How to Design and Build a Custom Watch


One of my customers once told me this saying:  'the job of the amateur is to underestimate the job of the professional' - which seems to apply universally.  Since there is quite a bit of interest in exactly how a watch is designed and built, I decided to reveal some of the steps in creating my dive watch, the Oceanic.  I get quite a few inquiries from people who want to make just one custom-made watch, without realizing how much time and effort is required to get the job done.  It is much more expensive, time-consuming, and detail-oriented than most people think.  It certainly isn't feasible to make just one watch - most manufacturers have a minimum quantity order of at least 300 pieces (applies to cases, dials, hands, and all other components).  This watch took over a year to produce, from the initial drawings to the finished product.

Obviously, at first you have to decide roughly what the watch will look like and its basic characteristics.  I started out with simple drawings on graph paper.  I knew I wanted to do a dive watch with a rotating bezel.  I wanted to have something very robust, and from the beginning  I knew I wanted a solid steel bezel which had the look and quality of a fine etched stainless steel machinist's ruler.  This design is pretty indestructible, and is superior to the anodized aluminum bezel inserts that many other manufacturers use which are prone to fading.

Here are two of my initial drawings.  One drawing shows some initial efforts to sort out the details of the notches on the bezel.



Once I got the drawings done roughly to scale, I moved on to making 2-dimensional drawings/renderings on the computer.  This is where many of the details are worked out.  I tend to generate many different designs, then choose the best.  I will then refine what I think are the best one or two designs to come up with a 'finished' 2-D rendering.  The design on the left is essentially the finished watch (this is a thumbnail).  Even this 'simple' 2-D drawing is made up of approximately 3,000 separate objects, all located within .01mm!  The design on the right is one that I decided not to use.  I generated about 8 different dial designs, and probably 20 or so revisions on these drawings.

At this point it is necessary to make a firm decision on the movement to be used, as that will dictate the location and size of the date window for this drawing.  Of course, as the design gets refined, it will influence the inside dimensions of the case and the specifications for the dial and hands.



Once the 2-D drawings are in their final stages, the 3-D drawings come next.  These will define the thickness and curvature of the case and its many components.  I spent a lot of time refining the bezel and the shape and size of the teeth on the bezel, so that it provided enough grip without catching on clothing.  The drawing on the left shows a cross section of the center of the case, which shows the dial, crystal, movement ring, etc.  As you can see, everything is specified down to the last detail.



Next the isometric views and 3-D renderings can be done to show the watch in its near completed form.  It is very important to check every last detail at this stage, before any samples and tooling are made. 



Once all of the drawings are approved, then a sample case is produced.  This sample is generally made from a softer grade of stainless steel which is easier to prototype, as the 316L steel used in the final product is fairly difficult to work with.  The properties of hardness and ruggedness of 316L stainless steel that are desirable in the finished product also make the material somewhat hard to machine and polish, so it is reserved for the finished product only.

From the first sample, I chose to make the final watch case thinner to reduce its weight, but otherwise it was very close to the finished product.



Obviously I have left out a lot of steps, but this should give you a good overview of the process and complexity of making a watch.  I didn't even touch on producing the dials or hands, and all of the details in specifying colors and finishes (there are many different shades of orange, for example, and glossy paint shows color differently than semi-gloss or matte paint).

Some people also think that it is possible to put any movement in any case - which is not true.  In a watch, most of the design centers around the movement.  The dial has 2 feet (locating pins) which are specific to the movement, the hole sizes in the hands are specific to the movement, the location of the date window is specific to the movement, and the case is designed for only one movement.  Everything is custom built for one model.

Follow the link at the top of the page to see the other Oceanic models.

This section is here for educational purposes only.

I no longer provide any custom watch making services, as I have had way too many non-serious inquiries that just consume too much time.  I don't respond to any inquiries regarding custom watches, as, in total, it is not profitable for me to do so.



Thomas Gref   -   AWI Certified Master Watchmaker   -   BS Mechanical Engineering

PO Box 69151   -   Tucson, AZ  85737   -   USA   -   ph 520.818.3382