An Interview With Christopher Ward of London
Christopher Ward is the new kid on the block of quality watch making. He is, he says, driven by the finest traditions of English watch design.
A native of Liverpool, UK, he spent his formative years in Prescot, the area of the city that, in the 19th century, was centre of the Lancashire watch and clock industry.
His great hero, Thomas Russell, created fine timepieces and received royal patronage from Queen Victoria. The first production edition of Christopher’s C1 Russell – a watch he designed in homage to Thomas Russell – was recently accepted into the renowned horological collection at the World Museum Liverpool.
‘It was a great honour,’ says Christopher – but perhaps only the first of many accolades that be due this maker who wants to put exclusive watches within reach of everyone and, while selling only through the Web, remains totally committed to a very personal service that enables him to engage in direct communication with each customer.
TZ: With a background of directorships in retail and commerce, what motivated you to switch to watch making?
CW: The short answer to that question is that it started with a bet! I wagered an old friend that I could make ‘the cheapest most expensive watch in the world’. It might sound flippant, but I was inspired by my long-standing love of watches and commitment to the principle of ‘quality at accessible prices’. It was a challenge to myself and to the commercial world in which, until that point, I had spent my career.
Now for the longer answer, you have to go right back to the beginning when I left school at 18 to work in the buying office of a major Liverpool-based retailer. It was my introduction to a fast-paced, commercial environment and I was hooked. Over the years, the work took me all over the world, for organisations including Reebok, Samsung and the Disney Corporation.
At 47, I had a successful global consultancy with blue chip clients, but wanted a new direction. I sold my business and while I was deciding where to go from here, I met up with Mike France for a beer.
Mike and I started our working lives together in Liverpool. He went on to directorships of some of the UK’s biggest retail stores, but had also recently sold his business – The Early Learning Centre franchise – and was looking for a new venture. We were sitting on a boat on the river Thames, contemplating life, business and the future, when the idea began to gel.
Mike was keen to move away from ‘bricks and mortar’ retailing to a web-based operation. I wanted to revisit my first love – watches. It was a perfect piece of serendipity.
Equally serendipitous was the fact that one of my great business friends from Hong Kong, Woody Lam, had been one of the Swiss ‘Class of 32′. As a young man in the 1970s, he had travelled to Switzerland to train as a watch maker. It was at the time when the Swiss industry had woken up to the potential threat from the Far East and rather than quash it, decided to ‘plant’ Swiss-trained expertise in the region. Needless to say, the bright young things they trained immediately set up their own businesses, so the initiative was abandoned after just a few years.
Woody is no longer a professional watchmaker, but he still has immense skills. I spent a year with him and seven other students from the original 32 Swiss-trained watchmakers, learning art and science of Swiss production. I added my knowledge of English watch design; Mike and his business partner Peter Ellis
TZ: : You attribute some of your love of watches to the great English watch maker Thomas Russell. Why?
CW: Thomas Russell was surely one of the great names of 19th century watch making – though surprisingly little is known about him outside Liverpool. He was, along with Joseph Sewill, at the forefront of the Lancashire watch and clock industry, of which my home town – Liverpool – was the very heart.
This made sense – at that time, most of the steel, gold or other metal cases were being imported from Elgin in the U.S.A and shipped over to the UK, docking at the great port of Liverpool. Of course, the city was a major seafaring port at the time and Russell’s and Sewill’s main revenue stream was in the manufacture of ships’ clocks and chronometers.
My interest in watches goes back to school days. I attended grammar school in a town called Prescot, where Thomas Russell’s family was based. The industry had long since died out by then – probably unable to recover production after most of the factories were turned over to the war effort during the second World War, or so I am led to believe.
The Prescot horology museum was very close to my home and school. I used to wander round it, fascinated by the timepieces on display, eager to absorb every scrap of information I could find about the mechanisms.
