November 30, 2014
by Ariel Adams
“Rolex thinks that their watches are perfect,” says George Bamford, founder of Bamford Watch Department. He pauses to consider his statement and then adds, “they probably are. But I still think there is a lot of room for Rolex watches to be more unique.” In a simple way, this has been the defining ethos behind the highly successful Bamford Watch Department business, which the son of English construction magnate Sir Anthony Bamford started about 10 years ago, around 2003. In a nutshell, what Bamford does is purchase brand new Rolex watches and then modifies them with mostly advanced industrial case coatings and special dial treatments. These are then sold as parts of limited editions to Bamford watch customers, or produced as one-of-a-kind models for those who want the ultimate personalized Rolex experience. The Bamford Watch Department story is an interesting one and, after 10 years in business, remains almost as secretive as the Geneva-based Swiss watch maker George clearly adores.
I met George Bamford during one of his frequent trips to Los Angeles and checked out some famed Bamford Rolexes. He is uncommonly friendly with a reserved sense of British energy and enthusiasm for his work. An art and fashion lover, George grew up in a privileged household with a loving yet firm father who didn’t want the family fortune to create a sense of entitlement and a mentally sedentary lifestyle for his children. George explains that he was “cut off” after college, because his father wanted him to begin a business and make a life for himself. The Bamfords no doubt live a life of comfort and taste, but neither George nor his sister seem to have the mentality that personal business success isn’t important to their futures – quite the opposite, actually.
George Bamford seems to be the most comfortable around other creative types such as designers and artists, who populate his social circles. Not all of his past businesses succeeded, which has allowed George the ability to appreciate the complexity of running a company with a lot of moving parts. While the idea of a company that artistically re-thinks the design of some of the world’s most popular watches might seem simple, there are notorious challenges to his work that make what Bamford does sort of special.
Rolex is the most popular luxury watch maker in the world, and also one of the top names in luxury across all categories. There are entire businesses dedicated to fixing, copying, re-selling, auctioning, and buying Rolex watches that exist outside of the official Rolex sales or service channels. Rolex long ago had to reconcile with the fact that it cannot control all elements of how people buy and wear their timepieces. Nevertheless, Rolex officially admonishes the practice of customizing its watches. A position that might seem cold, but Rolex has pretty good reasons for this policy, even if it prevents some interesting opportunities. Nevertheless, Rolex can’t always control what happens after people buy its products, and like the automotive world, the aftermarket watch customization industry can be big business.
It is worth discussing Rolex’s policies in regard to how it externally handles the notion of customizing their products. What anyone who customizes their own Rolex or purchases one from a company like Bamford needs to know is that Rolex will not service their watch, and that they have more-or-less voided their warranty. For that reason, Bamford itself has the capacity to professionally service your watch, but not all Rolex customizers can do so. This is particularly important to consider because Rolex does not make parts for its watches available to anyone outside of officially authorized Rolex service centers. So unless you have a stock Rolex watch or a relationship with a company like Bamford, your customized Rolex watch is totally unserviceable to a large degree. In fact, this situation is very similar to how many car companies handle situations where their products are customized by aftermarket tuners.
Rolex has two primary concerns about having its products customized, and each is legitimate. Even though you might nevertheless decide that customizing a Rolex is the coolest thing to do, I feel that you should understand what Rolex is thinking. The first concern is in regard to design. Rolex feels that because they put so much effort into recognizable designs and brand DNA, having all types of different designs out there will damage their image, create customer confusion, and degrade from a look and feel that they have groomed for their products. In other words, Rolex puts a lot of time and effort into how their watches look and wants to make sure that when people see a Rolex on someone’s wrist, they receive the high quality experience that people associate with the brand.
The second reason why Rolex doesn’t want companies to customize their watches is sort of related to the first, and is more specific in regard to the quality of parts and legibility. In addition to Rolex wanting people to “know a Rolex when they see one,” Rolex wants to make sure that people’s perception of their product development and finishing standards are consistent. Rolex (and its suppliers) arguably produces some of finest watch parts and components in the world. There really aren’t that many (or any) aftermarket companies or individuals who can copy what Rolex does precisely. For that reason, Rolex hates the idea that people might be wearing watches with the Rolex name on it that aren’t perfectly up to snuff with Rolex quality. In the luxury world, image and perception are everything, and Rolex doesn’t want anyone to view their products which may be modified and believe that what they are seeing is a perfect representation of Rolex’s work.
