For the last two decades, there’s been a growing enthusiasm for modifying watches. As a watch enthusiast completely new to the cult of watch mods, I contacted Jack Alexyon, 63, owner and operator of International Watch Works (IWW) hoping to get some idea of what kind of modifications are available.
On most days, you’ll find Jack on the second floor of his two-story workshop wearing an optivisor with a flip-up magnifier, a watch oiler poised in his hand. The watch oiler (a tool of the trade) has a fine needle-point and is used to apply luminous material, which is both mixed and applied manually.
Jack explains how the watch modification trend started around 2000 with the Frankenwatch — a timepiece (usually vintage) that (like Frankenstein’s monster) had been cobbled together (or modified) with interchangeable parts, such as dials and hands. Due to the growing popularity of military watches, people also liked cases that had been bead-blasted, which gave the effect of a tactical finish, like the outside of a tank or a helicopter gunship. Seiko dive watches were especially conducive to modifications, on account of the many after-market parts available for achieving different effects.
For most of his life, Jack actually worked in the restaurant business; collecting and restoring watches was just a hobby. After hundreds of hours tinkering and experimenting with different dials and handsets (mostly on gentlemen’s watches and dive watches purchased online), Jack set up a small website and began the process of turning his hobby into a legitimate business, slightly modifying watches to appeal to whatever aesthetic a client was interested in. Back then, he recalls, you could buy bags of automatic watches on eBay; even used Rolex subs were not that expensive.
Although Jack currently has about 35 watches in his personal collection, there is frequent turnaround. Like most enthusiasts, he sells old watches in order to buy new ones. His current favorite is a Panerai Radiomir GMT alarm with two crowns. It was gifted to him in an abysmal state by a regular customer who had attempted to convert it himself to feature tritium vials. This was after a long conversation where Jack explained to the customer why this particular modification couldn’t be done.
“I reject modifications that won’t look professionally done, or if a model’s engineering specifications won’t allow it,” he explains. “We can visualize anything — but doing it requires complicated processes … tritium vial hands are thicker, for instance, so the hour, minute and second hands have to be able to clear each other. Therefore tritium watches have special wheels, which means more interior space in the case …” he trails off.
The most basic tier of modification involves changing a crystal or hand and dial swaps. Applying different colored lume on the hands or face is also fairly straightforward — the darker the pigmentation, the less luminosity.
“My customer base is not interested in modifying high-end watches,” Jack tells me, “except for the PVD coatings. In those cases, it’s usually matte black or even just a brushed steel case through bead-blasting to reduces the bling, so you don’t feel like there’s a mirror on your wrist.”
Currently one of the most popular ways to modify a timepiece is Physical Vapor Deposition (PVD), a process that involves a solid material which is then vaporized and deposited on the watch case and/or bracelet, bonding molecularly with the base material. A diamond-like Carbon DLC coating is another type of PVD applied coating, which is “very black,” according to the International Watch Works website.
A third type uses titanium aluminum nitride. “This color can range from very light gray to dark charcoal gray,” Jack says. “Our current coating is medium dark gray, very similar to Panerai’s original PVD coated watches. This coating is popular with the Paneristi crowd.”
Prices for PVD coatings start at $895 per watch head, and $495 for a bracelet.
“It’s pricey,” Jack admits, “because there’s a lot of risk.” For each coating, a watch has to be completely disassembled. Anything that’s not titanium or steel has to be completely separated from the process. “In some cases, I can’t do it. In one case, somebody wanted a DLC coating on a Patek Nautilus. I took it apart, but when I got to the push-buttons, there was no way to remove them from the case without a special tool. Another watch I couldn’t coat was a Rolex Deepsea Sea-Dweller.”
Although the PVD finishes will not flake or chip, they are not impervious to scratches. “Though in 20 years,” Jack says, “I’ve never had a customer tell me it didn’t match their expectations for durability — though a customer with a Rolex Explorer contacted me recently to have a coating removed for cosmetic reasons.”
Servicing the movements of timepieces is handled by Jack’s partner, an expert watchmaker named Alberto. Jack admits his preference to focus on the exteriors, though he is tasked with taking every watch apart in preparation for PVD coating or bead-blasting, “a process of altering the finish of a metal surface by subjecting the surface to a stream of glass bead, sand or aluminum oxide particles delivered via high pressure.”
For bead-blasting, IWW charges $55 for a bracelet, and $75 for a case. The result, Jack explains, is a matte, non-reflective finish, “very popular with military watch enthusiasts, as well as law-enforcement personnel.”
Most of Jack’s daily routine, though, involves modifications related to the “sympathetic” restoration of vintage pieces. “A guy who has a valuable collectors’ watch has to know that his watch will be restored properly. I just had an interesting request from someone with a Sea Dweller, who has a really bizarre tropicalized dial for it. He wanted the dial installed, and a set of hands relumed and restored to match the aged tritium dial.”
At the end of our conversation, I ask Jack about modifying my British military watch, a CWC automatic diver. There’s a long pause following my suggestion to paint the dial a certain kind of yellow. This delay in answering is enough to make me rethink my choices. While a modification might be possible and even inexpensive to complete, it’s ultimately something the wearer has to live with every day that timepiece is on his wrist. Maybe I’ll just stick to changing bands — for now.
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