Customized products made to a client’s exact specifications are few and far between in the watchmaking world — generally, they are the province of either a large Swiss firm making small batches of watches with custom dials for large companies (such as Rolex used to do), or for ultra-high-net-worth individuals or celebrities (such as Patek Philippe has been known to do for especially good clients).
Of course, if you are a watchmaking concern that regularly customizes its offerings for every client, the proposition of fashioning a unique watch is made somewhat simpler.
If you’re a regular GP reader, chances are you’re familiar with Ochs und Junior, the Swiss watchmaking company that distills dazzlingly complex mechanical mechanisms (such as the perpetual calendar) to just a few parts, and then completely redefines the system by which they are read and understood on a watch dial. Established in 2006, Ochs und Junior, under the direction of master watchmaker Dr. Ludwig Oeschlin and cofounder Beat Weinmann, has made some of the most remarkable watches of the 21st century. What’s more, all O&J pieces are customizable — if you decide to purchase, say, one of their perpetual calendars, you can customize nearly every aesthetic aspect of the watch, from the case material to the dial color to the strap material and more.
But the possibilities don’t end there, and chances are that if you’re good at what you do, and you offer complete customization, that one day someone is going to ask you to craft something truly unconventional.
In July 2017 a customer reached out to Ochs und Junior from California — he admired the company’s watches and design and wanted to inquire about a bespoke watch, but he had a unique story: the client worked in the health industry and had just undergone a bone marrow transplant to save his life. He wished to somehow incorporate the story of the bone marrow transplant into the watch and wanted to know what sort of possibilities there were beyond the Customizer available on the Ochs und Junior website.
During a one-hour phone call, the O&J team discussed with the client the essence of the watch, the materials that would be used and what was possible. He wanted to engrave several personal dates on the watch as well as visually represent red and white blood cells, platelets, arteries, veins and bone marrow, but he wanted to do so in a way that wouldn’t appear gaudy. Needless to say, this was a tall order.
The client and O&J settled on a perpetual calendar as the base watch type, and from there refined the customization. An initial design was mocked up in Photoshop, but translating this into an actual watch was much easier said than done. Eventually, O&J master watchmaker Marion Müller suggested collaborating with Bernadette Sommer, an artist working in the small Swiss town of Willisau who restores vintage pocket and wristwatch dials for Patek Philippe, Omega and others. Mrs. Sommer is an expert in painting microscopic patterns onto watch dials, so it seemed logical that her expertise could be used to realize the client’s vision.
All visible functional parts of the watch were manufactured in titanium by Helfenstein Mechanik in Alpnach, including the dial, date and month discs, main plates, hands, and more. Myriad small adjustments to the typical manufacturing process had to be accommodated in order to allow for the customization: for example, on parts such as the dial, onto which tiny veins were painted into the indices, the normal milling depth was reduced by 0.1mm to better allow access with a paintbrush (painting had to be done under a microscope in order to achieve the necessary level of detail).
“We knew that we had to use the possibilities offered by Ludwig Oeschlin’s concept to their fullest in order to succeed in creating a watch with a perfect balance between elegance and symbolism.” -Beat Weinmann, Ochs und Junior Cofounder”
Once work had been finished machining all parts for the watch and the client approved the final design, detail work began. Because the perpetual calendar in question was a unique piece and single parts were manufactured (rather than entire series of parts), extra care needed to be taken to ensure that no part was scratched, lost or damaged during assembly. What’s more, O&J offered the client the opportunity to assemble the watch himself under the supervision of their master watchmaker, which he accepted. Before this could happen, however, the watch had to be assembled without the painted details in order to regulate it and ensure that it was working, after which it was disassembled, the finishing details were added, and it was reassembled and tested over several days…
…and then it was disassembled again, this time so that the client could assemble it himself.
At this point another firm, Birchler Gravuren und Lasertechnik AG in Neuheim, engraved the titanium case back and crown. The case back design shows the structure of bone marrow and was first milled into the titanium and then processed using laser technology in order to show different grades of grey and black. O&J’s textiles expert, Sabina Brägger, designed and assembled the watch’s custom pouch from vegetable-tanned Ecopell leather, with dark red seams to symbolize the arteries. A sturgeon leather strap with silver seams and a black version with red thread were constructed specially for the watch.
When all parts had been constructed and delivered and the watch had been assembled, regulated, and disassembled, all that remained was for the client to come and assemble the watch himself, which he did in March of 2018. Needless to say, he was thrilled, and owns what is, to date, the most elaborate Ochs und Junior ever constructed, a watch that took an entire team of people almost a year to realize. More importantly, he has a constant reminder of the extra time that his surgery afforded him — time to spend with his family and enjoy life.