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The new movement in time

In this article, we return to 2014 – a year that saw us merge with our Swiss partners (then known as Synergies Horlogères), and the release of our groundbreaking in-house movement, Calibre SH21. Momentous for offering 120 hours of chronometer-certified timekeeping, SH21 symbolises so much more, too…

In the summer of 2014, Christopher Ward celebrated ten years since its three co-founders Chris Ward, Mike France and Peter Ellis decided that they should start designing and selling their own watches. And what better way was there to mark a rollercoaster decade in the watchmaking industry than by announcing the creation of the company’s first in-house movement, Calibre SH21?

It might seem rather odd, but when a group of smartphone owners were asked in a recent survey what feature they’d most like on their devices, nearly 90 per cent said increased battery length. Not a bigger screen or a denser concentration of pixels, but more juice. More ‘on’ time.

As with phones, so with watches. Mechanical timepieces, by their nature, don’t need a battery to power them, but resetting the time after a day or two off the arm is an inconvenience none of us particularly relish.

But what if a mechanical watch was made with enough power in reserve that it could last the best part of week without being worn? A whole five days, in fact.

Found inside watches including the C1 Grand Malvern 5 Day Automatic, through to the C8 Power Reserve Chronometer and C60 Trident COSC 600, you’ll find a piece of engineering as groundbreaking and beautiful as it is symbolic: our in-house movement, Calibre SH21.

Why is it such a big deal? Easy. After the Swiss COMCO (Competition Commission) decision to allow the Swatch Group not to have to sell movements to third parties, Christopher Ward, along with most other Swiss brands, including Tag Heuer, IWC and Breitling, needed to find alternative sources for movements to plug the gap that will be left as a result of this ruling.

Some of the larger watch companies, like those mentioned, had sufficient resources to develop their own alternative movements. Conventional wisdom dictates, however, that smaller, independent watch brands, like Christopher Ward, don’t. But then again, there’s never been anything conventional about Christopher Ward.

CW director Mike France picks up the story: “A large proportion of watchmakers buy their movements from ETA, the Swatch-owned manufacturer located in Switzerland. But in 2009, it became clear that it would eventually stop selling its movements to non-Swatch Group brands.” For Chris Ward, it was clear something had to be done. “After ETA said they’d no longer supply third-party manufacturers with movements, we knew we’d have to become self-sufficient in the future,” he says. “Luckily we had master watchmaker, Johannes Jahnke, in our midst who had both the vision and skill to design and develop a movement that could be a platform for future complications as well.”

For those not familiar with Jahnke, it’s worth finding out a little about him. This German horologist was introduced to Christopher Ward through Jörg Bader of Synergies Horlogères, the company’s then main supply partner in Switzerland (the two businesses officially merged in 2014). Although he had already modified existing movements (known as our JJ Calibres) to create CW classics like the C9 Jumping Hour and C9 Single Pusher, the five-day Calibre SH21, on which work began in 2010, was an even more prestigious achievement.

“On SH21, Johannes thought it was appropriate to use a method called ‘baukasten’ – a modular method of construction, which is common in car-making,” says Chris Ward.

“VW use it to produce parts that can be used right across their range, and that’s what we had in mind here.” The great thing about this method is the scope it adds to Calibre SH21’s horological journey. Back in 2014, further complications were promised by Chris. “The movement is a base engine for future collections of watches. We have the possibility to integrate different complications into it without adding too much height or making other compromises. To a watchmaker, this space, though it’s only about the size of a five-pence piece, is like a playground.” Only a few years later, with the release of the C8 Power Reserve Chronometer, whose Calibre SH21 movement featured additional power reserve and small second complications, that promise became reality.

It goes without saying that creating double-barreled movement that can run for 120 hours like the SH21 is no easy task. And while other brands have also made long-lasting calibres, many of them have had to compromise in other areas, such as installing a smaller balance wheel – a move that can affect the accuracy of the watch. What’s so special about the SH21 is how it combines a five-day charge with robust, precise timekeeping. This uncompromising approach has been equally applied to how the movement has been finished. Nothing is compromised, including how it looks through the exhibition back.

The movement is a base engine for future collections of watches. We have the possibility to integrate different complications into it without adding too much height or making other compromises. To a watchmaker, this space, though it’s only about the size of a five-pence piece, is like a playground. ”

Chris Ward

Mike France, explains what this means in practical watchmaking terms. “When designing a movement it’s always important to have the style of finishing in mind, and geography can be an influencing factor,” he says. “So, if you’re in Geneva you’ll probably opt for a finish which incorporates those ubiquitous ‘Geneva stripes’. This mindset provided a whole new approach to Calibre SH21’s presentation. The British aeronautical influences behind the C8 Power Reserve Chronometer, for example, led to SH21’s barrels being decorated with wind turbine blades, while the announcement of Christopher Ward’s new branding in 2016 – characterised by a twin flags motif symptomatic of the English design influence and Swiss engineering found in our watches – is an apt inclusion for the technical majesty found across our premium Grand Malvern dress collection.

The result of all this painstaking work on the movement is that Calibre SH21 has been certified as a chronometer by COSC (Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres), an honour given to only around six per cent of Swiss watches. In practical terms, that means the watch will only gain at most, six seconds, or lose just four, every 24 hours – a significant achievement for a five-day power reserve.

After everything Christopher Ward has achieved since its three co-founders devised the idea of starting a watch business on Chris’s boat on the Thames back in 2004, you’d think it would be easy for the company to put out a few reissues, maybe even a commemorative new watch, and leave it like that. But CW is not about patting itself on the back. The philosophy that runs through the brand, a legacy, perhaps, of its Liverpudlian roots, is one of the underdog taking on the big boys and producing products so good that it can’t be ignored.

“It’s funny,” says Mike France, “When the CEO of a major Swiss watch brand heard about what we were doing with this movement, he said to our partner at Synergies Horlogères, Jörg Bader, ‘What gives you the licence to do that?’”

And that’s the key here. No one gave Christopher Ward permission to start a new watch brand a decade ago or to forge a partnership with a young watchmaker that’s resulted in the first original semi-industrialised movement from a British watch brand in 50 years. This is a company that places more stock on doing rather than talking, and creating watches that are the perfect synthesis of art and engineering. The Calibre SH21 movement heralds the start of an even more ambitious Christopher Ward story – and this phase is going to be every bit as exciting as the one before it.

And you can set your watch by that.