A
t a well-lit desk in the corner of his childhood bedroom, Nick Harris is having a hard time with a watch. The domed sapphire crystal he’s selected won’t fit into its new watch case. He mumbles and shuffles through the different die sets for his new press tool, but none fit well enough to work; he tries stacking the plastic sizing discs on top of each other, presses against the crystal with his palm, his arms shivering slightly in exertion. Nothing. He pulls out his old-school press that he earlier decried as useless. It is.

The crystal is the last step in an otherwise seamless “modding” of a watch Harris has been hired to build for a client for around $200, but its failure to fit has doubled the time he’s spent hunched over the piece. And yet he doesn’t get angry. Like an old pro, he restrains his frustration, then boils it into determination. He just mutters, presses and holds the case and its deviant crystal up against the light, frowns, and then mutters again. 25 minutes later, an hour and a half after he started the job, something indeterminate goes right with the crystal, which pops solidly into place. Harris grunts a quiet “got it” and holds a one-of-a-kind timepiece, austere in black and red and white and wholly unlike the Seiko 5 he started with, up to the light and smiles. It’s a custom watch, made in Asia, remade in America.

Harris is 26, short and slight with a sharp face, a clever smile and the quiet friendliness befitting a craftsman or a scientist. He’s both. After high school, he attended a year of art school before dropping out, plagued by drawing and painting classes that ignored his handiness and neglected his skills at woodworking and pottery. He switched to an undergraduate degree in biology at Evergreen State College in Washington and graduated, then moved back in with his parents in his childhood home outside of Philadelphia, saving money and deciding his next move. That’s when he discovered a love of watches while feeling his way through a repair on his grandfather’s Omega Constellation. He ended up sending the watch to a repair shop after realizing he was in over his head, but he’d caught the bug. First his obsession was watch movements, which segued easily into watch modding. He’s since created a place for himself amid a thriving culture of personal and for-client mods.

Though Harris is reserved and quiet in person, he’s proven that he can design like a respected tastemaker and also like a mad genius.

Harris isn’t the first modder to focus on new, creative designs rather than affordable homage watches. Several modders, who go by names like Yobokies and Dagaz and have a presence that relies heavily on the online masses, have been around for some time and are renowned for their skill. But Harris is young, and his grass-roots business of making custom watches for clients has taken off. The watches he makes cost anywhere between $200 and $500 dollars, and they look and act and feel like pieces that have been entirely handmade, with care, by an expert, without any signs of amateur handiwork. The Seiko movements he depends on are dependable and tough. And though Harris is reserved and quiet in person, he’s proven that he can design like a respected tastemaker and also like a mad genius.

Traditional watchmakers are expected to design — if not always build — an entirely new watch themselves. For watch modders, this completed watch is the starting point. They remove a watch’s dial, hands and bezel (and sometimes more, like swapping out a case or a crystal) and replace them with other parts to create new aesthetics atop the same base structure. To put it in auto terms, it’s the careful application of a custom body kit without altering the frame or drivetrain. In this way, it’s easy to see why Harris is gaining popularity. He makes Subarus look like sports cars.

Harris's desk, mid-modification.

Harris’s desk, mid-modification.

Modding has been commonly understood for some time as a method for creating cheap versions of expensive watches. Because a gorgeous and technically near-perfect watch would be hard to improve on for both technical and design-minded reasons (and because modding a $200,000 A. Lange & Sohne would likely get them strung up), and more so because of cost considerations, modders rely on lower-priced watches — usually Asian, especially the Japanese brand Seiko. Online purveyors have made famous the Poor Man’s Marine Master, the Fifty-Five Fathoms and more, all of them tuned-up versions of less expensive watches made remarkably similar to the originals — in these cases, the Seiko Prospex Marinemaster ($2,000-$3,000) and the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms ($9,000+). But the connotation of a knockoff has lingered, and it hasn’t taken an expert to spot the small but off-putting differences between a $10,000 watch and a $250 one.

Haute Horology is not the kind of field where this sensibility flourishes, and yet the modding community has dug out a place for itself online, where members of forums can share their knowledge — mostly self-taught — and show off their creations. The internet’s crucible of free information and positive feedback has also bred a large movement of makers like Harris, who have looked beyond knockoffs to something more edifying: custom-made watches, designed in the taste of the modder, sleek and beautiful and at affordable prices. Their designs blend classic and modern stylings with the whims of the watchmaker, making use of replacement parts created not as knockoff-grade shills but truly new pieces of a truly new watch.

