01/05/2023
 6 minutes

What’s the difference between custom- and factory-set watches?

By Chrono24
Cartier-iced-out-2-1-B

Guest article by Tobi L. Sigona, Avi & Co. NY

While custom watches and factory watches are both designed with real diamonds and precious gemstones of similar size, quality, and quantity, there are many distinct characteristics between the two types of watches.

Factory-Set Watches

A factory-set timepiece means that the stones were applied directly by the technicians of the watch brand’s manufacturer, without any third-party involvement. All the inserts/components were intended as part of the original design. The alignment, orientation, position, stability, and proportion of the gems are precise. It’s because of the amount of time and attention to detail that these luxury timepieces are so high-priced and harder to obtain.

Unlike the fast-paced environment of New York City, the watch industry is anything but rushed. Artisans train for almost a decade to produce luxury timepieces by hand. Their expense is a result of the hours of hard work that go into crafting every timepiece. The client base for factory-set watches is ordinarily small, and because of this, they’re created with flawless dials, bracelets, and bezels set with precious stones. Premium watch brands also rely on ensuring that supply never meets demand, because high demand helps advance the idea that you’re making a luxury, one-of-a-kind purchase.

Rolex Daytona ref. 116599RBOW
Rolex Daytona ref. 116599RBOW

Custom Watches 

Custom watches, also referred to as aftermarket watches, have diamonds added by non-brand authorized third parties to a pre-existing timepiece. Also referred to in the industry as “iced-out” or “blinged-out,” a custom timepiece has some replica parts, and the bracelet, case, or diamonds set into the watch are not original.  

Custom-set watches are produced frequently, even though brands rarely announce customized watches, out of respect for their client’s original design. There are many components on a watch that can be customized, depending on the specific timepiece. Gemstones can be added to the case, lugs, or dial. Engraved messages can be written on the case back, and top watch brands may even be able to customize a caliber with a special color or component. One of the most common forms of customization is a DLC or PVD coating, which gives an all-black look to the metal. 

Rolex Milgauss with a PVD/DLC Coating
Rolex Milgauss with a PVD/DLC Coating

Pros of a Customized Watch  

The best part about customizing your watch with diamonds is that it gives the timepiece a flashier appearance, consistent with your personal style. With the advancements in technology and a general desire to keep up with the latest trends, it’s only natural to want a watch that’s tailored to your tastes. Designing a custom watch allows for complete creative freedom when it comes to what you want, which builds a timeless and emotional connection. Buying an aftermarket diamond piece will also cost much less than a factory watch with the same diamond settings, while still enabling you to stand out.   

“A personalized approach through customization is key for high-end clients, and particularly those with a penchant for haute horlogerie,” says Julien Tornare, CEO of Zenith Watch Company. “We see high demand for this service, and delivering it is part of our commitment to fulfilling client expectations. We create custom pieces for clients who are not interested in wearing watches generally available to the public; they prefer unique examples of watchmaking, a way for them to be actively involved in the creation of a timepiece. And this trend is not slowing down; on the contrary, it is rising.”  

Engraving the back of a luxury watch could make any gift even more memorable: it shows you went the extra mile when thinking of your special someone on their special day. While most people buy watches to collect or simply tell the time, a lot of what makes a watch so meaningful is the story behind it. Add an engraving to the case back, either with a person’s name, the date of an event, or a short note, for that personalized final touch. 

Iced-out Cartier Santos
Iced-out Cartier Santos

Cons of a Customized Watch  

While adding diamonds to a timepiece can make it more lavish, it completely changes the shape and size of a watch’s original form; the manufacturer may need to trim portions of the watch, damaging the overall quality.   

If the plan is to sell or loan your luxury timepiece in the future, it’s highly inadvisable to customize. Customization can be a costly process, and – contrary to popular belief – it doesn’t translate into higher resale values. An unaltered timepiece in mint condition is worth far more than the material value of any added diamonds.  

For Rolex in particular, additional adornments are considered fake in the eyes of the brand, and they won’t service a watch with custom parts. This creates problems when a Rolex owner needs to have their watch repaired and can’t find a reputable watchmaker.  

Finally, the quality of the timepiece won’t be the same as an original factory-set product. Watch manufacturers carefully select each gemstone, but a local jeweler, for example, might use economy-class diamonds to meet the needs of a customer on a tight budget.  

How to Spot an Aftermarket Timepiece 

Each diamond or gem should be aligned in a uniform direction, just as they would with a hand-crafted factory-set watch. An iced-out watch will probably have proportions that somehow don’t sit exactly right, because the watch wasn’t originally designed to have diamonds on it. Diamond accessories can also be cracked, cloudy, or feature non-white stones. If you’re still not certain, check the reference number of the watch. This will tell you whether the watch was intended to have gem-set parts.  

Luxury Watch Brands and Their Customized Timepieces 

Many top watch brands have made unique watches in the past for their top clients. One of the most impressive examples was when financial banker and art collector Henry Graves turned to Patek Philippe to have the most complicated watch ever built. This pocket watch held the record for 56 years as the world’s most complicated portable mechanical timepiece. 

Many of today’s most iconic watch collections were initially made at the request of clients. In 1931, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso was created in response to a request from polo players who wanted a watch they could wear on the field. The IWC Portugieser was requested in 1939 by two Portuguese businessmen who wanted a highly legible watch as precise as a marine chronometer. 

IWC Portugieser Automatic ref. IW500701
IWC Portugieser Automatic ref. IW500701

In the past, these types of customized timepieces were a genuine way to help brands grow. However, as technology progressed, it became more difficult for manufacturers to keep up with the demand for custom orders. The amount of time it takes to create a detailed timepiece is why these watches are difficult to come by. For example, Richard Mille produces about 3,000 watches per year, because it takes approximately 12 meticulous weeks to make just one of them.  

Smaller Watch Brands and Their Customized Timepieces 

Smaller brands are trying to think outside the box to pursue more non-traditional approaches to watchmaking. With big brands not having the time to adjust production for individually customized watches, smaller companies have started offering what the big brands can’t. Take Jacob & Co., for example, which created an Astronomia Sky watch for Leonardo DiCaprio’s charity. “Doing bespoke [customized] work has been a part of my company since the very beginning,” says Jacob & Co. founder Jacob Arabo. “It’s how I set myself apart, and we continue to do this today. Nowadays, true luxury is about exclusivity, and there is nothing more exclusive than having a bespoke timepiece. I love making my clients’ dreams come true, and our company is set up to create these unique pieces.”  

In the past, customization options might have been limited to a strap or an engraved case back. Today, much more is possible, and a custom timepiece is just a few clicks away. According to Sharp magazine, here are the top brands that offer customization: 

Other brands that offer customization options include:  

  • Baume Watches 
  • Bespoke Watch Project 
  • BRÜGGLER 
  • EONIQ 
  • LAB Copenhagen 
  • Mint Evolutive  
  • Porsche Design 
  • Revolo Watches 
  • SARTORY-BILLARD 
  • Schaffen Watches 
  • Swatch 
  • UNDONE 
  • UNITY 
  • VON VOGEL 

At the end of the day, it really depends on your personal preference. Having factory watches is 100% original, and any customization is viewed by watch collectors as negative or less appealing, as it can devalue the watch. However, if you want your timepiece to be unique and tailored to you, a customized timepiece is the way to go. 


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Chrono24

The team behind the Chrono24 Magazine consists of Chrono24 employees, freelance authors, and guest authors. They're all united by a passion for anything and everything…

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