Well, this should be pleasant, I thought, as I pootled off down Piccadilly to meet the English watchmaker Christopher Ward. I bet he’s a funny old stick with watch springs coming out of his hair. This is bound to be a sweet chat about the ins and outs of watch movements amidst The Wolseley’s silverware and hubbub.
Hmm. Not so much. Don’t get me wrong, Christopher Ward is a thoroughly charming chap – an absolute pleasure to share a pot of coffee with – but get him onto the subject of the watch mega-brands and his mild-mannered persona is shrugged off and replaced by Ward’s alter-ego: a superhero for horological times who wants to blow the doors off the watch industry.
Back to all that in a minute. Here’s the story so far: Christopher Ward set up his watchmaking company in 2004 with two business partners; all were from retail backgrounds and had decided to go into the watch business. Not any old watches, mind you. Luxury watches. Watches that would stand up proudly against the big high-end brands. But watches that wouldn’t cost the earth. And that’s exactly what they set about doing.
Why watches? Christopher’s fascination with timepieces began as what must surely be a very rare case of a boy bunking off school to go to a museum. Growing up in Liverpool, he loved going to the World Museum’s ‘Time and Space’ exhibits to learn all about the region’s pride in its watchmaking industry of the 18th and 19th centuries. From there it’s only a hop, skip and a tick forward to see Christopher and pals taking that decision to make watches.
It’s a decision that sounds so much easier said that done. Ward spent extensive time with Swiss-trained experts, learning all about the mechanics of movements, stripping them down and making them up. Only a year after deciding, over a beer, that they were going to do this, the company had its first two watch designs ready to go, and they launched them on a deeply sceptical watch world – a scepticism rooted in the price they were selling the watches for and the quality claims they were making. Watch forums went bananas, aghast at the temerity of these newcomers. That was until one of Australia’s most influential watch bloggers actually got his mitts on one of the watches and decided to shape his opinion on the watch itself rather than just his preconceptions. He loved it – so much that, thanks to the power of www-dot, he was able to tell everyone who wanted to listen just how much he loved it. And that was it. Christopher Ward’s watches have never turned back.
Cut forward to Chez Clutton circa 2009. My husband is muttering about wanting to buy a Christopher Ward watch. He’s heard great things about them: fantastic quality, great design, remarkable value, and if you order it and don’t like it you can just send it back, no worries. That’s the other thing you see. Christopher Ward only sell direct to the customer, not via any stores or outlets. A considerable factor in how they manage to keep their costs down versus the competitors.
Now, I love internet shopping with the best of them. Boxes from net-a-porter and my-wardrobe.com have been known to be delivered to my home; even as I write this I have one ear poised for the doorbell as I await the delivery of some new Dolce & Gabbana purple patent peep-toe heels. But, for some reason I felt a little wary about buying a watch online. Maybe because it was a brand I hadn’t heard of. Maybe I too doubted that at a fraction of the price of the brands they were comparing themselves to, could these watches really be what they claimed? Well, Hubby ignored my words of caution, went right ahead with buying a watch and – just like that Aussie blogger said he would – he loved it. Still loves it. Loves it so much that somehow I ended up meeting Christopher Ward for breakfast at The Wolseley.
As we get talking about how his watches fit into the overall spectrum of watch pricing and quality, that’s when Christopher gets properly off his bike. He’s indignant, frustrated, even angry, at the vast mark-ups the well-known luxury brands have on their watches. These watches cost thousands of pounds but, according to Christopher, scarily little of that is on the watch itself. It’s the middle men, the advertising, paying to have a movie star wear it, the brand prestige, and just charging a lot because they know people want to pay more for things as a kind of reassurance that the product must be better the more it costs.
I do actually think that is often true. Chocolate gets better the more you pay for it. Expensive high heels are engineered with better balance than cheaper ones (I’m still waiting for the doorbell). This isn’t Christopher’s point, though; his point is that his watches which sell for around £550 are as good as the two-granders. They are the same or better quality as watches four times the price. It’s not that they’re good value for the relative cost; it’s that they are as good as them. That’s one heck of a statement, and it’s one which Christopher is going to keep on repeating until we start to take it in. As I said, he wants to blow the doors off the watch industry.
I flourish my Longines, but when Christopher tells me how much that movement would have cost I almost splurt my coffee over the neighbouring table. I’m definitely not quite so enamoured of my watch now I know the real value of its movement. My Oris automatic gets slightly longer shrift, so it may be time to dig that out of the drawer.
The Christopher Ward movements are from the same factories – and in some instances are the same actual ones – as the big brands use. The watches are designed in Berkshire but all made in Switzerland. Each new design takes around a year to develop and each is true to the retro English design roots of those first Christopher Ward watches. Christopher will look for a gap in the current range or get inspiration from icons of England’s heritage. There’s the ‘Malvern’ which is based on the dashboard of an Aston Martin (Hubby’s one); the ‘Harrison’ range which is inspired by legendary horologist John Harrison who invented the marine chronometer; and ‘Beckett’s’ as a nod to Silverstone’s heart-stopping corners and the era of Stirling Moss.
All of which sound terrific, if a little on the macho side. Christopher admits the ladies’ range has up until now just been add-ons to the men’s designs. Not for much longer, though, which is good news as his ‘n’ hers watches are rarely a good look. A whole new range specifically designed for women will be launched later this year, with design references that include Emma Peel. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.
There are lots of plans in the pipeline – including developing their own movement – but Christopher is adamant that he will maintain the direct relationship he personally has with the watches and the customers. When you buy a watch, you’re encouraged to email Christopher directly with your thoughts and feedback. And he’ll reply personally. He tells me that customers who need to speak to him have even been given his mobile number by his staff and that’s just fine. Now, I wonder if that would happen at Omega…
I ask Christopher how the big luxury watch brands have reacted to him. He laughs. I get the impression that they really rather wish he would go away. But Christopher Ward isn’t going to disappear like that. He’s having far too much fun making luxury watches – and causing a bit of a stir whilst he’s at it.
Christopher Ward watches can be purchased online directly from the watchmaker’s website.
Angela Clutton, aka Girl Thursday, is an events and concierge guru, responsible for some of the most luxurious and exclusive parties, shows and private soirées in London. Discover more.