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Thursday 9th February
Top Gear Guide To Watches

Inside the Bamford Watch Department

In a London lair, one man will turn your Rolex into a moody masterpiece

  • George Bamford is the chappishly good-looking, 35-year-old heir to J.C. Bamford Excavators Ltd, better known around the world as the JCB digger dynasty. But instead of joining the family firm, founded by his grandfather Joseph Cyril Bamford in 1948 and now worth billions, George decided that big yellow bulldozers weren’t really for him. He preferred construction on a much smaller scale – the sort of micro-mechanics you could carry around on your wrist.

    It began when he was given a Rolex Daytona for his 21st birthday (there are upsides to being the son of a billionaire). And while it was a gift most people would give their right arm for, George quickly realised that it looked, well, exactly the same as every other Rolex Daytona around the dinner table – a first-world problem, but one that, deep down, most posh-watch wearers would probably admit to. Why spend thousands, only to look the same as everyone else? All of a sudden, the Daytona didn’t seem so special. What it needed, George reckoned, was a personal touch.

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  • “I didn’t want to just bling it up,” Bamford explains. “Back then, the likes of Jacob & Co. were putting diamonds on everything. I have an obsession with black – black cars, black shoes, black everything – so I went to the R&D department at JCB where they had this new mining application: an anti-friction, anti-lubrication coating for drills called diamond-like-carbon or DLC, which gives a rock-hard, bluey-black finish like nothing else.”

    At first he used it to coat his Daytona – giving the ultimate driver’s watch a moody new look – then he did the same to another one. People liked what they saw so much that George, realising the business potential, decided to establish Bamford Watch Department, which soon became the watch world’s coolest tuner – a sort of AMG for posh time-tellers. “That summer,” he says, “we got 25 orders.”

  • The rest is history. Fourteen years may sound like a long time, but for a watch business it’s the tick of a second hand. In that time, Bamford has nurtured a global network of reputable agents willing to supply new watches – about 90 per cent Rolex, but also Patek Philippe, Panerai and Audemars Piguet – and developed a highly involved personalisation process, as well as regular BWD-branded special editions like the new Black Ops, Deep-Sea and Snoopy. Bamford is obsessed with Snoopy. And Popeye.

    Then there’s the ‘Hive’ on South Audley Street in London – a smart Mayfair townhouse modified as only BWD could: black decor, armoured to the hilt, complete with man-cave client lounge, plus fully equipped atelier in the attic room, manned by two experienced watchmakers. And then you learn of the Bamford-issued, two-year warranty on every watch, which is reassuring, because the moment you mess around with a Rolex, you invalidate the original. And the fact BWD now has its own R&D department in a secret location somewhere outside of town, pioneering its very own technology called Military Grade Titanium Coating.

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  • The sheer number of blacked-up-Rolex, me-too enterprises that have popped up as a result of BWD’s success is all you need to know about Bamford’s impact, however you feel about the ethics of dismantling and modifying watches from brands with their own heritage and exacting standards. Us? We’re all for it. But while it might show two fingers to the posh-watch establishment, the rebellious Bamford is clearly taking this customisation business more seriously than most.

    “I still visit the JCB factory about twice a month, just to get inspired,” he says. “We’re constantly spending on R&D – in fact, we’ve spent fortunes to get to the point where we have the MGTC coating, not to mention the 40 people working on it. 

    “Personalisation is something I genuinely believe in. We’re in this world of mass-market luxury products – you can go to any airport and buy a watch. So why wouldn’t you want something rare, unique and personal to you?”

  • Having made the decision to go his own way in the world, the collection of cars in his Cotswold garage suggests he was right to eschew the world of diggers and dumper trucks. But whether BWD has really been so lucrative, or whether Bamford has benefitted from the family piggy bank, one thing’s clear: if he’s inherited anything, it’s his father’s head-over-heels love of cars. After all, Anthony, Lord Bamford – George’s dad and the second-generation chairman of JCB – owns two Ferrari 250 GTOs, which he still races.

    There’s a LaFerrari parked over there, a Bentley Mulsanne here, Audi R8 next to that, some Ferraris (599 GTO, Dino, 275 GTB), Porsche after Porsche. But while he owns a good deal of modern stuff, his conversation always comes back to the old. The way he talks about restoring and driving his Ferrari 275 GTB (bought with back-alley tangerine paintjob, now back in black) is exactly the way he talks about spending the past 10 years hunting down his grandfather’s Rolex, which was sold after his death in 2001. Needless to say, he has tracked it down, and it’s in bits on the workbench when TopGear visits. 

  • “My father came in just yesterday, and he was almost in tears when he saw it. For me, that watch holds so much soul and personality – like the 275 GTB, in fact. It’s taken me 11 years to rebuild the car, but now the kids have nicknamed it Black Beauty. It makes me smile – it’s just so much fun to drive. I know there’s a rub mark right there because I did that. Like a watch, if it gets a dent, I love that dent because I did it. It tells a story.”

    At the other end of the luxury car spectrum, there’s a LaFerrari, parked alone in its own garage with only 600 miles on the clock. “It’s not that it frightens me,” George says. “The opposite, in fact. I’m just not sure I want to be part of that club. Yes, it’s so technologically advanced, and it’s an honour to own one. But I prefer tyre-kickers…”

  • So why does Bamford still nurture such a collection of 21st-century cars if vintage is everything? “Well they make me feel a bit fizzy,” he says. But with modern cars, just as with modern watches, Bamford is wary of show ponies – those possessions which have never been shown any real love, only “value love”, as he puts it. “There are people who say how much they’ve spent on a Patek, and only bring it out of the safe to show you, or people who wrap their cars in a cocoon on trickle charge. That’s not for me.”

    And his watches? They’re obviously modern – brand-new, even – but before you’ve even taken receipt, they’ve already entered their second life, reincarnated in the hands of his watchmakers. But after all this, as with his treasured 275 GTB, it’s up to you to wear them every day, and to relish every scratch, dent and ding.

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