Earlier this month, on this very website, we published a brilliantly persuasive story that said custom watches are awesome and should no longer be taboo. Okay, fine, it was my story. And in the days that followed, I heard from many like-minded souls who would love a little more control over what they put on their wrists.
For all of you who agree – and also for those of you who still aren’t sure – I’d like to introduce you to Cooper Zelnick. He’s the founder of Cloister Watch Co., which is a tiny New York City studio devoted to restoring, refurbishing, and (yes!) reimagining vintage watches.
Zelnick believes, and I agree, that traditionalists overemphasize originality. To our minds, originality is only important if you’re planning to sell your watch. If you’re not – if the piece is just for you – then why not make it exactly the way you want?
The examples you’ll see in this episode are lovingly, tastefully customized – and, to my eye anyway, are often more interesting than the models that came off the factory floor.
For comparison’s sake, Zelnick brought examples in pairs. One is an original from his personal collection; the other is a similar Cloister custom. You can sneak a peek below, but there’s no substitute for hearing Zelnick explain his process. For that level of detail, please settle in and enjoy the video.
Patek Philippe Ref. 3580
Zelnick is drawn to the oblong case and wide brushed bezel, which make the whole thing look like a silvery egg. If you can get past the general strangeness of it (or, even better, embrace the strangeness), it’s a surprisingly versatile watch. And it’s the inspiration for…
Patek Philippe Ref. 3468 Customized By Cloister
…this Calatrava, which has a custom matte-brown dial and the owner’s initials monogrammed above six o’clock. I tried it on myself, and of all the watches Zelnick brought to set, this was the one I most wanted to walk away owning. I personally prefer the single stick markers to the double sticks on the 3580. The brown feels like it’s straight off some disco queen’s shag carpet. And that bracelet is just too cool.
The monochrome dial-and-bracelet combo is unbelievably handsome. And Zelnick loves that the case is truly symmetrical, with no visible crown. The downside? All that empty real estate above six creates an aesthetic imbalance. For a guy like Zelnick who loves JLC watches, that tiny design flaw was enough to make him wonder what would happen if…
Jaeger-LeCoultre Futurematic Customized By Cloister
…he filled the void with the word Futurematic in a space-age typeface. That addition actually makes the watch look complete. It’s probably the first and only time I’ve ever felt that more dial text is better. And the owner’s name wrapped around the power reserve is the kind of touch you’d pretty much only get from a company like Cloister.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual Ref. 6284
When Zelnick found this almost a decade ago on eBay, it was in very rough shape and did not work. He’s got it running now, and he’s fascinated by the dial – which looks like a “mirror dial,” even though he’s pretty sure it was never meant to. The paint simply faded off. Zelnick thinks of this as a watch that’s gone past tropical (shall we call it subtropical?) and wound up somewhere far below the equator.
Rolex Oysterquartz Ref. 17000 Customized By Cloister
Look at three o’clock. Look again. It used to have a cyclops magnifier over a date window. Cloister polished off the cyclops, leaving the original crystal – and then added a stick marker where the date used to be. Seamless, no?
Vacheron Constantin Ref. 7390
This is Zelnick’s personal watch, with a case shape that looks like a slightly tipsy square – plus that arresting green dial. Bonus points if you can guess the dial material without clicking through to the video.
Vacheron Constantin Ref. 2096 Customized By Cloister
The case here is similar but slightly more squat. It looks like an old-school TV set. The customization makes the whole thing handsomely monochrome, all the way down to the strap – an example of Cloister’s restraint. The watches Zelnick customizes bear no resemblance to the diamond bust downs you’d get on 47th Street – not that there’s anything wrong with those, either! Flooded jewels aren’t Zelnick’s thing, nor are they mine. But whatever will get you to wear and love your watch is what you should do.
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The HODINKEE Shop carries a variety of vintage and pre-owned Jaeger-LeCoultre, Patek Philippe, Rolex, and Vacheron Constantin watches.