Source: Bamford Watch Department

The King of Custom Rolexes Takes on Bulgari

George Bamford, who specializes in $26,000, one-of-a-kind watches, expands his repertoire

Beloved by some, beyond hated by others, George Bamford is the man and the vision behind Bamford Watch Department, and he’s here to make you rethink what you really want out of your Rolex.

Since 2003 he's been expertly altering dials, hands, and finishes—a cardinal sin amongst many watch aficionados—to create bold new timepieces for those wanting something more than just your average Rolex. Forget about that plain black-dialed Submariner and two-tone Datejust you see on every third wrist in the room. With BWD, it’s all about personalization. (And no, we don't mean in the absurdly over-the-top Nick-Cannon-diamond-saturated-Rolex-Sky-Dweller sense)

George Bamford.
George Bamford.
Photographer: Dave Benett/Getty Images

Bamford's last couple of projects have dabbled with a vintage Daytona vibe on one end and some very military-inspired Milgauss and Submariner models in the Commando range, plus a Yellow Submarine Datejust in collaboration with Apple Corps this past March. But his next big shift is something different all together: modified Bulgari timepieces.

“When Bvlgari launched the current versions of the OCTO Solotempo and Scuba models over the last couple of years, I was instantly in love with them,” he said via a telephone interview. “It wasn’t long before I started prototyping and playing with color variations. I’m into the final stages now and have been wearing the prototypes around to make sure I’m happy with them, but as with most of my creations, these things can take time.”

The soon-to-be-released Bamford Watch Department Bvlgari Octo Solotempo.
The soon-to-be-released Bamford Watch Department Bvlgari Octo Solotempo.
Source: Bamford Watch Department

He's not exaggerating: The five collaborative pieces he worked on with artist (and Kayne merch designer) Wes Lang in 2012 all required hand engraving using gun engravers, and between the various edits and alterations it took two whole years for the pieces to be finished. 

“The longest project is still my own solid gold Daytona," said Bamford. "The dial and hand mods aren’t really any more extensive than those on my other Daytonas, but it’s the design and execution of the engraving that were incredibly intensive. If you look closely at the engraving, each little bit tells a story of a part of my life, and all told the whole thing took over 130 hours to complete. The coating processes on all of my watches are never quick, mind you, but this is in another stratosphere altogether.”

George Bamford's personal Rolex Daytona, whose engraving alone took in excess of 130 man hours.
George Bamford's personal Rolex Daytona, whose engraving alone took in excess of 130 man hours.
Source: Bamford Watch Department

The Process

Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, and now Bulgari—each of his customized (or "modded") creations starts its life as a brand new watch. His bright, bold, and often textured dials typically take about three weeks to manufacture. With very few exceptions, Bamford works with factory components every step of the way to ensure that each of his creations matches or exceeds the respective watchmaker's inherent quality. Add to that the fact that he backs all his watches with a five-year warranty (and a lifetime warranty on the finishes), and it’s easy to understand why one of his Rolex watches, for instance, commands a price of more than double its basic equivalents—a bit more than $12,000 for an entry-level BWD timepiece.

Though Bamford does enjoy working on watches himself—sometimes engaging in watch movement teardown races with one of his watchmakers—he relies on a handful of expertly skilled craftsmen and watchmakers to turn his visions into reality. 

Collaborations have been a big part of Bamford’s work from the very early days, having worked with fashion legend Karl Lagerfeld and abstract artist Marc Quinn, however the launch of the Yellow Submarine watch is arguably one of the biggest and most notable to date. You could hear the excitement in George’s voice as soon as the conversation came up about how the opportunity came about.

The Bamford Watch Department X Beatles Yellow Submarine Datejust MGTC in light gray and black.
The Bamford Watch Department X Beatles Yellow Submarine Datejust MGTC in light gray and black.
Source: Bamford Watch Department

“You know, it was the strangest thing. One morning a letter showed up at the house—proper old snail mail with the Apple Corps logo on it and all. The moment I saw it I actually got a bit giddy,” he said. “I mean, the Beatles were one of three iconic things that really imprinted on me in my childhood and that continue to drive some of my collaborative efforts." Snoopy was another; Bamford has released five different models featuring the Peanuts character, including a two-tone datejust ($25,575) and a Military Grade Titanium Coating blacked-out variant that were the last two to sell out.

Having ticked off two of the three things to have affected his life to date, we wondered what the third could be. “Elvis. Definitely Elvis. I remember wandering around the house as a kid and nine times out of 10 it would either be a Beatles or Elvis record playing.”

When pressed about whether or not we could expect another musical collaboration in the not-too-distant future, Bamford was quick to say that there was nothing official in the works, though his tone and choice of words leads us to believe that it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility.

The packaging of the Yellow Submarine Datejust needed to be just as detail-focused as the watch itself.
The packaging of the Yellow Submarine Datejust needed to be just as detail-focused as the watch itself.
Source: Bamford Watch Department

Industry Response

While he doesn’t operate with the expressed support and blessing of the watch brands he modifies, they also haven’t cut him off in any way either—it's more of a strange, symbiotic relationship. On one hand, Bamford requires access to new watches and components from Rolex to complete his works. On the other, his watches actually help Rolex more than they hinder it. Plenty of watch buyers view Rolex as their dad’s old, stuffy watch brand, and the exposure to Bamford’s creations will without a doubt fuel an appreciation for Rolex in the long run.

“When I was in my teens, I would come across these old, sometimes beat-up vintage watches at an antique shop or flea market,” he tells of his start a few decades ago, snagging his first serious watch, a 1955 Breitling Navitimer with incorrect hands and a few other issues. "The modification kick hit at 21 after being given a steel Rolex Daytona for my birthday. I was so enamored with the Daytona from the get-go, and one night at a dinner I was dealt the crushing blow of seeing a handful of other guests wearing the very same watch. It was that moment that I knew I needed a Rolex that no one else had, and it was basically all downhill from there."

Bamford x Wes Lang Deepsea "Grim Reaper," one of five in its collaboration.
Bamford x Wes Lang Deepsea "Grim Reaper," one of five in its collaboration.
Source: Bamford Watch Department

Much like the vintage watches that still live in George’s collection, his customized watches are a future heirloom that will one day tell a story of someone’s life and the adventures they’ve had along the way. As for the current industry's cautious bent, he's blessedly free.

“I’ve always felt that for a watch to win me over, I need to have that feeling of wanting to nick it, you know?” he said, as we shared a laugh over the "50 shades of Planet Oceans" from Omega. When you don’t count new dial and bezel colors, 2016 is a year of surprisingly few innovations.

“There just wasn’t anything outside of a couple things from the small independents that really caught my attention and made me go, ‘yeah, I need to have that.’ After the Apple Watch phenomenon, these guys should have all come out swinging.”

In the meantime, Bamford is here to pinch hit.

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