Of course aftermarket customers could just remove the Rolex name off the dials of the customized Rolex timepieces, but that would be really eroding at the whole concept, wouldn’t it? In regard to George Bamford, “Rolex” is really very much part of the point. While Bamford Watch Department certainly does customize non-Rolex watches (mostly Audemars Piguet and Panerai), somewhere between 80-90% of their work is on Rolex timepieces.
George explained to me how he got into customizing Rolex watches in the first place, and it began with a story of his first Rolex, back when he was a teenager. He was positively thrilled to get a Rolex Daytona as a gift, until he noticed that many of his peers had the exact same watch. Bamford recalls the experience with clarity and explains that he knew what it was like to feel like a confident woman entering a party in a red dress only to notice that other ladies in the party are wearing the same red dress. For many people, the idea of merely owning something really nice is enough, but it is true that most people want to feel unique in what you choose to show off via items you wear.
Feeling unique through wearable style is the hallmark of the fashion industry, even if most people end up being extremely conformist. What is important is that they feel unique, and that is so much more important when it comes to luxury. When you take a group of people with a high amount of disposable income, you immediately begin to notice that they all want to make unique choices while still making “good choices.”
This latter concept helps explain what is perhaps one of the most ironic aspects of the custom Rolex watch industry. I asked George, “if you really want to wear a unique watch, then why not purchase something from one of the great many smaller watch brands that offer all types of interesting things you aren’t at all likely to see on other people’s wrists?” George seemed to ponder this question for a moment, as though even agreeing with me was against his life philosophy. Not wearing a Rolex seems to be as much out of the question for Mr. Bamford as wearing a factory Rolex. So what is he thinking?
A lot of people look at Rolex as being the ultimate watch making company in the world. Sure, Rolex is the biggest name in watch luxury, but they aren’t at all the only ones who make good products. Perhaps that doesn’t matter when Rolex has convinced so many people that they have created the best products – and in many ways they have. After my own trip to Rolex, I wrote an article about 10 Things To Know About How Rolex Makes Watches. I learned that while Rolex intentionally limits their designs and the complexity of their watches, in many areas, they are simply unbeatable. Rolex’s long product history as well as constant motivation to improve the quality of their products has been a major force in making sure that they remain extremely relevant in the mind of the watch/luxury consumer, as well as in high demand from enthusiasts.
So if you think about it, what George Bamford is suggesting is that the ultimate luxury is to combine what he believes is the world’s most important watch company with a personalized wearing experience. He wants people to know he is wearing a Rolex, and he also wants them to know he isn’t wearing a standard Rolex. For George, that is the goal of his products. And if you are like George, you’ll probably find a lot to love in his timepieces.
Bamford doesn’t have it easy because making a customized Rolex that is even close to the quality of a factory Rolex is very hard. The very first custom Rolex he made was for himself, and it was as “simple” as coating a stock Rolex watch in all black. Rolex has never, and perhaps will never produce a watch in black – which is less than ironically one of the most sought after types of custom Rolex watches on the market. Before long, admiring friends forced George to make more. Customizing a Rolex with Bamford is really about two different things (for the most part).
First is to coat or otherwise modify the coloring and/or finishing of the case and bracelet, and second is to modify the dial parts. Only rarely does Bamford take it a step further and actually modify parts more than colors or coatings. Just these two changes offer enough headaches – as well as visual variety. George testifies to me that the biggest thing holding him back is what Rolex chooses to do with their watches and the materials they use. He would love, for example, to create a carbon-cased watch that would be super-lightweight.