The designs are so wholly distinctive and the modifications so cleanly executed that one is tempted to cross that vaunted line among horologists and call watch modifying a part of watchmaking.

It’s a custom watch, made in Japan, remade in America.

“I guess, colloquially I would just call it watchmaking because what I am doing falls under watchmaking”, Harris says as he soaks French press grounds in the kitchen of his family’s home. I nod and take a bite of his mom’s homemade scones and look at the silver Omega dial on his wrist. It’s like the old saying about rectangles and quadrilaterals being the same but not quite the same, he reasons, every bit the scientist. “It’s not like 100 percent true, but it’s not completely false. It’s just an easier way to explain what I am doing”, he says.

Harris displays a newly made Seiko 5, which he's modified with a "California" dial, new hands and an upgraded crystal.

Harris displays a newly made Seiko 5, which he’s modified with a “California” dial, new hands and an upgraded crystal.

Harris is friendly and courteous and knows when to choose his words wisely. He clicks and lisps his mouth in a light sucking sound when he thinks, lending the outward impression that his mind is whirring like a mainspring. His workshop is upstairs, at a large wooden desk in the corner of his childhood room, airy and bright with afternoon sunlight streaming through three or four western-facing windows. The rest of his room is tidy and scattered with pieces of Harris’s wide-ranging passions: a clay mug he threw himself, broke and then glued back together; insects encased in clear blocks of composite, also an old personal project; a wooden secretarial desk, burnished with age; a small guitar, a folder knife with a bone handle, and a book filled with watches by Ulysse Nardin.

I’m transfixed by this small headquarters, which is filled with the trappings of an amateur watchmaker and also exudes a professional, tightly controlled air. On one end is a grassy plant; under its ferny leaves markered bezels sit like metal auto rims atop a plastic case of assorted movement parts. On the other end, a small shelf holds wax-paper-wrapped hands, dials and movements that he’s bought from online suppliers. Above it Harris has tacked an arsenal of colored NATO straps into a cork board, alongside a detailed black-and-white printout of a movement’s parts. An old microscope is jammed into the corner, draped in a plastic cover like hoary furniture. Before all these monoliths is the cluttered army of smaller goods, looking handsome against the worn chestnut wood: presses and air squirters (for blowing away dust), a cleaning cloth, five or six tweezers, a loupe and plastic containers full of parts, and plenty of small hand tools that would look in place in either a laboratory or a metalworking shop. Upgrading these tools has been Harris’s primary investment as a businessman. A small ball of sticky tack sits out of place among the metal and plastic. He uses it to remove dust from dials and hands.

“There’s a movement happening right now where people like the idea of something that’s affordable, or semi-affordable, and has some level of interaction with the artisan behind it.”

Last year, Harris modded about 10 watches a month here, give or take a few with the fluctuation of the seasons. November and December were high months, as business ballooned for affordable watches as gifts, though in 2015 his production has increased to more than 10 watches a week. His clients filter in through Reddit or his Tumblr or Facebook page. Some already have their base watch and all the new parts picked out; some are less sure, and Harris works with them to decide upon the perfect fit. “They might present parts that when I visualize them in my mind’s eye, I don’t see them as coming together, and I will let them know. ‘Proportionally those hands are really big’, and you know, ‘that case is kind of slim, and it might look a little weird. I recommend these hands.'” This co-design process stokes his creative fire, he says. “It’s really cool to have almost like this telepathic interaction where it’s like someone has some rough concept that they can’t really put words to it, and you know, getting freedom, creative freedom, to say, ‘let’s go for it.'”

Watch modding has gained ground recently because more and more of the population appreciates products handled and created with care, Harris says. And a good number of the new class of caring citizens can’t afford Swiss-made timepieces.

“Part of my success is having something that’s gotten attention from an actual person, and a lot of people can’t really relate to where their products are being made”, he says. “I feel like there’s a movement happening right now where people like the idea of something that’s affordable, or semi-affordable, and has some level of interaction with the artisan behind it. I think it’s cool that people are starting to want to reconnect with the artisan. I think it’s healthy. I think it kind of banishes this disillusionment about how things are made in the world.”

Seiko-Mod-Gear-Patrol-Ambiance-1600

This sentiment is shared by the founders of the men’s online boutique Go and Behold, who saw Harris’s work on watchmaking forums and commissioned him in January of 2015 to make a special-edition watch. Harris delivered a field watch he calls the Field Standard. It’s his first military-style watch and a runaway hit; two runs of 10 have already sold out on Go and Behold’s site. In it, Harris seamlessly blends eras: ornate clock-like hands that could be found in the 1930s; the small black dial of a Vietnam-era military watch, filled with 12- and 24-hour markers; a simple bezel that lends the timeless look of a Rolex explorer. Harris seems happy with the relationship. His watch sells for $280, still well within his customers’ price range, and Go and Behold has left him at the helm of design.

