Personalizing Cartier & Rolex with laCalifornienne

09 August, 2017

How do you personalize an iconic object without denaturing it? Drawing inspiration from the Golden Coast’s sunsets, watch connoisseurs Leszek Garwacki and Courtney Ormond reimagine vintage luxury watches for modern day wearers through their e-shop laCalifornienne. We sat down with Leszek to discuss the history of heritage watch brands and get a window into his inspiration.

When did vintage watches start to become popular?

I would say there is a turn around the year 2000 when auction houses like Christie’s started promoting vintage sport-model watches as part of their sales catalogs. For over fifty years, if you bought a Swiss watch, mainly a Rolex, you technically didn’t need to buy another watch for the rest of your life. Auction houses in Geneva started promoting vintage Rolex Submariner, Explorers, GMT-Master next to “proper” dress watches made by Patek Phillipe and Vacheron Constantin, and other brands of that calibre. At the time, there was not a market for these old utilitarian watches. You can find old auction catalogs and see watches that are now worth over $100,000 that barely sold for a tenth of their value just two decades ago.

How did you get into vintage watches?

I was born in Venezuela and I grew up in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Miami. When we traveled as a family, my father and I would visit vintage watch shops; it was always surprising what you may find because watches tend to age differently from one another. Also, this was pre-internet so the prices were different everywhere.

What can you tell me about the wristwatch in general?

The wristwatch was mainly made popular by women that wore them as part of their jewelry. For men, soldiers returning from battle in World War I. Both these factors led to gentlemen, who’d otherwise have pocket watches, to wearing a wristwatch. At that time, it was not a gentleman-like thing to do, to wear a bracelet of any kind, because it would be considered jewelry.

The tank watch customized by laCalifornienne

Could you tell us a little bit more about the history of the Cartier Tank?

The story of the Tank dates back to century ago. In 1917 Louis Cartier makes a prototype for a wristwatch with inspiration from the Renault tanks in the western front. He gifts that prototype to Gen. John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in France. Although he had made a few watches before, Louis Cartier was a world-renowned jewelry designer, watches were not his expertise. If you see women’s wristwatches from that era, they look more like jewelry a with a small mechanical movement that tells time.

What popularized the wristwatch?

I think it was originally a function rather than form or fashion situation for men. If you need to tell time and need to use both your hands, you cannot have a pocket watch. For instance, soldiers during World War I, needed both hands and a timer to calibrate a machine gun. My thought is that soldiers came back from the war wearing wristwatches that had been issued by the military and thus it could not possibly not be masculine to wear something on your wrist. Also, men could wear a wristwatch while playing sports. For instance, the face-flipping function on the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso is to protect the watch crystal while playing polo or tennis. It was actually co-developed to a certain extent with the Tank.

Can you tell us how you started altering watches?

For our wedding anniversary, I gave my wife Courtney a Cartier Tank that had the a white dial, black roman numerals, blue hands, and a black lizard strap. Courtney wore it for a few years and then stopped wearing it. I noticed and eventually asked, “why don’t you wear it? It goes with everything,” her response was, “no, I don’t think so. I think it needs have more of my personality.” So we started to work on her personal watch because I was already restoring vintage watches, only for men, mostly sport models. For years, I had been collecting vintage watches but also had been buying spare parts, which I always found more interesting. Usually, you come across parts when a watchmaker retires and has collected a lifetime of vintage parts that he removed from watches he worked on. I learned that watchmakers never get rid of anything, even if it doesn’t work. Following the same standards as the vintage watches I was restoring for myself, it was of utmost importance that everything we modified had to be original to the watch, which is something that ultimately becomes very important for laCalifornienne.

laCalifornienne's original band wrists and buckles

And how did people react to your reimagined Cartier?

It was not uncommon to have people stop her and what kind of watch she was wearing. There was always surprise when she explained that it was a vintage Cartier Tank that we had decided to personalize.

What made it different and surprising?

It was the antithesis of how I had been building watches in the sense that I was always seeking originality and never to veer off what the manufacture originally did.

How do you choose colors them?

It's very interesting, the color psychology, when it comes to combining the dial with band colors and what we get as the result of testing different things. Not all colors work. We have a Spring and a Fall collection, and we are constantly testing different ideas that could ultimately work for the future or for custom orders.

How do you source donor watches?

We source from all around the world. We make sure we buy only watches that are in the best possible condition. The watches so well engineered. Most of our watches are from the ’60’s through the ’80’s, and they will continue to work properly for the next 40 years.

The original design is still being produced, and is still successful to this day?

I think it’s interesting that they kept the rectangle shape. Their watch essentially hasn’t changed in a hundred years. They had different iterations of it. The one that stays true to the original the most is the 'Louis Cartier' model. In 100 years, they’ve never really made major to the design. I love the idea of things designed so well, they don’t necessitate change.

A Cartier tank watch customized by laCalifornienne

What about the Oyster? It's the first waterproof watch, right?

Correct. Rolex had a marketing campaign in 1927, in which they gave an Oyster watch to a swimmer named Mercedes Götze. She tried to swim the English Channel. She didn’t quite make it to the end. There was a big controversy about how the challenge ended. The headline the next day, though, was that her Rolex swimproof Oyster watch was still ticking, with no water in the movement. That’s the birth of the Oyster.

Where does watch innovation come from?

Although watch design seems to stay timeless, watches have come a long way in the past 50 years. It seems like such an obvious thing today that the watch has a date, an automatic movement, that it’s waterproof, but when Rolex introduced the first watch that offered the date, the self-winding rotor, the first self-winding watch (the Oyster Perpetual)… all these pioneering additions flipped the watch market on its head. More importantly, they were incredibly reliable as a time keeping tool - not something you could say of every watch brand at the time. Everybody else who’d been making watches the same way for 200 years had to reach the Rolex standard. I think that’s one of the reasons why they’ve never felt the need to change their designs. A Rolex is a Rolex, if it's from the ’50s or brand new out of the factory.

What do you think about the California spirit you're using to inject in those luxury objects? Is this something you're seeing more and more in L.A.: mixing the old and the new?

Courtney is originally from L.A., so she's witnessed first-hand the transformation the city has had in the past few decades. When I was 18 years old, I had an Italian friend who told me, “If you're moving anywhere, you have to move to California,” and that’s how I ended up here. So many people come here with this idea of being able to do whatever it is you want to do. We certainly do see it in fashion and architecture. There's something about the innovation coming out of Los Angeles that’s so powerful, the influence that it has. We love that energy about a place. L.A. is spread out. It’s big, it's all unorganized, but it's a state of mind that’s hard to replicate or find anywhere else, and it's nice that it's been that way for the past 50 years.

Is that why you named your company laCalifornienne?

Right, that’s why we chose the name. We do give it a spin that perhaps has not been seen before. That’s the idea.

Words by Leszek Garwacki and The Editors. Top and bottom photo: Molly Cranna. All other photos: laCalifornienne.

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