The Bamford watch department, (for those of you that don’t know and shame on you if you don’t…) is a British watch company who alter, customise and collaborate with some of the greatest watch houses in the world. Recently they produced a limited edition of 25 El Primero heritage 146, with Zenith and retailed on Mr porter. Helmed by George Bamford who has spent his life searching for and creating unique items and objects, with an almost insane zeal for detail.
I arrive at Bamford watch department’s office and showroom on south Audley street and I’m shown into a heavily decorated room. Covered in wall clocks by the likes of Patek Phillipe, Tag Heuer, Audemars Piguet, Corum (there’s one I’d forgotten) and Hublot. Aside from the various oversized wall endowments from famed watch houses, there is a gaggle of memorabilia including believe it or not, more clocks, toy diggers, cigar cases and a brilliant photograph of Jean-Claude Biver and George Bamford. On the coffee table lie two large briefcases filled with the most elaborate and eclectic collection of custom watches I have ever seen.
George Bamford is clearly a man of passion and obsession which generally appears to be the case for men with great character. His stand out feature is certainly one of a collector, which ranges from collecting cars, stopwatches, calculators, smoking pipes, and of course watches. The door is pulled open, from behind appears the gleaming face of George. Who informs us shortly after, that his good mood is a result of a client demanding all of the Bamford watch Department’s Tag Heuer Monacos.
We are shown into another room in the front of the large townhouse which has become the HQ of BWD, with a crackling fireplace, sofa and two armchairs. Walls of course filled with books, photographs and yet more wall clocks. He compliments me on my choice of dress which is a turtleneck, blue jeans and 1970’s converse, incidentally he is also wearing the same get up. He says, “I think it’s like the trainered, turtleneck, bearded warrior look”.
“I’ve always been a collector.” he begins, “Really randomly I used to collect pipes, smoking pipes. This was before I was into anything else, I was obsessed with different engravings and it was more about the manufacturing of these objects and that it was a dying art. They were cheap and I used to go to flea markets to find them. I think it was that I wanted to discover. It was the Sherlock Holmes thing, gentlemen used to wear these. That was the beginning of the bug.”
“I would take the TV to bits, in the middle of the night, I would sneak down and pull the TV and the juicer to bits and rebuild it- I would make them better… kind of. I’d take the restrictor off the juicer so it would go faster. But it was finding out why, why is this like this? What’s the reason behind it?”.
His inquisitive personality is all about discovering, his relationship with the world is quite physical. “In 1996 I was given a Breitling Navitimer which was my second watch, my first was a Tag Heuer Formula one, which I think was my first ‘wow this is cool!’ moment. The Breitling was the first watch I stripped, so I took it to bits, (screwed it up) and put it back together- took it to bits (screwed it up) put it back together again. I had a very small screwdriver and a penknife so it was nothing professional. That gave me the first drive to want to learn how watches work, how does a clutch system work on a on a split second chrono? But there was no google so I had to go on this journey myself.”
This of course led to a new obsession with watches, and more importantly things out of the norm. “You don’t need a watch on your wrist to tell the time, but a watch brands you, it’s all about being different.” In a world where the watch market is so backed up with waiting lists for formerly unique objects, many have now become ubiquitous. This is at the core of BWD, the ability to be different, to have what no one else has, because it was made for you. When buying a watch from Bamford, the client is at the heart of the design process as each piece is painstakingly prepared to perfection for the new owner - or better yet designer.
When I asked what some of the more notable requests or special pieces he has produced for his clientele were, George reaches into a large Louis Vuitton watch case and pulls out a steel green dial sports watch, and hands it to me. He then says nothing for about a minute. “So this is a hand engraved El Primero, for me when you are talking about a watch like this, firstly it’s the 50 years of El primero which is one of the coolest things, and secondly the skulls, the beautiful hand engraving, Its mildly done it’s not deep, it’s not aggressive. it’s something completely different.”
