There are four Seiko dive watches on a table. They are all the same model, with the license-plate-like name “SKX007.” Worn & Wound, a blog about affordable watches, called it “One of the most iconic divers on the market.” Seiko has never drastically changed the model’s design, never released special editions beyond a single blue-red bezel variant. Yet all four watches on the table are different — very different.
One of them has the look of a very traditional Japanese dive watch: black dial with funky white iridescent markings for the hours, a toothy bezel, a chubby crown growing at four o’clock for setting the time. The SKX007 next to that one has a dial that looks like metallic zebra hide. The SKX007 next to that is blacked out like a special-ops weapon. And the SKX007 next to that looks vintage military, busy with numerals that the first, more traditional Seiko diver lacks. If you look close you can see similar parts and a matching overall style. But they have different attitudes. If they were people they’d be distant cousins, not brothers, and a motley crew at that.
Again: Each watch on the table is a Seiko, but Seiko only made one the way it looks now.
It’s not a riddle. It’s the world of watch modding.
Traditional watchmakers are expected to design and build entirely new watches themselves. For watch modders — a small-scale cottage industry that’s gaining momentum thanks to web forums and increasing interest in affordable watches — completed watches are the starting point. A modder removes the separate pieces that make up the full watch — dial, bezel, hands, case back, crystal and more, sometimes even the movement — then replaces them with other parts to create new aesthetics atop the same base structure. Traditionally, modding was used to create replicas and homages to expensive, iconic watches like the Blancpain 50 Fathoms (which costs upwards of $10,000) using watches that cost a hundredth of the price.
But recently, some watch modders have gone further, blurring the line between watchmaking and watch altering. They’ve shifted from aping other watch designs to creating their own iconic and unique looks; swapping stock parts has given way to custom modifications like engraving and milling; some parts, like dials, are now custom made from scratch, in-house. Altogether it’s millimeters away from the new definition of “American watchmaker” written by companies like Weiss, Martenero and Shinola. They assemble their watches “in-house” around foreign-made movements and cases, bezels and dials they design themselves but whose fabrication they often contract out.
Most of the watches modders create are Seikos. Seiko thrives in the low-price mechanical market; modders are especially drawn to the SKX007 diver. It’s a meat-and-potatoes watch, beloved by customers and a joy to work with. It’s usually one of the first Seikos that modders tinker with, and a consistent seller.
“The SKX007 has the most parts, and the combinations kind of skyrocket on that model,” said watch modder Nick Harris, a 26-year-old phenom who’s grown his own watch-modding business out of his childhood home in Philadelphia. Harris has taken to avant-garde stylings and custom-engraved stainless-steel bezels. “If there was watch DNA, it would be far more modifiable with the SKX007 than other models.”
We asked three of the world’s best watch modders to go head-to-head, sending us their favorite mod of the SKX007. They made art by replacing bezels, dials and hands — used the dive watch as a canvas for creativity that ticks.
Mk V, Artifice HoroWorks
Case/Bezel/Crystal: Black Cerakote case; Yobokies baby tuna bezel, machined to fit the SKX case; a yachtmaster ceramic bezel insert with a dagaz superdome sapphire crystal
Dial/Hands: Custom handmade dial; Mark V dive helmet emblem; Yobokies aftermarket Marinemaster 300 hands, Cerakoted
Case Back: Sterile, laser engraved
Movement: NH36 Seiko instruments hacking handwinding unbranded version of the 4R
Strap: Zulu PVD Black
The Modder: A natural tinkerer and professional designer, Alex Abreu started his one-man watch modding operation out of his California home after breaking several mechanical watches. His trademark almost immediately was a Cerakote finish: a ceramic heat-cure coating used on firearms that protects against damage and has a matte look. This watch, his Mk V, is named after the dive helmet it’s emblazoned with and uses a handmade dial Abreu has been perfecting for over a year.
The Design: “For the most part I end up leaning toward a clean and subtle look. I’m not huge on polished everything, and not huge on gold at all. I’d almost always rather have some kind of matte finish as opposed to polished and glossy. But I’ve definitely grown to appreciate other textures and finishes as I’ve worked with stuff.”
Dive helmet marker: “I have a client who wanted the old-fashioned Mark V helmet on a dial. I used to have a much more intricate dive helmet on there. Then [because of problems during chemical milling] I said, ‘Let me try something that’s a bit simplified.’ A lot of the icons we see now are kind of simplified, cleaned-up versions, which are recognizable as what they are but don’t have all the detail a photo would.”
Cerakote: “A lot of my clients are military and police or other dudes from shooting forums. They want something that doesn’t stand out too much, or that they can wear while they’re working and it’s not too blingy… But it’s a pretty remarkable coating. It’s not invincible — if you slam the watch on a door jamb you might get a chip.”
Custom dial: “I’ve been working about a year to get this figured out. I’ve gone through machinists who say it’s too small to do what I want; then I looked at chemical milling [which didn’t work]. I ended up hooking up with my laser guy, who said, ‘Yeah, we can do that.’ But it’s a pain in the neck.”
