Hip young horologists: The new generation of watchmakers tearing up the rulebook

Alex Doak
George Bamford

The watch industry is often associated with faceless, greying men in lab-coats, but there’s a new generation of who are doing things a little differently. We give the low-down on these brilliant horologists.

George Bamford

In a major triumph of long-overdue recognition and validation from the Swiss watch firmament, third-generation JCB scion George Bamford and his Mayfair-based Bamford Watch Department (BWD) has been officially authorised by LVMH’s top watch brands Zenith, TAG Heuer and Bulgari to customise their watches and sell them through BWD’s own website. It’s a genuinely disruptive move, never-before seen in the brand-authorised arena. And particularly affirmative for Bamford, whose business was previously built on non-authorised and de-warranting customisation of Rolexes.

Though BWD’s reputation has grown solidly over the years, outstripping so many other me-too outfits thanks to constant investment in in-house service and a proprietary “military-grade titanium” coating process, it’s difficult not to share Bamford’s excitement at the endorsement. After all, it came down to a meeting with his hero, Jean-Claude Biver, the legendary Swiss watch maven who revived Blancpain in the 80s, proving that the mechanical watch had a place in a quartz world, and who then went on to revolutionise Omega, turn Hublot into a status brand and head up the watch division at LVMH.

“Jean-Claude visited about two years ago,” Bamford fondly recalls, “He simply said: ‘Why are you working on watches made by a company who don’t want to work with you? Come and work with me!’”

Sure enough, BWD has dropped the Rolex side of its business entirely, developing a slick new customiser application for the website that affords near-limitless permutations of colours, details, straps, markings and engravings. Its instant acceptance and acclaim might have something to do with the thirty-something’s boyish charm, not to mention a client base so devoted that a collective request for a purchasable version of BWD’s substitute ‘service watch’ has now led to its very own watch, the ‘Mayfair’; a £425 quartz beauty with the requisite suite of customisable features.

But mostly, it’s the appeal of having your own unique version of an iconic Swiss watch, such as the Zenith El Primero chronograph, with ‘official’ options that could only be dreamt up by an external visionary.

“Personalisation is something I genuinely believe in,” says Bamford. “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 and unique that’s personal to you?”

Why outsource to BWD, though? He thinks for a minute before offering: “The best thing to compare this to is Mercedes’ relationship with AMG. That’s working out pretty well, wouldn’t you say?”

Dino Modolo and Aurelie Picaud

Dino Modolo

Unlike fashion, furniture, architecture or anything else defined by aesthetics, watches very rarely bear the hallmark of famous designers. Off the top of your head, who actually is there? Back in the day, it was Gérald Genta for the 70s’ octagonal hit parade of IWC Ingenieur, Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Philippe Nautilus. In relatively recent times, there’s Ross Lovegrove and his ill-fated affair with TAG Heuer; Jasper Morrison for Rado; Marc Newson’s Ikepod and Jaeger-LeCoultre Atmos clock dalliances; then… well, that’s about it. Or as much as the brands are willing to let on.

For it isn’t long before you understand the cardinal Swiss rule of team anonymity (no famous artisans or designers, just famous brands) and the broader church of brands being perfectly capable of designing their own watches, thank you very much. So what was Corum – a respected bastion of the Vaud region’s Watch Valley since 1955, already renowned for its own rebellious designs like the bare-boned Golden Bridge, Bubble and Coin Watch – thinking exactly when it openly out-sourced all things aesthetic to Xavier Perrenaud’s studio in 2006? And then, 10 years later, a Ukraine-based designer-for-hire called Dino Modolo?

It’s everything to do with resourcefulness in the literal sense and being honest about the cottage-industry structure that’s underpinned Swiss watchmaking since its inception in the 18th century. Once a junior designer at Corum, he has since journeyed via Raymond Weil, Vacheron Constantin, Eterna, only to end up back at Corum, reimagining his dream watch with gay abandon. Last year, he used the Golden Gate bridge as inspiration to evolve the Golden Bridge into the round. This year, things are baguette-shaped again, but lent substance by luscious, openworked gold flanks. The weight of precious metal could be considered bling, but this is a return to 80s largesse executed with considerable finesse.

