Hands On: The Bespoke Watch Projects Intaglio 38 Tonneau

Sitting in front of me I have a total of five watches made by Bespoke Watch Projects, a watch brand based in Oakland that specializes in, well, bespoke watches. These are from the Intaglio 38 Tonneau series released last year, and they all have the same 38mm tonneau case shape and are adorned with the brand’s “Intaglio” dials, a moniker that refers to the engraving processes employed to fabricate them. While the cases share a form factor, the dials are quite dramatically different, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they could all be from different brands (there’s a clear design language that ties them all together), they speak to different tastes. It would be hard to imagine the same customer that’s drawn to the avante garde blue “Modèle Nu” also gravitating toward the “New Roman,” for example, which looks like an Art Deco representation of a field watch to my eyes. But that’s the whole point of custom watches, I suppose. Catering to highly specific tastes and requirements is the name of the game. 

For the uninitiated, a brief primer on how Bespoke Watch Projects works is in order. As the brand name implies, the speciality here is customized watches, and you’ll find an interactive tool on the website that allows a customer to choose from a wide selection of dial and hand combinations. You can also select among a handful of coatings for the case, and you get a few movement options as well (more on all that below). If you’d rather not design your own watch, you can select from a variety of “Readymade” watches that are available to ship on a moment’s notice. Everything is done in small batches, so the Readymade options come and go quickly, and you never know exactly what you’ll find in the shop.

I’ve always had an interest in customized watches, even from my earliest days in the hobby. I’m personally fascinated with the line you can draw from bespoke, one-of-one pieces of the highest horology created in the earliest days of watchmaking, to the Seiko modding scene that is still active today, and where many of today’s enthusiasts cut their teeth. There’s a built in desire among many of us to possess something unique, and of our own design that nobody else has. If watches are an expression of our individual personalities, a watch made for you, to your specifications, should be the ultimate grail. 


That said, I’ve never gone down the custom road myself. To tell the truth, I’ve always been a little intimidated by the idea of making those design decisions. I’m not an artist or designer, and have the nagging feeling that any choices I’d make on a bespoke watch of my own would age poorly, or just be something that wouldn’t stand the test of time for me. Even though I’ve been in this hobby for awhile now and have a pretty good sense of what I like and what I don’t, I’m definitely still evolving, and I humbly accept that a watch that might be perfect for me now, in 2022, could be diametrically opposed to what I’m looking for 5, 10, or 20 years down the road. 


Hands On: The Bespoke Watch Projects Intaglio 38 Tonneau

Stainless steel
ETA 2824
On hands
Water Resistance
200 meters
38 x 46mm
Lug Width
Screw down

An outfit like Bespoke Watch Projects eases that concern, at least a little bit. John has a background in visual art and design, and the options he offers for customization seem to have a way of working together so that you can’t really screw it up. You have to like his aesthetic to even be interested in one of these at all, of course, but if you do, and you go through his customization process, you’re not likely to end up with something that looks like a mistake. The dials are all well balanced and versatile enough to work an array of handsets and varying color options.     

I’ve had the chance to see a bunch of John’s work over the years at Windup fairs, where he always brings a robust selection of watches that serve as an example of his customization offerings, as well as showcases for new finishing techniques being applied to his dials, which are, in my opinion, the star attraction of these watches. A watch fair, though, is a tough place to get a sense of a customized watch. Sure, you can place an order for something exactly like whatever you saw on the table, but ultimately if you’re taking advantage of John’s customization options, you’ll be getting something in the mail that you’ve never seen before. It’s an even tougher predicament, perhaps, to review a watch that’s meant to be made to order. To pick apart dial configurations and case coating combinations feels out of bounds in a way that scrutinizing a mass produced watch does not. 

So all I can really do is offer my thoughts on the quality of the watches that are currently at home in a watch roll next to my laptop, and maybe provide some commentary on the finer details of these dials that don’t really come through in photos. 

While the dials might be the highlight, I found the cases to be quietly impressive in their own right. The 38mm size wears well on my 7.5 in wrist, and the cases have a heft and presence to them that I think might surprise some who see the sub $1,000 price tag and think they have an idea of what they’re getting based on other watches in this price range. The quality of the finishing is very nice, with radial brushing on the tops of the lugs and a crisp polished bevel that separates the top of the case from the case wall on each side. I’m a big fan of the view of this case from the side as well, where you can really see how dramatically the lugs are curved to contour the wrist, an impression you don’t really get from looking at the watch head on. 

