Luxury craftsman made watches are probably the most visual articles in our working lives that show two things about the person – they value quality and have the commercial success to achieve it.
And now marking a big impression on the wrists of many of today’s achievers are the individualistic creations coming out of the UK watchmaker Christopher Ward.
His is a story of striving for the best from humble beginnings in Liverpool’s tough urban environment of Toxteth. To make it even tougher for himself, the obviously gifted Ward flunked out of his A Levels and sunk into unemployment before taking a job as assistant merchandiser at the department store Littlewoods.
He takes up the story saying: “I stayed in the company for eight years, kept my head down and moved into the buying office in 1980. That’s where I first met Mike France and Peter Ellis, the two other co-founders of Christopher Ward.”
He eventually left Liverpool to head up the buying department of Olympus Sport – the largest sports retailer in Europe. He transformed its apparel division and then moved to Reebok in 1991 to spearhead its entry into the clothing market. His success led to him becoming involved in the USA side of the business.
At the age of 32, and with two young children, Ward decided to go it alone. He borrowed some money from his suppliers, put his home on the line and bought the international license for a swimwear brand called Tyr. It grew into the UK’s second biggest swimwear brand behind Speedo and then merged with a Spanish company in order to help develop the brand’s presence in Europe.
In 1997 the Spanish company collapsed, taking Ward’s business, house and marriage with it. “The only good thing that came out of it was that while I was MD of Tyr, I went to Laguna Beach for a meeting and nearly drowned. A woman called Wera, saved my life – some while later we ended up getting married.”
For the next six months Ward lived above a pub and did a bit of work for some suppliers he knew so that he could do an MBA. “I had learned some hard lessons but I knew there was still a lot more about business I needed to know.”
Ward set up another business designing and importing goods for Disney, LEGO and Tesco, which he sold in 2004. “It was then that I met up with Mike and Peter again. They were in the process of selling the Early Learning Centre, a business they had successfully turned around in a remarkably short time. We were all wondering ‘what next?’
Ward was in a boat on the Thames with Ellis and France discussing possible projects when they hit on the notion of creating the “cheapest most expensive watch in the world”.
“It wasn’t quite as random as it sounds,” explains Ward. “I had always been fascinated by watches and we knew that the cost of making a watch was a fraction of what they were sold for. So, in 2004, Christopher Ward was born.”
Ward spent the best part of a year designing the first two watches, the C5 Malvern Automatic and C3 Malvern Chronograph. As soon as they launched, in June 2005, watch forums across the world were inundated with people complaining that watches at this price could not possibly be of the quality claimed. The fortunes of the company only changed when one of the world’s most influential watch bloggers, Dave Malone from Australia, purchased a Malvern Automatic with the intention of exposing the myth. Having received his watch and being blown away by every aspect of it, he wrote a stunningly complimentary post. Christopher Ward has been going from strength to strength ever since.
Sales growth of more than 60% this year proves that more people now accept that Christopher Ward watches are every bit as good (and often better) than those which typically cost four times as much from better known brands. “There is a limit to how many people will happily pay £2,200 for a watch when they could pay £550 for a Christopher Ward with an almost identical or even higher specification,” says Ward. “How much is a better known name on the dial really worth?”
In the last 18 months, the brand has also developed a strong relationship with the RAF and it is now busily making luxury bespoke watches for individual squadrons at a price that the ground crews can afford as well as the pilots. The fact that the company is based in Maidenhead rather than Geneva or Zurich only adds to the feel-good factor. The RAF has also commissioned Christopher Ward to make the official watch to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
“Apart from the quality and prices of our watches, we all put a huge amount of effort into looking after our customers and interacting with them. We often act on customer suggestions when we are developing and designing new watches,” concluded Ward.
C900 Harrison Single Pusher Chronograph C900-SP, £2,450
With its rare complication and bespoke movement, Ward’s C900 Harrison Single Pusher Chronograph is one of the most significant watches to be launched by a British watchmaker this year. The automatic chronograph, which can be started, stopped and reset with a single ‘pusher’ or button, represents unrivalled value at £2,450. Available from the end of October, the C900 will allow many watch enthusiasts to buy into a world that they could previously only have dreamed about. The timeless and understated dial of the C900, with its continuous seconds sub-dial and 30-minute totaliser, was designed by Ward in Britain but it is the extensively developed and adapted Unitas 6497 calibre that is the real star of the show. Watchmaker, Johannes Jahnke, based in Christopher Ward’s Swiss atelier, has taken the base movement and turned it into something magnificent.
C7 Rapide MK II British Racing Green Limited Edition, £399
Ward’s Limited Edition C7 Rapide MK II in British Racing Green combines the style of 1950s motor racing watches with the colour that’s associated with so many of Britain’s most glorious victories in the sport. Just the words ‘British Racing Green’ conjure up images of old Bentleys and Jaguar D-Types thundering around Le Mans. Add the distinctive design of the C7 Rapide MK II with its three chronograph eyes, inspired by fuel gauges and rev counters, and the British watchmaker’s latest motorsport watch takes on a life of its own. Every detail adds to the sense of motor racing heritage – even the reverse of the watch has an exclusive steering wheel design engraved on the back plate.
C9 Harrison Blue, £975
The stunning 250-piece limited edition automatic chronograph is the colour of the oceans which John Harrison helped to tame when he solved “the longitude problem” and made navigating the high seas so much safer. The especially modified ETA Valjoux 7750 movement, a stunning galvanic sapphire blue dial and chronograph eyes, together with a premium grade Louisiana alligator strap produce a chronograph of exceptional quality which will never go unnoticed.
C11 Makaira Pro 500, £499
Named after a genus of several types of marlin, which can swim as fast as a cheetah can run, the C11 Makaira Pro 500 is the first in Ward’s new range of dive watches. Just as the Atlantic Blue, Black and Indo-Pacific Blue marlin are among the strongest, fastest and most impressive fish in the world, the C11 Makaira Pro 500 is one of the finest, strongest and most striking dive watches.
Belisama – W90 OR W900
Few watch brands make ladies automatics – believing that women are perfectly happy with a battery-powered quartz so long as it looks good. But now there’s a chance to own a mechanical watch with a serious pedigree, without breaking the bank. Much more than just a pretty face, the design of Belisama – Ward’s first ever range of ladies automatics – pays homage to the iconic Cartier ‘Tank’ as well as the Celtic goddess who gave the range its name. The elegance and intricacy of the Belisama’s ETA 2671-2 movement is perfect for women with brains as well as beauty.