Timothy Barber discovers how UK brand Christopher Ward is taking on the Swiss giants
Maidenhead, in the heart of the Home Counties, seems an unlikely nerve centre for a mission to disrupt the stately progress of the Swiss watch industry; about as likely, in fact, as “Christopher Ward” being the name to mount such an assault.
Ward himself, and fellow founders Mike France and Peter Ellis (pictured), were already seasoned entrepreneurs (the latter two having turned around and sold the Early Learning Centre for a hefty profit) when they launched a speculative attempt to subvert the pricing of luxury watches through minimal marketing and direct selling. However, what began in 2004 with extremely basic, Swiss-made watches advertised in the back of magazines, has grown into one of the most dynamic and unusual independent marques in the watch landscape.
Sales turnover is in the millions – all through its website – while ownership of a manufacturing business in Switzerland has enabled the company to develop its own, highly specified movement – the Holy Grail of independent firms, something few achieve. Most recently, Christopher Ward has emphasised its “maturity” as a watch company with an overhaul of its products and branding that has put design at the heart of the operation.
The recent C60 Trident Pro Titanium is a case in point. A superb, stealthy, modern watch in a lightweight metal, it has black markings that glow in the dark, and a diving watch spec meaning it’ll plummet to 600 metres underwater if asked (not that you’ll want to go with it).
For a company that has long fielded criticism that it produces watches that are derivative or dull, these are interesting times. In its early days, rehashing recognisable designs into cheaper alternatives was a business necessity, and Christopher Ward was not aiming for the most sophisticated buyer. The sophisticated buyer, however, came to it, almost by default – an early move to online sales and discovery by internet forums revealed a ready market for credible watches that didn’t have eye-watering prices.
The company grew rapidly, and, with it, the seriousness of its product. Eventually it was able to buy the Swiss supplier that made its watches and, in 2014, to fund a movement (for a handful of top-tier watches) that matches or even betters the movements of major brands for accuracy, robustness and power reserve (five days).
The pricing remains impressive: a C9 5 Day Automatic containing the brand’s own movement costs only £1,375, while most Christopher Ward watches remain sub-£1,000. Still, while both the quality and ambition of the company’s watchmaking corkscrewed upwards, its design intuition sometimes lagged behind; also in 2014, a particularly duff attempt at a watch inspired by a Jaguar D-Type dashboard, mere months after fellow British brand Bremont owned the concept with a watch designed in collaboration with Jaguar itself, was heavily derided and appears to have been a line-in-the-sand moment. New design talent was hired from Switzerland, and a gradual reshaping of the collection commenced.
One of its new models could be its best yet. The C65 Trident Classic MKII – nomenclature, I have to say, remains rather a struggle – is what Christopher Ward needed: an every-watch. Simple, clear and elegant enough for the office, it’s rugged enough to be casual with enough character to be its own thing. The scooped out crown guards on the case flank and the minimalist hands and markings give it stylish pep.
The new logo on the left of the dial, in hip “sans serif” lettering, suggests Scandi minimalism rather than the gentlemanly classicism to which the brand had been sticking. To me, it lacks gravitas, but we’ll see in the coming months how it fares. It’s a bold statement, though, from a brand that appears to have decided that its future audience will not be looking for a cheap alternative to IWC or TAG Heuer. Rather, it will be looking for Christopher Ward itself: a young, affordable, digitally-savvy watch
company. From Maidenhead.
Timothy Barber is The Telegraph’s watch editor.