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Making the Apple Watch mine

Updated Dec 19th, 2018 9:04PM EST
Apple Watch Bands
Image: Zach Epstein, BGR

I’ve come full circle.

I was probably 10 or 11 years old when I first fell in love with watches. I noticed a peculiar looking device on my grandfather’s wrist and upon further investigation, I came to learn that it was a digital watch with a special sensor that could read your pulse. I had absolutely no reason to ever know my pulse, but I was blown away by the fact that I could hold my finger on a watch and have it tell me how fast my heart was beating.

I ended up getting the same watch for my birthday a few months later, and so began my decades-long love affair with watches.

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Over the past 25 years, give or take, I have owned dozens of watches. I began collecting them in elementary school, buying a new Casio here and there with allowance money I saved. Then once I got to junior high school and high school, my tastes changed and I moved from digital to mechanical. I remember how excited I was the first time I bought a “nice” watch — a Steve McQueen edition Monaco from Tag Heuer.

Coincidentally, that was also the last time I purchased a watch with a square face until just recently, when I bought a stainless steel Apple Watch.

Following the Apple Watch’s unveiling and prior to the first time I was able to test one in person, I was not impressed. Professionally, I was quite excited to see a new category of product unveiled by the largest consumer electronics company in the world. Personally, however, I really didn’t see anything that might be worth ditching my mechanical watches for.

Now that I own one, I really don’t know what is to become of my Swiss watch collection.

Let’s take a step back for a moment.

The Apple Watch is Apple’s first entry into the emerging smartwatch market, and it’s also the first smartwatch worth even considering. While there are one or two Android-powered watches that look decent enough on the wrist, Android Wear itself offers a user experience that is, for the time being, terrible. I have discussed Android Wear at length in the past, and I won’t bother diving into it again.

Unlike Android Wear, the Apple Watch’s interface and user experience are ideal for wearable devices. Navigation is logical, with taps and swipes supplemented by twists and pushes of the device’s crown. This detail is especially great because it ties together the old world of mechanical watches with the brave new world ushered in by the Apple Watch.

One of the most interesting things about the Apple Watch for me is how poor a job Apple has done of effectively communicating the experience in its launch event, advertising and marketing. You really won’t know what it’s like to use one until you try it. This is especially important because the Apple Watch launch was, in my opinion, a complete mess.

In time, it won’t matter. But in the early days, it mattered. From top to bottom, Apple completely mismanaged the announcement, production and launch of its Watch. This device ushers in a new era at Apple and if its debut is any indication, it will be quite a chaotic era, indeed.

Until recently, you could not even walk into an Apple Store and buy an Apple Watch. You also couldn’t walk into an Apple Store and order an Apple Watch. In fact, you couldn’t even walk into an Apple Store and try an Apple Watch. Instead, you had to book an appointment to try one and even when you arrived at that appointment, you couldn’t strap a working Apple Watch to your wrist to test. Instead, you had to test a working unit that was bolted to a table while you tried on dummy units to see how they looked and felt.


Then, if you decided to purchase one, good luck to you. Most models took more than a month to be delivered to your door unless you decided to buy one on eBay or Craigslist.

Yes, this is a device unlike anything Apple has ever sold in the past, and yes, mix was an issue. Had Apple ensured its partners actually managed to build a fair amount of inventory ahead of launch, however, many of the problems we saw could have been avoided. Aside from the Edition, which will make up a minuscule fraction of Watch sales, there are only four versions of the 42mm model and and four versions of the 38mm model. It really shouldn’t have been that complicated for Tim Cook, master of the supply chain, to manage.

Once you finally get your hands on one, though, you’ll find that it was worth the wait.

For me, the toughest hurdle to get past with the Apple Watch has been the simple fact that there is only one design option. I spent years building a collection of mechanical watches that vary dramatically in terms of style, shape and features. I researched for weeks on end to find uncommon watches that were set apart from the crowd.

