The Journey to Christopher Ward
My wife and I recently talked about the qualities that make for a good leader.
We actually talk about this subject often since we’ve both held positions of leadership in current or past careers, and we’ve either been good or bad leaders ourselves or worked under one. To us, a good leader is one that encourages others to embrace their talents and who is ruthless in defending the values on which their company is built. In our recent interview, we found Mike France, the cofounder and CEO of Christopher Ward, to be the type of leader who is steadfastly determined to make his brand a key player in the contemporary British watchmaking tradition, and he’s the type of leader who embraces his team’s unique ideas and perspectives.
I have also become fascinated (if not obsessed) with the idea that each day, we can potentially make one or more decisions that may forever change the course of our lives. Whether it be a major or small decision, we engage in a path that is uniquely ours and becomes ours the more we make decisions along that path. In that vein, Christopher Ward could have been one of many things, but at some point in time, three friends got together and created a vision for the brand. This vision has evolved each day since the company’s founding and each time a change in leadership occurs. Each new chapter has brought the brand closer to being the best thing it could be at that moment.
What I’m trying to get at is this.
Only Christopher Ward could be Christopher Ward, and only Mike France and his cofounders Chris Ward and Peter Ellis could have made Christopher Ward what it was in 2005, what it is today, and what it will become 10 years from now. Similarly, only Hans Wilsdorf could have made Rolex, and any brand that has become anything unique and different did so because of the influence and unique vision of its founder.
Understand this: the “when” and “where” are as important as the “why.” This is what this article is about, so let’s get on with it.
Who Is Mike France?
I don’t get easily star-struck, but I must admit that sitting down in a New York City coffee shop with Mike France was akin to meeting a celebrity or a hero figure. I’ve watched Mike speak in dozens of video interviews before, and I believe he’s the most publicly recognizable independent brand owner. This in itself says a lot about the man who cofounded Christopher Ward in 2005. Despite what it might look like at first glance, granting so many interviews to watch journalists is not making it about himself. It’s representing the brand, communicating to the widest audience possible its values and sharing the results of its team’s tireless work and accomplishments.
Many times during the interview, Mike mentioned the names of his colleagues who design, handle the production, or promote Christopher Ward’s models. The day I interviewed him, I also talked to Will Brackfield and Jorg Bader, a designer and a head of production respectively (more about them in an upcoming article). The story of Christopher Ward, as you will see below, is a story involving many people. In independent watchmaking, it is often the case that a brand’s story revolves around one individual and their vision, but perhaps we will see a correlation between the number of people involved in creating a brand and its success. In other words, the more people involved in the process, the more success a brand has.
Right now, though, it’s about Mike France and his path into horology, how he created Christopher Ward, and how he’s been working on preparing the brand for whatever the future may bring. Mike was clear in saying that he only plays a small part in the brand’s history and that the latter will survive long after he’s gone. This in itself shows Mike’s dedication to make the brand something there for the long haul, and the way he went about creating Christopher Ward—the way he got the first sketches done, the kind of people he hired first, and the way the brand has been developing its collections—will demonstrate that it’s here to stay.
So, who is Mike France?
Plenty of articles have been written about Christopher Ward, but what do we know about the men behind the brand? As you may already know, I prefer to talk about the people who create a brand than the watches themselves. To me, understanding the people who found a brand tells us more about their watches than the watches themselves. Mike France is in essence an entrepreneur, a people person, and a watch enthusiast. He describes his mission as a human being as being productive and doing good. As part of the fulfillment of that mission, he owned and ran a company called the Early Learning Centre (ELC) for many decades before creating Christopher Ward. ELC manufactured and sold educational toys for children, which retailed in more than 200 stores in the United Kingdom.
Mike shared a few stories about the jobs he had before ELC, apprenticing at a firm before taking various positions of leadership at major retail and fashion brands. When he was 21 years old, he got a random vision, a thunderbolt out of nowhere or a moment of clarity. He realized that one day, he would be creating a great business, and not a good one but a great one. He worked in many good businesses before cocreating Christopher Ward, and although he was proud of the work he had accomplished climbing the hierarchical ladder elsewhere, it was not yet great.
What Mike eventually realized as cofounder and CEO of a successful independent watch brand constitutes the “great” stuff. Although running ELC was doing good work, he now feels that his greatest success was making people’s dreams of owning a fine piece of horology a reality. Anyone who is into watches has dreamed at some point in their life—whether or not they care to admit it—of owning a fine Swiss or Japanese watch. As you most likely know, this dream will only remain a dream for many because luxury horology is out of many people’s budget, and if it’s not, the watches themselves are not available.
So what else is out there? What gap did Mike, Chris, and Peter seek to fill?
