Christopher Ward is in the midst of a spot of soul-searching as it seeks to define its own identity for the first time
By Robin Swithinbank
Mike France is peeved. “I still don’t think people have given us credit for bringing that movement to market,” says the Christopher Ward co-founder of Calibre SH21 which the company introduced two years ago. “I don’t think many really understand how difficult it is to create a new movement. We’re still waiting for any other British brand to come out with a movement.”
For much of the 11 years since it released its first watch, Christopher Ward did not occupy many column inches in this magazine. While it came to market with an innovative direct sales strategy (it was an online pioneer, with no wholesale; see our Special Report for much, much more on that side of things) and a collection of affordable Swiss Made watches, it also had an injured tone and a raft of derivative designs that irked seasoned watch enthusiasts.
It was irritating to be shown a watch that looked like a budget IWC Portuguese, and then to be told that it was just as good as an IWC, but available to good, honest folk at a fraction of the price. The indignation was made worse because the model and the message seemed to be working – thriftier, often younger, less knowledgable customers bought into it, and the company grew.
But as Christopher Ward moves from childhood into adolescence, there are signs it might be growing up and, more importantly, discovering its own identity. In May this year, after a year-long project that began in the aftermath of its merger with the Swiss firm behind SH21, Synergies Horlogères, it unveiled all-new branding.
Out went the clunky, dated “Chr.Ward” logo of 2011, to be replaced by the company name spelt out in full in a far more contemporary sans-serif typeface based, according to France, on Edward Johnston’s eponymous London Underground font.
Backing this were sweeping new brand guidelines that were quickly rolled out across the company website and into its advertising campaign (the pseudo-Rolex ads have gone). The signature motif is a twin-flag device, which uses positive and negative impressions of the same cross shape simultaneously to form both the Swiss and English flags. All mentions of London have gone.
“The rebranding was about bringing the two parts of the business together,” says France. “It was about adding in new core values and beliefs, particularly around movement design and manufacturing.”
Over the summer, a fleet of products showcasing the company’s new identity followed with extraordinary swiftness. But rather than being rebranded versions of old models, they were original designs, created to signal a change in direction for the company. “Eleven years ago we weren’t really thinking about a Christopher Ward look,” says France. “Now we’re trying to create more of a signature look to our case designs. That’s a sign of how we’re moving forward.”
Leading that direction is the company’s senior designer, Adrian Buchmann, who joined Christopher Ward in June 2015 after a 10-year career working in watch design for agencies such as Le Locle-based Neo Desis, chiefly on confidential projects for third parties. “Through Adrian, we’re looking at a level of detail we wouldn’t have looked at before. The facets of indexes, for example. This is a new phase of watch design for us.”
Detractors of the previous homage-driven approach to design may take some convincing, but France is adamant his company’s transparency excused that approach. “Every diver’s watch is influenced by the Submariner,” he says. “The difference between us and them is that we tell people that. The watch industry can be very up itself about these things. We try and sell it as it is.”
For the moment, the dramatically different look of the rebrand has to sit alongside the many remnants of what went before. Christopher Ward finds itself in an awkward transitional phase, running ads with new artwork and imagery of watches carrying the old logo. “We’re managing it the only way we can,” says France. “It’s a condition of watchmaking – we’re not making T-shirts. Ninety per cent of the collection will have the new branding by next autumn.”
France acknowledges this will devalue the existing collection, despite the promising sales of the new models. He says demand is outstripping supply, particularly for the 44mm, black DLC-coated C8 Power Reserve Chronometer.
The C8 is one of six models launched since May, including a world timer (above), two very similar-looking models inspired by the Aston Martin DB4 Zagato and the Jaguar D-Type (both carry parts of the cars), and the C65 Trident Vintage (below), which at 38mm and £539 is by far the pick of the new breed, despite being sold with the painful line, “In the 1960s and ’70s, the cool guys wore black polo-neck jumpers, drove sports cars (or at least Ford Capris) and charmed women with a twitch of their eyebrows.”
At SalonQP Christopher Ward released its new flagship dress watch, the C1 Grand Malvern Power Reserve, a watch with a new case shape that will give us the strongest idea yet of what that signature Christopher Ward look will feel like. “We wanted a case for a premium dress collection that reflected our Englishness,” says France of the C1. “It’s inspired by the rolling hills of the Malverns, rather than the angular topography of Switzerland. We wanted something a bit smaller, something that would work at both 40mm and 42mm.” The new model measures 40.5mm in diameter.
Inside it is the first automatic version of the five-day SH21 in-house calibre with a power reserve indicator, bringing the number of Synergies Horlogères calibres to four. Confusingly, all of them are called SH21, loosely suffixed with their individual characteristics, where appropriate – the original automatic, a hand-wound version with small seconds, another hand-wound with a power reserve indicator, and now an automatic with a power reserve indicator.
The growing portfolio of in-house calibres won’t unseat what have become known as the “JJ Calibres”, namely those with modules developed by Johannes Jahnke, Synergies Horlogères’s pupating watchmaker who is now Christopher Ward’s technical director. “They’ll continue,” says France, “provided we can find interesting routes to go down.”
France sees the bigger challenge as creating something not seen in watchmaking before. “We decided not to bring out a tourbillon,” he says. “We have the capacity, but tourbillons are two a penny, and they don’t fulfil Johannes’s ambition to move the science of horology forward. What would be of more interest to us is to ask what we can do with constant force.”
While Christopher Ward remains based in Maidenhead, Synergies Horlogères has stayed in Biel, Switzerland. The two entities now operate under a holding company, and also supply movements and watches to MeisterSinger. France is keen to point out how seamlessly the two work together. “Christopher Ward and Johannes Jahnke share the same value – to bring the art of horology to as many people as possible.’
It’s a noble mission. This next phase will prove critical if they are to deliver it.