George Bamford hates the word ‘disruptor’. although he doesn’t deny being one himself. Since 2003, the founder of Bamford Watch Department (BWD) has been customising luxury watches. The reason: to rediscover the lost art of personalisation in the age of mass production.
The company’s motto is “If you can imagine it, we can create it” and BWD means business. Dials are treated and cases reworked, often to the chagrin of major watch brands which in the past have threatened to void the warranties of timepieces that have undergone BWD’s personal touch.
Even the watch community was divided: why would anybody want to pimp a perfectly good watch that costs tens of thousands of dollars? But for every naysayer, there are just as many admirers and BWD’s knack for creating blackout watches – most notably Rolexes – through a DLC (diamond-like carbon) process turned heads and earned the company a cult following.
Fast forward to the present day and its boyish 36-year-old founder has gone from rebel of the luxury watch industry to “official customiser” of TAG Heuer, Zenith and BVLGARI which fall under the timepiece stable of luxury group LVMH.
BWD timepieces are now sold at retailers like Dover Street Market (DSM), and Mr Bamford was in Singapore just before Chinese New Year to launch a DSM-exclusive Zenith El Primero timepiece which it collaborated with Japanese multi-disciplinary imprint Fragment on.
Surprisingly, that watch isn’t black: Fragment’s founder-designer Hiroshi Fujiwara and BWD have instead opted to strip back the El Primero to its bare stainless steel minimum. It’s a little unexpected but then again, that is precisely what you’d expect from a disruptor.
BWD’s collaboration with Fragment has had hypebeasts falling over themselves since the watch was unveiled on the Internet. How did that partnership come about?
I’ve worked with Hiroshi before over the last decade or so, but not on watches – he’s a good friend and almost like a godparent to my kids. Having Fragment on board is one of those things I’ve always wanted and although people know BWD for our black watches, this goes in the total opposite direction and I love it. We sent about four or five dial designs back and forth before we agreed on the final look.
Even before it launched, the watch has almost sold out at the pre-sale stage. Are there plans to increase the supply to meet the demand?
No, I love the small production run we have because we don’t want to be on everybody’s wrists. (Most BWD pieces are one-offs and limited editions like the BWD x Fragment Zenith El Primero have small runs of 20 pieces or less.) It’s like when I first went to Japan and brought back a very rare pair of Nike shoes, it created a buzz because everybody asked me where I got it from.
That sounds similar to how BWD got started: you customised your own vintage Rolex Submariner and received 25 orders immediately after wearing it out for the first time.
For me, I’ve come to realise most things in this world are attainable, but when something is rare and you put it on your wrist, it feels good.
Growing up, were you always “customising” things around the house?
As a kid, I used to get up around 5am – I still do – and my mother and father would wake up later to find me taking the juicer or television apart. I was banned from the kitchen and living room, and my parents must have gone through about 40 to 50 juicers and televisions during my childhood. But I did it because I wanted to know how things work. I’m dyslexic so I’m not good at reading – I learn by seeing.
How did that lead to watches?
My parents bought me a 1955 Breitling Navitimer for £200 quid (S$370) one Christmas around 1994 or 1995 and that was what started it all. They thought, “Here’s a nice watch and you’re very lucky to get one” but the next thing they knew was (mimics action of dismantling said watch) “pop pop pop”. I didn’t have the right tools or even a cloth – I just had one of those screwdrivers for glasses and a penknife – and there I was popping the glass on and off, releasing the crown then putting it back in, while springs went flying everywhere. But that Navitimer taught me about watches and I love how there is something alive in them because of the movements.
What turned watch customising into a career?
When I first started the business about 15 years ago, everybody was blinging things up like Jacob the Jeweller (who is also behind high-end jewellery and watch retailer Jacob & Co) but I wanted to try something unique. My family runs (multinational construction equipment company) JCB and one day I went to the R&D department to ask about the DLC process. I asked what colour does it produce, they told me black, and I ended up making a watch for myself using it.
You’ve gone from outsider of the high-end watch industry to now having LVMH endorse BWD’s creations and appointing your company as its official customiser. How does that feel?
To have someone like Jean-Claude Biver (president of LVMH Watch Division) saying we should work together made me go “wow” because it feels good. The thing is. personalisation has become the future of luxury. They go hand in hand now, when it was just a buzzword 14 to 15 years ago. When you go into any high-end boutique today, you’ll definitely find some sort of customisation service being offered and I believe most watch houses will follow suit in two to three years. Personalising your watch and having your initials on it says the timepiece is yours. Which is why you rarely see our watches being re-sold because people feel a sense of ownership and hold onto them much longer.
This story was originally published in The Business Times.