Not that long ago, the name George Bamford brought mainstream watch brands out in a cold sweat. The young British entrepreneur earned the displeasure of Switzerland’s finest by taking their watches, customising them, and then selling them on at a premium. The bravado!
But as the introduction of the Zenith Solar Blue – a collaboration between Mr Porter, Zenith and the Bamford Watch Department – this week reminds us, those days are long gone.
Bamford became famous for putting Rolexes through his customisation workshop, coating them in black DLC, adding colourful themes or stories (he once placed a Beatles Yellow Submarine on the end of a Rolex Datejust’s seconds hand) and – with self-confident swagger – adding his name to their dials.
Rolex, for its part, was not impressed. It neither supplied Bamford, nor would it service a watch he’d customised, even though he didn’t touch the mechanics.
The Rolex side of his business is now on hiatus, and in its place have come official relationships with LVMH brands TAG Heuer, Bulgari and Zenith. The Bamford Watch Department is now the world’s only official customiser of their watches.
The partnerships are two-pronged. There are the limited-edition pieces, such as this year’s 500-piece carbon-fibre TAG Heuer Bamford Monaco; or that freshly minted 25-piece Zenith Solar Blue that will be sold exclusively via online men’s style portal Mr Porter from November 15.
And then there’s the ‘build your own’ customisation facility on the Bamford Watch Department website. Those same brands have given him licence to customise every aesthetic detail, so that those who find a steel, black-dialled Carrera a bit dull can have the case blackened and the detailing in orange, blue, green… even Ferrari red.
“The fact remains that George Bamford is fast becoming a serious industry player.”
Bamford, who has also just announced a limited edition clock with Detroit’s Shinola, has said privately that further brands are on their way. Why wouldn’t there be? Personalisation has been a buzzword in luxury for some time, and yet few brands have found a way of commercialising it. It’s all very well getting Roger Dubuis to create a bridge in the shape of your initials, but what if you want a yellow-dialled Octo Solotempo with green hour markers and a blue date for under £10,000 (Bamford is based in London).
Perhaps the premiums don’t make it worth it. But then TAG Heuer says the Bamford Monaco sold out in six minutes.
What’s interesting about these partnerships is how they have legitimised Bamford’s business. Before he was a disruptor; now he’s on the inside.
The LVMH connection came through the recently retired industry legend Jean-Claude Biver (who happens to share the same initials as George Bamford’s grandfather, the founder of the JCB heavy equipment empire), who as head of LVMH’s watch division gave Bamford the keys to his kingdom.
Biver, as we wrote recently, is a master of transformation. He revived Blancpain in the 1980s, injected life back into Omega in the 1990s and then turned Hublot into the global megabrand it is now in the 2000s. Biver knows something marketable when he sees it and his endorsement of the Bamford Watch Department has given it the kiss of life.
Last autumn, Bamford launched the Mayfair, a time-only quartz watch named after the affluent London borough where his studio and workshop are based. Coming in a variety of colours and retailing at $550/£425, it’s part of a growing cohort of so-called weekend watches – a sort of Swatch for playboys. Bamford says it’s been a huge success and he’s due to launch a number of extensions to his debut collection in the coming months.
To some he will always be the enfant terrible of luxury watches, and his spins on classic pieces divide opinion. But the fact remains that George Bamford is fast becoming a serious industry player.