The Bamford Watch Department founder on light-bulb moments and his reinvention of the Rolex and the bike
Interview by Peter Howarth
There is something of the restless Bond villain about George Bamford. Sitting in a lounge at the Bamford Watch Department in Mayfair, he is surrounded by photos of the work he has done customising timepieces, as well as by books, sleek modern furniture, and of course, the watches themselves, presented in the type of display boxes that a collector of fine jewellery might use to transport his precious cargo.
A large screen is mounted above the fireplace on a dark grey wall showing films Bamford has made that have an aesthetic born from his background as a photographer, his family’s history of engineering - his father is chairman of JCB, as was his grandfather - and his love of sports cars, old and new.
Everything here, in this dark den, feels male, technical, and slightly unconventional. And that’s because it is. Bamford, in smart but relaxed blue suit, pale blue shirt, tie and engineer’s heavy-framed specs, with swept back hair and a stack of friendship bracelets, is engaging and enthusiastic, with a rebellious streak that surfaces as he reveals that what he has made his name doing is not necessarily approved of by the watch industry. But for his customers, that very notion of maverick individuality is what it’s all about.
CS: You’re clearly not someone who feels restricted to one creative outlet. That said, your original calling was as a photographer. Where did that interest come from?
GB: It started at school. Ampleforth College, in Yorkshire, is very isolated, but a lovely place to be educated and, crucially for me, tough when necessary. I’m very dyslexic, so my writing is crap – although, somehow, I’ve still managed to write a book. My housemaster, Father Edward, was one of the nicest people on earth and obsessed with photography. He had the candour to tell me my academic career was unlikely to take me places and emphasised that I had to find a way of ‘getting on’. How right he was, as I had quite a naughty streak. But he realised that such a tendency can be harnessed into real creative drive. It was he who sent me to the college’s photography teacher, Mr King.
CS: A decisive moment?
GB: Definitely. I really hit it off with him. He taught me about Man Ray, daguerreotypes, the history of photography. But the real excitement was the science of my new discipline. I loved that you could take a picture and create it in a day through the delicate, intimate process of developing your own film. I discovered a new freedom: the sense that only I was master of the finished product. It was just so stimulating to be immersed in the ‘feel’ of the subject. I kept being found in the labs at 2am. I’d be asked what I was doing, but secretly I was unapologetic. I was enjoying something like never before. I even managed to do my photography O’level early. For the first time, a subject was making me ask ‘Can I do more?’ It was the start of the love affair.
CS: Did that initial passion continue into the job market? It seems to be the case with so many sectors of the creative industry that a more commercial focus can sometimes suffocate the initial passion that motivates people to enter a career in creativity.
GB: Well, a career can be the best way to improve. I worked for Metro as a printer in my summer holidays, which gave me a chance to obtain a bit of know-how. The first actual photographer I worked with was John Swannell, who, in my opinion, is a god of British photography. That was another fantastic opportunity and one that would launch me into the world of names like Rankin, Paul Aresu and Antoine Verglas - all experts I was very lucky to work with. But, eventually, the side you talk about made me start to lose the love - that pure excitement I experienced in the Yorkshire countryside. This creative innocence couldn’t run more contrary to the robotic nature a commercial drive can encourage.
CS: Yeah, I suppose working as a fashion photographer means there is more and more pressure to shoot things in a way that keeps advertisers happy.
GB: And a certain amount of shots required per day. Of course, when the recession hit, the number of pictures required daily of a photographer skyrocketed, whereas the pay decreased - shoots requiring three days crammed into one, in locations perhaps even as far as the Caribbean. It was pressure that killed the excitement I felt when photography was mine, when I had a day, on my own, with one film to develop. Selfish, I know, but the buzz from the outset has been crucial.
CS: So, how did you make the transition from photographer to personalised-watch creator?
GB: My photography led me to study design at Parsons. Photography was one calling, but design was another. I worked for different fashion houses in New York as a gopher, a dogsbody, but I enjoyed it. The experience led me to ask if I could explore new avenues - and voilà, the watch business! I started collecting vintage watches that I’d seek out in New York flea markets and I suppose I just started trading out of that – a Navitimer, smashed to bits, for an Octavia… This was about 14 or 15 years ago. It was a really fun time.
CS: So it was your sideline, in a way, trading these watches. Perhaps it was an early sign that you weren’t afraid to branch out into new sectors. And were you building up a collection for yourself?
