By George! — Bamford Watch Department Goes Legit with Zenith

By George! — Bamford Watch Department Goes Legit with Zenith

With all the entrepreneurial prowess of his JCB-founding grandfather, George Bamford identified a considerable gap in the market in the early-2000s, which led to the launch of his watch customising business, Bamford Watch Department (BWD). BWD’s raison d’être ever since has been to “jazz up” treasured timepieces by blackening the cases, colouring the dials and adding all manner of special symbols and characters to the standard aesthetic of everything from Rolexes to Audemars Piguets and Patek Philippes.

While after-market alterations are nothing new – Rolex co-branding, for example, is something that has existed for decades – Bamford has managed to upset the great and the good from Switzerland’s fourth-biggest export industry, leading to much hand-wringing, foot-stamping and tearing up of warranties. All of the official opposition, however, has only served to make the products of BWD more talked-about, more desirable and, increasingly, more expensive.

Recent months have seen a new direction for Bamford with full-on collaborations between established brands such as Master & Dynamic headphones, ic! berlin glasses and Bentley Motors. But later today (30 June) there will be an announcement many thought they would never see: BWD is going legit and will be authorised for the first time by a Swiss watch brand to customise its watches, as well as sell the customised pieces through the BWD website ( and authorised retailers including Dover Street Market in London and Colette in Paris.

Unsurprisingly, the brand in question – Zenith – is helmed by one of the watch industry’s true visionaries, Jean-Claude Biver, a man who appreciates and applauds innovation and who refuses to attempt the impossible and turn back the tide, preferring to dive headlong in and swim with it rather than against. The new partnership will see BWD acquiring timepieces from Zenith (Tipos, Pilots and El Primeros only, the Defys exempted due to their skeletonisation and highly technical nature), as well as spare parts and supplies. Going forward, BWD will only work with brands that authorise and support the customising of their watches and, in the process, will become the first British customiser to be officially approved by the Swiss watchmaking industry.

Keeping His Cool

The new arrangement is, without question, a great one for Bamford, but, by going legit, will BWD lose its rebel image and thus its “coolness”? I recall from my youth a pair of jeans I coveted and saved for, inspired by Nick Kamen and his Marvin Gaye-backed striptease. Handing over a small fortune to the owner of a Birmingham indoor-market stall called American Classics, I received a pair of oversized, faded and ripped Levi 501s, worn in to perfection by a counterpart from decades before. On seeing my treasured purchase, my father was apoplectic, leading to the usual screaming, door-slamming and grounding than accompanies any household with teens, which only made the tattered denims more precious, daring and so much cooler.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and every high-street store from Primark to Top Shop sells off-the-peg, pre-worn jeans, but the artificial distressing and the everyday ordinariness of them takes away any authenticity and removes the shock value. They are now commonplace, mainstream and, as a consequence, no longer cool.

Although the cultural highways are littered with similar casualties of commercialisation, there are exceptions. After the demise of that seminal punk band, the Sex Pistols, manager Malcolm McLaren hit it big with the hip-hop-inspired Double Dutch and Buffalo Gals, still achingly cool 30 years later. John Lydon received critical acclaim and success with PiL, the album Rise, still positioned near the top of the coolest playlists. As for the queen of punk clothing and architect of the Sex Pistols look, Viviane Westwood is now not only a Dame, but one of the UK catwalk’s biggest attractions and remains the living embodiment of cool.

Two Become One

Bamford is convinced that BWD will remain on the Pistols’ side of the fence rather than the ripped denims. “I am not becoming establishment,” he insists. “I am doing what I have always done but now we are using a different canvas. You once asked me how it felt to be disliked by the main brands that I worked on. Well, it felt horrible. Then, two years ago, I met Jean-Claude Biver and he suggested that we start working together. Cutting a long story short, I looked at what I was doing and why I was doing it and I asked myself what the next step should be for my business.

“I love Zenith and its history and I love what Jean-Claude is doing – he is *the most dynamic person and, just spending time with him, shows you that he has his finger on the pulse. I could see the writing on the wall for traditional watchmaking and retailing – Speedy Tuesday marked the changing demographic, selling out within 45 minutes. So, we signed a contract and on 30 June we launch a new website. For me it is so exciting to have a watch brand that loves me and what I am doing – I feel like I’ve been hugged by the Swiss watch industry and it has given me a buzz, making me truly excited about what I am doing again.”

One of the biggest advantages of the partnership for BWD is the free supply of watches. “This is the future for BWD. It’s a total switch-over. I can get the watches and my watchmakers – who are all highly skilled – have gone over to Zenith to learn the specifics of the watches. I’m not outside the frame any more, although I can still do what I want. I will be able to offer total personalisation of watches, all for a £2,000 uplift – not twice the standard retail as before.”

The initial launch will see 42 watches, all double branded “Zenith Bamford”. The BWD website went down on Wednesday 28 June, was reloaded on 29 June and will go live later today (Friday 30 June) with the 42 customised pieces plus the opportunity to create a personalised watch from the three case finishing options, five dial colours and five colour options per element. The possible combinations run into millions, meaning it is virtually impossible that you will meet another wearer with an identical watch. Fully warrantied – the movements by Zenith, the case and dials by BWD – the top price for a watch is currently an approachable £9,500.

A New Outlook

Along with the new look BWD, Bamford’s whole approach to the industry has changed. “What’s great is I’ve got into my back safe and pulled out watches including my old Zeniths. I’ve found things I haven’t looked at for a while, some really amazing old things. I’ve started wearing them again and appreciating them.

“I think it’s easy to take the industry too seriously – yes, we’re creating something beautiful but it’s not rocket science. I don’t want the hassle of sourcing watches anymore and the Zenith partnership came at the right time in my life. I don’t need to temper what I do, Zenith is supplying the canvases but so much more – for example, they have supplied the technical drawings for the bezel so I’m no longer reverse engineering anything. I needed some testing machines, so they sold them to me. Everything is easy, the industry is now embracing me and it has taken a maverick like Jean-Claude to make it happen.

“Zenith watches have always been cool, but people don’t always see it today. I think BWD can help and the chance to have what we do appreciated is a wonderful thing. My excitement has come back. I am buzzing and I want to take everyone with me.”