The Christopher Ward co-founder talks to Revolution about the online-only British brand he started with friends Chris Ward and Peter Ellis.
For anybody new to the brand, how would you sum up Christopher Ward?
That it is the best surprise in modern horology — we genuinely believe that is not far off the truth, because the thing that surprises everyone when they first come to the brand is the quality of the product. That is our main focus, and for us quality is all about the level of detail, like the precision engineering of the case, the quality of the dial and simple things like the fact that we insist on hand-stitched straps. These days everyone can do their research, and they know about the quality of different movements. We offer value, but our watches are still substantial purchases, so we want people to be blown away and come back for more.
What was the original inspiration behind the brand?
Peter and I had sold the Early Learning Centre and there are only so many beaches you can lie on. We were fortunate enough to know people in the industry who were able to give us unusual access to information about supply prices and so forth. This gave us the opportunity to create a pretty unique online-only model that could avoid the mark-ups that other brands were applying. We were committed to the view that we could do something different.
Were watches always a passion for you or was starting Christopher Ward more of a business decision?
I was always interested in watches, but it was also a perfect fit from a strategic point of view because I was keen to start an online business. I spent a lot of time in bricks and mortar and when we developed the Early Learning Centre, people said we wouldn’t be able to sell climbing frames online and they were wrong. So we spent months looking at other watch companies online. They had websites but no commercial presence. We were told you’ll never sell a high-quality watch online. But go back 15 years and nobody thought you could sell clothes online, and look what happened there.
What were the greatest challenges in launching an unknown brand in a crowded marketplace?
We launched our first two watches in June 2005, the Malvern Automatic and the Malvern Chronograph. We took out some adverts in the Independent and a few sales started trickling through. Then suddenly we started getting sales from all over the world. It turned out that a chap called Dave Malone in Tasmania had seen an advert in the Independent and he didn’t believe that we could sell watches with a genuine ETA 2842-2 movement at such a price. He was one of the leading posters on Timezone and was hoping to expose us as charlatans, but to his credit and our good fortune, when he got the watch he was wowed by it and wrote a long post saying he had found the best-value automatic watch in the world. Such a high number of many sales started coming through Timezone that the moderator thought we must be paying people to post so he started banning them, which only led to an even greater buying frenzy.
How has your approach been received by other watch companies?
Virtually every watch brand now has a transactional website and if they don’t they surely will. The industry is 10 to 15 years behind where it should be in the distribution of watches — I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet. Today the percentage of watches bought online is still in single digits. The skepticism was always about people not wanting to spend large amounts of money online. Those barriers are increasingly tumbling to the point of non-existence.
Have you been hit by any fluctuations in the watch market or the economy at large?
One of the first surprises was around 2007 when we learnt that the Swatch Group was going to withdraw the selling of movements to third parties. Shortly after that there was the 2008 crash and we learned quickly that you can never rest on your laurels and that events drive things. But the doom and gloom we might have felt came to nothing. We had a very strong relationship with ETA then and thankfully that remains to this day, but it did encourage us to develop our own calibre, the SH21, which is a great achievement for a brand of our size. When we launched it in 2014 and merged with our supply partner, Synergies Horlogères, some of the traditional parts of the watch industry at last began to acknowledge that this new little brand might actually be around for a while. But we learn far more from other people than they learn from us. We have learnt so much about some of the art of fine watchmaking and it is always a delight. We are curious by nature and as long as that remains, we should be okay.
Are there any plans for the future of the brand that you can tell us about?
Our big launch is coming in May when we are launching Trident 3, our premier dive-watch collection. This is big news for us, another big jump forward as one of the key platforms is seeing its third evolution. Trident 1, 2 and 3 really show the development of Christopher Ward as a brand. I am really proud of what we have developed. We have shown the prototype to our forum members and our Facebook fans — the response has been fantastic.