Christopher Ward has just celebrated its first decade in business with the remarkable announcement of the company’s first in-house movement, a development that many much more established brands can only aspire to.
The automatic SH21 has been four years in the making and is a product of Christopher Ward’s partnership, and recent merger with, Synergies Horlogeres (SH); a Swiss movement developer and watchmaker in Biel, that has resulted in a number of the brand’s more recent, complicated watches.
Christopher Ward first looked to develop a network of Swiss partners in 2008 in the hopes ending its reliance on movements from Swatch Group-owned ETA, supply of which is increasingly being restricted by its parent company.
While Christopher Ward is set on a more vertical strategic path and is looking to expand production of its new manufacture movement in the long term, the company’s eponymous co-founder believes that movements from the likes of ETA, Ronda and ISA will still play a part in the company’s model for the foreseeable future.
Chris Ward explains the company’s involvement with SH, saying: “We came across Synergy Horologerie headed up by Jorg Bader and he had a young watchmaker, Johannes Jahnke. We engaged with them and we’ve been with them for six years now. Two years into that relationship Jorg and Johannes were in discussions about creating their own movement based on the talks we’d had in the past.
“At first we had a normal buyer/supplier relationship, but over the years we’ve grown closer and closer, to the point where we’ve now merged. We bought into Johannes’s and Jorg’s idea. Rather than just adapt something that was already out there in the market or another hybrid of the 2824 or of a Valjoux or whatever it may be, we just started from scratch.
Jorg put a lot of faith in Johannes and we said at an early stage that we would back them financially and support them with the movement. At that stage merging I don’t think was really on the table, but it probably helped us to get closer and closer. At each various stage Johannes went off and was designing and developing this movement while Jorg was working hard in Switzerland to bring together a close knit base of suppliers.”
Over the course of the four-year project to develop an in-house movement, now known as the SH21, it became obvious to Ward and his business partners Mike France and Peter Ellis that a merger between their watch brand and the knowledge and expertise at SH – that has served the needs of Meistersinger, Victorinox and Fortis among others – was the way forward.
Ward continues: “In a business sense, we’ve formed a new company called Christopher Ward London Holdings Limited in the UK. There will be a main board, the structure of which is basically the board here plus the board there. Then underneath, we have two businesses running independently and that is Christopher Ward London and Synergies Horlogeres. We crack on doing what we know we can do and they crack on with doing what they can do. They obviously have other customers that they supply to and we don’t see any of that changing in the short-to-medium term. What we have created is a vertical supply chain, right the way from manufacture all the way through to consumer, without any middle man.”
The design brief for the SH21 determined the movement must be robust and offer a lengthy power reserve. Ward explains watchmaker Johannes Jahnke’s approach to the project.
“One of the things Johannes has always been quite forceful on is the point [he feels] that when other brands that have introduced a high power reserve watch, they compromised on the balance wheel. They put in a small balance wheel so they could fit it in smaller watches. What that means is that in the long run, it is likely to be less reliable and therefore less accurate. Putting a larger balance wheel in gives you that robustness, like a Valjoux. Johannes set about getting those two things into the movement. It meant a slightly bigger movement, but it did allow us to put in two large barrels which both produce 60 hours of power, it’s actually a bit more, we think we can get 131 out of it, but 120 is safe.”
The robustness and accuracy that Ward mentions has already been verified through COSC certification, with the process helping Jahnke refine and improve his design.
“The standards they have for the COSC certification in Switzerland are the same for any chronometers, whether it’s a Breitling or a Rolex. The criteria is that they test the watch in a total of five positions. Then there is testing in extreme temperatures from about minus 25 degrees to plus 40. They then impose a certain criteria that you have to present to the movement. For example they have to have a second hand, they must have hands fitted to the movement when you give them in so they can do all the testing. Once it’s gone through the testing and its passed, they then issue a certificate which then stays with that movement throughout its life, whichever watch case it goes in.
“The first few hundred that we put through, the pass rate was something like 93-94 percent. A year or so ago, COSC were feeding back some comments and feedback on why the six or seven percent were failing and Johannes addressed that. Now anything going through COSC is getting very successful pass rates.”
The first watch to utilise the SH21 is the new Christopher Ward C9 Harrison 5 Day Automatic, also announced to coincide with the company’s 10th Anniversary celebrations last month. The watch is an elegant, classical design with 120-hour power reserve and offers that in-house, COSC-certified chronometer movement. The accessible £1,500 price tag in no way reflects the specification and all of the work behind making it a reality.
Jahnke approached his SH21 design using a modular, Baukastensystem approach more commonly used in the automotive industry. The SH21 design will allow Jahnke to remove one of the barrels at a later date and use the space to introduce new modules and complications in future watches.
A chronograph has already been in development for 18 months and will follow a Small Seconds complication, which is already built into the existing SH21 movement but not implemented for the C9 Harrison 5 Day Automatic.
Given the price tag of the C9 Harrison 5 Day Automatic and the authenticity of the movement powering it, it should come as no surprise that the watch has been a big success for Christopher Ward in its first few weeks since release.
Ward explains: “In terms of sales, at the moment it’s probably the fastest launch we’ve ever had. We’ve sent out all the watches we produced in advance. We’ve now gone to preorder for September.”
With a new movement under its belt and the production facilities to bring it to market, will Ward be looking to offer the services of the SH21 to other manufacturers?
“In the initial formative years we’re just looking after ourselves, there have been requests from other brands for the movement. We probably will supply one or two, maybe with a different variation of the movement. We will get a few out into the market but probably keep that a bit quiet. Going forward in a couple of years’ time, there’s no reason why we wouldn’t supply anyone else who came along.
“I was asked a few times at the WatchPro Hot 100 [the launch party where Chris was named a Retail Titan] if we would supply a couple of British brands. We’d be happy to talk to anyone who wants to engage. It all depends on quantity and volume. Straight away we put 2,000 movements through COSC. We can ramp up production to the next logical industrial stage. It would probably be around 10,000 movements. We’re not in Rolex quantities, but it’s a substantial number. We just want the movement to prove itself in the market.”
The Christopher Ward business model has always aspired to the kind of verticality it now demonstrates. But would Ward ever be tempted to offer his watches to customers through other retailers or supplement its online sales with a bricks and mortar offering?
“If we did go into retail, they would be our own stores. We’ve got about 90 years of retail experience. If there’s anything we could do, it would be to open retail outlets. We’re not discarding that that’s a possibility. The internet has given us so many opportunities. If we wanted to go into Bahrain tomorrow, all we need to do is translate the site and we’re up and running. The barriers and costs to entering into any given market whether that be Russia, China or Germany, are relatively low rather than trying to get people on the ground, rent and rates, stock distribution and all that type of stuff. We can do all that from here in Maidenhead with the help Royal Mail and DHL. We’ve got plenty of ground to cover before we look at retail. But if we did do retail, it would be our own stores.”