Personalised watches are starting to catch on in Hong Kong
Watch customisation companies are attracting a growing clientele in search of more exclusive and discreet luxury items
Many analysts have blamed the government-led crackdown on corruption and gifting on the mainland for slowing sales of Swiss watches and European leather goods, but of equal importance has been an oversaturation of the market in Asia and so-called "luxury fatigue".
Consumers in Hong Kong and the mainland have begun to eschew ubiquitous brand names in watches, jewellery and fashion, preferring to buy more exclusive labels with limited production.
This shift towards greater exclusivity has been a boon to brands such as Parisian trunk maker Moynat, which only produces a few hundred bags a month, as well as bespoke and made-to-measure tailoring services that create one-off, personalised pieces. Personalisation is beginning to take off in the watch industry, but, unlike fashion where the strategic shift has come from the brands themselves, the made-to-measure trend has been driven by independent customising companies.
London-based Project X is one of a growing number of watch customisation companies that have sprung up in recent years and is now offering its services in Hong Kong. Working with Lane Crawford and the Pedder Group, Project X held a special retail event at the end of October where interested customers could build their own customised Rolex Daytona in-store and have the completed piece in just a few hours rather than wait months on delivery from Europe.
"No one's ever done this," says Daniel Bourn, 43, a former investment banker turned watch dealer and the man behind Project X. "We wanted to take personalisation even further. Usually, people can't imagine something unless they see it. With this, we are physically putting people in the room with the parts to choose as well as the watchmaker, so they truly get what they want," says Bourn.
He adds that with eight case and bracelet choices, 30 dials, 20 bezel options, two case and dozens of strap choices, there were thousands of permutations. "It's not for indecisive people," Bourn says.
Bourn felt that even though Project X watches were limited in number, there was growing demand for pieces on which the wearer could put their personal stamp beyond the traditional engraving on the case back. "Personalisation in watches is relatively new, but it's a bit like high-end cars or bags or sneakers. People want that for other things, too, including their watch," says Bourn.
At the same event, Bourn and his partner, Eric Ku, launched a line of customised vintage pieces under the VDB/TPT label, separate from Project X, that offers limited-edition Rolex Air-Kings with camouflage dials, Nato straps and coloured cases.
Paraphrasing Italian socialite-cum-businessman Lapo Elkann, the heir to the Fiat industrial fortune, Bourn says that personalisation has become the true form of luxury today. San Francisco-based watch dealer Ku, 36, echoes those sentiments and adds that a truer form of scarcity is also at play.
"Something like a vintage watch or a customised piece is not easily attainable, much less so than buying an expensive watch at a boutique, so there's value in that but also these pieces have a personal story, an emotional connection to the wearer," says Ku.
Watch customisers such as Project X and VDB/TPT grew initially through word of mouth and a committed celebrity clientele. Project X has sold watches to rapper 50 Cent, actor Mark Wahlberg and James Bond star Daniel Craig, who when he's playing 007 on screen is contractually obligated to sport an Omega. Bamford Watch Department, also from Britain, counts Hong Kong stars Carina Lau Kar-ling and husband Tony Leung Chiu-wai as fans and raised the profile of luxury watch customisation even further when it signed a deal with online menswear retailer Mr Porter earlier this year. There is also Blaken from Germany and MAD from Switzerland. All these customising companies focus their efforts predominantly on Rolex, only occasionally offering customised pieces from the likes of Audemars Piguet and Panerai.
Project X itself offers ready-to-wear Rolex watches on its website, with black case and black dial, known as black-out, variants of the Submariner, the GMT and the Date Just, which sell for double the retail of standard Rolex pieces, proving particularly popular. Bourn says watch purists are scornful of the customising craze.
"When we started Project X in 2009, there was outrage from some quarters. We had our offices in Hanover Square in London and some people took to calling me the 'Butcher of Hanover Square', says Bourn.
He concedes that he will never convince some watch aficionados but he feels the industry is becoming more welcoming, especially as more people come to understand the alternative that customisers offer.
"We're an independent customisation house in the same way you have [Porsche tuning company] Gemballa and other car customisation companies," he adds, suggesting that there is only an upside for companies such as Rolex.
"I don't think it harms the brands in any way. If anything, the pieces sell for higher prices, adding interest and a premium gloss to what they do themselves."