Mod World: A Closet Look at the Subculture of Watch Modification

Mod World: A Closer Look at the Subculture of Watch Modification

The ultimate in DIY, for many, watch modding helps you make a timepiece truly your own.

By Rhonda Riche

People have been personalizing timepieces pretty much since the first sundial dropped. And while the current mode of thinking is that any aftermarket modification devalues a watch, there is a whole community of enthusiasts devoted to the art of customization.

These people are called Watch Modders, so today, Watchonista is taking a closer look at how they fuel their passion and their influence on mainstream watchmaking.

In the Beginning

On the timeline of timekeeping, our current fascination with pristine, unaltered watches (hands up if you are “Team Leave the Stickers On”) is a historical blip.

The first mechanical pocket watches were all made to order, and modern watch brands have always offered some degree of customization (think the Rolex Domino’s pizza dials). Moreover, high-end watchmakers have always offered bespoke pieces for elite customers.

Even when mass production became the standard, casebacks continued to be modified with engraved sentiments.

Additionally, before the late 20th century, we didn’t treat timepieces like investments. Yes, they had value in that they were useful tools to get you through the day or, less practically, precious objects meant to be passed on to future generations. Indeed, prior to the last thirty years, when you heard the word “flipper,” you probably thought of an adorable TV dolphin.

Of course, industrialization made it easier for non-elites to access watches, but it also brought a homogeny to the pieces on the market. You could even build a watch wardrobe to express your many moods. Still, some folks wanted more.

Mod Squad

In the 1990s, aftermarket alterations really took off. One of the first was Jacob & Co. founder Jacob Arabo who got his start selling diamond-encrusted watches to hip-hop royalty. In the 2000s, George Bamford began coating off-the-shelf timepieces with black DLC coating.

The subculture of DIY watch modders also exploded at this time. The community found each other through online watch forums and Facebook groups, teaching each other tricks of the trade.

We’ve all been there; we grow bored of a dial, or the hands just don’t feel right. Take New York multi-media producer and watch enthusiast Chris Torella as an example. He started tweaking timepieces during the pandemic lockdowns because, like many modders, the impetus came from having a nice but not perfect watch. So, Torella decided to take matters into his own hands.

“I had always been into low-level collecting. And like many, I started to work on Seiko’s (plentiful and cheap), and it was then that I got turned onto the Seiko mod world,” Torella told Watchonista. “It instantly appealed to me – especially since it seemed to speak to a younger scene than the traditional watchmaking crowd!”

He continued: “For me, the appeal was taking something like a fairly generic watch and giving it a personal touch – it makes you feel good even if you are the only one who knows.”

Torella’s area of interest is putting together his dream watches using a mix of new, upcycled, and aftermarket parts.

As for education, he hit the internet. “At first, I bought a few books – but they were really not helpful. YouTube is where it’s at,” he explains. “There are dozens of videos on any topic (crown replacement, no problem!).”

Among the modding community, Seiko is a favorite brand to play with. There are two reasons for this. First, most high-end and luxury brands firmly frown on the practice. Fun Fact: Want to nullify the warranty on your Rollie? Paint a Mickey Mouse on the dial.

And second, getting parts unless you are a certified watchmaker has become nearly impossible, but with Seiko, that’s not an issue. New bezels, dials, and hands are easily accessible and available, be they new or on the secondary market. Torella also notes that Ali Express is a wonderland for watch parts and tools.

For emotional support and inspiration, Torella likes the Seiko Mods Facebook group (it has over 50,000 members, so you’re sure to find kindred spirits). “I also really like the website,” he told us.

Like any hobby, there are some dangers. “Modding is like the gateway drug into watchmaking,” Torella warned. “Once you gain that initial confidence of opening a case back or changing out a set of hands, you are hooked.”

Bringing it Back

Like any subculture, there are distinct groups within the community. Some, like Torella, seek to build their dream combination of case, dial, and hands. Others favor customizing the dial with cartoon characters or Jackson Pollock-inspired paint splatters.

I attempted my first and only mod this fall by creating a monster – the dreaded Frankenwatch. The bane of any collector’s existence, these are watches that were assembled to look like one thing on the surface but are actually something else on the inside.

In this instance, I put the dial of a 1970s Timex into the body of a vintage Saga. Saga was an offshoot of Timex, so it’s not as transgressive as it sounds. But it does bring up some of the ethical questions of modding.

We’ve already established that altering a watch devalues it, but what is the obligation of the mod owner to represent the watch as a mod? Most folks in the modding community take pride in their work (after all, that is the whole point of personalization). And it does feel pretty great to bring something back to life.

There are some nefarious characters out there, though, and I don’t want to be one. So, I etched a little note in the caseback that reads, “Modded 2022.”

Go Pro

It was fun to DIY a project with a Timex. But would I trust myself with customizing the tobacco-stained dial of my Jaeger-LeCoultre Etrier? The discoloration has always bothered me. Or what about replacing the broken hands on a rummage sale find Zenith? That is where customizers like Bamford Watch Department come in.

Founder George Bamford’s cri du coeur is: “If you can imagine it, we can create it for you.” So even if you don’t have the skills to mod your watch, they can do it for you. Notably, the brands have gone on to do official partnerships with manufactures like Zenith. Who can forget the inspired artistry of the Bamford Watch Department x Black Badger Zenith El Primero Superconductor?

We’re also fans of seconde/seconde. The alias of Romaric André, seconde/seconde’s website states, “I vandalize other people’s products because I failed at building mine.” In reality, the brand has succeeded in turning vintage watches into wearable works of art.

André has also created legitimacy through punk rock partnerships with H. Moser & Cie. (oh, the fun of the Endeavour Centre Seconds), Louis Erard (the Louis Horror), and even Bamford (the Bad Form).

Another way the mod life has influenced watchmaking is that mid-range brands can now work with consumers to build a watch from scratch. Hong Kong-based watchmaker Undone, for example, recently made a big splash with the Pac-Man Depthmaster Pixel Art collab with Nivada Grenchen.

Undone built its reputation on its online customization tool, like a horological choose-your-own-adventure, if you will. And while not technically a do-over, the Pac-Man represents a reimagining of the Nivada Grenchen Depthmaster using pop cultural imagery. Fun Fact: Nivada Grenchen has also teamed up with seconde/seconde to create the Jellyfish Depthmaster from 2021 and the topsy-turvy ChaosMaster).

Luckily, Undone’s customization services will ensure that you get a one-of-a-kind watch without having to invest in the money and space for a watchmaking tool bench.

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