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To celebrate the fifth anniversary of Calibre SH21 would take a very special watch. The C7 Apex Limited Edition is the ultimate expression of Christopher Ward’s watchmaking prowess – and proved such an immense challenge, they decided to make three more of them…

There have been many landmarks in the 18-year history of Christopher Ward – the first Malverns, the first Tridents – but there’s no doubting the biggest, boldest, most important one. The creation of Calibre SH21 – the company’s first in-house movement – was a huge undertaking, but helped redefine the company. Christopher Ward had always offered well-made, well-designed watches at an affordable price, but now it had serious horological clout too.

With SH21 coming up to five years old now, a celebration seemed in order. But what should it entail? “We knew we wanted to make a significant noise,” says company co-founder Chris Ward, “so the first idea was to build a very special, very limited edition watch. Though SH21 has been massively important – in terms of the respect we get, how we see ourselves, our confidence as a company – it sometimes seems like we don’t get quite the credit for it we deserve. So what if we were to build a truly amazing watch, the most ambitious we’d ever done, to showcase the very best of SH21?”

It was a good idea – but which aspects should the new watch spotlight? “Eventually, we realised there was more than one significant milestone in the development of SH21,” Chris says, “which is how our plans grew from a single watch to a small range of limited edition models, each at the very extremes of what Christopher Ward can do. The range would be called Apex, and it didn’t hurt that what was already being developed for the first one was so exciting – and that the teams, both in Biel and Maidenhead, were enjoying the challenge so much.”

The four Apex models would each celebrate a different aspect of CW watchmaking, then – motoring watches, diver’s watches, dress watches and aviation watches – and each would be launched to coincide with a specific moment in the development of SH21.

“It was crucial that the Apex models should be created with fewer constraints than usual,” says Peter Ellis, another of the co-founders. “The whole process was about allowing creativity to go wild. We’d already decided that we should use our most ambitious, sophisticated and complicated case – the C7, with its unusual lugs – for the first Apex, which meant it would be, by default, a motoring watch. And that made sense, as our senior designer, Adrian Buchmann, was keen to showcase the twin barrels of SH21, giving the watch a very technical look anyway. Plus, there was no existing SH21 option in the C7 range, making the first Apex special in yet another way.”

The final thing to be decided was which anniversary to hang the C7 Apex on. “It had to be the moment we first saw SH21 running,” offers Mike France, the third of the co-founders. “Creating it took three and half years, which is fast by industry standards – but felt to us like the world’s longest pregnancy. It’s one thing creating a movement in CAD, and quite another to machine the actual parts, put them together, and see if it actually does what we hoped it would. How robust would it be? Would it deliver the 120 hours of power we’d asked for? We realised that the C7 Apex should be all about this specific moment – the one when we saw the SH21 prototype work for the very first time.”

With Adrian keen to reveal much of the SH21 movement through the dial and the back of the C7 Apex, the words ‘skeleton watch’ naturally cropped up a few times – and filled a number of key players with horror. Turns out, there’s a world of difference between the old-fashioned, rather fuddy-duddy skeleton watches of the past, and the modern, stripped back, highly architectural work of watchmakers like Richard Mille, Roger Dubuis and Piaget.

“For many years there have been ’skeleton’ models towards the top of many Swiss watch ranges, where the entire face – or elements of it – were removed to show off a complication or decorated movement,” Mike says. “The problem is, I’ve never been a fan of these watches – and neither has Adrian. Even though we liked the idea of showing off our movement, we wanted to do something new with the idea – so we wouldn’t make the whole face transparent, but would instead create a highly complicated multi-level dial, built around limited visibility inside the watch and making the most of SH21’s distinctive elements.”

Adrian started creating a remarkable architectural feel for the watch, with the striking red anodised power reserve sub dial at 9 o’clock becoming the main focus on the front, and the twin barrels taking prominence on the rear. The entire watch features layers of detail beyond anything Christopher Ward has attempted before.