I asked George if he would ever just stop playing around with other people’s watches and produce his own “Bamford” brand timepieces. The suggestion seems to make sense, given how deeply Bamford is involved in producing timepieces. His company has service centers all over the world, dial makers, hands makers, strap makers, and getting movements and cases would be a difficult, albeit doable next step. Is the eventual end-game of the world’s most popular high-end watch customizer to simply make their own timepieces? George isn’t sure.
Bamford seems to have an inescapable marriage with the high-end brands he seeks to enhance with his own personal touch. I think there is a challenge and even some danger in playing with the final products others have sought to connect with elite lifestyles and prices. George is attracted to not only the names of Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Tudor, Patek Philippe, and other brands he plays with, but also the idea of what they produce. Fashion, after all, is mostly about redefining existing themes and rearranging existing looks. To produce something unique isn’t always as fun as playing with existing parts.
Rolex creates the love affair people have with their products and companies like Bamford simply exploit it. There isn’t anything wrong with that, but George wouldn’t be doing the same type of work if he was trying to create passion rather than manipulate and enhance it. For him, it is about taking widely known products with established characters and markets and simply making them more unique. It isn’t about making his own red dress that no one else has, it is about taking the red dress everyone is used to and putting pinstripes on it.
Bamford is based out of London, and I believe the majority of their production is in England as well. George was in a fortunate position as he grew his company to expend considerable resources in finding people who could help make his dream custom Rolex watches a reality. Apparently, some of the suppliers he uses are the same that work with Rolex, and others started out as professional watch restorers. Think about it, if you want to modify a watch dial, who better than to approach talented artists whose goal it is to make dials look “just like new.”
A close examination of the parts on Bamford’s Rolex watches reveal a very high level of quality, but one that isn’t quite up to factory Rolex standards. The parts are far superior than on many timepieces, but there is something reassuring that it isn’t that easy to replicate the look and feel of a “true factory Rolex,” even if you need to observe them under magnification. In my opinion, the best way to enjoy the best of both worlds is to have Bamford custom coat a watch case and bracelet while leaving the stock dial and hands in intact.
Then again, you’d never get your blacked-out Submariner with pink hands and hour markers if you stuck to a simple case coating. George is very clear on the fact that while there are ready-made designs on the Bamford Watch Department website; almost nothing is off limits. The Bamford website goes so far as to say that “if you can imagine it, then we can create it.” That is true, but it also gets into one of the areas that really pisses Rolex off. While issues like legibility are extremely important to Rolex, Bamford is more than happy to create a watch that you can’t read very easily. That is sort of what happens when you put matte black hands on a matte black dial. Those looking for a Rolex-like experience with a customized Rolex watch will need to take extra steps to ensure that their custom designs are legible. Insofar as that is concerned, Bamford will actually send you dials before they are put into timepieces for those who are concerned about the final look of their watches.
The many different types of dial styles, colors, and treatments used on Bamford’s many creations are interesting, but what I find more compelling are the treatments they do on cases and bracelets. While it is exceedingly difficult to produce a visually striking and attractive dial, the bracelet and case coating is arguably even more of a challenge. Added complexity comes in when you need to consider lasting durability as well as a pleasant tactile experience. In other words, unlike a watch dial that is never touched or worn, the external parts of a watch must feel good on your fingers and put up with abuse.
I do have to say that I was extremely impressed by the coating quality of the different finishes I saw on Bamford watches. The finishes were not only a range of colors, but also textures from polished to brushed and more, such as “satinized”. The Bamford website off-handedly mentions that they use “advanced military grade coating” processes on the watch. This sounds like a cheesy phrase a marketing person came up with that is often highly superlative, like “surgical stainless steel.” However, in Bamford’s case, it isn’t. George Bamford’s family business, again, is JCB, and among their many activities is being a government contractor and producer of a range of heavy industrial equipment. Let’s just say that the actual technology used on some military equipment is also used to produce Bamford’s unique customized timepieces. This is at least one area where Bamford’s creations may satisfy the men and women at Rolex in Switzerland – though they aren’t likely to admit it.
