If you imagine it, we can create it for you : The Bamford Watch Department
In my opinion the golden age of bespoke products is not present day but was the turn of the twentieth century or "The Gilded Age" as it was known in America. Individuals from old money families like Henry Graves Jr. and new money entrepreneurs like James Ward Packard were ordering magnificent timepieces from esteemed watch houses that were as distinct from the regular production pieces as these men were from everyone else. It wasn't truly until the dawn of the quartz watch that the age of customisation started to slowed down as Swiss manufacturers struggled to compete with more accurate cheaper watches, let alone bow to the whims of millionaires ordering time consuming bespoke pieces. Not that bespoke or customized pieces were completely obliterated as there were instances of watch brands catering to some clients and also customizing large batches of watches for companies for promotions or rewarding employees. Currently on analog/shift there is a Rolex Prince that has the Pool Intairdril company that operated in Libya in the 1980s and the curved eighties style logo really adds a lot more character to the otherwise quite plain Air-King . There is of course the mythical Rolex Domino's Pizza presentation watch which has the red and blue dominoes printed either rather garishly on the dial or the slightly less garish placed on the bracelet.
After that collaboration Rolex has, as far as I'm aware, slowed down in the production of presentation pieces as perhaps linking in consumers minds a renowned watch maker with a substandard pizza place wasn't the best idea. Today in special circumstances, brands make one-of-a-kind pieces for selective clients that have passed whatever trials of faith were placed upon them to prove they are worthy. Vacheron Constantin made the Ref. 57260 for one client for an estimated $10 million but I think it would be a mistake to believe that this client had complete carte blanche when it came to designing it. Any suggestions that he/she made would have been subject to someone at Vacheron Constantin's approval despite the fact that the client would be footing the bill. So if you don't want to wait decades building relationships with the right people but have an idea of what you'd like created and don't want your suggestions to be subject to a conservative Swiss watchmaker then Bamford Watch Department is the place for you.
"If you can imagine it, we can create it for you" is the brand's slogan and browsing through their gallery there isn't any doubt in my mind that they hold true to that statement. Currently on their site there is a huge selection of watches, mostly Rolexes with the Bamford signature black coating, that sometimes change the look of the watch to something completely unseen before or slight changes that wouldn't look out of place in the brand's own catalogue. A Rolex Milgauss that has Snoopy on the dial whose arms rotate as the hands and a Submariner with a light blue bezel with a repeating honeycomb dial are two of these completely unique pieces; on the other hand there is a Panerai Radiomir that has a red highlighting on all the our markers and date window and a Tudor Heritage Chrono that both took me several times to notice the difference from the standard Ref.
A video highlighting their Rolex Yachtmaster shows the dial having been altered to show the classic cartoon character Popeye is simply delightful. If I were to describe the watch as childish it might come across as a criticism but I mean it as a compliment with complete sincerity. Watchmaking is often so stoic with traditional Swiss conservatism so it's truly refreshing to see a company not afraid to have fun with their products. Whilst the Popeye Submariner might have an altered dial and hands underneath it is still a Rolex movement that should far outlast the original owner if properly cared for regardless of any dial changes. Something that critics of Bamford do say is that any customization will (and does) void any warranty that Rolex or the original manufacturer provides leaving you stuck in terms of servicing. Bamford do state that they are able their in-house service centre is able to "provide a comprehensive and extensive service to each client's ultimate watch" however Rolex do not offer their parts up to anyone other than registered dealers/repair shops so the exact details of repair are something that Bamford keeps very close to their chest.
At the moment there are two recent pieces up for sale that caught my eye, the Commando range and the Daniel Arsham "The Black Moon". The Commando range is three military variants (Combat, Desert and Forest) of the Rolex Milgauss and Submariners with special colored graphite particle coatings to match their namesake terrain (brown, yellow & green). It is the dials of these watches were the most amount of change is seen with the standard dial being replaced with a military stencil style sandwich dial in the classic 3-6-9 layout that is so popular among collectors. Whether you care for them or not is of course a matter of taste but for me they certainly hold a unique appeal that the standard references do not. The Milgauss Forest is by far my favorite with the army green reminding me of time spent in the Marine Cadets as a teenager. I doubt that these pieces will see real military action anytime soon but it's perfect for the suburban commandos out there.