Creating Christopher Ward
Mike sold the Early Learning Centre, and just a mere five weeks later, he was feeling restless. He went on a well-deserved vacation, but he couldn’t stand still. He knew he had done good work, but he was still looking to get the great work started. He, Peter, and Chris started to discuss the idea of creating a watch brand, and if they were to do so, how they would go about it. They quickly focused their attention on a textile supplier they had worked with in the past. This supplier had the habit of talking watches and showing off his collection pieces during business negotiations. What’s more, the supplier had accumulated 20 years worth of market research on the watch industry, which proved to be key for Mike and his colleagues to decipher the intricacies of the global watch manufacturing world.
What we know already about Christopher Ward is that Mike, Peter, and Chris found out that many Swiss luxury brands were getting their watches—or parts of them—manufactured in China. Cases, dials, hands, and bracelets sporting the logos and names of famous Swiss brands could be seen on the workbenches of Chinese manufacturers, and these watches were being sold for a profit margin 30 times higher than their manufacturing costs. The story goes that many years ago, the Swiss brought in 32 entrepreneurs from Asia to show them the ropes of Swiss watch manufacturing. The supplier Mike worked with was one of these 32 people. Through his experience and expertise, Mike, Chris, and Peter were able to take the first steps in making their vision come true.
When Mike ran the Early Learning Centre, he worked with a number of designers to create the toys. He brought in a couple of these designers to start working on their first ideas for watches, or, more accurately, very rough sketches. Although the trio of founders liked watches, they didn’t know how to make them. Their first sketches were wild in the sense that they had no idea that movements came with a certain hand configuration, meaning that the hour, minute, and seconds hands, as well as chronograph hands, could only be placed in certain areas of a dial. They didn’t imagine—and I can’t blame them—that this was the case. In their first sketches, then, they took great liberties placing hands and subregisters where they thought they would look good.
Consequently, the first manufacturer they approached thought the three owners of this brand new watch company were simply mad. They were told—with a heavy dose of sarcasm—that they would be better off manufacturing their own movements to match their creations (little did the manufacturer know that Christopher Ward would soon be making in-house movements). The team quickly learned what they needed to know, and it was then that their ideas became more realistic. They created mood boards in the same way they did working in the fashion industry. The first Christopher Ward models that came out were entirely done in China because it was still possible in 2004 and 2005 to get Swiss movements imported from there.
The First Collection & Brand Identity
Christopher Ward is a resolutely British brand. Mike explained that the three friends wanted to place the brand within the English aesthetic tradition. Their first collection, the Malvern, was inspired by the Malvern Hills of Worcestershire. This beautiful part of England has inspired many artists and composers before, and it is within this context that the first Christopher Ward collection was born. There was more to creating the brand’s identity than just this reference to the Malvern Hills. The name itself—Christopher Ward—was chosen after intense debate because it sounded very English. The three cofounders couldn’t decide on what to call it, so out of sheer despair, Mike thought that Chris’ name sounded just perfect.
And so it was.
In 2022, Christopher Ward is known for making exceptional watches at great prices, but it took the brand many years to reach that goal. As Mike humbly pointed out, CW had to go through many hurdles to find the secret recipe, or, I should say, the right balance. Christopher Ward had to move production to Switzerland in order to retain access to Swiss movements, and doing so opened up the doors to creating what has become an incredibly good partnership with Synergies Horlogères. The latter developed two in-house calibers for Christopher Ward: the C9 Jumping Hour and the C900 Single Pusher. Synergies is a prime Swiss manufacturer of all things horology (and was also founded by Jorg Bader’s father), and now the two have become one. This merger has made it possible for Christopher Ward to create a sort of almost complete vertical production, one of Mike’s long-term goals.
Malvern Hills, source: www.visitthemalverns.org
Creating verticality in the brand’s operations means being able to create better watches and be more agile, both creatively and from a production perspective. Mike explained that he has always wanted to work with as few partners as possible in order to create deeper and longer-lasting relationships. Doing so means that the different people involved in the creation of the watches eventually got into a smooth groove. They continuously become more creative and innovative. The brand’s latest release, the Bel Canto, wouldn’t have been possible without this unique partnership and organization. From a purely horological perspective, Christopher Ward developed three elements that have made the brand successful: the Light-catcher case, the arrow-shaped handset, and the finish.
The brand’s visual identity can also be found in the design of the twin flag logo—stylized versions of the British and Swiss flags symbiotically merging. The flag is a nod to the merger of Christopher Ward (British) and Synergies Horlogères (Swiss) and the incredible work the two companies have been able to accomplish together. Over the years, Christopher Ward has refined its logo and visual identity by moving the first iterations of the logo from the 9 o’clock position (which was unpopular with many watch enthusiasts) to the 12 o’clock position. Since 2015, Christopher Ward has been phasing out the full name and replacing it by the twin flag logo.
