watch was not supposed to be fun, instead she should think of it as a classic,” says Garwacki, a former financial advisor. To him, messing with the look of an iconic watch felt wrong. Eventually, he gave in, hand-painting the dial a shade of aqua.

Most surprisingly, Bamford, the best known among this group of disrupter watch companies, formed an official partnership with LVMH last year as the approved personalization partner for such brands as Bulgari, Zenith and TAG Heuer. In early May, another company, Corum, also partnered with Bamford. (This evolution is analogous to the way car companies eventually embraced their own modders back in the day, with Mercedes going so far as to purchase AMG.)

"People want more individualization. For a big company like us, we are more organized for standardization. So working with Bamford, we have the best of both," says LVMH head of watchmaking Jean-Claude Biver. In March at the Baselworld watch fair in Switzerland, TAG Heuer and Bamford debuted their first official collaboration, a Monaco (famously worn by Steve McQueen in 1971's Le Mans) with a carbon case and pale blue dial ($8,100, in a limited edition of 500).

The Bamford deal means that lovers of, say, a Bulgari Serpenti watch can have their choice of coatings, dial, baton, hand and logo colors and even add their initials to the face. "With us, you can have your identity on a product," says Bamford, as watch companies like Ulysse Nardin and Armin Strom join in expanding consumers' choices. Adds Lamdin, "There's an extra, extra exclusivity because it's personalized."

As Lamdin sees it, after-market customization has come a long way from the days of simply blacking out a watch. “They are pushing into artistry,” he says. Titan Black now employs four expert enamellers in its dial-design workshop in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Two L.A. accessories brands, MadeWorn and Huckleberry, offer Rolexes that are impeccably hand-engraved on cases and bracelets with designs such as an apple motif or even a cannabis leaf. Most of these businesses are spurred by their respect and love of Rolex. "For me, it’s by far the best company in the world for the money. If you customize one of Rolex's products, you have to be at the same high level," says John Isaac, CEO of Artisans de Geneve.

One company, Tempus Machina, takes an extremely wonky approach. It buys new Rolexes and reimagines them as some of the most highly sought-after vintage Rolex models. If you are looking for bling, two of the hottest companies icing out watches right now are New York’s Avianne & Co. and Atlanta’s Ice Box, each of which count Migos, Metro Boomin and Young Thug as clients.

Some modders will tweak a watch you already own, while others only work on factory-fresh pieces. Wait times run two to three months. A good sign that a customization company is reputable — "There are things done in somebody's garage," warns Lamdin — is that it offers its own warranty that matches the length of the original, which is invalidated when a new watch is modified. "Traditionally, modifying a watch is a sure way to reduce or destroy resale value," says Lamdin. "However, I have seen preowned Bamfords sell for good money. It's a relatively young sort of industry within the watch world."

A version of this story first appeared in the May 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.