If you want something more abstract, the limited edition collaboration with artist Daniel Arsham is where you should be heading towards. The little girl who narrated the promotional video made it genuinely unsettling which is the first time I can say that about a watch advert. Any hour markers have been removed from the dial and a replica of an original Daniel Arsham painting of the Moon with a rectangular section missing. What I didn't realise until I read the description of the piece is that the dial has actually been completely replaced for a special mother of pearl dial. I'm not sure how the new dial is that much different than the original but I'll defer to Mr. Arsham's and Bamford's expertise. It might be pretentious of me to say that this watch transcends being simply a timepiece and moves more towards art but I genuinely believe it does. I don't know a lot about Art but like the famous quote about defining what is pornogaphy says, "I can't tell you what it is but I know it when I see it"
Now there are those in the watch community that have issue with the notion of customizing existing watches. Recently ablogtowatch posted an instagram picture of a Bamford customized Patek Philippe 5960 and they received an array of comments saying that it was tantamount to vandalism or sacrilege to deface the original; as if this one customised 5960 somehow erased all others from existence. Personally I didn't care for the 5960 before the customization and I didn't much care for it after but the concept that is central to Bamford is that it is all about personal taste and that fact that I don't like it shouldn't factor in at all. This 5960 is for people who obviously had always wanted a Patek to look like that and if they have the money then why shouldn't they allowed to have it? All watches that are featured on Bamford have been purchased unworn from registered dealers so financially Rolex and Patek are not affected. Who is anyone to say that once a product has been bought that an individual isn't allowed to do what they want with it? The story of the creation of the Bamford Watch Department that George Bamford tells shows that his business comes from a place of deep love for Rolex and their watches rather than a sense of competition stubbornness. Many years ago Mr. Bamford was given a Rolex Daytona as a birthday present and whilst he was impressed with the watch at the offset, his enthusiasm faltered as upon attending a dinner party there were six identical watches on others wrists. The notion his watch was unique was shattered and this experience provided the inspiration to create what is now the Bamford Watch Department. In an interview with the New York Times Mr. Bamford recalled creating a unique Rolex for a client who wanted a heart on the date wheel for the date of their wedding, "For me that's individuality, that's luxury. We're creating something they'd want for the rest of their life".
There are perhaps more valid criticisms of the work that Bamford do as some say if Rolex or Patek wanted their watches to look this way then they would have designed them asuch and that by altering these watches it somehow insults the designers intentions as countless hours will have gone into sketches, drawings, mock-ups that ultimately end up in a finished product. Whilst there are some pieces that you would never see in a Rolex dealership, both the Rolex original and the Bamford creations all have something in common; they all say Rolex on the dial. It would be all too easy for the technicians at Bamford to erase the crown from the dial and create a brand new watch from the ashes of the old but they don't as Mr. Bamford comes at this from a deep love of Rolex and seemingly has no desire to remove their name from his watches. These aren't Bamford watches or Rolex watches, these are Rolex watches by the Bamford Watch Department and I think that is an important distinction to make. Unlike the plethora of "homage" pieces to the Submariner, the Daytona or the Datejust that can be found online for $400 which steal from horologies great past, the creations that come out of Mayfair aren't trying to be coy in hiding their inspiration, they were it on their dial with pride.
Everyone in the world thinks that their watch is unique and conveniently forget about the thousands of identical watches adorning other wrists around the world. What Bamford Watch Department offers is taking that false feeling of uniqueness and make it genuine, whether it be as complex as intricate engravings across the entire watch or a gesture that is as meaningful as it is simple, a heart to remember the first day of the rest of your life.