A version of this article originally appeared in Gear Patrol Magazine with the headline “Body Modification.” Subscribe today

Chris Ser knows his work upsets people. “I understand where they’re coming from,” he says, digging his pneumatic engraving tool deep into the metal of a $10,000 watch that most owners would be afraid to even scratch. “But Rolexes are not as sacred as some people make them out to be.”

Ser and his colleagues at Fin Des Temps, an artist-owned engraving house he founded in 2014, perform their sacrilege in a tiny sixth-floor apartment-turned-studio on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. They are not simply engraving owners’ initials; they are carving intricate, original artwork onto nearly every available metal surface on high-priced luxury watches. Ser, himself heavily tattooed and with gold teeth in his smile, physically resembles his ornate, flashy designs.

Fin Des Temps and other engravers exist within a small but growing industry offering aftermarket customization in a variety of forms. At one end of the spectrum, DIY enthusiasts tweak design elements of their inexpensive Seikos or Casio G-Shocks, swapping in new hands, bezels, and even dials. At the other, highly trained craftsmen, like those from Les Artisans de Geneve, will refinish every component of a complicated high-end watch, from the dial to the movement, leaving it practically unrecognizable from its original form. In between you’ll find companies, such as Bamford Watch Department and MAD Paris, that will give your Rolex Submariner a black PVD coating, a layer of diamonds or other flamboyant features not offered by the brand itself.

Underpinning the customizing scene is a desire for something exclusive. “Anyone can buy a Rolex, but a one-of-a-kind piece? Nobody else will have that,” says Justin Counter, one of Ser’s colleagues at Fin Des Temps. Rolex is a popular brand for modifications; customers want something personal and unique, but that still retains the prestigious manufacturer’s name and the high-quality watchmaking it represents.

“I’ve seen people get mad at ‘em, like straight hate on ‘em, or people love them. That’s how you know it’s art, ‘cause it actually makes people feel strongly.”

“It’s really good for us to be able to put our art on something as solid as the Rolex brand. It’s like a ten-thousand-dollar canvas,” Ser says. But receptions are mixed: “I’ve seen people get mad at ‘em, like straight hate on ‘em. Or people love them. So they create emotion, and that’s how you know it’s art and not just a watch.”

Many watch engravers have backgrounds in gun engraving, a traditional and respected art form that dates back centuries. To see the type of intricate, leafy scrollwork one typically associates with a Purdey sidelock instead decorating a high-end watch is not only visually striking
but provides a direct link to historical craftsmanship techniques. But not everyone sees it that way — especially fans of the Rolex brand.

There is a seemingly disproportionate amount of emotion attached to the idea of customizing Rolex watches in particular, with much of the criticism coming down to the idea that modifications of any kind devalue what began life as a watchmaking masterpiece. Not only is it the height of hubris to try to improve a Rolex, the thinking goes, but doing so is tantamount to defacing the original art of the watch. On the secondary market, even Rolexes serviced by the company itself can lose value compared to “untouched” originals—such is the reverence shown for the Crown logo. (In any case, customizing any watch through a third party voids the manufacturer’s warranty.) As long as art exists, art critics will follow.

Many customizing outfits seem to delight in such controversy. To mark the 90th birthday of the Mickey Mouse character, in 2018, Justin Counter at Fin Des Temps produced an irreverent bit of artwork that could be seen as simultaneously blasphemous to Rolex, The Walt Disney Company, and one of America’s most iconic cartoons: a Rolex Datejust featuring numerous Disney characters melting in the throes of a psychedelic trip with Mickey engraved on the clasp, a gold tab of LSD on his tongue, licking Minnie’s eyeball.

Is it art? Like beauty, the answer to that is in the eye of the beholder. But the skill and craftsmanship of many such customized pieces is undeniable. Ser, of Fin Des Temps, sees the two as distinct but interrelated.

“Craftsmanship comes after the art,” he says. “The art is first and foremost.”

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