I bought a watch with my first pay packet – it was a Sewill and I bought it because it was a Liverpool watch. Later on, while I was training with Woody Lam, the first watch I restored was a Thomas Russell Hunter pocket watch – this became the inspiration for our C1 Russell which has just been accepted into the Liverpool Museum collection.
I think it’s a real shame that knowledge of Liverpool watch making is dying out. The Russell name has all but disappeared and Sewills has just been taken over and yet to re-emerge.
TZ: Your business model is completely different from that of other watch makers. How and why did it come about?
CW: Our business model is simple – we sell directly to customers over the web at a price that represents trade cost plus a small but fair margin. That means there are no middlemen or retailers to bump up the price, we don’t use sponsorship or trade shows to build the brand. As far as we are concerned, the watch comes first, not the marketing, and we don’t want customers to pay for the extras that necessarily seem to come with a huge marketing machine and brand hype.
Our brand values are our strength – honesty, fairness, value, openness and integrity. I try to check every watch before it is shipped and answer most, if not all customer enquiries myself. If you call, it’s usually me who answers the phone!
We think this model may be unique, but I’ve no doubt someone from the TZ forum will let us know if it isn’t!
TZ: Describe the philosophy behind the design and production values of your watches.
CW: A Christopher Ward watch is quintessentially English in design. When we set up the company, we never wanted to be a ‘me too’ Swiss rip-off organisation. Each model is very distinctive – whether over time that will translate into an overall Christopher Ward handwriting I can’t yet say. All I know is that I want my watches to be the perfect blend of function and form.
We align ourselves with other brands that use movements like the 2824-2 movement, such as Tag Heuer, Tissot, Zeno, Sinn, Maurice Lacroix, Kobold, to name but a few, but our pricing structure is different to theirs.
The main point is that I never compromise the watch to meet deadlines. I prefer to let my watches speak for themselves and if it takes a little longer than promised to get the design and mechanism right, then so be it.
TZ: Apart from Thomas Russell, who or what are your design inspirations?
CW: There is a lot you can do within the design of a wrist watch, but you have to have a starting point. I take a lot of inspiration from nature, particularly when I am meandering up and down the Thames in my boat.
In future, I may even evolve the ladies’ watch range into ‘wrist art’, with hand-painted dials all on a natural theme. I have a team of artists in Tibet ready to create something beautiful for me!
TZ: We know you keep your prices as low as possible, but how do your watches compare in value with other brands?
CW: Our biggest challenge is to convince the consumer of the perceived value of our watches. We are producing top quality watches with the same Swiss movements that are used in other well-known Swiss brands, but selling them direct to customers for around one fifth to one tenth of the retail price.
So, the quality is equal to (and possibly better than) comparable brands, but some consumers may not believe that we can really achieve that quality for such a low price. The fact is that we can and do, and once people know about us our reputation seems to spread quickly. The catch 22 is that we actually may sell our watches at too low price for people to believe us.
Very early on in the history of Christopher Ward London, we received independent appraisal of our first watch from a watch-focused web forum and now even Swatch have commented favourably on our products.
In the end, though, it’s the customer that will make or break our brand. We put as much into our service as into our watches so that every customer feels connected to the manufacturer of their watch. It’s a very personal thing for me and the customer. We hope that word of mouth rather than ‘the celebrity’ will build our brand.
TZ: Will you continue to be as personally involved in the business as it grows?
CW: That’s a very good question. We are a very small team at the moment. We ship between 30 and 200 watches a day and nothing goes out unless I have looked at it. That way, I have a connection with every watch that carries my name. I also stamp and personally sign the individual authentication letter that goes out with each one, as well as answering email queries. If there are any problems, I deal with them myself and carry out repairs thus keeping in touch with any problems and customer needs.
One of our ‘challenges’, if you like, is that the internet engenders the idea that purchase and shipping are instantaneous and Christopher Ward watches are not a 24-hour turn-round operation. The service we provide is appropriate to the quality of the watches.
