Centuries ago the creativity of manufacturers was limited only by their technical capabilities. And, much like those of their clients, their ideas and ambitions, although not always feasible, were truly spectacular. It was during this time when the concepts of ‘series’ or ‘collections’ were still yet to be born, right up until the beginning of the 20th century, that the very lifeblood of the industry was the realization of custom made pieces commissioned by wealthy clients.
Progressively, this trend regressed however, and bespoke pieces began to disappear along with it. In 1908, Henry Ford built his Model-T following an industrial model that promoted mass production and would come to be known as ‘Fordism’. Witnessing the cost savings and subsequent success achieved, most industries eventually took the same path, including the watch-making industry.
At the same time the main customers of these incredible, bespoke pieces, so prevalent at the beginning of century, have slowly disappeared also, most noticeably the royal families that used to be great enthusiasts of fine watchmaking pieces.
Another, more recent trend which many of us will have a keen sense of awareness of was the quartz revolution, which stifled the re-emergence of these incredible skills for more than 25 years.
As a consequence, bespoke pieces have only really made a come back in the last 15 years or so. Now, however, they face an even greater opponent: profitability. An undeniable part of everyday life, the concept of profitability has progressively done away with any kind of art not linked directly to ROI. So entrenched has this ideology become that many believed it could be not be overcome. Fortunately for us some ambitious people decided to change that way of thinking.
A Story Of Men
Villeret, Vacheron Constantin and a few others decided one day that it was time to put a stop to this blinding obsession with figures. “It’s a safe return to the foundations of our job”, explains Dominique Bernaz, Retail Director, Vacheron Constantin. “For a full century, from 1755 to 1850, we almost made only bespoke pieces. These are all the timepieces that elevated our reputation so high”.
In fact, the revival of the fine art of bespoke pieces was made possible at Vacheron Constantin thanks to the will of one man. Juan-Carlos Torres, CEO, made the decision to create a department dedicated solely to this cause, The Atelier Les Cabinotiers, run by Dominique Bernaz.
Comprised of 6 people; 4 craftsmen, one support staff member and a project leader, the Atelier produces a total of just 40 to 50 pieces per year. They’re not all bespoke pieces: 90% go through a (relatively) simple customization process, and in the end only 4 to 5 units have their movement partly or completely reworked. Even still, at such figures, the Manufacture has reached its maximum capacity. “Beyond that limit, the waiting time for our clients would be unreasonable, so we prefer to refuse some orders”, explains Bernaz.
Detail of the movement of a bespoke piece by Vacheron Constantin – © Vacheron Constantin
At Vacheron Constantin, depending on the level of complexity involved with your project, you can expect to wait one to two years before you’ll get to hold it in your hands (or on your wrist). But for the complete development of a new movement, you’ll have to wait around…6 years! Rumor has that a European tycoon spent US$6.5 millions for a piece that, technically speaking, went further than the well-known Tour de l’Ile of the manufacture…
This sentiment is shared by Alexander Schmiedt, Director of the Watch Division at Montblanc (which includes the Villeret manufacture, in charge of all the haute horlogerie bespoke pieces). Its volume: 250 units per year, but only a very small part of it dedicated to unique pieces. “There are three conditions to make this bet. First, it’s to be completely integrated. Then, to have a production tool completely distinct from the mass production, which is the case for us with a dedicated place for Montblanc and its 100,000 units per year, in Le Locle. Last but not least, it’s to have a dedicated team, as far as we are concerned with 2 engineers spending 50% of their time on unique watches”.
Alexander Schmiedt, Director Category Management Watches, Montblanc – © Montblanc
Is Anything Possible With Bespoke Pieces?
“There is no limit to the customization of an existing product, as well as there is no limit to creativity”, tells us Christophe Claret. Villeret and Vacheron Constantin both agree but there are still guiding principles, for example “The final product must encompass the brand’s DNA”, underlines Dominique Bernaz from Vacheron Constantin. Same rhyme from Alexander Schmiedt at Montblanc: “For instance, we refuse any piece with political or religious signs”.
The typical client, if we want to try and define one…does not exist. One must admit that with such confidential volumes of production, it’s impossible to define a relevant typical profile of client. The most we can say is that he’s coming from ex-USSR countries, or from China. But Dominique Bernaz tempers : “Eastern clients don’t like to wait, generally speaking, more than 3 months. But we can’t honestly deliver a bespoke product in less than 18 months, so, most of the time, they go their way…”.
Project of a unique bespoke piece by Montblanc – © Montblanc
What About The Independents?
The critical industrial issue to address when creating a bespoke piece is to limit as much as possible the impact on the production process of a series. A problem that, in theory, independent watchmakers don’t have. “Correct, but unless you bill your watch at an unbelievable price, it’s not profitable, because the creative process is exactly the same for a series of watches, with the creation, drawings, plans, etc., …as it is for one single piece !”, confides Ludovic Ballouard, independent watchmaker.
Christophe Claret tends to agree, saying : “The nomenclature of a piece is a very important task. With 350 movements produced every year, made out of 500 parts for most of them, we can’t hardly do the same for one single watch”. He follows by a comparison with other crafstmen’s jobs : “When Vuitton decides to make a bespoke trunk, you have a maximum of two, three, maybe four crafting corps operating on it. On our side, we have at least 20 different people with their own skills entering the process. It’s far more complicated”.
Finally, some tried to to reconcile the irreconcilable and produce a series of…bespoke pieces. Impossible? No, says Mikaël Bourgeois. This 32 years-old man decided to work on his own after servicing the most important manufactures. His business model is built around unique watches. Other brands such as Golay-Spierer go down the same track. In both cases, their pricing policy is a millions miles away from what you could get from major brands: count 4,500 euros for a Golay-Spierer, and around 12,000 euros for a Bourgeois. For such a price, most of these watchmakers re-use antique movements, customized afterwards.
Tailor-made piece by Mikaël Bourgeois – ©MB Watches
As with Montblanc, the Golay-Spierer duet allows their customers to access a personal website to follow step by step the evolution of their project, like this one here. Nevertheless, Montblanc goes one step further, offering their clients the possibility to log into a webcam at a specified time period to see the watchmaker assemble some specific parts live!
The Final Word
Bespoke pieces are back in this century, but remain the prerogative of integrated major manufactures or independent watchmakers having a taste for risk. In both cases, they can be counted on the fingers of the two hands.
Yet, they demonstrate a kind of vitality in the market and further encourage creativity and out of the box thinking. Moreover, bespoke pieces offer benefits to all consumers, as many developments made for such watches sooner or later end up being adapted in a more mainstream series.
All in all this remains a hot topic to keep a close eye on, you never know what someone is going to dream up next – be they a watch-maker or a client!