That Harris’s design strikes a chord with both watch modders and outright sartorialists is a major part of his success as a creator. It’s ironic, then, that his taste came about precisely because watch design was something he knew nothing about.

“I wasn’t too into the watch world”, he says as he works his way through his small personal watch collection, “so watch designs were not something that I had assimilated. I was making these mods kind of funky, and then I posted them all on the Internet on Reddit and Watchuseek, and some other forums. People responded really well and really positively, and I was really shocked.”

My eyes snap to the next watch in his case, which is another SKX007, though a non-watch nerd wouldn’t know it. It looks like the timekeeping lovechild of a leopard and a zebra.

Harris’s first mod project, a SKX007, was a slog; to his amazement and exasperation, he realized that the original watch he’d bought to mod was a fake. Still, he redeemed it with dogged fixes and legitimate replacement parts. Today it sits like a ragged prizefighter next to his new mods and other prizes, its yellow-and-black bezel and gold markers unrefined and rough but still proudly flying one of Harris’s design tenets: boldness.

My eyes snap to the next watch in his case, which is another SKX007, though a non-watch nerd wouldn’t know it. It looks like the timekeeping lovechild of a leopard and a zebra. This is the peak of Harris’s creative prowess, a watch made in the style called Mokume-gane, Japanese for “wood-grain metal”. There are no hour markers, and both bezel and dial swirl away in silvery-black boils. The bright, lightning-bold seconds hand is lost to the eye amid the madness like Waldo in a sea of sunbathers. It’s raucous and flagrantly expressive and unlike any other watch I’ve seen.

Homage watches — those imitations of famous timepieces made at a tenth of the price — aren’t Harris’s thing. “I would much rather focus on creating watches that have some unique creative aspect as opposed to making homages to, you know, already-made watches”, he says. Though he’s happy to oblige customers who disagree, in his own work he’s trying to create pieces that are more an expression of some creative process.

Seiko-Mod-Gear-Patrol-Ambiance-1600-stripy

That can complicate things. The Mokume-gane watch, for example, has been a labor of love and a test of Harris’s supply lines. “I spent a lot looking for a jeweler or a metal worker that can make some parts for me because I really wanted to bring something new to the field, and that material isn’t super common in the watch world”, he says. “The parts are all handmade, and a good bit of work went into it, and obviously it’s a little more expensive than mass-produced parts. I think it’s a really unique — well, it’s a completely unique piece — and ideally I really want to start bringing new materials and parts into modding culture.”

“I think I saw one other guy that had hand-engraved Mokume dials, and his watches were in the ballpark of $75,000”, he adds when I ask about pricing. The only other Mokume-gane watches I could find that looked anything like Harris’s, made by Swiss watchmaker Kees Engelbarts with far more intricate and complex detailing, sold for between $37,000 and $52,000. Harris’s version will retail for $400 to $500.

Having finished our watch tour, Harris sits down at his desk and begins showing me a watch project. Time floats by in the warm afternoon sunlight, quiet save for Harris’s inscrutable mutterings, the sure sign of a master tinkerer. My coffee cools as the project wears on. Harris’s calico cat, Mae, stops by to check in on his progress before trotting off again.

I break the mumbling and quiet and ask what’s next. He’s applied to a watchmaking school put on by Rolex in the US in the town of Lititz, not far from here. The Go and Behold Collaboration has gone swimmingly, and he’s in talks with the founders about what the next watch might be.

As for expanding his own watch production, it’s obvious there are higher aspirations at work. “I’ve spent some time sanding dials and doing a little bit of finer work and taking material off of hands and bezels and whatnot, but not cases yet”, he says. “Maybe I would like to do that. It’s a lot of work. It would be really cool to have my own dial and case line and hands and then put Seiko movements in it — it keeps the price down. I would be contributing to modifying culture by introducing something that was already based on kind of open-source watch technology I guess. If that makes sense.”

I picture Harris creating his own line of dials and learning how to properly build and service movements, in a real workshop and not feet from his sun-dappled bed, and it’s suddenly clear he’s found a new and unique path to the long-sought dream of American watchmaking. The tinkering and struggling, the stoic sureness and steady hands, the unabashed designs that respect the greats but don’t bow to them: these are the marks of a great watchmaker, beginning to hit his stride. It does make sense to me, I tell him.