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  • Luke Benedictus

The Mod Squad

Modification has become big business as consumers look to give their watches a fresh signature look. By Luke Benedictus.

Watch customiser George Bamford, founder of the Bamford Watch Department, sketching the TAG Heuer Aquaracer Date x Bamford limited-edition. Photography courtesy of Tag Heuer.

Despite what you might’ve seen on “Succession”, there are, in fact, certain upsides to being the son of a billionaire. For his 18th birthday, for example, George Bamford was thrilled to receive a brand-new Rolex Daytona chronograph in steel. The Englishman was delighted with his new gift — until he proudly wore it to a dinner, only to discover that several other guests happened to be wearing the exact same style (one downside to being the son of a billionaire is that you tend to move in Rolex-wearing circles). Disgruntled that his watch was so ubiquitous, Bamford felt compelled to take action. He wanted to stand out from the crowd and transform it into a truly original timepiece.

The TAG Heuer Aquaracer Date x Bamford limited-edition distinctive dial. Photography courtesy of Tag Heuer.

Luckily, he had the expertise of a family business to tap into. His father, Lord Anthony Bamford, is the chairman of JCB, the world-renowned manufacturer of heavy-duty construction equipment. With the help of the company’s research and development team, Bamford began to tinker and experiment until he came up with a way to give his watch an extreme makeover. On the steel case of his Rolex he applied a special coating, adopted from the mining industry, called DLC, or diamond-like carbon, an anti-friction polymer material often used to protect drill parts. The aesthetic effect of this treatment was dramatic. By changing the silvery colour of the steel case to jet black, Bamford had given the watch a completely new look and feel. 

TAG Heuer’s Aquaracer Date x Bamford. Photography courtesy of Tag Heuer.

At this stage, watch modification was still just a personal diversion for Bamford. But two years later, he and his father were sailing around the Amalfi coast and happened to both be wearing Rolex watches that he’d customised with DLC — one a vintage GMT-Master, the other a vintage Submariner. By the end of the holiday, Bamford had ended up with 25 orders from people who’d seen these unusual watches and wanted one too. Just like that, a nascent business was born, and the Bamford Watch Department quickly opened its doors.

Soon Bamford was winning celebrity clients. Eric Clapton, for example, snapped up one of his DLC-modified Rolex Daytonas. Yet he wasn’t the only high-end watch customiser now working in this burgeoning space and developing a notably high-profile clientele. Artisans de Genève, a Swiss modification workshop, helped John McEnroe with his request to make his Rolex Submariner both skeletonised and left-handed.

The TAG Heuer Monaco Carbon, the maker’s first official collaboration watch with the Bamford Watch Department, has a solid carbon case. Photography courtesy of Tag Heuer.

And when Drake rapped on his track “Life Is Good” that “Virgil got a Patek on my wrist goin’ nuts”, he was referring to his Patek Philippe Nautilus that was redesigned in a blacked-out, emerald-studded form by the designer Virgil Abloh, with the extravagant renovation carried out by French customisation wizards MAD Paris. Meanwhile a long list of famous faces — Jennifer Aniston, Jeff Goldblum and Anthony Bourdain among them — started getting spotted in public wearing rejigged, blacked-out versions of the Rolex Milgauss. The customisation trend had clearly taken off.

Even without this sort of mass celebrity endorsement, it’s not hard to understand the appeal of modified watches. The practice of adding a signature flourish to make a product feel more personalised is, after all, an increasingly popular part of the customer experience. Ray-Ban, for example, invites shoppers to remix their sunnies by selecting their own lenses, frames and cases, while on the Nike website you can design your own Air Force 1s. Consumers are embracing this opportunity to tweak a product to their own specific tastes, while also presumably getting to feel that they’re more expressive and independent-minded than the common herd.

Chopard’s Mille Miglia GTS Power Control Bamford Edition “Desert Racer” was limited to 50 watches. Photography courtesy of Chopard.

The beauty of modified timepieces is that they have the freedom to be more imaginative and outré than standard-issue models. That’s particularly true of the irreverent designs created by the French watch modifier Romaric André, known as seconde/seconde/. Right now, he’s the closest thing the watch world has to the street artist Banksy, doing wacky things like manipulating the seconds hand on a vintage Zenith chronograph so that it shows the Millennium Falcon firing a laser beam into space. As André cheerfully declares on his website: “I vandalise other people’s products only because I failed at building mine.”

Not surprisingly, none of this went down well at first with traditional watch brands that have always prized authenticity above all else. Should you have the temerity to swap the hands or bezel of your watch for another style or colour, horological sticklers will immediately dismiss it as a “Frankenwatch” — a pejorative term for a piece that’s no longer in its original condition but has been cobbled together from the parts of other models. 

The issue here isn’t just about name-calling. Owners of expensive timepieces are understandably keen to protect their resale values, which can often exceed the prices paid at retail. Any tinkering with a watch’s factory-made components will usually put a hefty dent in its price on the secondary market. Worse still, if you do make these modifications, the original manufacturers will often refuse to service your watch again, claiming they’re only authorised to service original parts.

The Swiss watchmaker Franck Muller collaborated with Bamford Watch Department and Peanuts on its playful Crazy Hours Snoopy edition, limited to just 25 watches. Photography courtesy of Franck Muller.

The Swiss watchmaker Franck Muller collaborated with Bamford Watch Department and Peanuts on its playful Crazy Hours Snoopy edition, limited to just 25 watches. Photography courtesy of Franck Muller.

Thankfully, the landscape began to change in 2017 when Bamford got a call from industry legend Jean-Claude Biver, who at the time occupied a position as head of the LVMH Watch Division (he also happens to be commonly referred to as JCB — the same initials used for the Bamford family business). Until then, Bamford was used to customising timepieces without the brand’s approval. Now Biver offered to legitimise the relationship by making him the licensed customising agent for TAG Heuer and Zenith, thereby giving him the chance to work on a series of bona fide collaborations. Since then, many other brands have followed suit, with Bamford appointed to work on watches by the likes of Bulgari, Franck Muller, Chopard, Girard-Perregaux and G-Shock. Previously a renegade outsider, Bamford had not only been invited into the party, he was now a VIP guest.

For watchmakers, working with Bamford makes sense on multiple levels. Not only does it liberate them to try out designs that are a little quirkier, they also benefit from the edgy cachet that the Bamford name brings. The danger, of course, is that this growing popularity means the exception could one day become the rule. The next time Bamford sits down at a dinner party and starts to peruse the wristwear of his fellow guests, he might see that, once again, they’re all wearing something similar — it’s just now in the form of a customised watch. 

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eleventh edition, Page 46 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “The Mod Squad”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.  


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