There are a number of different approaches and personalities in the world of collecting: some pursue items as pure unemotional investment, some as investment with a touch of enjoyment along the way, and those who collect because they must. Our latest subject falls unquestionably into the latter of the three, having amassed a collection of all sorts of odd and wonderful watches. After building a business in watch customisation, George Bamford has now signed contracts with numerous businesses to become an official customisation partner. We sat down to discuss where his interest came from and which piece in his collection he would struggle to part ways with.
So, give us an idea of what you were like as a kid growing up…
I was one of those kids that becomes obsessed with understanding how something works. I would go downstairs and take the TV to pieces, or a juicer or anything that was an appliance that I could get my hands on to disassemble.
[Laughs] Your parents must have been thrilled…
I think they actually saved their house from being completely taken apart by buying me a Tag Heuer Formula One watch. They later got me a Breitling Navitimer which I ended-up taking to pieces too. I’ve always been far more driven by understanding technical aspects, rather than obsessing over reference numbers or that sort of thing.
Just to quickly touch again on the disassembling of your parents household items, did they ever make it back to being one piece again?
[Laughs] Yes, they did.
Would you say it’s fair to say that you’re also somewhat aesthetically driven?
Absolutely, I’m all about how a watch looks and feels when it's on my wrist; how it makes me feel when I wear it. I wear a watch for me, not for anyone else’s amusement or amazement. I was at an event recently, which was probably the type of event where I should be showing-off a special watch, but I wore something odd that quite a few people remarked upon.
What was it?
It was a Heuer Kentucky with the digital dial and the reason I wanted to wear it was simply because I loved how it felt on the wrist. There were a couple of watch journalists there who said, “Why the fuck are you wearing that?” and I just said, “Why not…”
Did they really ask you that?
Were they satisfied with your explanation?
I’d say so. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I get a kick out of buying a watch if it just makes me smile when it’s on my wrist, driving a car or riding a bike. I really couldn’t care less what anyone else makes of it, I really don’t. On the flip side of that, I’d never put anyone down for what they choose to wear because I appreciate every single type of watch, from a dollar-watch all the way up.
So, when did you first take the Breitling to pieces?
I think that was around 1995.
And the Navitimer is a chronograph movement, so it’s reasonably complex, how did it go?
It wasn’t scary, although I think my parents were scared because they had bought it for me. I managed to break the glass, I bent the hands, it has scratches all over the case-back from where I prised it open [Laughs].
"I didn’t have any watchmaking tools, so I used my pen knife and a screwdriver for fixing glasses to do the whole thing."
I didn’t have any watchmaking tools, so I used my pen knife and a screwdriver for fixing glasses to do the whole thing.
And you literally took the entire movement apart?
Was there a moment where you thought to yourself, “I don’t know how this goes back together…”
No, not really, because I worked very methodically. I got a sheet of paper, and separated it into sections, placing all the pieces I took off in order. I would take one component off, put it back on and take it off again to the point where I felt as though I understood how and why it went where it did.
Did it function correctly when you put it back together?
[Laughs] Probably not…
[Laughs] Oh dear…
I can’t actually remember if it did or not, but I seem to remember the chronograph not working because I had messed up the clutch system. The sequence for the start stop reset was wrong I think. I took it apart again shortly after that and bent the hands up again, so it went off to Breitling to get new hands.
So then how did it develop there, to the point that you were making actual modifications to watches?
I loved the idea of individuality, you know. We all have our own style and I felt like I didn’t want to have the same thing as everyone else. So then I decided to customise a Heuer Monaco, which I made a predator style, black on black. That was my first ever, real customisation.
How did that then morph into a business for you?
Well, I would be wearing the watch and people would just say to me, “I want that.” This was in the days of Hotmail, so they would just sent me their email address and say, “E-mail me.” Then would come the problem of how I get money from people for the work, and that’s been how the business has grown, from point to point. Even with the development of the Mayfair watches, you know, I made a service watch for clients to wear while their watches were being serviced, and all of a sudden I had clients wanting to buy these watches.
Yeah, so I beefed it up a bit, made a nice asymmetrical case, a ceramic or steel bezel and a quartz movement. I had always wanted to do a quartz watch, because I love them. Purists always say no to quartz and put it down, but I love it, this technology scared the shit out of the watch world and I loved what it did for the industry.
Well, it’s funny to think that it was once a very expensive technology and seen as potentially the next era of accuracy and watchmaking…
Think of the Beta 21s and all of those types of watches which were extremely expensive, and then Swatch comes along and both decimated and rebuilt the watch world. I think that we’re in a similar time of revolution, but in a slightly weirder way where vintage is more primary than anything else. Personalisation is becoming more and more prevalent, with people seeking out individual stories or a special strap, or a special dial. It’s very much the same for all items, shoes, clothing…
Do you think that this is lacking in some of the major brands these days, this sense of uniqueness of their product?
It has to go hand-in-hand. Luxury has become personalisation, even if you look at the ‘20s and ‘30s, it was about personalisation. People are craving something unique, something aged, something this, something that.
Well, with vintage there is an inherently unique story built in…
Yeah, there is. You know, everyone always talks about value with these things, but I think the value is just bullshit. I feel the same way with cars or anything like that. If you love it, you don’t care if it goes up or down in value. I mean, you get a kick if it goes up, but you really don’t care because the value means nothing to the enjoyment.
On the topic of your watches and official affiliations, also being a man who is particularly car-interested, were you influenced by the relationships brands like AMG and Abarth have had with brands like Mercedes and Porsche?
Absolutely, yes. I saw the writing on the wall for this type of thing to exist in the watch world, and I thought that I should jump on it. More and more brands are making moves in this direction, I mean, the Omega "Speedy Tuesday" changed the world. The Skipper Heuer with Hodinkee, I mean, these collaborations are changing the way we look at things.