While Bamford officially offers a two year warranty on their watches, George tells me that when it comes down to it, he is really offering a lifetime warranty for the work they do – his life that is. This comes down to the fact that while the official warranty is two years, so many of Bamford’s clients are going to expect that much more given the highly personal relationship he has with many of his customers. A healthy warranty fulfilled by the company directly is also sound given that Bamford Watch Department products are typically exactly double the retail price of the original timepiece they are using. The simplicity of the pricing scheme is oddly welcome, and even then, Bamford doesn’t likely have massive margins given the high cost of buying new original products and then customizing them carefully.
While George is more than happy to talk about his first Rolex and his passion for design and automobiles, he knows how to be tight-lipped about sensitive areas of the business, such as how many watches they sell annually. In his defense, such data is infrequently offered by any watch brand who strictly speaking doesn’t have to. Brands maintain this information as a secret because it apparently has too much value to their competitors, and perhaps also to their enemies.
I asked George what his relationship was with Rolex proper and whether it was non-existent or hostile. The look on his face more or less said it all. A darkness fell over his typically cheerful smile that I only now feel that I fully understand. I have little doubt that the two companies have squabbled, but for George the fighting is probably something that he takes personally, outside of the business side of any dispute. If there is anyone that can stand up to Rolex’s admittedly impressive legal might, it is Mr. Bamford. That, however, isn’t what perhaps strikes Bamford the most. In George’s mind, he is probably one of Rolex’s biggest fans, not only expending huge amounts of time and resources dedicated to artistic re-visioning of their products, but also the last 10-11 years of his life. And to have it met with hostility is probably upsetting, to say the least.
While I don’t claim to know any specifics about Bamford’s history with Rolex, I know that Rolex – like many companies – is diligent in protecting their products, intellectual property, and business practices. Whether or not they like or agree with what Bamford Watch Department and its competitors do, they have a duty to their own rights, to assert them or potentially lose them. In fact, what Rolex has which is most valuable in addition to its trademark is their signature mark of quality. Most watch designs are not protected by any intellectual property rights and Rolex must vehemently defend against everything that erodes or confuses consumer understanding about their products. Intentionally or not, Bamford does this, and unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the same business for George if he took the Rolex logo off the Rolex watches he modifies.
All of this is discussed because I find George’s relationship with Rolex to be fascinating. While it might be easy to describe what Bamford Watch Department does as making toys for rather rich boys and girls, it is, in actuality, an interesting artistic exercise and effort of an artist who probably wouldn’t be interested if his work came without a sense of struggle.
Bamford watches are available around the world at a range of high-end department and “concept” stores such as Dover Street Market New York. George explained to me that his watches are not in most jewelry or watch stores despite frequent requests. People also actively reach out to Bamford Watch Department directly to purchase watches. Social media has also become a major sales driver for Bamford. George explains how, at least with his brand, Instagram has been very helpful in finding new customers, as for the time being, the popular picture-driven social media network attracts many well-to-do design hungry younger buyers. Though, even in a post-Instragram world, a brand like Bamford Watch Department will thrive without much (or any) traditional advertising, given how important it is for buyers to perceive it as exclusive – and that it is.
While I am intrigued by Bamford’s wild colored Rolex watches with fancy coatings, what interests me the most (at least, for now) is their collaborations with properties such as Peanuts and Popeye. Some of the most successful Bamford limited edition watches have been those which do homage to the old Mickey Mouse watches, where Mickey himself pointed out the hours and minutes with his hands. This same concept has been replicated in some Bamford watches with Snoopy from the Peanuts comic/cartoon and various characters from the Popeye comic/cartoon universe, such a Popeye himself. There is something oddly cool about a solid gold Rolex Yacht-Master with Popeye on the dial. It was a surprise success for Bamford, and I hope more of these continue to pop up from time to time with equally irreverent characters.
The Bamford Watch Department formula is simple, with a lot of hard working gears underneath the surface that most of George’s customers don’t quite understand. For the most part, his clients are interested in customizing their favorite Rolex timepieces, matching watches to their new cars, outfits, or hobbies, and having something recognizable that nevertheless no one else has. As long as Bamford is able to maintain this delicate affection from its clients around the world, it will remain one of the most interesting and controversial ways to enjoy the Rolex watch experience. bamfordwatchdepartment.com