Laser Beams Offer a Personal Touch for Watch Owners

TOKYO — Possibilities already seem endless when it comes to acquiring a leather watch strap at a Jean Rousseau Paris atelier boutique. Each store combines a showroom and a workshop with a handful of artisans who guide customers into deciding every little detail to create their personalized band, including the type of leather (alligator is the most popular) and the exact hide area to be cut out (the reptile’s tail and belly feature bigger scales and the flanks smaller ones).

In 2020, Jean Rousseau introduced a laser-engraving service in its boutiques in Paris, London, Tokyo and New York City, allowing customers to share a visual that can be inscribed on the back of a timepiece’s strap.

“It’s like that photo people keep in their wallets, but instead, you can have it inside your watch strap, wear it on your wrist and always have it on you,” said Alexandre Lanos, the Japan general manager of Jean Rousseau.

Laser customizations include pet and wedding photos, children’s drawings, initials, or in one case, a photo of the Swiss watch boutique facade where a Japanese customer acquired a treasured timepiece.

“It allows the customer to immortalize a moment, a memory,” Mr. Lanos said. He explained that laser engraving is made by burning the leather, causing a distinctive smell during the process, and you can feel the ridged texture when you run your finger over the finished product.

“The color varies according to the level of burning,” he said. It works best on a calfskin lining, rather than directly on animal scales or dyed leather. The laser service costs about $50, depending on the store’s location.

In late May at the Tokyo boutique in the upscale Ginza district, the shop manager and craftsman Mototsugu Iida showed me how the machine, which could be mistaken for a photocopier, works.

I chose to have my name engraved, in an Edwardian font, inside a navy alligator strap I had tailor-made for my South Korean presidential watch. A custom alligator leather strap at the Tokyo boutique costs around 50,000 yen (about $460).

Mr. Iida typed my name at a computer connected to the laser machine. He placed the lining (which is later sealed onto the strap) inside the machine, shut the clear lid and pressed the start button. After about 10 seconds of rapid back-and-forth movements from the laser beam acting as a chisel, my name was engraved. (A photo, which is more intricate, takes less than a minute).

Naomi Maruyama, a fashion writer in Tokyo, recently came to the Ginza boutique to have her cherry red Jean Rousseau leather band engraved with an image of the Eiffel Tower, laced with roses — a visual she found online.

“It’s maybe a little embarrassing as a person who works in the fashion industry to confess this, but I haven’t been to Paris yet,” she wrote in an email. “It’s my dream place to visit. The Eiffel Tower is a significant symbol of Paris, and I dream to travel there with my watch.”

For Jean Rousseau, founded in 1954 in Besançon, in the heart of the French watch country, the use of technology seems to offer a striking contrast with their artisanal core. (The brand is allowed to use the Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant, or Living Heritage Companies, label, acknowledging artisanal or industrial savoir-faire).

Mr. Lanos views the machine as being at the service of craftsmanship. “It’s still a handmade product, but you can add something thanks to the technology,” he said. “The product is not denatured.”

For the craftsman Mr. Iida, the machine just assists him. “Craftsmanship takes two things: skills and spirit,” he said. “The machine has no spirit, only skills. But when I use the machine, I use both my skills and my spirit.”