I recently ran into George Bamford – of Bamford Watch Department – who shared with me that he will soon entirely stop customizing Rolex watches for customers. This news is sort of a big deal given that Bamford put his name on the horological map by being the world’s premier aftermarket customizer of Rolex timepieces. Anyone in the know always thinks of Bamford when it comes to serious Rolex watch customization, and any time someone sees a black-colored Rolex, chances are the Bamford name comes to mind. While Bamford still has some Rolex watch orders to fill, one of the world’s most famous modern-day Rolex collectors is putting “the crown” behind him.
George Bamford will instead focus the majority of his time to working with Jean-Claude Biver and the LVMH Watch Division that's under Mr. Biver’s leadership. Biver oversees Hublot and Zenith, while currently serving as the CEO of TAG Heuer. Bamford quietly debuted this relationship recently when introducing a few limited edition Zenith watches customized by the London-based timepiece modifier. It now turns out that this is just the beginning, and that Bamford will be working closely with Zenith and TAG Heuer, as well as possibly Hublot for future models.
Is this what Jean-Claude Biver means when he regularly talks about the importance of love? It certainly seems this way if you interpret “love” as also meaning “cooperation.” While Rolex is often called “the crown” (given their logo), Jean-Claude Biver is often referred to as the “king” of the watch industry. He is certainly among the most powerful. Mr. Biver’s success is often linked to his ability to cleverly create synergies where they are available. Effective cooperation is a cornerstone of Jean-Claude’s management style, which is perhaps why he was able to make such a compelling argument to George Bamford about working together. According to Jean-Claude Biver, "George (Bamford) has proven that he knows how to "tune" a watch and also that he is able to make a very classic watch into a trendy watch."
Bamford, who was clearly excited to work more closely with Mr. Biver and his teams, shared with me the incredibly pragmatic argument presented to him by Jean-Claude Biver. It isn’t a secret that Bamford’s relationship with Rolex was tenuous at best. Bamford was not an official Rolex dealer, and in order to do business needed to purchase Rolex watches in the market, and then later modify them. Rather than support the practices of an interesting modifier, Rolex took the stance that Bamford, like all watch customizers was removing the “authenticity” of a Rolex rendering them (among other things) not eligible to be serviced by Rolex service centers. That means even though Bamford never touched the mechanics of any Rolex watch, the company itself refused to repair or service Bamford-modified Rolex watches. The move prompted Bamford to create his own service department.
If you know George Bamford, then you know just how much of a Rolex mega-fan he is. The entire concept of modifying Rolex timepieces began when he wanted to change the look of a Daytona model he had. Soon Bamford became the go-to name for high-street shoppers looking for a familiar, albeit more exclusive timepiece shopping experience. Getting a totally personalized, or otherwise uncommon modified Rolex watch proved to be a winning formula for many luxury consumers seeking enhanced personality in their choice of watch.
Bamford is no stranger to working with watches other than those produced by Rolex. Bamford Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, and Panerai watches have all been made in the past. With that said, the archetypal Bamford creation was always a Rolex – until now. So what did Jean-Claude Biver tell George Bamford in order to have him switch sides? The argument was simple. Biver presented Bamford with the question of whether it was better to focus so much of his energy and passion to a brand that didn’t support what he did, or to instead do the same thing with a supporting and encouraging partner. When put that way, Bamford made what he felt was the obvious choice. Biver has long since been a Bamford fan, known for sometimes even using the maverick’s customized watches as examples to his own design teams of colorways or styles that he liked. Taking the step of bringing George Bamford under his wing represents a new phase in their relationship – as well as a broadening of Jean-Claude’s influence over the cutting edge of high-end watch style and taste.
It appears that Bamford will be both a sort of supplier to the LVMH Watch Division, as well as a retailer of customized watches from Zenith and TAG Heuer. According to Mr. Biver, Bamford will mostly be involved in limited edition, versus main production watches. More so, Bamford will be able to sell some of the resultant watches via his own sales channels, while in other cases the watches he works with brands like Zenith or TAG Heuer on might also be available through their own sales channels. Bamford also isn't under any exclusivity agreements, and as Biver makes a point to remark to me, he is a "believer" in "open concepts" in general.
Such non-traditional working relationships are uncommon in the typically conservative watch industry. Under Jean-Claude Biver, such conventions don't matter much. For him, what appears to be of primary importance is that the LVMH Watch Division and Bamford are a good fit, and should be able to benefit one another continuously. It's no secret that Jean-Claude Biver routinely enlists help and advice from people around the world he sees as being tastemakers and trendsetters. Bringing George Bamford under his umbrella further demonstrates the importance of artistic creativity (as well as performance and value) in the promotion and sale of luxury watches today.
Time will show exactly how the relationship between Bamford Watch Department and the LVMH Watch Division will develop itself. Will Rolex learn to miss him? What I also find interesting is that Bamford is confident enough to abandon his reliance on the popularity of Rolex in order to continue growing his brand. My guess is that while there is a loss in having your products associated with the Rolex name, the supportive connection and promotional help of the LVMH Watch Division more than makes up for any loss. We will keep an eye out for what the LVMH Watch Division and Bamford work on modifying as a limited edition next. bamfordwatchdepartment.com