The Singularity, Watches by Nick
Case/Bezel/Crystal: Stock case; smooth, rotating bezel with an engraved, gold-filled 24k shooting star; domed sapphire crystal
Dial/Hands: Hand-cut “Mokume-gane” dial; 60-minute chapter ring; gold-plated “Benz” hands
Case Back: A representation of distortion that a singularity would cause on the fabric of spacetime, engraved by Alex Abreu of Artifice Horoworks
Movement: Stock 7S26
Strap: Stingray leather
Price: $1,000+ (auction)
The Modder: Nick Harris, 26, discovered a love of watchmaking while trying to fix his grandfather’s Omega Constellation. He took up modding as a hobby, started making bombastic mods that grabbed attention on web forums, and launched a small business building watches out of his bedroom. He’s since been accepted to the Watch Technology Institute in Seattle and continues to mod, focusing on artistic, near-avant-garde stylings like custom-engraved bezels and one of his specialties, dials made in the “Mokume-gane” style, Japanese for “wood-grain metal.” His Orion Project, a set of watches he designed that use a Seiko movement and parts made in China, is in its prototype phase.
The Design: “I call this watch the Singularity because the swirls and glimmer of the Mokume-gane remind me of the night sky — the swirls are reminiscent of the distortion of spacetime caused by a black hole (singularity)… The end result is a watch with many textures, reflective surfaces, and one-of-a-kind parts. It’s the culmination of lots of craftsmanship and exotic materials, which are some of the aspects I hope to bring to the world through watches.”
Comet bezel: “I wanted a smooth bezel to draw the focus to the dial. I worked with my engraver to come up with a comet pattern (this one is 24k gold filled). The smooth bezel is rotatable so you can set the comet’s head and still use it as a timer — and of course the hands match the comet (in terms of gold).”
Crystal and utility chapter ring: “Going with the SKX gave me the ability to swap out the crystal for a sapphire that accentuated that glimmer from the dial. More importantly, it also allowed me to use a chapter ring with minute markers so that the watch would still have utility even with a sterile dial.”
Stingray strap: “The stingray strap has wonderful reflective quality and a really neat texture. I think this complements the dial texture perfectly.”
Hand-cut Mokume-gane dial: “A while ago I bought a bunch of stock for someone to machine into dials for me. The machinist I gave it to absconded with most of my stock (stuff isn’t cheap!) and left me feeling kind of dejected. I did, however, have a few small samples left. I was talking with my neighbor who is a retired career machinist and has a metal lathe and other equipment at his house. I told him about my dilemma and he showed me how to work the lathe and some other equipment. I only ended up with a couple usable dials, this is one (of two) of them.”
SKX Type-2 Deluxe, Dagaz Watches
Case/Bezel/Crystal: Seiko 0020 model 200m Diver’s 316L stainless steel; XW Tsunami Classic-grip 120 click uni-directional bezel with 12hr/GMT bezel insert; DAGAZ SKX Super Dome Conversion Kit with 5.05mm thick 300m spec sapphire
Dial/Hands: DAGAZ Military-Superluminova Redesign 4:00; DAGAZ Type-2 Ladder White Superluminova hr/min/secs
Case Back: DAGAZ Logo 200m spec. case back with engraved “DAGAZ,” the Diamond & Six Stars logo and “200m”
Movement: Black day/date variant SEIKO 7S26C calibre
Strap: DAGAZ 2-Piece Xulu 22mm Black with genuine SEIKO fatties spring bars
The Modder: Dagaz Watch LTD. has been making parts and building watches since 2011, and its co-founder, Jake Bourdeau, has been modding Seikos for a decade. The family business of three in Hong Kong is one of the two biggest names in watch modding and parts; many smaller modding operations, Nick Harris and Artifice Horoworks included, looked to them for early inspiration and today use their parts in their own work. Because of the quality of Dagaz’s finished work and their near-watchmaking manufacturing, their custom order watches are extremely popular — email Bourdeau and you’ll get a sternly worded auto-reply about heavy email volume and waiting lists.
The Design: “The inspiration for this watch is the military ‘TYPE-2’ dive watch made by Benrus in the 1960s and 1970s that was issued to US soldiers. It reflects my bigger goals as a watch modder and builder in that on top of building this individual piece, most of the parts used were designed by myself or our factory rep and engineer, and they’ve been manufactured specifically for our company. We can have the honor of being able to say that we proudly supply them to lots of great guys and gals in the watch-modding community all over the world.”
Domed sapphire crystal: “The domed, 5.05mm thick sapphire glass with inner anti-reflective coating and extra-thick Delrin gasket were originally designed for a 300m dive watch, and in addition to improved visibility and increased scratch resistance they may serve to increase water resistance.”
Bezel: “I used an XW Tsunami Classic-grip 120-click uni-directional that has a sharper, more defined grip than stock SKX007 bezel.”
Dial and bezel insert: “When used together, the dial and bezel insert function to indicate 24-hour format military time and also to track time in a second time zone.”