Designing and Building a Watch

Welcome to my journey into making custom watches. This is a multi-year learning project, and I won't be rushing this. I am a long ways away from offering a piece for sale, but if you are interested in following along as things develop, please email me. You'll be first in line if I release something. 

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Most of my projects are impermanent, and the creation process is of greater focus than the end result. I disassemble my robots for parts weeks 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, gaming systems, and living locations... nothing is kept for long. There is one exception: watches.

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As both an engineer and artist, 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. I value the associated memories in a way that doesn't seem to happen with other physical items in my life. I have an Orient and Casio gifted from my girlfriend, and two Tags that were purchased by my dad at important points in his live, and handed down to me at important points in mine. My watches have been everywhere, from visiting my dad's childhood home in Zimbabwe, to diving with me in Aruba. Instead of aging into obsolescence, they almost seem to grow as they collect stories. Watches seem like an antidote to my typical short-lived projects and quickly flipped products. 

So, naturally, I have become interested in making them.

I don't know how to build a watch, but I do have some unique and relevant technical experience. 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. Because of that "wow" moment that results when all the stars align, this it the technology I plan to use for my watch.

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With that background information out of the way, here is what I have built so far:

Prototype A.0

This is my very first watch build. It has an Enamel dial, and a Stainless Steel case printed using Binder Jet technology. It's not waterproof, the fit and finish isn't great, but it's a good start.

And here is the plan for where I go from here:

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

    • Disassemble and reassemble all watches I own (minus the blue Tag)

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

    • Status: Complete 

  2. Complete metal 3D print service evaluation 

    • Research DMLS alternatives that I don't have experience with, such as Binder Jet 

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

    • Send test prints to main 5 or 6 companies offering metal print services for evaluation

    • Status: In Progress

  3. Explore finishing options 

    • Order test prints with various bevel and filet dimensions, internal pockets, and textures

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

    • Evaluate available oxidizing finishing kits on 3D printed Brass and Bronze

    • Design and print meshed meta-structures, try finishing only certain faces for 3D effects 

    • Status: In Progress 

  4. Develop a style, feel, and general vibe for my designs that I can trust

    • Design and CAD at least 25 case designs 

    • Design and CAD at least 100 dial designs 

    • 3D print plastic mockup versions of at least 10 watches 

      • To be clear: these 10 mockup designs need to demonstrate more creativity than the entire history of most watch brands. Derivative designs are embarrassing. Also, this is going to be an expensive fab process. If I end up with something similar to what I could purchase from an established company... there would be no point. 

    • Take my mockup watches to friends, family, and YouTube audience for feedback 

    • Status: In Progress 

  5. Set the groundwork for relevant contacts to know about this project 

    • Create ​something useful for the watch community (maybe a size comparison tool?)

    • Document mockup designs on YouTube, share with media​​, get more feedback ​

    • Status: In Progress  

  6. Build 5 Quartz watches for my dad, brother, and several friends 

    • This was my initial motivator for the project... then scope creep happened 

    • Validate finishing techniques explored during item #3 

    • Validate gaskets / waterproofing 

    • Status: Not Started 

  7. Learn Enameling 

    • Enameling can be done with a hand-held torch, not just a kiln. Practice this process. ​

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

    • Status: Not Started

  8. Build limited run of Automatic watches

    • Plan TBD​, will depend on learnings from prior steps, and associated costs 

    • Status: Not Started 

  9. Long term end goal: Build my personal Grail Watch 

    • Personal Grail Watch: Unibody, Titanium, Smooth Second Hand, No Date, Enamel Dial 

      • Acquire the movement used in the Frederique Constant Slimline Monolithic​

      • Design a watch around that movement, which is the coolest movement I have ever seen in person. The second hand appears as smooth as a Grand Seiko to the eye, and the movement itself vibrates so fast it looks like glitch, or alien tech, or a living thing

    • Status: Not Currently Achievable  

This is quite the list, but good things take time. I will update this page as things progress.