Posted on March 13 2019
Like many hobbies watch collecting breaks down into ever smaller niches. What begins as an appreciation of the style, function and history of this tool can narrow to something very specific. A love of divers watches for example. Which then turns to collecting only vintage pieces and continues until it ends with you owning several copies of one specific watch from the 1960’s produced by a now defunct manufacturer.
And you only collect the ones with a blue dial.
Such is the life of a watch collector. A series of rabbit holes you disappear down as you navigate through a world of watches spanning over 100 years, covering every continent on the planet and with new brands launching or dying every day.
To complicate things further, some of us aren't happy with the finished watches that the company designers have created. We think we know better. We think we can see improvements to be made.
Or we’re just cheap. We want a watch we can afford, but we want it to look like the one we can’t.
For many the appeal of customisation is in the bespoke nature of the resulting watch. Companies like Bamford Watch Department in London have specialised in personalising luxury watches, offering case and dial options not available on factory fresh pieces.
At the other end of the spectrum are the hobbyists who either just enjoy the process of modifying their own watch, or as is often the case, they’re keen to replicate a look from a luxury watch design onto something more affordable. It’s this affordable area that we’d like to highlight.
Here we look at five watches that are popular base models for your own affordable customisation. Some modifications are easier than others and most will require some basic watch repair tools. However, the internet provides more than enough tutorials to get you up and running quickly.
Japanese giants Seiko are among the world's biggest watch manufacturers. Founded in the late 1800's the company has progressed from its initial production of clocks to the forefront of wristwatch design and manufacturing. Along the way the company released the world's first quartz watch, the first quartz chronograph and introduced the innovative Kinetic models – a marriage of mechanical automatic watch features with quartz accuracy.
As expected, during this time they've released a number of watches widely regarded as design classics. Their influence has been particularly strong with their divers watches, from the very affordable SKX series we’re looking at here to the highly regarded Sumo Prospex. In many ways the world of watch modding centres around Seiko.
The SKX007 is perhaps the most modified watch in the world. The original from Seiko ticks a lot of boxes. It’s arguably one of the best value automatic dive watches out there, is powered by Seiko’s 7s26 movement and has 200M water resistance. The screwdown down at 4 o’clock gives the watch a distinctive styling.
At less than £250 it’s very modestly priced.
It also has a bit of history. The current model, released in 1996, follows a number of other similarly styled Seiko watches and now has a legion of fans. With this in mind, it’s been an obvious candidate for modification and this has actually led to a number of businesses who specialise in producing the parts needed for this hobby. There’s a ready supply of bezels, bezel inserts, chapter rings, crowns, crystals, dials and hands.
There’s a number of reasons why you might like to modify this watch. The first is basically to upgrade the specs. The glass is hardened mineral crystal so you may prefer to install a superior sapphire crystal. The crown is unsigned, but you can purchase a replacement with an ‘S’ engraved in. With a little bit of effort you can address some of the compromises the manufacturer had to make to get this watch produced at the low RRP. Here is an example modded with upgraded specs, including a new bezel.
A second option is if you’d like create a variation that’s not available. Maybe you’d prefer a green bezel to the black or a leather strap rather than rubber or stainless steel. Maybe a slightly different set of hands or even a different dial. The options are really up to you. There’s plenty of forums out there with endless pictures of other peoples creations you can use for inspiration. This example is barely recognisable to the original.
A final option is to try and use the SKX007 for the base to create a homage to a particular watch that is maybe out of your budget. This modification aims to copy the look of Sinn or Bell & Ross pilots watches.
Along with the SKX007 the Amphibia is arguably one of the best value divers watches on the planet. With hundreds of designs having been produced since it's launch in 1967 there's going to be at least one you'll love. Whether it's the 'Scuba Dude' with it's iconic graphics, the colourful Radio Room or the 'Zissou' as worn by Bill Murray in The Life Aquatic, there'll be a one that jumps out at you. But of course, for some watch collectors that’s not quite enough.
The original brief for the designers was to cheaply build a bomb proof 200M rated divers watch for the Soviet military. The result is a much loved design classic. A chunky automatic watch with some innovative features, yet still brutally simple. But the real attraction? You can have all of this for less than £100. The price tag and the multitude of variations means that this is a really good place to start with your first watch modification. There’s bound to be a base model that you’ll like.
Unlike the Seiko there’s not as many third party extras available to customise your Amphibia. Mainly you’re limited to swapping the bezel, bezel insert and strap. However, there are exhibition case backs available and there’s scope to use hands from other Vostok models to make some more subtle changes. Just a simple bezel and strap change can transform the watch.
Because a Vostok mod usually involves just changing the exterior of the watch there’s very minimal knowledge or specialist tools required. To replace a bezel and install a new insert and strap? A ten minute job requiring a strap removal tool and some glue.
Seiko 5 SNK809
In 1963 Seiko introduced its Seiko 5 series. A collection of watches designed to offer value for money and built around 5 core design features. Namely,
- Automatic winding
- Day/date displayed in a single window
- Water resistance
- Recessed crown at the 4 o’clock position
- Durable case and bracelet
In our article on Seiko here, we’ve highlighted the Seiko 5 worn by Gene Kranz, NASA’s lead flight director during the Apollo 13 manned moon landing. Like the SKX models this series also has an interesting backstory.
The SNK809 is another ideal candidate to modify. A reliable Japanese automatic with a modest 37mm matt finished case and a subtle military styling. Unlike the SKX007 it has 30M WR so it’s not a dive watch. The much cheaper price, less than £100, reflects that. What it does have is the same 7s26 movement and an exhibition back.
There’s quite a number of modding options for this model including dials, crystals and hand sets. There's a handy post here showing the creation of the watch below.
As a watch producer Invicta often receive a lot of negativity in the watch collecting community. They’re easy to criticise if you don’t like their affordable and often over the top style. Cheap watches with a lot of gold colouring don’t usually impress watch aficionados. But lets take a step back.
Although the company is American owned, Invicta has its roots in Switzerland during the late 1880's. Its corporate headquarters are in Switzerland along with it's customer service centre and it's current president is a fifth generation watchmaker. Invicta also own a number of other brands including Glycine. There’s a lot of things that this company does right.
The 8926, a Submariner homage, is one of those things.
It’s a relatively standard Submariner, 40mm diameter with 20mm lugs and 200M WR. It also has a Seiko NH35A automatic movement - an improvement on the movement used in the two Seikos. And like all the watches it’s cheap. Around the £100 mark.
Whilst there are a number of compatible third party dials, hands and bezels, the fans modifying the 8926 seem to be quite adventurous when it comes to the case. Popular mods include filing and polishing off the Invicta logo and filing off the crown guards, particularly good if you’re doing a Tudor Black Bay homage.
The Orient brand is part of the Seiko Group, so like the better known brand they make well regarded quality watches with their own inhouse movements.
There’s a few models in the Mako line, all very similar and priced between £100 - £200. Like the others featured here, there’s an automatic movement, mineral crystal and water resistance. 200M in this case.
Also like the others on this list there’s some replacement dials and bezels available and a selection of compatible hands. Again, a lot of the popular mods involve emulating the design cues from currently popular luxury watches from Rolex, Tudor and Omega.