The thing that stands out about BWD for me is the lengths they are willing to go to for their client’s satisfaction, “We’ve put people’s boats on the dial of their watch, we’ve been asked to match certain colours to the dial, we’ve matched the dial of a Monaco to the colour of the client’s Porsche, the second hand needed to be this specific colour. But for us it’s not the biggest of deals to go that far, because we care about each watch. What does the client want? We can spend ten minutes on the design, we can spend a year on the design. We are, at the moment going through a process with a client, tuning to the nth degree, how is this going to look? What’s the case going to be like? For me it’s about the individual feel.”
“I’m very lucky to have had Tag Heuer and Zenith come on board, it’s been a very good thing, El primero Heritage 146 is a really cool watch, created by zenith, we designed it and they made it, it was my want watch. The same as the Monaco,”
Now this was also for me the watch that started me off down this trail- I’d bought my first copy of GQ when I was a teenager (largely because Eva Green was on the front cover) and there was an article on the re-release of the Tag Heuer Monaco, featuring a number of stills from Le Mans with Steve Mcqueen. It is still a grail piece for me, so I spent the majority of the interview staring at the excellent example of the one on Georges wrist, needless to say it’s a Bamford custom.
“The Monaco rocks! I just love the Monaco, I love how the case is, how it has the double step on the case. When we were doing the BWD carbon Monaco, I wanted to keep this, the carbon had to have the double step [like the original]. When we were talking to the guys at Tag Heuer, I literally gave them my wishlist and they said ‘yeah sure... that’s easy we’ll do that.’ I was like what next?! The Moon? Mars?!”.
Aside from the Custom pieces BWD produce to order, they also have what George describes as “ready to wear”. The genesis of which comes from the almost (for lack of a better term) courtesy car watch Bamford would give to its clients when their piece was in for a service or a repair. Quite quickly a demand grew for these blacked out military inspired pieces known as the Mayfair, with ‘Property of the Bamford Watch Department’ on the dial. “We produced a number at the time and it was meant to be given back…” within a few months he was being chased by his clients for the black watch. “One client came to pick up his watch and said ‘I want another one,’ and they just started going- within two months all of them were gone. They were this asymmetrical military inspired case with a simple dial, it was much simpler than these.” He points to the coffee table, were a number of the Mayfair lie across a leather tray. “Then after this my clients kept calling me for this gift watch! Ok so you want to buy it off me? Ok this is cool. I couldn’t do it as I did before, I had to do it in the right way at the right price point and build it with a proper movement, the new date has a swiss quartz movement now, the case got smaller we wanted to upgrade, upgrade, upgrade. This here is what we did, (he picks up a Mayfair in black steel) and it flew! and it’s still flying.”
As well as watches, other wings of BWD are cigar cases in the form of something that looks like a big watch roll, “Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for me, I wanted them for me, because I’m a selfish git… No not really, but because there is nothing on the market like it, or nothing at that level. I love watch rolls, every time I had a cigar tube there is only one or two spaces I wanted something I could give to people that would make them think they are getting a watch! (testament to Georges wicked sense of humour,) It fits x amount of cigars [depending on ring gauge] and you pop in one of the gel packs and you are ready to rock! That fits a week’s cigars.”
More recently BWD have released their own steel automatic Known as the GMT, it has the layout of a steel sports watch with an internal rotating bezel and a fourth hand for a second time zone, “I wanted something at a good price point, the GMT is £1,100, they’re not overly expensive- this was the watch I wanted to create myself. We agonised how the bracelet feels on the wrist, it has two time zones and a swiss movement. I travel a lot, flying is never a joy anymore, which is the sad thing- I used to love flying, I feel almost like one of the crew now. The biggest thing I had with two time zone watches was; I always hated that when I went to sleep, I’d always move the bezel, so I changed it. I wanted to feel true quality, it feels luxurious, it feels everything that price point should be and more”. The GMT is my personal favourite of the Bamford ready to wear group, it encompasses elegance and practicality with a nod to the 1960’s and 70’s golden age of watch design, it feels like something that has transcended time and come out of the mind of someone that truly understands watches and perhaps more importantly what they need to be.
The new Mayfair Date launches on the 1st of February check it out on their site,
Words by Tom Heap
Images by Jordan Stephens