Aurelie Picaud

Last year, Johann Rupert, chairman of luxury conglomerate Richemont, said that he wanted to see “less grey men” heading up his businesses. In making this statement, he could well have been looking at Fabergé and wondering why his department bosses couldn’t be more like Aurelie Picaud. She’s young, dynamic and under her auspices, Fabergé’s watchmaking department has been completely transformed in just four years.

It has gone from distributing under-licence timepieces – ones that were functional in terms of getting the brand name out there but hardly inspiring – to wowing the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève judges with innovative travel time watches and beautiful women’s mechanical designs. Drafted in from Audemars Piguet, Picaud was told she had just 18 months to create enough of a collection to make an impact at Baselworld 2015. She responded by doing what Fabergé has done for centuries – finding the best people to realise her separate visions.

Picaud employed the services of Giulo Papi of the legendary Audemars Piguet-owned Renaud et Papi to create the Visionnaire I, a new take on the flying tourbillon with a dial comprising seven curved trapeziums, in reference to Faberge’s opening eggs. “We wanted to show people that we were starting something new, that had an element of ingenuity and surprise but that was still true to the brand’s DNA,” she explains. “I had to try and stay true to Fabergé’s history but work out how to interpret today what Peter Carl Fabergé had done in the past.”

She has also overseen the Visionnaire DTZ – a second-time zone watch, developed this time with Agenhor, that was based on a table clock and features a jumping hour second time zone at the centre that, via the use of magnifying glasses and trickery, can only be seen when the watch is at certain angles. Like Picaud herself, it’s surprising, imaginative and proves that what an every old established watch brand needs at its helm is a young woman.

Craig and Rebecca Struthers

Craig and Rebecca Struthers

If ever there was a couple that has so completely turned the clichéd image of a watchmaker on its head, it is Craig and Rebecca Struthers. This husband-and-wife duo look like they just stepped out of the pages of an east London fashion magazine, more au fait with Loewe than a lathe. In fact, these two make watches in the most traditional way possible. In their quaintly Dickensian workshop in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, there are no CNC machines in sight; instead the Struthers restore and make all their bespoke watches by hand.

Craig and now-Dr Rebecca Struthers (last year she became the first person in Britain to gain a PhD in horology) came to the attention of the watch world when their Stella pendant, featuring a movement spinning on a platinum gimble, won a Design Innovation Award. But in the intervening four years, Struthers London has emerged as one of the most exciting names in modern horology. They have collaborated with British automotive legend Morgan Motors, and built a loyal base of bespoke clientele through diligent restoration and one-off commissions using vintage movements.

This year, the Struthers took the step every watch brand hopes to make – launching an in-house movement. Called Project 248, it was made using just an 8mm lathe, a lot of patient hand-tooling (the ‘2’ and ‘4’ in the project refer to the number of Struthers and hands, respectively) and is appropriately equipped with an English lever escapement.

“Craig and I have wanted to make our own movement for years,” Rebecca explains. “We’re both watchmakers and making your own movement is the ultimate in terms of testing and demonstrating your skills. We trained in restoration, with little-to-no spare-parts supply. Watch restorers have to learn to make pretty much every component for a mechanical watch. After years of doing it for other peoples’ watches we decided it was about time we started making them for our own.”

It’s not just the movement that’s done in-house. All the bespoke crowns, buckles and cases are made by them too. In fact, the only thing that isn’t “Struthers’ made” is the leather straps, for which they use Shrewsbury-based leather worker Christopher Clarke. It’s not surprising that a bespoke Struthers piece takes two years to complete. In a world where “fast” is often equated with “good”, it’s refreshing to see people like Craig and Rebecca Struthers taking a more long-lasting, handcrafted approach. And doing it with such style.

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