Christopher Ward co-founders Mike France and Peter Ellis talk about 20 years of CW: from the earliest days in a Berkshire chicken shed to a night of triumph in Geneva

The original C5 Malvern Automatic

In 2004, Mike France, Peter Ellis and Chris Ward started a watch company. A business that launched with a full page advert in The Independent newspaper, and which had more in common with emerging tech brands than the grand watch companies of Geneva.

Twenty years on, Peter and Mike reflect on what two decades in the watchmaking industry has taught them about business, creativity and perseverance. And why the next 20 years are going to be even more exciting.

In November, the C1 Bel Canto won the ‘Petite Aiguille’ category at the GPHG awards – the ‘Oscars’ of watchmaking. How did it feel?
Mike France: I was quite emotional. To say the least!
Peter Ellis: We knew something was happening as Mike was placed nearer the stage than the rest of us.
MF: Also, the watch journalist Nick Foulkes, chair of the GPHG judges, came over to have a chat, which gave me an indication something might be happening. I opened with, “This feels like a big moment,” because it was. Afterwards, the prize-winners and judges had their photo taken on stage. One of the judges was Max Büsser, CEO of MB&F – a watch company that makes incredible ‘horological machines’. He came over to congratulate me, and told me he thought the Bel Canto was brilliant.

Let’s go back to 2004. You’d just sold Early Learning Centre – an ethical toy shop. Why start a watch company?
MF: I loved watches, and we thought online selling was the future. We wanted a challenge, and taking on the behemoths of the Swiss watch industry appealed.
PE: Chris would be in charge, and we’d sprinkle ‘pixie dust’ when needed. But it soon became clear we’d all be involved.
MF: Chris had an office on a farm in Cookham Dean. I spent hours with him going through websites and learning about watches, formulating the business plan.

Who designed the watches?
MF: In the beginning, we worked with Easy Tiger, the design company who we worked with at Early Learning Centre. Adam, the boss, had his studio in his house, with 12-15 designers in the kitchen and conservatory! We liked IWC, so our first mechanical watch, the C5 Malvern Automatic – launched alongside the quartz C3 Malvern Chronograph – was loosely based on the IWC Portofino.

How long did it take for you to realise you were onto something?
MF: Not long. Although sales were slow, they started trickling in from around the world. The first piece of good luck was when a Tasmanian watch expert called Dave Malone bought a C5 Malvern Automatic in order to expose us: he couldn’t believe we were selling a watch with a genuine ETA 2824–1 mechanical movement for £179! When he realised how good the piece was, he wrote about it on the TimeZone forum, which led to us being talked about more than Rolex around Christmas 2005!
PE: We were international from day one. Hans van Hoogstraten, a guy from the Netherlands, launched the forum, while Kip McEwen, from the US, was an early collector.

Did you have any setbacks?
PE: We had a serious one in 2005 at Baselworld before we’d sold a single watch!
MF: We came out of Zurich train station and saw a bar across the road. We sat outside – three of us around a small table – with Chris’s bag by his chair. Somebody pulled up at the lights on a motorbike and took it. We lost the entire business plan! We had to start again.
MF: Then in 2008 there was the biggest financial crash since the 1930s which didn’t help – not to mention the Swatch Group’s decision not to sell any ETA movements to third parties.

What did you do?
PE: At the time we were manufacturing in China, so we had a choice: we could go to Japan for our movements or have our watches made in Switzerland. We felt Swiss expertise was at a higher level so decided to go with them. Something that led to an ‘interesting’ exploration of the country…
MF: Chris hired a Mini, picked Peter and I up at Basel airport and we headed off to watchmaking country to see suppliers. It was pitch-black as we went around hills and mountains, when the car ran out of petrol. What did Chris do? Took the handbrake off, went backwards down the hill and reversed into a still-open petrol station. We saw this as a good omen!

What did you learn from your visits to Switzerland?
MF: That there are about five or six iconic watches, which everything is a riff on. It was clear most of the successful brands were promoting their version of the Rolex Submariner, which led to us producing the first Trident diving watch – designed by me and previous designer, Fraser Palfreyman.
PE: We learned not all Swiss manufacturers are the same, and though we found one who had access to ETA movements – he was the world’s largest manufacturer of mechanical braille watches – our quality standards were higher than his. Which led us to discover Synergies Horlogères, which shared our values and had the same desire to disrupt the Swiss watch industry.

“The GPHG award is about the work of our teams in both Maidenhead and Biel. They’re the future of this company”

C1 Bel Canto

“The GPHG award is about the work of our teams in both Maidenhead and Biel. They’re the future of this company”

In 2014, CW merged with Jörg Bader’s Synergies Horlogères. What did the Swiss arm of the business give you?
MF: Expertise. We amalgamated because we knew their knowledge would enable us to go to the next level. It also gave us access to Johannes Jahnke, the genius watchmaker who invented the ‘JJ’ modules. When we merged in 2014, we also announced the launch of our in-house movement, Calibre SH21, which we’d been working on with Johannes for more than four years. It was a seminal moment.
PE: Today, they’re the supply chain and part of the NPD group – new product development – so Jörg Bader Junior reports to Mike, he works alongside Frank Stelzer and Daniel Kurt in Biel, with designers William Brackfield and Adrian Buchmann.

Tell us about Adrian…
PE: He came here in 2015 as his wife’s parents lived in the UK. He did his research and applied for a job with us. It was obvious that he was an exceptional young watch designer.
MF: From the moment I met him I knew he was someone we needed. We wanted to create a Christopher Ward ‘handwriting’ – and so Adrian started with case design. The Grand Malvern watches were the first to carry the Light-catcher™ case, which were inspired by the Aston Martin DB9.

Chris Ward left in 2019. Do you miss him?
MF: He’s a lovely guy and we miss him as a person – especially the football banter. I’m an Evertonian and after Liverpool’s recent success it might be a bit difficult for me!
PE: He crops up in our conversation all the time. When the right moment appears, it’d be great to see him again.
MF: I don’t miss his driving!

Covid had a big effect on watchmaking. How was it for CW?
PE: Vital, because the best time to lean into a business is when you don’t know what’s going to happen the next day.
MF: We ‘zigged’ when other brands ‘zagged’, connecting with influencers, bloggers and media channels who were all looking for content. We appeared on podcast after podcast, and were probably the loudest company, while the traditional brands went in on themselves. In April 2020, we were one of only two organisations making a new TV advert. The other was the UK government.

Finally, what has 20 years in watchmaking taught you?
MF: If you’re going to succeed, product has to be king. Take the Bel Canto – it’s changed the business completely. All stories come back to product. We have a young team who share our values, and aren’t afraid to challenge each other. I doubt there’s a better team in watchmaking at the moment.
PE: As we said at the time, the GPHG award is about the work of our teams in both Maidenhead and Biel. They’re the future of this company.
MF: It’s taught us to be grateful – and how lucky we are to love what we do. It’s also endlessly interesting, there’s always something new to learn. And we’re just at the start of the journey!

Light-catcher™ case

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