Do you think this is leading to an identity crisis among brands?
Well, I think that could have been possible, but is quite an amazing move by LVMH to have an official relationship with us, because it brings it all under the same roof. It’s been amazing to be endorsed, after being in the shade, we are now firmly in the sun. The other side of this is that it’s a complete headache for brands to be doing this type of thing on this sort of scale, one off’s or less than ten.
"I used to always say that you know you’ve made it when someone has faked you."
It seems like it would be a logistical nightmare…
It absolutely is, but we are set up for that.
Was there every any tension between your brand and the watch brands that you were customising?
No, not really, but I don’t tend to like to dwell on anything like that. There’s a great quote that I have on my wall which says, ‘Never look at the last chapter, always look to the next chapter’. It’s great to be in a position of acceptance by all of these major brands, and in fact, a lot of them have gifted me wall clocks which I keep here at the offices on a wall.
We read somewhere that you once came across a fake version of one of your watches, is that true?
[Laughs] I used to always say that you know you’ve made it when someone has faked you. It was quite amazing to see that actually and it’s even happening now, because someone sent me an image of one of our new Heuer’s which has been faked.
Let’s talk about your personal collection…
You began with the Formula One watch…
Yes, this Tag Heuer Formula One which has a luminous dial and it’s cheap as chips. I remember getting this rubber strapped thing from my parents and just thinking it was the coolest watch ever. I gave my kids a Formula One each this year, my son wears it all the time, but my daughter isn’t so sure. She has a pink one, he has a blue one.
How did your collection grow from there?
I was a magpie, so my watch collection is quite varied. I’ve always been drawn to the different colours of dials of watches from the ‘60s and ‘70s, I would say that this is the sweet spot for me, maybe also the ‘80s. I just love when someone sees an obscure watch from this period, and all they can say is, “Wow.”
Were you ever influenced by anyone in particular?
Oh certainly, I remember a very cool guy when I was growing up and he had a Heuer Montreal which had a certain blue to it which I just loved. I saw it on his wrist, and there was this magpie moment where I just had to have it. I always wanted to collect things that were subtly special, double-signed dials and that sort of thing…
"I love racing watches. A friend of mine was wearing a Heuer Silverstone just a few weeks ago, I saw it on his wrist and just had to pull mine out and wear it for a while."
Where you have to look a little closer to understand why it’s special?
It seems like there is a big racing influence in your watch collecting, as there are a lot of chronographs and that sort of thing…
Definitely, I love racing watches. A friend of mind was wearing a Heuer Silverstone just a few weeks ago, I saw it on his wrist and just had to pull mine out and wear it for a while. That’s what I love about these watches, is that you can wear them over a weekend or a couple of weeks and just be content with that.
So, is it this racing connection that drives your entire collection?
Well, not entirely because the watch I’ve brought here is an Autavia GMT, which is an aviators' watch. I also love the Heuer Calculator, things like that…
Is it tool watches in general that you’re drawn to?
It’s design and functionality, yes. It’s about the feel and how it works. Some people collect certain complications, but that’s not so much what I do; if I like the look of it, I buy it.
What was it about the Autavia GMT that you found so appealing?
I love how the case looks. I love how those lugs are attached to the case. I love how the case-back is domed. I love the sections on the bezel that have been cut-out. The red and blue faded bezel, the patina on the dial. I could go on, but I get pleasure out of each individual element of the watch.
When did you first come across this reference?
Well, I had been looking into getting a GMT watch generally-speaking, and I had decided that I didn’t want to go down the typical route. Around five years ago, a friend of mine said to me, “Hey, you know I still have this watch in my safe.” [Laughs]
[Laughs] Tempting you in…
Exactly, and so I just had to have it because of the condition. I went on a bit of a vintage Heuer buying spree around five years ago, and I always bought what my heart desired. A lot of people were telling me to buy this reference or that reference because they would go up in value, but they just never appealed to me. I’ve always thought that when you follow others, you’ll get less enjoyment. I tend to always go the other way in those situations.
You don’t seem particularly concerned with how your watches are used also, because you really do use them…
Definitely, I mean, nothing is going to be sold. I like to buy them in mint condition, but then they get used as they were intended to be. I like that the marks and dents are all mine, or sometimes I’ll like one because it has been so used by the previous owner. I see vintage watches the same way I see vintage cars, the same goes for my father’s opinion. You buy them because you want to wear them or drive them; you want an experience. I’ve never sold a car yet, but I’ve swapped cars. I’m the same with watches, I swap things from time to time, if I like a watch I see and think I might have just the thing for them.
So, tell us a little about what we can expect from you in the coming months…
There is something very exciting happening in the next month or so, which will be revealed and then you will see our Mayfair watches being developed. We are also working on some more major projects with Tag Heuer, Zenith and others; everything is going hell for leather on that front.
More of the same then… [Laughs]
[Laughs] More of the same, but you will see some differences in the ways that we are working. We will be opening a store on the Royal Exchange, we’ve just taken a space there, so that will be our first, mixed store. It will have a grooming department and watches.
A broader experience?
Yes, it will be the Bamford experience. We will have our own watches, our own grooming products, so yes, an experience in a cool little space.
Is this your response to a dying high-street?
In a sense, but I don’t think the high-street is dying, I think it’s dying in its current form. The experience has to be better, you can’t be snooty, you must be accepting. You’re asking someone to part with their cash, so it has to be an experience they love. You can’t have this waiting for years on waiting lists nonsense, you must be fucking joking; most people can’t wait more than six weeks.
It’s quite strange, understandable but strange…
It used to work, but it doesn’t anymore.