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The Exclusive

Mr George Bamford

People thought he was mad when he sprayed his first Rolex black. Here he introduces six watches he has customised exclusively for us

It was while sitting on a Sardinian beach last summer with his father that Mr George Bamford suddenly realised the Rolexes customised by his company Bamford Watch Department had broken through into popular culture.

A peddler of counterfeit goods approached them. “He came up to us, saying: ‘You want Bamford?’ My father said: ‘I’m sorry?’ We didn’t quite understand whether he knew us or something.” (Mr Bamford’s father is Lord Bamford, the billionaire construction magnate and chairman of J.C. Bamford Excavators Ltd, the family business better known around the world as JCB.) “It took us about four or five minutes of confused back-and-forth before he brought out a handful of fake Bamford watches. ‘You see: Bamford,’ said this hawker, ‘the cool new thing!’ And I thought: ‘Oh s***.’”

Did the Bamfords let on who they were? “Only right at the end. And then the poor guy got very nervous that we were going to get him in trouble. But I told him he’d actually made my day. When people are flogging counterfeit, it shows that product is highly desired. We’d made it!”

While Bamford Watch Department started 12 years ago, the seed of the idea for the company first germinated soon after Mr Bamford turned 21. His birthday present was a steel Rolex Daytona with a black dial, which he wore proudly to a dinner, only to discover that several other people were wearing exactly the same model. “I was gutted,” he says. “I felt like the lady who arrives at an event only to discover someone else is wearing the same dress.” And so he decided he wanted a Rolex that no one else in the world had. With the assistance of the research and development lab at JCB, he played around with a process from the mining industry called DLC – diamond-like carbon, an anti-friction lubrication system for drill parts. (This would develop several iterations later into MGTC – military-grade titanium coating – in order to modify the colour of a timepiece and all its visible components, which comes with a Bamford guarantee.)

  • A few pieces from Mr Bamford's personal watch collection: (from left) MGTC black Tudor Heritage Black Bay; MGTC light grey Daytona with Arabic dial; MGTC matte black Daytona with Paul Newman inspired dial and Bamford aqua blue accents

Wind the watch on a couple of years and Mr Bamford is sailing around the Amalfi coast with his father, each of them wearing a personalised all-black Rolex – one a vintage GMT Master, the other a vintage Submariner. “That summer, I got 25 orders from people who saw our watches and said they wanted one,” says Mr Bamford. “I hadn’t intended to make a business out of it, but that’s how it began.”

Today, we are sitting in “the hive”, Bamford Watch Department’s HQ in London – a building which is the architectural interpretation of BWD’s design signature. Just as Mr Bamford, now 35, dismantles existing watches and rebuilds them to new specifications, so he has taken the frame of a classic Mayfair townhouse and completely reimagined it inside. Stepping in off the street, it feels as if you’re entering a private club. The entrance is completely blacked out and access to each room is security-restricted. “It’s like Fort Knox,” says Mr Bamford. “It has to be.”

This is a 21st-century cottage industry – behind each door is a different department, from design to dispatch. But the top floor is where the magic happens. In contrast to the rest of the building, this room is white and minimalist like a laboratory. Two master watchmakers – both veterans of the very best Swiss manufacturers – are in the delicate throes of rebuilding watches to clients’ very exacting requirements. The company has also collaborated with different designers and artists to create special editions, most notably featuring the cartoon characters Snoopy and Popeye.

“Our motto is: ‘If you can imagine it, we can create it,’” says Mr Bamford. He explains that his business model is a combination of “NikeiD meets Mulliner”, the bespoke division of Bentley. “Personalisation is the new luxury,” he says. In essence, Bamford buys brand-new watches and then modifies them with mostly advanced industrial case coatings, finishes and special dial treatments. The vast majority (80 to 90 per cent) of watches BWD works on are brand-new Rolexes, but they also source and customise Pateks, Audemars Piguets, Panerais – whatever the client wants. Mr Bamford is coy on the numbers produced each year but the output is limited – deliberately so.

Downstairs in a tricked-out man cave full of boys’ toys and watch memorabilia, we examine the collection of six exclusive and extremely limited-edition Rolexes that Mr Bamford has designed with Mr Toby Bateman, MR PORTER’s Buying Director.

“We started with the iconic watches I liked most from BWD’s back catalogue and then played with the designs from there,” explains Mr Bateman. “We decided to stick to MR PORTER’s signature black-and-white branding but then added some accents of colour – sporty red and electric blue. I have to say, it was a lot of fun.”

We visit Mr Bamford again, this time at his London home in Knightsbridge, where he lives with his wife and two children – and where he has a safe for his own personal collection of watches. 

“I’m a collector of vintage Rolexes, Pateks, Audemar Piguets, Tudors, but for me Rolex is special,” says Mr Bamford as he shows us around his dressing room. “Wherever you are in the world, a Rolex can always get you out of trouble. It’s better than cash. You know if you need to, you can get a taxi, a plane ticket, anything in exchange for a Rolex. It’s such a cool brand. I love it.”

  • Mr Bamford's MGTC matte black Rolex Daytona with Paul Newman-inspired Bamford Aqua Blue dial

As a result of his approach, Mr Bamford is bringing a new kind of enthusiast into what is an otherwise rather stuffy and staid watch world. “A watch is one of the only accessories a man can wear and show some individuality,” he says. “Our customers are not first-time buyers, they are collectors, they are enthusiasts. Or they are people who have come to the same conclusion I did and they don’t want to wear a watch that is the same as everyone else’s – they want something unique, they want a watch that means something.”

So what is the watch that means the most to Mr Bamford? What about his original Rolex Daytona? “I actually took that one out of the safe recently and almost thanked it for starting the whole business,” he says. But the piece he wouldn’t trade for any watch in the world is his 1968 Rolex Milgauss, a rare model today due to its lack of popularity and modest sales on release. “It has marked every important event of my life: the day I got engaged, the day I got married, and when my first child and my second child were born I was wearing this watch, too. And it wasn’t on purpose – it was just happenstance.”

A watch stands the test of time. It has the power to mark occasions, to keep memories alive, each nick and scratch a part of the story. “For me that is true watch collecting,” he says. “It shouldn’t be about the price or showing off,” concludes Mr Bamford, “it should be about what makes you smile because of what it means.”

That, at least, is one thing that cannot be counterfeited.

Ones to watch

Mr Bamford highlights the unique selling points of the MR PORTER collection