The LVMH-owned brand has given its seal of approval to Bamford Watch Department, allowing it to sell customised versions of its watches which remain covered by the manufacturer’s full warranty. QP went down to Bamford’s Mayfair townhouse to learn more.
By James Buttery
After 14 years of bringing his own neon-flecked aesthetic to Rolex watches and almost certainly incurring the displeasure of said Swiss watch giant (although Rolex would never officially confirm such a position), George Bamford has, in his own words, had enough.
Instead of basing the fortunes of his business on a brand that remains at best unresponsive to his efforts, Bamford Watch Department (BWD) has now entered into an official partnership with Zenith, to apply his own style to the watches coming out of Le Locle.
Bamford customers will be able to formulate their own designs based on four Zenith watches (to begin with): the Pilot Type 20 Chronograph, the Heritage 146 Chronograph, the El Primero Chronograph and, perhaps surprisingly, the Cronometro Tipo CP2, using an online configuration tool. This will make it possible to create unique pieces with Bamford guaranteeing at least five points of difference to the next closest design. For now at least, the new Zenith Defy is off-limits to BWD.
Limited runs of Bamford’s own creation – including reworked dials and DLC-treated cases – will also be available. We’ve already had a sneak peek of around 40 of these forthcoming designs and, to their credit, we struggled to narrow our own wishlist down below half-a-dozen pieces. Each design has had the approval of Zenith’s own creative director, but the Bamford team has been given remarkable latitude to riff on the Swiss brand’s designs. What’s interesting is that Zenith itself has started to produce more expansive designs of late – brightly coloured Pilot’s watches in particular – but BWD’s work clearly represents a level of experimentation that would not sit comfortably within the brand itself.
Bamford’s Mayfair premises have been given Zenith’s seal of approval, with such official accreditation preserving the manufacturer’s warranty and removing any discussion of Bamford’s work being ‘after-market’; BWD has access to spare parts and movements as well as the watches themselves. From a consumer’s perspective buying a Bamford-designed Zenith is the same as buying one from the brand itself.
The watches themselves are largely recognisable to anyone familiar with Bamford Watch Department’s typical aesthetic: black dials are a must, with bold dashes of vivid colour. BWD has, over the last four or five years, developed a signature shade of baby blue – this dominates the off-the-shelf pieces, but everything from camouflage green to racing orange gets a look-in. The execution is, as you would expect, of a suitably high quality. The limited-run designs will be available from Bamford Watch Department’s retailers, including Colette in Paris and Dover St Market in London, while the fully customised watches can be ordered from Bamford directly online. Prices start from £8,000.
This major change in direction for Bamford Watch Department – there will be no more work on Rolex from this point forward – was prompted by a meeting with LVMH watch president Jean-Claude Biver two years ago, who went on to become interim chief executive of Zenith. Biver questioned why Bamford was focusing so much of his work on a brand that was clearly not interested.
Bamford’s meeting with Biver was nothing short of revelatory. Discussing Zenith’s newly appointed CEO, Julien Tornare, he said: “I had a long chat with him, within the space of a month he’d moved all of his life from Hong Kong because he’d met Jean-Claude Biver. Now in the space of two years I’ve changed the whole of my business because of Jean-Claude Biver.”
Although it has turned its attention to many luxury watch brands, BWD has become synonymous with modifying Rolex watches. Bamford, son of JCB founder Lord Bamford, was originally inspired by his love for Rolex – specifically a 1960s Milgaus still in his considerable personal collection – but driven to establish BWD by a desire for unique, personal objects. However from this point onwards there will be no more work on Rolex for Bamford Watch Department.
He acknowledges that his work modifying Rolex watches got the company to where it is today, but candidly explains that forever being reminded of The Crown’s distaste for his work was wearying, to say the least. As to the question of whether halting that side of the business is a case of cutting off his nose to spite his face, he feels no great sense of risk in leaving the blacked-out Submariners behind. “My customers are ready for something new – they’ve been asking me for something new for a while now.”
In fact, Bamford Watch Department has had a similar arrangement with Bulgari for two years, but this latest deal serves as a waypoint around which he has changed the heading of his entire business – and as George Bamford describes it, marks the first “proper” Swiss watch brand to give him such a level of access and approval.
Knowing the way Jean-Claude Biver does business – always liking the LVMH family of brands, including TAG Heuer and Hublot, to be joined-up, we would not be surprised if other Swiss manufactures began working with BWD in the future. Suddenly, the original enfant terrible of custom watches has gone legit.