By now, most collectors have probably heard of George Bamford, the founder of Bamford Watch Department. Known for his beautifully executed custom variations of prestigious luxury watches from Rolex, Audemars Piguet, and Patek Philippe (among others), Bamford is a polarizing figure—especially to the brands whose watches he modifies—but he has brought a level of legitimacy to the world of watch customization that could not be found in years past. Of course, those in charge of the aforementioned brands still take issue with the customization industry, as we learned after running our Watch of the Week coverage of a Bamford Daytona, but there is no denying the ever-growing call for bespoke services in horology, and if the brands themselves will not provide an option, then operations like Bamford’s will continue to flourish.
The last time we spoke with George, it was evident that he had quite an obsession with vintage watches, so when the opportunity arose to drop in on Bamford headquarters in London, we opted to have a sit-down with Bamford to learn more about the man behind the business, what fuels his passion for horology, and what his outlook is on the industry as a whole.
Robb Report: Tell us a little about how Bamford Watch Department got started.
George Bamford: At a personal level, it started with an old Breitling Navitimer I picked up back in 1995. That’s what really fired up my fascination with watches, and where I started collecting vintage. It was beat up, it had the wrong hands on it, but I loved it. Shortly after buying it, I set myself to tearing it apart and had it all into bits in about a week. Putting it back together was another story. I think it took me about a month to get it all back together and running properly. After that, it was the black Rolex Daytona you see here that was the trigger for starting my business. I was so excited to own that watch, and I was out for dinner with the family, and next thing I knew, I spotted the same watch on the wrist of a half dozen or more folks in the room. I was gutted. I loved the watch, but I wanted a Rolex that was different than everyone else’s. I decided to make a black Rolex GMT Master, and after wearing it around for a summer I wound up with 25 orders and the business was born.
RR: Do you still have the Navitimer? Is that the oldest watch in your collection now?
GB: I do, and it is. The best part is, after all these years, the thing still runs!
RR: When it comes to collecting personally, what is your favorite era?
GB: Definitely the ’60s and ’70s. There’s just so much that came out of that period: bright colors, funky cases, etc. Heuer launched some of its best ever in that era. I’m currently having my team refurbish a silver-dial Monaco and one of those massive Heuer Calculator watches from the early ’70s.
RR: Do you have a favorite watch complication?
GB: Well, I have two answers for you on this. At a technical level, I love the split-seconds chronograph. The way those movements are put together, the way the cam systems work, they’re just so cool. On the complete other end of the spectrum, I love a good date wheel.
RR: A date complication? Really?
GB: You know, it’s so simple, but it’s also the kind of thing that you can play around with in terms of watch design. Placement is crucial. There are ample options to match the date wheel to dial colors or use it to provide contrast. Plus, it’s still incredibly practical, even if it is a little boring.
RR: Of all the watches in your collection, is there one you single out as a favorite?
GB: Definitely, though sadly it’s at home at the moment. As far as collectability goes, it’s not that special either. It’s an old Rolex Milgauss from the ’80s I wore when my wife and I got engaged, when we got married, and when each of my three children were born. The funny thing was it was never really planned that way, but it was just my go-to watch for so long that it happened to be with me through these momentous occasions in my life. I could never let it go now.
RR: Is there a watch out there that you are hunting for at the moment, or that you would just love to own one day?
GB: I’ve had my eye on more of the smaller independent brands out there lately. Both F.P. Journe and Laurent Ferrier are building some beautiful watches that I would love to add to my collection eventually. Though completely different, I’d love to own a Richard Mille one day just on account of their lightness and the engineering that goes into the watches. A. Lange & Söhne is another one on my radar.
RR: Fair enough. When you travel, how many watches come with you?
GB: It varies, but it’s safe to say I average about one per day that I’m gone.
RR: What’s one thing you love about this industry?
GB: A big part of it for me is the personalities. We’re all just a little nuts, you know? We’re not changing the world or anything, but we’re all just so in love with what we do, and there aren’t a lot of industries that are like it. We’re operating in a world where we’re constantly asking ourselves “why not?” and “why can’t I?”
RR: Speaking of personalities, do you have a favorite out there?
GB: He takes so much flak, but I’ve gotta say Jean-Claude Biver [of TAG/LVMH]. The man’s a maverick. He’s been at this forever, he’s constantly taking new approaches to business, and no matter what happens, he’s not letting the industry bring him down. People can say what they want, but clearly what he’s doing is working.
RR: What trends have you been seeing this past year that you’re a fan of?
GB: It’s the fact that the voice of the individual is louder than it’s ever been. Brands are hearing the call from collectors more and more these days. Just look at the “Speedy Tuesday” edition Speedmaster. Omega launched a special edition for direct web sale—through social media! That would never have happened three or fouryears ago.
RR: Is there something you wish we would see more of in the industry?
GB: Personalization. The demand for personalization in the luxury world as a whole is booming, and I think slowly we will see more brands getting in on the action. Jaeger-LeCoultre already tiptoed into it with Atelier Reverso, but I suspect the market will expand. If Rolex turned around tomorrow with a fully bespoke personalization service, I’d close my doors. All kidding aside, if Rolex offered what I’m doing with Bamford Watch Department, I’d be fighting to be the first customer in the line.