Lastly, if you have ever bought a Christopher Ward timepiece, you will know that the brand has a solid reputation for super fast shipping. Mike recounted the story of when he purchased the first Apple iPod online and was amazed by the fact that it arrived the next day from China. So, if you order a Christopher Ward from anywhere in the world, it will most likely arrive at your house the next day. This rapidity stems from the fact that Christopher Ward was the first watch brand to sell direct to consumers online. Ironically, Mike was initially told that this was never going to happen.
Aren’t you glad he persevered?
The Three Elements of the Christopher Ward Identity
In the vast world that is horology, Christopher Ward had to differentiate itself from the thousand of other existing brands. not only from a visual perspective—what makes a Christopher Ward instantly recognizable from a distance and without a logo—but also from a manufacturing standpoint. From a visual perspective, the brand had to create an identity that would match the inherent practical nature of watches—telling time at a glance—while being resolutely Christopher Ward. The brand accomplished this by creating the Light-catcher case, which offers superior manufacturing and finishing, and by designing the iconic arrow hands. These are the elements that constitute Christopher Ward’s identity.
The brand has made a name for itself for many reasons, and the one that I find the most interesting is the Light-catcher case. There are certain brands in the past 200 years that have created unique case shapes, whether it is Cartier with its rectangular Tank case or Panerai with its cushion case. Rarely if ever do we hear of an independent brand that creates and trademarks its own case shape. There are other small brands that are known for utilizing a certain case shape, but not for inventing a new one. The Light-catcher case is the work of Swiss designer Adrian Buchmann, who Mike met a few years back around a coffee or a glass of wine (alas, I didn’t catch the details of their meeting).
The two men immediately connected through their vision of horology and Adrian liked the way Mike and Christopher Ward viewed things. Adrian was given total freedom to create a new case that now equips all of the brand’s collections. The case may come in certain declinations based on which collection it is used for, but it always comes with the same design principles. What makes the case so special is its ergonomic dimensions and elegant design, as well as its delicate chamfers and sharp angles. In their “About Us” video (which I recommend you watch), Mike explained that they make the cheapest, most expensive watches and the Light-catcher case demonstrates that.
In addition to creating the Light-catcher case, Christopher Ward decided to settle on a handset that will make a CW watch instantly recognizable. During our interview, Mike asked me what I believe makes a Christopher Ward a Christopher Ward, and I mentioned the case, handset, and finish. I won’t take credit for being on the same page as Mike, and although it was an interesting exercise to answer his questions instead of asking him my own for a bit, I believe the brand is spot on. The handset is now a signature design element of any Christopher Ward, as it is both functional—it’s very easy to read the time—and elegant.
Refinement is perhaps one of the words that best describes Christopher Ward timepieces, and when speaking of refinement, my head goes directly to the superior finish of their watches. As mentioned above, the Light-catcher case not only comes with its distinct proportions, chamfers, and curves, it also comes with superb finish. The brushed surfaces have a satin touch and look, and the polished surfaces are mirror-like. Perhaps best of all, the transitions are seamless. What distinguishes good watch manufacturing from bad one is, more often than not, how smooth the transitions between two types of finishes are.
When I watched the “About Us” video on the Christopher Ward website, I noticed a theme. In the video, cofounder Peter Ellis says that Christopher Ward makes watches for normal people by applying a normal profit margin to their watches (unlike many Swiss giants). During our interview, Mike said more than once that his vision was to make high-end watches attainable to all watch enthusiasts to the point of “making the cheapest most expensive watches.” Don’t get me wrong: there are many brands out there that make exceptional watches, especially when looking at Swiss independent watchmaking. There are, however, no other brands that provide affordable expensive quality the way Christopher Ward does.
If I were to draw a comparison with the current state of the Swiss watch industry, I would say that Christopher Ward belongs to a very, very small circle of independent brands that make watches that should cost more than what they retail for while offering outstanding quality. For the sake of transparency, I would propose that Christopher Ward aligns with brands such as Formex and MONTA, the two of which are also made in Switzerland. It is not a coincidence, then, that Christopher Ward has become so popular, and although we don’t all have the same taste in watches, we can perhaps all agree on what a good deal looks like.
Throughout the entire interview—and in good Mainspring fashion—I tried to make Mike admit that he has played a big role in making Christopher Ward a successful brand. but he wouldn’t play ball. He kept on saying that it is the people who work at Christopher Ward that have all equally contributed to making the brand a phenomenal success.
He is of course right. He is absolutely right, and this can be seen in the way in which the brand has been releasing new collections as well as putting team members other than the CEO in front of the camera. Christopher Ward seems to be a true family business even though the people who work there are not related.
Personally, I believe that Mike, Peter, and Chris did a wonderful job creating a vision, hiring the right people to carry it out, and taking a step back to let their teams do what they do best. This is great leadership at its core, and it is the dozens of decisions all of these people make every day that keep pushing the brand toward a new and better direction.
Thanks for reading.