When the Apple Watch is officially released on April 24, fine jewelers nationwide will be among those vying for the hot-ticket item — but not because they simply want to wear them. Rather, jewelers are looking to dissect the watch for insight into how to augment its appearance with precious stones and metals — without compromising the timepiece’s fragile inner workings.
Fine jewelers see Apple’s foray into the smartwatch category as an opportunity to reinvigorate their watch-customization businesses and ploy their way into the world of high technology.
Companies including Neil Lane and Avianne & Co. are hatching customization methods in advance of the Apple Watch’s retail debut, by reviewing promotional images and evaluating the infrastructure of other smartwatches on the market. Using these as guides, they are tinkering with concepts like laser soldering, drilling and removable accessories as plausible personalization techniques.
The jewelers’ results may please sparkle-happy consumers — but at the cost of potential legal ramifications, according to a source.
While some jewelers have already mapped out their preliminary plans for high-wattage customizations, they will only be able to set them into motion once the Apple Watch is available for purchase and variables like the thickness of its metal frame and its resistance to heat and weight can be assessed.
“The idea of having a smartphone on your wrist is really exciting, but it’s still going to be jewelry to people — everyone loves jewelry,” Neil Lane said of Apple Watch’s luxury consumer value.
Lane said he has already received numerous inquiries from high-profile clientele about customizing the Apple Watch with diamonds and precious metals. “It’s such a complicated piece of machinery, you have to be careful what you do with it,” he said. “I don’t know the millimeters of the gold they are using, I don’t know if I can set other stones into it, or if I can solder or apply heat.”
Lane said he is confident that his staff will be able to engrave the $10,000 rose gold Apple Watch model, and is experimenting with a laser solder that would fasten setting prongs to its facade, rather than drilling straight into the bezel. The laser, he says, would melt the bezel’s gold with greater precision than typical soldering techniques, which would require more of the watch’s surface to be heated. Lane has yet to assess possibilities for the brand’s less-expensive stainless steel models.
Jason Arasheben, of Jason of Beverly Hills, said he is also preparing for an onslaught of customized Apple Watch requests. When Apple halfheartedly entered the watch category by offering timepiece software and a corresponding strap as part of an earlier iPod Nano, Arasheben customized about a dozen with a variety of finishings including alligator and gold straps. He charged between $4,000 and $40,000 for the iPod updates and estimates that Apple Watch customizations will run around the same cost.
Trey Bailey, of North Carolina mini empire Bailey’s Fine Jewelry, is even farther ahead of the game. Using images from last month’s Apple Watch preview, Bailey and his in-house technicians have devised a blueprint for how they will customize the timepiece. For $41,000 (watch not included), Bailey plans to laser-solder 18-karat gold prongs onto gold Apple Watches, set the bezel with diamonds and retrofit the tiny machines with a gold-and-diamond band.
Another customization with a leather strap will be available for $10,000 (again, sans watch). “We want to embrace the wearable technology market,” Bailey said. “Apple is the first one to turn it into a luxury item, we are seeing the future of luxury tech. It will be great to see how it plays out.”
But New York’s Avianne & Co. — a customization hub frequented by entertainers like Drake and Ciara — is taking a different approach to smartwatches. The jeweler creates removable casings that snap over a watch’s facade. Sometimes exceeding four carats in diamonds, the cases cost between $3,000 and $15,000.
Avianne & Co. began creating the smartwatch accessories last year after receiving customization orders for Samsung’s various Gear models. “You can’t really do anything to the physical watch case because the metal is too thin and the rest of it is basically plastic and all digitalized,” Joe Avianne, the jeweler’s chief executive officer, said of his concept.
An Apple spokesman declined to comment on Apple Watch customizations. A Samsung spokesman also declined comment on customized versions of its ‘Gear’ products.
When prodded about the legality of watch customization, many of the jewelers WWD spoke with cited the first-sale doctrine as a loophole and noted they do not plan to stock customized smartwatches as part of their inventory. According to them, it is up to the consumer to do what they like with their own property.
Brian W. Brokate, a trademark lawyer who has represented Rolex in cases against entities that customize Rolex products, said otherwise.
“First-sale is definitely not going to act as a complete defense, because of the modification process,” he said. “If you take a precision instrument like a watch, customize it, and the customization somehow negatively impacts the functioning of that watch and harms it, then under case law it could be deemed to be a counterfeit and is no longer the original product.
“If this becomes a phenomenon, I believe that Apple or the manufacturer of any smartwatch is going to have a good legal redress in the courts strictly on the principles of trademark law.”
Under this school of thought, according to Brokate, reselling a customized watch could be considered the same as selling a counterfeit good. “Some of the case law in the watch area goes so far as to say that not only can you not sell a customized watch, you also can’t perform the services that would result in the creation of a counterfeit,” he said.
Brokate added many watch companies simply steer consumers away from customization by dictating that modified products are not serviceable under warranty.