Until 2016, Bamford Watch Department was a pariah to the Swiss watch industry. The company and its founder George Bamford were seen as a chop shop for prestige watches as they added their own artistry to pieces customized to order for customers. Official recognition by LVMH has changed all of that, and brought the business blinking into the light as an authorized personalization partner of Zenith, Bulgari and TAG Heuer. WatchPro’s Rob Corder caught up with Mr Bamford soon after his business secured official authorization to find out what it means to him.
It would have been tempting for George Bamford to join the family business when he returned to London after completing his university education in New York. After all, the family business is the construction machinery giant JCB (2017 turnover £2.6 billion), and his father is the group’s chairman Lord Bamford.
Mr George Bamford is proud of his family, and never permanently closed the door on a future role with JCB, but he agreed with his parents after university that he wanted to forge his own path in life and create a business of his own before considering any other options.
“I had always aspired to go into the family business, but my father said to me that I was not allowed in unless and until I have been successful or screwed up on my own dime,” Mr Bamford recalls. “You are not allowed a silver spoon. Go and do your own thing,” Mr Bamford recalls his father telling him.
Engineering is in the Bamford blood, but most of the family thinks of wheels, power units, gears and drive trains that are weighed in tonnes. George Bamford’s passion was on a smaller scale with the micro-engineering and artistry of mechanical watches.
“I am a geek and a collector of watches. I come from a long line of engineers in the Bamford family that can be traced back to the industrial revolution. My grandfather was an engineer and my father was an engineer. I love how mechanical things work. I used to take everything to bits. I used to take the TV to bits, the juicer to bits,” Mr Bamford laughs.
He was bitten by the Swiss watch bug when his father bought him and his brother Breitling Navitimers for Christmas in 1995; a not insubstantial gift, but Mr Bamford preferred to play with it than simply use it to tell the time. “That was the first watch that truly blew my mind. That holiday I took it to bits and it took me four weeks to put it back together, with a few things missing, but I was very precise about how I did it. A couple of months later I did it again to the same watch,” he recalls.
Mr Bamford was still a schoolboy at the time, but his love of horology continued to grow through his university days in New York. “I’d go to flea markets to buy watches like TAG Heuers and Omegas that I would take to bits and rebuild them. I’d trade with other people at the flea market, swapping watches or parts of watches. I had the shittiest tools imaginable, but it did not stop me learning and understanding watches,” he describes.
Back in the real world of London, and after his father had told him he had to make his own mark before joining JCB, Mr Bamford was casting around for a business idea. In around 2003 he attended a dinner party with the sort of wealthy friends with whom the Bamfords typically mixed and, as all watch-lovers do, he looked around at what people were wearing on their wrists. “I was wearing what for me was the ultimate watch, the thing I most wanted in the world, a Rolex Daytona. And I discovered that everybody around that dinner table was wearing a Rolex Daytona. I felt like my life had fallen to bits. That was the catalyst for me doing what I have done since,” he says.
The epiphany was that he, and he hoped a few of his friends, would rather wear a watch that nobody else owned, so he started taking apart common Swiss watches and customizing them. What began as a hobby for himself quickly turned into a small business. “I didn’t immediately go into the watch business, it was happenstance. I had a GMT Master and blackened it and wore it on holiday. People liked what I’d done and I got 25 orders. That is how my business started,” he remembers.
Customizing watches is the work of the devil to major watch brands like Rolex, Omega and Patek Philippe. Customization invalidates warranties for watchmakers who want their products to be properly maintained by authorized service centers, and never to be altered from the original way they were created. Mr Bamford claims he was unaware of this, and could not understand why the brands frowned on his efforts. “I did not really know. I was naïve,” he says. “I never knew that I was so disliked by the industry. I was like a jilted lover,” he adds.
His unrequited love of the Swiss watch industry continued for over a decade, during which time the customization business, which was named George Bamford Department (GBD), increased in size and sophistication. The business bought a townhouse in Mayfair, which is called The Hive, and established more robust systems for the dismantling, customizing and re-assembling of mechanical watches. Mr Bamford was the creative force, taking inspiration from the world around him and distilling his ideas into the dials, straps, cases and adornments of watches from all the major Swiss watchmakers.
Realistically, GBD was shaping up to be the sort of business that could have ticked the box marked “screwed up on my own dime”, and which could have driven Mr Bamford to JCB. But all that changed in 2016 when Jean-Claude Biver, TAG Heuer CEO & President of the LVMH Watch Division, metaphorically knocked on his door and started taking an interest in the personalization and customization of his company’s watches.
“Customisation and personalisation had been given a bad name, but I hope I was not part of that. I believe in integrity, I believe in my name. I have got quite a strong name that I have to keep good,” Mr Bamford says.
Mr Biver agrees. “He came into my office two years and said: come and work with us. We will embrace you; we will love you. And that is exactly what has happened since then. I have been showered with affection,” he describes.
BWD started working officially as an authorised partner of LVMH on Zenith and Bulgari in early 2017. That was followed up by the ultimate prize of being authorised to customise TAG Heuer watches in October of the same year.
As part of the contract with LVMH, Bamford has agreed not to customize and sell watches for any other brand, unless it has an official partnership with that brand, so there will be no more Rolex, Panerai or Omega watches going through its Mayfair workshop.
“We used to operate in the shade, but now we are in the light,” jokes Mr Bamford.
The company has certainly been accepted by LVMH. For a press briefing last year, Mr Biver sent a personal video message to mark the signing of a partnership with TAG Heuer. “I love George,” Mr Biver said. “Bravo for your passion, bravo for your innovation, bravo for your entrepreneurship,” he added.
This is the first time TAG Heuer has signed such a partnership, Mr Biver stated. “It is a new horizon; a new world,” he said.
The agreement means that BWD will source all watches, components and other supplies directly from the TAG Heuer Manufacture in La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland.
Customers are now able to design their own watches on the Bamford Watch Department website. They first choose model, in the case of TAG Heuer they can start with a Monaco, an Autavia or Carerra. Next they can choose the color of the dial, the markers, the logo, the hands. BWD says the customizer has over a billion options.
Right now there are no competitors for BWD with direct access to the major watchmakers of LVMH, and no other major Swiss watchmaker has authorized businesses offering the same service. That is likely to change, Mr Bamford believes. “Look at the automotive world: AMG, Brabbus, Ruf with Porsche. These are personalizing business that are part of the industry,” he says. The Swiss watch industry could and should go the same way, he adds.
The competition would likely be good for business, legitimizing an art form that is still viewed with suspicion by the purists.
Six months on from signing with TAG Heuer, Mr Bamford says he is delighted with the way things are moving. “2018 is set to be a really exciting year and while I can’t speak for LVMH, I am blown away by the partnership and the future looks very very bright. Business is amazing and I am always looking ahead and can’t wait for all to come,” he concludes.