Modding Watches: Gutsy Engraving and Third-Party Cases

People modify nearly all aspects of watches, but those intrepid souls who dare to irrevocably modify the case fascinate me. Swapping out a dial, hands, or a bezel insert is like changing your clothes; cutting into the metal of a watch’s case is like tattooing your forehead. Modifying a watch case takes real guts, heaps of confidence, and serious skills.

Typically case modification takes the form of decorative engraving, with noted daredevils including George Bamford, MadeWorn’s Blaine Halvorson, Tom Inslay, and Orion Watch’s Nick Harris. A scattering of other folks who engrave guns, knives, lighters, and jewelry—many via Etsy—will also carve into your watch, but when it comes to trusting someone to mod your valuable and/or cherished timepiece, there are few proven horologically-minded artisans to turn to.

Bamford’s current work for LVMH.

George Bamford was the leading Rolex modder, buying up Rolex watches himself and bravely cutting into them. Jean-Claude Biver snatched Bamford up into the LVMH Group, where Bamford largely modifies models from Zenith, Tag Heuer, and Bulgari. Often blacked out, textured, and given a whole new colorway through manipulation of metals, Bamford is working with LVMH exclusively now—so, no more Rolex mods.

Halvorson ‘s creations are full-on. Image via MadeWorn.

Blaine Halvorson is probably the most visible of the watch case modders. He outsources engraving to experts, instead acting as co-creator with his clients, who must visit him in LA to develop their project face-to-face. Halvorson’s main body of work is in creating aged rock-n-roll tee shirts and jackets, beat up boots, and so on—all with a vintage Americana aesthetic that I can only call Biker Chic—and his engraved watches resonate with that aesthetic.

Tom Inslay, whose style is somewhat similar to Halvorson’s, works out of Australia, where he expertly cuts into some seriously valuable timepieces for his clients who are seeking customization. Inslay’s creations demonstrate an impressive level of detail and grace. The way his engravings follow the lines of the watch case make his modifications appear as if they had been part of the original design all along.

Some of Inslay’s expert case work. Images via Tom Inslay.
Inslay’s Panerai mod. Image via Tom Inslay.

Nick Harris of Orion Watches is probably the most accessible case engraver out there, offering up his own work on his Orion watches for prices that don’t cause one to gasp quite as audibly. Orion is a kind of home base for Seiko modders, with a website full of tutorials on how to change hands and so on, but when it comes to engraving the case there is only a description of how difficult and time consuming that work is.

A tasteful bezel engraving from Orion. Image via Orion.

As the above images show, engraving styles are often similar to those found on fancy guns and other “Western” things like belt buckles and spurs. The likely archetype of this style is Teddy Roosevelt’s Bowie knife that Tiffany’s engraved for him when he temporarily abandoned politics for cattle ranching. Roosevelt’s outfits—and especially that knife—helped create a Western Dandy aesthetic, one heavy on Rococo and Riccioli decorative styles, fringed jackets, rough-out suede leather, paisley bandannas, silver-studded boots, and so on. It’s a hell of a look that’s been ceaselessly copied ever since, and makes for a strange mash-up when applied to a Space Age item like a Rolex watch and worn with, say, a business suit.

Another case modification by Orion Watches. Image via Orion.

And if that Old West look isn’t your thing, or you’re unwilling to subject a watch case to permanent alterations, there are just a few folks out there fabricating replacement cases. Maybe we think of these as temporary tattoos. The skill level required to fabricate a new case might be less demanding in terms of decoration, but much higher in terms of meeting the tight tolerances required for the watch to work properly once assembled in its new case; this is especially true for waterproof watches. Engravers simply don’t touch this part of the watch, but case-makers must.

As relatively mellow as swapping cases might seem compared to cutting into an expensive case, the phrase “donor watch” that gets tossed around when crafting new cases suggests a frightening level of commitment. You’ll have to accept that your watch is going to be disassembled and, hopefully, fitted perfectly into the new case.

A stack of K-R Watchmaker’s bronze cases for popular dive watches. Image via K-R Watchmaker.

One can hardly mention watch modding without referring to Seiko divers, which have served as donor watches for countless mods. One of the more interesting cases available for your Seiko diver is from Indonesia’s K-R Watchmaker, who largely do business via social media (@kr.watchmaker.official on Facebook and @monteurhorloges on Instagram). All products are made to order, and they specialize in hand-making (as in: no CNC machine) bronze cases, bezels, crowns, and case backs.

K-R Watchmakers does not guarantee water resistance to any depth, though they did tell me that one customer dove to 50 feet with one of their cases with no leaks. Their tolerances are accurate enough that they can reuse the original gaskets from the donor Seikos. Given all that, I’d assume their refits wont leak, though I totally understand K-R not making promises.

K-R Watchmaker cutting a new dive bezel from bronze. Image via K-R Watchmaker.

K-R will modify the SRP77X series, the SKX007, and any of the 62MAS type reissues. Prices for these mods are around $424 for a bronze case and $693 for titanium. If you choose bronze, they will also make you a solid bronze bezel for an additional $85, and they’ll make a bronze chapter ring for just $24.

It takes their team about 30 days to turn one of these around, as it’s a lot of labor to get it done by hand. K-R recommends that you send in your watch for them to reassemble into the new case, but for those who don’t want to send their watch, it’s possible to just take the new case parts to a watchmaker locally who can do the conversion for you.

Image via K-R Watchmaker.

Ready to modify your watch case? No, I’m not sure I am either, though a personalized watch—something only I would own, and which I helped design—is a rather appealing idea. Changing a strap gives us a little taste of what it’s like to command the appearance of your watch. Now, just imagine choosing one strap that’ll live on a watch forever; indeed, that would take real guts.

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At age 7 Allen fell in love with a Timex boy's dive watch his parents gave him, and he's taken comfort in wearing a watch ever since. Allen is especially curious about digital technology having inspired a revival of analog technology, long-lasting handmade goods, and classic fashion. He lives in a one-room schoolhouse in The Hudson Valley with his partner and two orange cats.