GB: Absolutely. In fact it was a ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ moment in my personal collection that sparked the Bamford Watch Department. I’ll explain. I had a holy grail of watches: it’s the same for everyone, even if they won’t admit it: a Rolex Daytona. Even for those with a mere inkling of watch understanding, Rolex is your pinnacle. And a Rolex Daytona is your pinnacle on top of that. My ever-observant father knew I was obsessed and gave me one. There I was thinking I’d reached the dizzying heights of a watch collector’s zenith. I was wrong. Six months in, I turned up at this dinner party and around the table were at least eight or nine people with the same watch as me - even down to the dial. I realised it wasn’t special. That’s what defeated me. So I asked myself what I could do. I put that watch in the back of the safe. It only came out eight months ago on a weekend, after 12 years… I was like, ‘Hello, old friend.’ After that episode, I went off and bought two watches: an old Submariner and a GMT. They had no bracelets, so I put on a Nato strap, fixed the bars and blackened them.
CS: Now, that’s not something the entry-level watch designer would do. Did you have any Mr King figures guiding you through a trade that is so very technical?
GB: I’m lucky to come from a very design-capable background. My grandfather set up JCB and my father took the company to where it is now. I’m close friends with people in their research & development and design departments. I went to them and asked if there was anything that would change the surface of a Rolex. After an hour and a half of brainstorming, there were loads of different options on the table, but one coating shone out - it was used for boreholes in the oil industry. It was the discovery that started my business. They told me about a guy who had a tank of the stuff. I sent off both watches, stripped down and ready for coating. They came back black but with a note of blue; this would become the signature Bamford Watch Department colour. I reassembled the new pieces and gave one to my father, in return for the not-so-elusive Daytona. He put a blue Nato strap, with grey stitching down the centre, on his. Mine was on a green camo strap. We wore them that summer, not expecting the 25 orders from people who loved the look.
CS: So, thanks to a hobby, you found yourself with a viable business model.
GB: Yes, although this one crept up on me! I was like, ‘Christ, this is something different’. I knew I had to take it seriously. It was those 25 orders that kick-started me into creating the company. At the time I was still at Parsons and helping out my mother’s business, Bamford & Sons. I hired someone to manage the process while I did the sales. For those 25 orders, we didn’t make a profit, but we delivered them. The reason we didn’t make a profit was because vintage watches are always a bit ‘Frankenstein’ - never 100 per cent. You mention how I suddenly found myself with a viable business model - that wasn’t strictly true. The very nature of vintage watches means that, were we to continue using them, the unavoidable repairs and searches for obscure parts would have made profit impossible.
CS: You had to adapt the preferences of your hobby to the requirements of the commercial world…
GB: It was my vision that adapted the business. As a collector, I can absolutely accommodate a beautiful piece that doesn’t keep accurate time - that’s the history behind it. But to enter the watch market, the vintage models weren’t appropriate, so we moved to modern Rolexes. That’s where the business started picking up. I still pinch myself to this day. I think we were very lucky. It’s been the most white-knuckle rollercoaster ride.
CS: A progression into actual business, and one, given the success of all three of your ventures, to which you’re clearly well suited.
GB: Yeah, I’ve had a wonderful mentor in my father, but I still did it alone. Suddenly there was the taxman, the accounts department, water bills to pay. I’d only been a photographer, where you work on a money-in, money-out basis. This is where it was such a boost to have my father on hand. ‘Jamais content’ is our family motto - a good premise from which to improve a fledgling business. Now, as of last January, we have what I’ve wanted for a long time: our own space, where we’re having this interview now.
‘Mass market, cool product and high-end luxury slotting perfectly together. That’s Bamford Watch Department’
CS: A veritable factory, then? Do you have watchmakers here?
GB: Right on the top floor. There you can see stripping and assembling. Coating is off-site, outside London. We also have a coating facility outside New York. Dials are made in the UK and Switzerland, bezels in Switzerland.
CS: So the hobby lives on in a new manufacturing capacity. Do you make watches for a ready-to-wear collection?
GB: Yes, we have dealers worldwide, from Colette and Dover Street Market to Maxfield and Mr Porter. It depends on the time of year. When we hit the height of the summer, we’re at 37 dealers worldwide and, afterwards, we’re back to about 32. In summer, St Tropez and Sardinia open up - all our dealers have their second stores in different locations, so everything shifts. Then you have the Hamptons opening up…
CS: New watches that you pick up and think, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if…?’