I didn’t just walk into a store and ask for a Rolex, because Rolexes are boring and common. When it comes to watches, I have always liked to venture off the beaten path.

With the Apple Watch, however, there is only one path. They’re all the same. I don’t wear yellow gold, and I would never buy an unproven $12,000 watch that might not hold any value even if I did wear yellow gold. But even if I was interested in the Edition model, it’s still the same watch.

So I set out to make the Apple Watch mine.

The first and simplest step when it comes to customizing the Apple Watch experience is to customize the faces. Apple included 10 different watch faces on the device, and for the time being third-party faces are not supported. That will change in time — Apple’s upcoming WatchOS 2.0 release will already add support for third-party complications — but for now, only Apple’s faces are allowed on the Watch. That said, Apple has done a tremendous job of creating a wide range of options that will appeal to a wide range of users.

Apple’s animated faces are phenomenal, though I don’t use any of them personally. The jellyfish in particular is absolutely stunning on the Apple Watch’s OLED display; Apple created the face by actually filming a jellyfish at a very high frame rate.

I find myself sticking to three main faces on my Watch. The one that sees the most time is the “Simple” face, though I also use the “Chronograph” and “Utility” faces.

It took me quite some time to get the colors and complications just right, and I love that Apple lets you add and save additional configurations of each face so that you can easily switch back and forth. For example, I often use the Simple face with blue highlights when I have a blue crocodile band on my watch, but I switch to red highlights when I use my red nylon band.

And speaking of bands…

Finding new bands for my Watch was important for two reasons.

First, Apple’s OEM bands are terrible. Just, terrible. They all look great from afar, but the quality and materials are not even close to being on par with even the most basic band you would find on a luxury watch.

Beyond that, bands are a great way to separate my Apple Watch from the millions of other Apple Watches out there, which are otherwise ostensibly identical. Again, it took me years of digging around different boutique brands with rare, unique offerings before I found the right mechanical watches that would set my collection apart. Now, I’m wearing what is already one of the most popular watch models in the world.

As it happens, I’m something of a collector when it comes to watch bands. Nothing in my mechanical watch collection has an original strap. Instead, I buy third-party bands from a wide range of sources to spice up the look of my watches, and also to allow me to switch up the look of each watch.

It all started many years ago with my first Panerai. As any Panerai owner will tell you, straps quickly become an addiction that is almost impossible to shake. That’s probably why in a few short months, I’ve already amassed more than a dozen new bands for my Apple Watch.

Changing bands isn’t as simple on the Watch as it is with most other timepieces — instead of a simple springbar that holds the strap in place, Apple uses adapters that need to be removed and disassembled in order to use an aftermarket band.

For the time being, you cannot purchase these adapters from Apple. Instead, you have two choices: you can use the adapters that come with Apple’s $150 Classic Buckle band, or you can buy third-party adapters made in China and sold on eBay. I have several sets of each, and there is a noticeable difference in most cases.

The fit of most Chinese knockoff adapters ranges from terrible to still pretty bad, though I have come across a set or two that fit just about as well as Apple’s adapters. Even the ones that just provide and alright fit are usable though, and they generally cost about 3-5% of what you’ll pay Apple for a band that comes with adapters.

Now, for those looking to spice up the look of their Apple Watch with a custom strap, it’s important to note that there is a tremendous amount of bad information out there.

First and foremost, the size of the strap you’ll need is often listed incorrectly on other websites. Adapters for the 42mm Apple Watch take a band that is 24mm wide at the lugs, while the 38mm Watch adapters will need a 22mm-wide strap for a snug fit. If you get straps that are any narrower at the lugs, they will slide around and your watch will be off-center.

Next, if you choose to use Apple’s adapters from the Classic band, you’ll need a special five-point screw driver to remove the tiny screws that hold each adapter together. Apple uses pentalobe screws and there are no drivers that fit them perfectly. Instead, you need to purchase a 5-point driver and use a metal file to carefully grind the tip down to size.

