Watches - An Ongoing Journey 

Welcome to my longest continuous project: learning to make custom watches. I've learned a lot already, but still have a long ways to go. If you are interested in following along as things develop, please email me. You will be first in line if I ever release something to the public.

Most of my projects are impermanent, and the creation process is of greater focus than the end result. I disassemble my robots for parts days after the build is final. My water-cooled PC lasted just a month before I sold the parts for a profit on eBay. I hate much of my art, and often throw paintings and drawings away before documenting them. 

As one of my hobbies is buying and flipping things on Craigslist, most products in my life follow a similar pattern. I have purchased, extensively used, and then flipped cameras from nine different brands (Ricoh and Leica are my favorite so far). The same has applied to phones, cars, computers, and living locations... nothing is kept for long.

 

But there is one exception: Watches. For whatever reason, watches are different. 

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As both an engineer and artist, it is natural that I love watches. But more than just appreciating them for the combination of design and craft, each watch in my initial collection was a gift. This is likely what makes them different for me. I value the associated memories in a way that doesn't seem to happen with other physical items in my life. My first two watches were purchased by my dad at important points in his live, and handed down to me at important points in mine. They have been everywhere, from my dad's childhood home in Zimbabwe, to diving with me in Aruba. Instead of aging into obsolescence, they almost seem to grow. In this way, they are an antidote to my typical short-lived projects and quickly flipped products. This permanence, my appreciation for the craft, and my positive memories of gifts in the past made me interested in being able to make custom watches for friends and family. 

With this goal, my journey into watchmaking begun. 

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I went into this knowing nothing about watch construction, but I did have some unique and relevant technical experience that I decided to leverage. One of my first jobs was at Moog Aerospace. There I worked with their DMLS Titanium 3D printer. This a serious process: the entire room was flooded with argon gas during the print process to reduce the risk of combustion. This technology completely upended the standard hydraulic manifold design process, allowing you to design curved internal fluid pathways and consolidate many parts into one. But to go along with these major design enablers, I also learned and experienced the various unique, and occasionally unintuitive, design constrains. When done poorly, parts came out warped like Pringles with poor surfacing and risk of fracture propagation. When done well, you could create parts that didn't seem like they should be possible. It is this "wow" moment that results when all the stars align that made me decide to design for this technology. 

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To start, I made this initial to-do list:

  1. Complete: Figure out how the hell a watch is even made...​

    • Disassemble and reassemble all watches I own 

    • Research best practices for gasket design, crystal setting, and waterproofing

  2. Complete: Metal 3D print service evaluation 

    • Research DMLS alternatives, such as Binder Jet and Wax Casting 

    • Design test prints that evaluate relevant performance (warping, hole geometry, etc.)

    • Send test prints to 3-4  companies offering metal print services for evaluation

  3. Complete: Explore finishing options ​

    • Experiment with standard hand-polishing techniques, both on Stainless Steel and Titanium

    • Evaluate available oxidizing finishing kits on Brass and Bronze

    • Try finishing/polishing only certain faces for 3D effects 

  4. Complete: Learn Enameling 

    • Practice this process of firing enamel with a hand-held torch 

    • Experiment with unibody case/dials: single part, with pools of enamel in the dial area

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After doing my homework, I started the fun part: design. Research from James Clear has shown that when it comes to new artists, a focus on quantity actually produces higher-quality results than focusing on quality. With this in mind, I started by designing and 3D printing 25 different case designs. Some were good, many were terrible. I tried to ignore what I had learned about watch construction in the prior step of this process, and to focus on creativity over feasibility. Watches have been around for a very long time, so there is an allure to trying to come up with something new in this very crowded space. I also knew that the fab process was going to be expensive, so I didn't want to waste it on a derivative design. 

After this initial brainstorming work, I started to get a feel for what my personal design language might look like. With the hands-on testing of my 3D prints, I also got a sense of the size and shape that I preferred, which is around 39mm in diameter and tapered. I ordered my first Stainless Steel print, hand-fired an Enamel dial, and made Prototype A.0.

This was printed with Binder Jet technology, and I had some serious issues with case warping. I was able to Dremel it into shape, though, and assemble it with an ETA movement and sapphire crystal. I then posted it to Youtube and Reddit for community feedback. 

...PENDING UPDATES...

I will slowly update this page as things progress. I am using each of the 5 Quartz watches as a test-bed for different ideas. Some will have sapphire crystals and some acrylic. Some will be steel, others brass or titanium. And I will be making several cases using DMLS, one using Binder Jet, and one will be Wax Cast. The diversity within these first 5 watches will let me explore a large amount of different materials and ideas in a small number of builds. ​

This will be quite the learning process, but good things take time. I will update this page as things progress. 

Thanks for reading, and have a good day!