“In fact,” says Peter, “it’s the equal of many watches costing three times the price. It seems to me that the red bridges also work as a metaphor for the increased levels of co-operation that this project demanded between Switzerland and England. Creating it hasn’t been easy – far from it – but it’s been a positive, satisfying experience for all involved.”

For Adrian Buchmann, the project would be built around SH21’s distinctive elements, and everything would flow from them. “I love that SH21 does things most movements don’t do,” Adrian says. “And I particularly love that it has a full five-day power reserve. That’s why we’ve got such a complex multi-level dial, with the power reserve indicator so prominent. Since we were using our motoring watch case, it made sense that it would all be about power, light weight, technological innovation and ultimate performance.”

The C7 case is already one of the most technologically challenging that Christopher Ward’s case supplier has ever made, but now it would be coupled with the most complicated dial CW’s dial supplier has ever made too. The grey-with-red highlights colour scheme seemed very motorsport – “think of the coloured brake callipers on a sports car,” Adrian says, “half-hidden but you know they’re there” – and the whole process started to take on a life of its own.

“Always in the back of my mind, though, was the question of what the other Apex watches might be like,” Adrian says. “This first one would be the most demonstrative, in-your-face version. But what would a C60 Trident Apex be like? Or a C1 Apex? They might be a little more subtle, but they’d still have to be our ultimate versions of what a diver’s watch or a dress watch might be. It’s a great challenge I’m still wrestling with – all I know for sure is that they’ll each have to be the very best that we can do.”

The very best, yes, but these are still Christopher Wards. And though the C7 Apex and its sisters would be watches with “fewer restraints than usual” – as Peter said – they’d still have to be affordable. A Hublot Classic Fusion Ultra Thin Skeleton might cost almost £14,000 – and a Roger Dubuis Excalibur Spider Italdesign Edition more like £130,000 – but the target price for the C7 Apex would be £3,000.

That’s high for a Christopher Ward, but low in the extreme for the sort of stripped back, high-tech, beautifully finished design the team were aiming for here. “Achieving what you want to achieve for an acceptable price is always the killer,” Adrian says. “Virtually anything is possible if you have enough time, money and skill – but doing something comparable at a price that people can afford is infinitely harder. Yes, even £3,000 is a lot to spend, but at least it’s within the realms of possibility. We’re trying to do something much trickier than creating a beautiful £30,000 watch here – we’re trying to create one that’s in every way comparable, but at a tenth of the price.” And what’s been the trickiest bit? “It’s not the materials, or the design. It’s the detailing. We’re bringing uber-expensive levels of detail to a £3,000 watch, and achieving that is incredibly hard. Everywhere we looked, we saw more things we could do, more finishes we could apply – and every single one of them has a cost implication.” Creating the C7 Apex has seen emails, images and samples flying back and forth between Maidenhead and Biel in a fashion that – to an outsider – might seem insane for a run of only 50 pieces, but that wouldn’t take into account how much fun it’s been, or how it’s brought the two parts of the company closer together.

“When I think of the C7 Apex, the first word I think of is ‘exciting’,” Adrian says. “It was exciting to see so many people do their very best work, and it was exciting to see what we can achieve when everyone’s committed and thinking cleverly. Even at the very end, we were looking for ways to improve things.”

We’re trying to do something much trickier than creating a beautiful £30,000 watch here – we’re trying to create one that’s in every way comparible, but at a tenth of the price. ”

The finished watch is pretty incredible, so could Adrian imagine doing a simpler version for even more CW fans to enjoy – one that came in under £1,000, maybe? “Never. This is a style of watch that has to be high-end to work. You couldn’t do a simplified version, because then you’d have to abandon all the detailing, and you’ve have to manufacture all the prominent parts in a cheaper, less satisfying way. The interest would just ebb away.”

This article originally featured in Issue 10 of our quarterly magazine, Loupe. You can sign up to receive Loupe here.