Two of the watches I was sent have coatings applied to their stainless steel base. One in a yellow gold PVD, the other in black PVD. The black case is sleek and the PVD finish appears to be of a high quality, but you naturally lose a great deal of the impact from the finishing on the stock steel version – the transitions between brushed and polished surfaces are still there, but muted. The gold is more successful in terms of its execution, but this shade of yellow gold is simply not my taste. I’d love to see future versions of this watch in red or pink gold – some of the dial colors are absolutely begging for it. 

The dials, for the most part, can be characterized as working within a contemporary version of the classic Art Deco style. Sectors are a theme here, as are circular motifs more generally. Layouts are varied and sometimes inventive, and play with concepts of symmetry and use tricks of geometry to create something visually interesting that’s also functional, legible, and thoughtful. What I mean by that is simply that these dial designs might use elements of vintage watches, for example, as a frame of reference, but it really feels like someone has deconstructed the tropes of traditional field, sector, and military issued watches into something new. 

What’s more important than the layout of any particular dial, though, is the way they are made, and the effect that imparts. None of the dials have applied elements. Instead, everything is engraved directly into the metal. Some of the dials have dramatic finishing effects, which Bespoke Watch Projects says are all hand applied, which is mighty impressive. It requires a loupe or very precise lighting to capture a lot of the detail, but it’s rewarding to take a very close look at these dials and see the little imperfections that are not actually imperfections at all, but a sign that a human being has had a hand in making them.

The “Moderna” dial

Of course, in a group of any number of watches, favorites emerge. I was struck by the Moderna dial, which features Arabic numerals arranged around the perimeter with a bullseye pattern at the center, separated by small circles at each hour. The color is a rich and earthy brown, or rust color, but a fumé effect has been applied making the outside of the dial appear near black. There’s a luster to it that I found really evocative. 

The one dial that stole the show for me, though, was the aforementioned “Modèle Nu” Radial Dial in blue. I don’t normally go for dials without any markings (I like to have some level of precision in time telling, at least when setting the watch) but this one deserves to be unencumbered with numerals or markings for the hours or minutes. It has a swirling quality to it that is like looking at a closeup of something photographed by the James Webb telescope. This dial, more than the others, feels like a small piece of art that just happens to be part of a watch. I don’t know that it’s all that functional, but it’s striking and feels unique within the larger Bespoke Watch Projects collection. 

The Modèle Nu dial

There’s a metallic quality to these dials that is really special. They look like pieces of hardware, and evidence of machining and hand finishing can be found in the microscopic patterns that emerge when you look at the watch under a loupe or catch them in just the right light. They impart a real feeling of craft and feel homemade in the best possible way. Perhaps the most surprising thing about them is the way they communicate depth. On most dials this is done through applied dial furniture, but on the Intaglio dials, with everything engraved, the dials are naturally flatter. Still, the work is precise enough that you get a subtle three dimensional effect when you examine them closely, and when color is used it is uniformly rich.

All of the watches sent to me for review purposes are powered by an ETA 2824 automatic movement, a caliber that surely needs no introduction at this point. It’s worth noting, however, that when building out a custom watch on the Bespoke Watch Projects website, customers can choose between an ETA or a comparable STP 1-11 movement. They all have screw down crowns and a full 200 meters of water resistance, so there’s some genuine practicality here that shouldn’t go unnoticed. 

Bespoke Watch Projects offers something genuinely unique in the microbrand space. While it’s possible to tweak a watch bought off the shelf, I’m not aware of any other options that result in a watch of this quality that provides for so many customization options. If the design language is appealing to you, you’re going to end up with something that you’ll enjoy, whether you go with one of John’s readymade watches that are ready to ship today, or something that involves more customization. For me, a fully customized watch still feels like a commitment that I’m not sure I’m ready to make. But if the watches John sent me are any indication, leaving it to a professional isn’t such a bad option. Bespoke Watch Projects

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Zach is a native of New Hampshire, and he has been interested in watches since the age of 13, when he walked into Macy’s and bought a gaudy, quartz, two-tone Citizen chronograph with his hard earned Bar Mitzvah money. It was lost in a move years ago, but he continues to hunt for a similar piece on eBay. Zach loves a wide variety of watches, but leans toward classic designs and proportions that have stood the test of time. He is currently obsessed with Grand Seiko.