All too often, in today’s world of brand hype, people lose sight of what real service is. To me real service is looking after, and caring for the customer and producing a product that our customers will love and treasure. This service takes time and it is impractical for us to turn around crafted pieces in 24 hours – after all, if you commissioned a painting or bought a top-of-the-range car, you wouldn’t expect it delivered the following morning.
There are, though, occasions where we will pull out the stops, for example if it is a customer’s birthday or anniversary, we will do our best to accommodate their timescales.
TZ: The Kingfisher Diver-Pro watch is, as you say on the website, "an important addition to the Christopher Ward collection". Why did you decide to develop the Kingfisher and how did you approach the development of its functionality?
CW: Diving is my passion. I have dived all over the world, though these days I confine myself to clear, tropical waters with colourful fish!
After 15 years as a qualified diver, I have read a lot of hype about divers’ watches. I wanted to give our customers a professional dive watch, as good as any other brand out there, with a price differential that means you could also afford a diving holiday too!
I wanted to give it a real point of differentiation from other dive watches, so I added perhaps the world’s first No Decompression Limit Table on the screw-down back case. I haven’t found another but would be interested to be pointed in the right direction by your members.
I should stress, though, that while the watch is designed to be a high performance dive watch (it’s used by, amongst others, an ex-Royal Navy sub-marine bomb disposal expert!) it should only ever be used as a back-up to other dive equipment, such as a dive computer.
TZ: There has been considerable discussion lately regarding the increasing size of watches over the past few years. Is that a trend you believe will continue, or do you see it as a fad that will pass?
CW: The demand for larger watches is probably due to the psychological needs of men to demonstrate their manhood, wealth etc, using the few avenues at their disposal, such as cars, gadgets and accessories. Given the unlikely change in this need, I doubt that this trend will reverse in the near future.
TZ: What are your longer term goals for the company? Where do you see yourself in five years?
CW: At the moment, we are very focused on developing the range from around 60 or so watches to 200+, including a strong women’s range, which we are currently building on, with the new Diamond Encore and the soon to be launched Divine Collection. Eventually, we will move new product development to the next level – an even better watch for the same money.
TZ: What do you see as the most significant challenges facing some of the smaller companies in the watch industry over the coming years?
CW: Without a doubt one of the most significant challenges will be the continuity of supply of mechanical movements in order to keep up with demand.
Another concern would be if the bigger brands abandon their current distribution channels in favour of going direct to the consumer, via the internet. This is however unlikely and would be a very brave move as it would surely upset many retailers.
TZ: Your watches contain Swiss movements. Are they manufactured and assembled in Switzerland or elsewhere?
CW: I think all too often some manufacturers are afraid to be open and honest about where their components come from. In fact in the luxury goods market, and in this I include perfumes and handbags, there is an awful lot of smoke and mirrors set up to justify high prices.
Christopher Ward London watches take the best of watch-production from around the world. The movements are indeed manufactured in Switzerland – we have relationships, for example, with ETA. The cases are manufactured in the Far East, where most of the watches are also assembled, some are assembled in the UK.
The important point here is to say we’re not afraid to say who we use or where we buy our components from, so long as we source from reputable and ethical suppliers, for example all of our diamond watches adhere to the Kimberley Process, and we have a very close relationship with our production guys at the unit in Hong Kong (James and Philip), who incidentally were also trained in Switzerland.
TZ: Which watches do you have in your personal collection? Which is your favourite, and why?
CW: Of course I have all of the Christopher Ward range and then amongst others my collection also includes a Tissot, a present from my wife, several Thomas Russell pocket watches and curiously a Nomos, which I bought because I was curious about a watch which, like CWL watches, is priced lower than one would expect for the quality. I also have a Walt Disney Finding Nemo watch that my four-year old son gave me to fix – but it’s digital….help!
What’s my favourite? The Christopher Ward collection and sentimental value aside, I prefer my IWC Spitfire. It’s a wonderful watch to look at and wear and I like IWC’s simplistic approach to design.
TZ: And finally, in time-honored TimeZone tradition – which watch are you wearing today?
CW: The original CWL prototype C5 Aviator with a white face.