You can go with a cheap screwdriver if you want, but it’s ridiculously easy to strip the screws Apple uses. I bought this set on Amazon and filed the tip of the 3PL driver down until the fit was perfect.

Then, I went crazy…

I have someone in Vietnam I’ve been using for years, and I had him custom build a few straps for me out of different skins like the blue crocodile in the image above (left). Most of my old mechanical watches take 22mm straps, so my old bands from this great maker aren’t a good fit for the Apple Watch. My Panerai watches take 24mm straps, but they’re far too bulky for the Apple Watch’s sleek look.

For leather bands, I’ve bought straps from a few different companies. My favorites so far were purchased from Australian brand Bas & Lokes, which uses fantastic leathers and produces bands of consistently high quality.

I also like NATO straps made of leather or nylon, though this style can’t be used with the Apple Watch because it would cover the sensors on the back of the device. Instead, I purchased a few two-piece nylon straps from DaLuca and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, DaLuca didn’t have my favorite color as a two-piece strap, so I bought the standard NATO version and took it to a shoemaker to cut and re-sew.

If you’re not a watch lover, you probably think I’m insane at this point. I’ve spent far more money on straps than it cost me to buy the Watch itself. But watches are about style and expression. They are about fashion and individuality, not just about utility. While Apple offers a reasonable range of straps, it can’t come anywhere close to addressing the tastes of every user out there. Apple also doesn’t offer any straps at all that are truly high-end, made from exotic skins and rare or high-quality leathers.

Also of note, things don’t end with strap purchases. I also had to hunt around for the right dock to use while I charge my Watch each night, since fumbling with a loose charger each evening is annoying. Boostcase also sent me a great portable charger called the BLOC Power Bank, which I use when I travel. Think of the BLOC as a portable smartphone battery pack, but for the Apple Watch. It includes a built-in battery and Apple’s charger cable weaves into the aluminum on the bottom of the brick. The magnetic connector disc then fits snugly into a slot, and the Watch sits on top to charge.

My advice to skeptical mechanical watch lovers who don’t believe the Apple Watch can fill those mechanical shoes is this: try it. Not just in the store, though. Take advantage of Apple’s great return policy, buy one, and live with it for at least a few days.

Know this, watch fans: you can have an Apple Watch and still set yourself apart. I worried that this mainstream watch couldn’t possibly make me happy after spending years seeking out unique mechanical watches that set me apart. Instead, I quickly found that the benefits afforded by all of the Apple Watch’s great features outweighed any sense of individuality I thought I might be losing.

Plus, you can still make it yours.

I was beyond skeptical at first. I knew Apple was onto something and I knew the company would certainly become the market leader right away. But for me personally, the idea of replacing my mechanical watch collection with this cheap, nerdy, digital device seemed ridiculous.

Now, I simply can’t be without it. I can’t wear a mechanical watch anymore. Trust me, I’ve tried. Not being able to perform the simple, quick functions facilitated by the Apple Watch is too frustrating to deal with. I have already sold off some of my watch collection, and the rest is collecting dust in a winder box.

And speaking of coming full circle, it’s interesting to me that I’ve now spent most of my life lusting after mechanical watches. Meanwhile, a digital watch that can monitor the wearer’s heart rate was the first watch I ever loved, and another one may end up being the last watch I’ll ever love.

Zach Epstein
Zach Epstein Executive Editor

Zach Epstein has been the Executive Editor at BGR for more than 10 years. He manages BGR’s editorial team and ensures that best practices are adhered to. He also oversees the Ecommerce team and directs the daily flow of all content. Zach first joined BGR in 2007 as a Staff Writer covering business, technology, and entertainment.

His work has been quoted by countless top news organizations, and he was recently named one of the world's top 10 “power mobile influencers” by Forbes. Prior to BGR, Zach worked as an executive in marketing and business development with two private telcos.