GB: Well, I’d love to say, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun…?’, but someone gave me this saying that I work from: ‘Gotta want to steal it’. When you see it on someone’s wrist, you have to say, ‘Fuck, I love that watch’. ‘Why do I love that watch?’ I hope we produce that effect on a regular basis. An example is our design Snowtrooper, in steel with a white bezel. For Maxfield, we’re doing wacky neon watches with neon dials that they’re loving. Custom jobs suit us, and dealing at an international level, as our adaptability means we can create different styles for different areas. We also have our R&D and design departments constantly testing new ideas. I’m a pain in the arse, too, bringing in things that have caught my eye: anything from a coating to the grill of a car. There’s an atmosphere of debate: my vision versus their deep practical knowledge. We analyse markets around the world on a daily basis, not to replicate but to interact. Our Snowtrooper watch was named when a guy suggested it to me on Instagram - a fantastic means of interaction. I mean, I didn’t even know there was such thing as a Snowtrooper.
CS: And those looking for custom jobs come here - or can that also be carried out at a retailer?
GB: Here or at a retailer’s. They say what they want, and our design team sends the dealer images of five different designs in 48 hours. The customer can tweak aspects until he’s happy. If the client is happy, we go into production. Then it’s a lead-time of six to eight weeks for delivery.
CS: So, in a sense, you’re using your dealers as satellite bespoke shops. What does it add to the cost?
GB: Look at our website, click on ‘customiser’, then you go onto ‘personalisation’ and there’s the price - it’s a bit like Nike ID. I’ll admit I’m a bit obsessed by Nike ID. When it came about - probably 13 or 14 years ago - I realised I had to do personalisation. It was a light-bulb moment, just seeing how someone else got it so right! Mass market, cool product and high-end luxury slotting perfectly together. That’s Bamford Watch Department.
CS: Now, the elephant in the room: the watch industry. Does it approve? It’s notoriously protective.
GB: Someone once described me as the Antichrist. I’m not. My inspiration stems from an absolute love of the brands. I look up to them as these powerhouses. I would never want anyone to feel how I felt about their watch at that dinner party. Especially when you spent a fortune on it. God, it’s a spoilt thing to say that I felt my Rolex wasn’t rare enough. Really, it wasn’t that - more that a bubble was burst. Like when, as a child, you realise Santa Claus doesn’t exist.
CS: Does that mean the places where Bamford Watch Department timepieces are sold are more likely to be boutique shops such as Colette or Dover Street Market than a watch store?
GB: Well, actually, every week we have four or five different watch stores asking to stock us. That sounds really arrogant, but they want something unique for their clients. We don’t go with them because I like concept stores and I like how they deal with their customers. I believe a lot of shops don’t deal with customers in the same way. When you approach a dealer, many of them treat you like dirt. They operate with the expectation that you will just buy a watch. Either they’re smarmy or they look you up and down and decide you’re not worth it. The three dealers that stock us do so because I’ve had a great experience with them. Before meeting the boss of a retailer, I walk the shop floor incognito. I see how the sales staff treats the customer.
CS: Do you find the customer experience significantly better in concept stores?
GB: The concept stores are great with customers. When you get inside, even though everyone is super-cool, they compliment you on your shoes; they’ll clock on to something that makes you feel happy. If you go into some high-end shops, the way the staff look at you, they might as well tell you to fuck off. We’re blessed now - some would say cursed - with interactive environments that encourage the proactive attitude I see in concept stores. I can complain to whomever I want about bad service. That’s why our dealers have to be spot-on.
CS: But for everyone, including you, that means unprecedented levels of scrutiny?
GB: Of course, mistakes happen. But if someone does send me a complaint, I’m straight on it. I’m almost on a plane to that dealer asking what’s happened. It’s only happened once before and it was Sod’s Law - something just went wrong. Still, though, for me that was a client that I had to switch around, I had to see him, hat in hand, saying I was really sorry. I wonder whether the more ossified sectors of this fine industry would do the same.
CS: So that personal advocacy, enhanced by digital, is how a business like this can succeed nowadays. People can talk about it and recommend it to their friends, meaning you’re not limited to a tiny audience.
