If you ever wondered about the trajectory of an enfant terrible, one just need look at George Bamford. The London-based visionary cut his teeth personalising watches – more than 15 years ago, way before customisation was a thing – and he quickly built a reputation for kitting out Rolexes, which earned Bamford something of a rebel’s reputation in the industry.
But clients loved it, with the likes of hip-hop stars, hedge fund wunderkinds and top athletes flocking to The Hive – Bamford’s townhouse HQ in London’s Mayfair – for his signature DLC coated, blacked-out watches.
Fast forward to 2017 when his personalisation expertise caught the eye of Jean-Claude Biver, industry titan and then head of LVMH watches, who made Bamford an official LVMH partner. Today clients can personalise iconic models from TAG, Zenith, Bulgari, not to mention Girard-Perregaux and Franck Muller, using a state-of-the-art online configurator (with a host of choices that offer over a billion permutations).
There’s also an eponymous watch brand, Bamford London, known for sell-out collaborations with the likes of G-Shock, Sesame Street and Snoopy.
Enfant terrible or industry insider, the spirit of the business hasn’t actually changed much, however, and Bamford remains a byword for individualisation today. Cue his new podcast series, GB Talks, that invites guests to chat about an oddball watch, the kookier and nuttier the better. “It’s about finding something crazy and going off the mainstream,” Bamford tells me. “People either want something different, or they want to be a clone, wearing a clone watch.”
I caught up with Bamford over Ito En green tea (bottles of which he keeps in his office fridge) and who during our chat was sporting one of the first Panerai Luminor Submersibles. “At time it was the cool, big watch, but now actually looks quite small,” said Bamford. “I haven't worn it for seven or eight years and I like how the rubber strap is breaking – it has an age to it.“
What does watchmaking in the 21st century mean to you?
Watches delight me. They’re about the experience, the understanding – that’s the reality about watch collecting and watchmaking today. I recently bought the Bell & Ross x The Rake #spritzoclock. I didn’t need another watch but I love the colourways and the design. I fell in love with the whole concept and experience.
Fifteen years ago you built a business around customisation, and not everyone approved. What do you think about personalisation being everywhere now?
I’m so happy personalisation has become mainstream. Quite a lot of our watches don’t turn up on the secondary market and I like that because it means someone cares about their watch. They own it, and made it for themselves. They wear it because they love it.
Customisation may be everywhere now but I love that our world is becoming individualised. Sure we want consumerism, but personalisation can slow that down, too: it defies instant gratification. You have to think about design and desirability.
Your business interests extend beyond watches – you studied and worked as a photographer, you’ve created accessories, you have Bamford Grooming. Is there a common thread?
If you look at the chequered history of my business, there have been some failures and some knockouts. But I've realised that I should be selfish and back myself – and do the things I really want to do. As soon as you do that, it doesn't matter if you make a million or 10 pounds, as long as you’re doing what you love.
What is the best thing about your job?
I like being able to delight. And, mostly, I want to have an opinion; I don’t want grey. I want to create something that makes people say, “That’s amazing” – and to launch things where I know I've done my utmost to achieve it.
What’s the hardest thing about your job?
The fear when you deliver a watch. When I was a photographer I was always told, “You're only as good as your last photograph.” The hardest thing to deal with is whether a watch will sell – and what people will think of it. I said earlier about backing myself, but my judgement sometimes might be off. I don’t want to be in that place of saying, “Christ, I’ve made a misstep.”
What does time mean to you?
I hate wasting time. I don’t want to miss the minute – it’s important to do and experience things. Our life is to live.
What do you foresee will be the biggest change in the watch industry post pandemic?
The internet is now truly direct-to-consumer. Brick and mortar will still exist, but there will be a massive kind of unlocking, of people going, “This is what I want”, and watches won’t be designed by a committee or a designer. I realised that in my business of customisation.
What’s on your wish list?
On my bucket list are the wonderful underground churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia. But I also miss seeing friends in Asia. I want a Korean barbecue again, a noodle shop followed by a great speakeasy in Hong Kong, this unreal chicken restaurant and cold noodles in Japan, satay in the markets of Singapore. I want all the food, smells, looks, designs and colours. Culturally, Asia is so different to where I’ve been in my private bubble the last 18 months and I find that difference really grounding.
What is your style signifier?
My armour for the day is a great pair of glasses and a great watch. It doesn't matter if the watch is 10 or 100,000 pounds, as long as it makes me smile. Oh – and I care about my shoes or my kicks.
Who is your style icon?
I’ve always loved Steve McQueen and James Dean – the T shirts, the jeans, that whole thing. But my style icon would have to be Pierce Brosnan. Not so much as Bond, but The Thomas Crown Affair was one of the coolest films I've ever seen. I love the style, from the cars to the beach house. Some of Brosnan’s other roles are debatable, sure – but he has aged beautifully. I recently saw him on social media dressed in a Hawaiian shirt. I thought, “He is so cool…and I need a Hawaiian shirt.”
On the subject of style icons, I’d also have to say Charlize Theron, especially in Atomic Blonde. She is a kickass cool lady. And, as a couple, Jay-Z and Beyoncé: together they just say “style”. They always put out beautiful things, whether albums or music videos. There’s nothing I can knock them for.
I have a collection of…
Snoopy. I geek out on Snoopy – anyone can buy me any Snoopy and it makes me happy. I have everything – a Snoopy fridge, Snoopy cutlery, Snoopy lamps, teddy's galore. I have a life-size Snoopy model that’s bigger than me. Right now in my office I have a Steiff collaboration with Andrew Bunney from years ago, of Snoopy dressed in a sheepskin suit, complete with bunny ears. It’s so freaking cool.
If I wasn’t a watchmaker I’d be a...
Photographer. I love art and doing something with my hands. I’d never be in finance; I could never write because I'm dyslexic. So it has to be something engineering or photography. I love the decisive moment – and the idea of developing, of something coming alive.