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Want an Army-Green Rolex? Hire a Watch ‘Modder’

Horological expert Michael Clerizo explores the pros and cons of ‘watch modding,’ the practice of cosmetically customizing Rolexes, Patek Philippes and even Seikos


THE TRANSFORMERS Watch ‘modders’ alter the appearance of mechanical timepieces. Left, a Rolex Explorer II in its original state, and right, Titan Black’s Rolex Explorer II Oro, $17,500, PHOTO: VICTOR PRADO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, STYLING BY ANNE CARDENAS


Q: I’ve seen guys wearing these Rolexes and Patek Philippes with crazy colored faces and hands. I’m intrigued. How are they made? Should I buy one?

A: What you’re referring to is the work of “watch modders.” These specialists alter (or modify) the appearance of a timepiece. Modders—a relatively new breed who first gained notice via the internet in the mid-1990s—run the gamut, from entry-level tinkerers to those who toil for luxury operations customizing watches from Rolex, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Omega and Officine Panerai.

Perhaps the best known luxury modder is George Bamford, who set up the Bamford Watch Department in London in 2003. He got his start by turning his own Rolex Submariner and his father’s Rolex GMT black, coating them with a material called diamond-like carbon (DLC). He has since upgraded that process to use a proprietary military-grade titanium powder and graphite powder. He’s also considerably expanded his paint box and even collaborated with artists such as Cuban-American painter José Parla.

Watch collector Luke Waite set up Titan Black, another luxury modding outfit in London, in 2009. Mr. Waite explained that he buys big consignments of watches, about 20 at a time, usually stainless steel Rolexes. The watches are disassembled, and the transformation begins. He uses DLC to change the color of the case and bracelet—the most typical modder move. To change the hue of dials, hands, hour markers, numerals and lettering, he applies special paints by hand. It’s a time-consuming, expensive process.

Mr. Waite works two ways. First, he creates original designs, his “ready-to-wear line,” available in his Mayfair neighborhood shop, the Hour House, and stores like Silver Threads in Aspen, Colo. The price of a modified Rolex, he said, is usually double its original value. Titan Black also offers a bespoke service, altering any contemporary timepiece you provide. Like most modders, Mr. Waite won’t touch valuable vintage watches. His customers, he said, are “people who don’t want to see someone wearing the same thing.”

One of the most prominent Seiko modders is Jay Grabowski at MotorCity WatchWorks near Detroit. Mr. Grabowski’s customers often find him online through a watch forum or blog, exchanging emails with him until their goals are clear. He then provides a price and delivery estimate. If both parties agree, the client sends MotorCity his watch.

Like luxury modders, Mr. Grabowski also changes the color of the case and bracelet and jazzes up the dial. His prices are lower because he uses bead-blasting and cerakoting, simpler processes than the DLC application. He alters small components like hands and hour markers by hand. The wide availability of inexpensive ready-to-use custom parts for Seikos also helps keep the price down: A typical modification might cost $300; a high-ticket one is about $1,000. 

The big caveat when it comes to modding is that it invalidates a watch’s warranty. But a reputable modder will offer a comparable one. 

Watch brands aren’t especially welcoming of modders, but they’d be wise to ape the modders’ strategies and willingness to cater to consumer tastes, said Wei Koh, founder of watch magazine Revolution. “From a design perspective, some of these modders have created very compelling watches,” said Mr. Koh. Will Rolex be making an army-hued Submariner anytime soon? “I think the best possible outcome,” said Mr. Koh, “is for the luxury watchmakers to be similarly responsive to what their clients want.” 

Want an Army-Green Rolex? Hire a Watch ‘Modder’,, April 20, 2017,