GB: My father and grandfather had a good saying: ‘Our customers can get on without us; we can’t get on without them.’ I took a picture of my watch on an Air France flight and put it on Instagram with a #AirFrance and they direct-messaged me saying they hoped they’d hit the service mark. British Airways doesn’t care, but Air France did. When I go to Milan, I find a similar attitude injected into the core of the place - I mean how they treat you. Even if they’re the most stylish people on the planet, they encapsulate you in that style. Our dealers approach customers with the same ambition: to make you feel at home with the brand. In three months’ time, they’ll email and ask how the watch is going and whether you’re happy. Once a dealer emailed informing me that swimming trunks I’d wanted for ages were in stock. They weren’t selling our watch; what they were doing, however, was showing us it’s not always about making another sale, but that they’re capable of offering a very thoughtful service.
CS: So that’s the vibe you created here: a place where people can come and hang out and talk and explore. And that will to explore has led to other things like bicycles and grooming. Tell me first about the bicycles.
GB: I’m an avid cyclist. I signed up for London to Paris - three days in total. I realised I wanted a bike for me, not one with everyone’s name all over it. No custom shop could satisfy my anti-bling request - my right to have a stealth , almost, something that at its foundation was truly mine. So I got a Montana instead. The gruelling experience of the race confirmed my belief that I needed a bike for me. I needed a lightweight, carbon-fibre machine with a better layout and a little bit of flex in the back for bumps on the road. Above all, one with no names except on the inside of the back wheel, where there’s a little ‘Bamford’ written - only seen if you look. I produced it and went, ‘God, this is nice.’ I took it out for a ride and didn’t even realise I’d done 42 miles. It just felt comfortable. I had such a clear idea of what I needed, it was very easy to tap into the feel of the bike. Even down to the magnetic bottle cage. I went cycling with a friend and he said he wanted one. Then another did. Just like the watches.
CS: And did the bikes match the watches’ success?
GB: I’d love to say they were as huge as the watches, but it’s such a niche market. On top of that, the limited market isn’t proportionally matched by the high level of competitors. I got a knock because I thought everyone would jump on it - literally. That said, I’ve got four clients’ bikes at home ready for delivery and we’re in a good place. We went from red to black within the year and that, for me, was the real achievement. Do I go to myself, ‘God, that’s the biggest success of my life?’ No. But I’m enjoying it and get to ride a fine bike knowing it has Bamford written on it - inconspicuously, of course.
CS: Can you tell me more about the production process? Does the same approach to customisation and customer service apply as with the Watch Department?
GB: We’ve got a separate facility for the bikes. Customers can go and be fitted there. We were going to get a network, but I was not prepared to give way on our approach to selecting dealers. There’s no room for those who are simply exploring a new passion. There were so many dealers that wanted to stock Bamford, but when I went to see them incognito, they didn’t even recognise me. I don’t want to be part of that - it’s an approach that’s very incompatible with my business. It’s anti being a part of the family. Most of all, I find it so fundamentally contrary to the way I cycle. When I go cycling, I say ‘hi’ to everyone. When I’m cycling down the road in the countryside, I have a grin on my face because it’s my time. I might as well be singing. Most cyclists I see aren’t like that. They seem convinced everyone’s against them, but the truth is many are against everyone else.
CS: And what about another of your passions: classic cars. When did you start collecting?
GB: Well, I was four or five when I got my first Tonka Toy! My father is an avid car collector and bonding time for he and me was centred on cars. I bought my first just before I got my driving licence: an old Land Rover Series 2 for around £300. From that humble start, I began trading cars, like I did with watches in the New York flea markets. My first true vintage model was a 356 Speedster in black with a brown interior. We named it Purdy the Porsche. Its chassis was twisted and when you’d go round a corner, a door might fly open. It was a bathtub Porsche and undeniably old. But it’s the love, the style and the substance. It was that unprecedented coolness epitomised by the Bentley Boys: man and machine pioneering a cool movement in motoring. It was a similar attitude to those today who ‘do’ the North Pole. The Bentley Boys were doing it in motoring.
CS: Do you still collect?
GB: The obsession carries on. I’m massively in love with a 275 GTB Ferrari in my collection. To say I’m in love with it is probably an understatement. I bought it 11 years ago for nothing. People fall off their chairs when I tell them the price. True, it wasn’t in good condition. And it was in tangerine orange - a very wrong colour! But it had an aluminium body and was a two-cam, with an outside filler cap, originally black. So we stripped it back, a lovely process, a real exploration. I still drive it up to London - always with a grin on my face.