Tag Heuer, the luxury Swiss watch brand, has announced a collaboration with Bamford Watch Department, the British watch customisers.
The watch, a new Aquaracer, is limited to a run of 1,500 and features a matt titanium case with a black dial and punchy orange accents, luminous hands and indices and a date window.
It is the second partnership between the two brands, following the Tag Heuer Monaco Bamford, a version of the square racing watch famously worn by Steve McQueen, released in a carbon case with a black dial and vivid “aqua blue” details, in 2018.
“We did a massive deep dive into the [Tag Heuer] archive this time,” says George Bamford, the founder of Bamford Watch Department, who drew inspiration from vintage Tag Heuer watches from the 1980s – models that themselves influenced the Aquaracer, which debuted in 2003.
“The orange indices come from one of their pocket watches; the matt texture comes from one of their dive watches. After the Monaco in carbon I wanted to do something different. And titanium is that.”
Bamford was particularly drawn to the material’s lightness – its combination of low density and high strength.
“I wanted to make the ultimate tool watch,” he explains over Zoom. “I love the lightweight feeling and I wanted you to be able to put it on your wrist and go anywhere in in the world. Something that you could go cycling, mountain climbing or diving with and not really care. It’s not that thing where you have to polish it because it’s got a bit of a mark on it. It’s the opposite of an iPhone – with an iPhone you’re always making sure the screen’s clean, you know?”
There was another important factor.
“I also wanted my wife to wear it. It’s almost like a boyfriend watch.”
Bamford has always liked mechanical objects. He is heir to the JCB construction fortune – the company is named for Joseph Cyril Bamford, George’s grandfather. The origins of Bamford Watch Department go back to his college days. Studying photography and design at Parsons School of Design, the private college in New York, Bamford would spend his free time in flea markets, trading watches. Later, he began personalising them – replacing dials and bezels, swapping out straps – initially just for fun. Having made customised one-off pieces for family and friends, word got around and BWD was born – initially operating from a Hotmail account.
The watch industry typically viewed Bamford’s creations with horror. If anyone was going to make and sell uniquely desirable wristwatches, noted for their exclusivity and likelihood to impress one’s peers, then it would be them – not some third party upstart. But Bamford was ahead of the curve. Although he traces the vogue for the personalisation of luxury goods back to the 1920s – “when you could have more or less anything made bespoke, from luggage to a Bentley” – as Bamford Watch Department was finding its feet in the mid-2000s, the wider luxury industry was taking personalisation increasingly seriously. Bond Street stores began promoting in-shop leather foil stamping and heat embossing, so you could emblazon your initials on your new bag/wallet/notebook. Online personal stylists became a thing, and fashion giants like Gucci began selling Instagram-ready personalised trainers and 'Do It Yourself' summer jackets. The Business of Fashion, the authoritative fashion business website, called personalisation “the number one trend in 2018”.
Where Bamford Watch Department’s snowy white “polar edition” graphite-coated Rolex Daytonas and “blacked out” Patek Philippe Nautilus Moon Phases were once in a field of their own, today there's a host of companies offering state-of-the-art custom watch jobs: Mad Paris, Titan Black, Project X.
While BWD really made its name with Rolexes – pimping out the bracelet, dial and buckle in ‘PVD black’ was the nearest it ever came to a signature piece – its relationship with the company was lukewarm at best. Since George Bamford was not an official Rolex dealer, he needed to buy the watches in the market before he could modify them. Not unreasonably Rolex took (and today maintains) the view that Bamford, as with other customisers, was voiding the authenticity of its watches and thus rendering them ineligible for servicing. (Bamford Watch Department later established its own servicing department.) The payoff for any BWD customer was between having unique designer watch, and one effectively disowned by the brand they'd just bought into.
That changed in 2016 when Bamford was bought in from the cold by Jean-Claude Biver, the enormously respected Swiss watch boss, then CEO of Tag Heuer and president of LVMH’s watch division. “[He] is the God of watches,” Bamford told Esquire in 2018. “He came to see me and said ‘You should work with us’. And I nearly fell off my chair.”
Bamford, a lifelong watch geek, felt like all his Christmases had come at once.
“The first time I went to see Tag, they had this enormous table of all the patents and all the information they’ve got, and they showed me everything. And it was, like, ‘I can make watches out of that material?’ ‘Of course!’ ‘Really?! Shit: this is so fucking cool!’ They fucking rock and now I’m in the cool gang! And I don’t know if I’m meant to be saying I’m in the cool gang but it’s like… wow!"
He stopped modifying Rolexes and instead focused on LVMH brands, this time with the watch company’s full approval. Bamford became the “authorised customisation partner” of first Zenith, then Tag Heuer. Around the same time BWD introduced its own line, the Bamford Mayfair, a family of dive watches that are conservative of price but flamboyant of dial – ‘claret red’, ‘salmon’ and ‘aqua blue’ are all options.
Unsurprisingly, it's the colour scheme of the Tag Heuer Aquaracer Bamford Limited Edition that gets Bamford particularly fired up.
"I have a few signature colours as a business, aqua blue is one of them, [David] Piper Green is another one, flame orange is another one,” Bamford says. “Orange has been part of Tag Heuer’s language for quite a while, all those old Calculators [the Heuer Calculator, produced between 1972 and 1982, featured a bezel that doubled as a slide rule] that were blue and orange.
“We even did an orange box!” he continues. “It’s really cool, because it’s the first time they’ve done a box in orange. So they’re really committed to this orange idea.”
When the Aquaracer was introduced 17 years ago, it was positioned as a professional dive watch, but one whose design-focus broadened its appeal. Tag Heuer already had a tradition of diving and sailing watches that dated back to the 19th century (when it was known as “Heuer”). It launched the world’s first pocket watch with a waterproof case, as well as the world’s first waterproof chronograph. In 2002 it introduced the Aquagraph, a watch that had been tested and used by the US Navy Seals to a pressure of 50 ATMs, a precursor to the Aquaracer which launched the following year.
Dozens of Aquaracers have followed, including the Aquaracer 500m (in 2009) the Aquaracer 500m Automatic Chronograph (in 2010) and the Aquaracer GMT (in 2020).
The Aquaracer Bamford Limited Edition comes in a 43mm case and is powered by Tag Heuer’s most up-to-date automatic movement, the Calibre 5. It is also water-resistant to 300m. Some 18 months in development, Bamford says it’s “almost a contradiction to a normal tool watch.”
“I really wanted a watch that you never take off your wrist,” he says. “And I haven’t. It’s a surf watch, it’s a climbing watch, it’s a cycling watch. Anything that you can possibly do with the watch, I’ve really tried to do it.”
As for the ideal customer for this new creation, look no further.
“It sounds really bad,” Bamford says. “I always think ‘What’s the watch I want? What do I want to steal myself? You know, out of the whole watch range, which one would I go – ‘Oh I really want that’? That’s how I approach these collaborations.”
The Aquaracer Bamford Limited Edition is available now, priced £3,250; tagheuer.com
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