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The C9 5 Day Automatic Review

 

Christopher Ward have always expressed a spirit of independence and we like to see that same spirit in the watch media. That’s why we asked respected journalist Robin Swithinbank to write the first review of the C9 5 Day Automatic, incorporating our first in-house movement, SH21.

 

 

Robin Swithinbank

Robin Swithinbank is an experienced watch journalist, editor of Calibre magazine, and a regular contributor to the Financial Times, The Times and specialist watch magazine QP.

 

 

 

I must admit, when Christopher Ward asked me if I’d be the first to review his debut “in-house’ movement watch, it felt like I’d been asked to lead the way in a skinny dip. What if everyone laughs? What if no one else joins in?

But someone has to strip off first, and besides, when it comes to Christopher Ward watches, there’s always something to say. In my experience, for every observer taken by the brand’s designs or wooed by its accessible mantra, there is another put off by the openly homage-driven approach it adopts with some of its watches. But that is watches. Subjectivity is what makes these polarizing, paradoxical objects so endlessly fascinating.

Added to that, there’s a strong whiff of a story in this new movement. There are only a handful of brands selling accessibly priced in-house movement watches and of those that do, none is based in the UK. Whether you like it or not, that makes the C9 5 Day Automatic and its SH21 calibre interesting.

I first talked to Chris Ward about whether he would – or could – make an in-house movement a couple of years ago. He’d invited me to write a piece for his magazine on the Swiss competition commission’s then-pending decision to withdraw supply of movements and parts made by its subsidiaries to third-party watch companies – companies that include Christopher Ward.

At the time, he was like a man standing barefoot on hot coals, not quite sure which leg to stand on, and struggled not to let on that he had something in the offing. In an industry where CEOs are prone to stonewalling, it made for an intriguing interview. Since then, I’ve been expecting this day would come. Just perhaps not quite so soon.

Not quite so soon, because building your own watch movement, regardless of who you are and how much cash you have to throw around, is notoriously difficult. Even more so if it’s your first. The big boys sink tens of millions into movement manufacturing, and don’t always get it right. When you’re a smaller operator, the risks are higher still, because as history has shown, bankruptcy is only one dodgy gear train away. As so many do, it’s safer to stick with calibres such as the ETA 2824 – it’s inexpensive, reliable, easy to service and looks alright through a case back.

In that light, SH21 is a brave step. A risk, you might also say. It’s been on the table for four years, and in the final development phase for the last 18 months, which is not long by industry standards. Not least when the calibre has a hefty 120-hour power reserve and has been built with foresight, so that in time it might carry modules that will give a watch GMT, chronograph, power reserve and perhaps jumping hour functions.

 

Calibre SH21 - caseback

 

Take that then as a sign of how much trust Christopher Ward places in its in-house master watchmaker, the still impossibly young Johannes Jahnke. At 31, Jahnke has already put his name to Christopher Ward’s C9 Single Pusher Chronograph and Worldtimer, but the SH21 is the first calibre he’s taken from drawing board to production. Jahnke’s design is based on Baukastensystem principles, a modular approach that takes its name from the German word meaning “building blocks’. In the most prosaic terms, the movement’s 164 parts are assembled in blocks that are then brought together.

 

Johannes JahnkeJohannes Jahnke, Christopher Ward’s in-house watchmaker and the man responsible for Calibre SH21 and movements on such innovative timepieces as the C9 Big Day Date and the C9 Single Pusher Chronograph.

 

 

On the one hand, that means it’s very adaptable; on the other, it means it’s not the skinniest. The C9 5 Day Automatic is 13.45mm deep. Not, as I understand it, that thinness is the point. Rather, the point is to build a sturdy, tractor-like base calibre that has all the resilience of a Valjoux 7750, one of the world’s hardiest mechanical movements.

“The launch of our first in-house movement, which is perhaps the most important development for a British watch brand for 50 years, tops out our first ten years perfectly. Having also merged with our long-time supplier, Synergies Horlogères, we now have the perfect platform to make Christopher Ward’s second decade even more innovative and exciting than the first. I can hardly wait!”

Chris Ward

 

Measuring 14 lignes across, SH21 is broad shouldered, too. This creates space for a wider, heavier balance wheel, which as horologists will know delivers more stable and more accurate performance. Christopher Ward has been careful to prove the point by getting the SH21 chronometer certified.

As for decoration, well there’s a story here, too. Initially, SH21 has an industrial look – a description more accessible brands often use to cheer up cost-saving measures. But in this case, the movement has a traditional handgrinding finish, a fine grain achieved by combining the power of a machine and the delicate hand of a craftsman. First impressions can be deceiving – lingering on it, it’s really rather charming.

 

C9 Harrison 5 Day Automatic

 

Top side up, the design is increasingly distinctive, the next chapter in the now familiar C9 story. The new watch retains the clean, classical look of other designs in the line, although its elongated hour markers and spiky central hands create artfully stark, graphic shapes that give it a pleasingly modern twist. The message of what lies beneath is communicated with classic British understatement – only a note at 6 o’clock hints at the sophistication of the powerful automatic below.

Subtlety and understatement are of course what has made the C9 so successful. It’s Christopher Ward’s signature line, and given the role played by its namesake – the ingenious 18th century British clockmaker John Harrison who solved the problem of establishing longitude – a fitting home for the pioneering SH21.

But for all its novelty and its genteel design, it’s impossible to ignore the value quota in the C9 5 Day Automatic. Given it’s price, it feels remarkably well made, and fiddling with the crown, there’s no tolerance at all, a sign that someone’s taken the time to engineer it properly. The five-day power reserve is frankly impressive, and the hacking second function is a boon given the retail price, too.

Much of the explanation for this lies in the relationship between Christopher Ward and one of its key suppliers, the young Swiss movement manufacturer Synergies Horologères, founded by industry veteran Jörg Bader seven years ago.

It was Bader who discovered Jahnke and backed him as the one to innovate an avant-garde in-house calibre. Likewise, it was Bader who pushed the idea of working with multiple parts manufacturers in order to deliver the best value possible. Nine suppliers were used in manufacturing SH21, and from what I could glean, that kept investment in the calibre at a fraction of industry norms.

Refreshingly, Christopher Ward is making no attempt to disguise the number of suppliers it has used, nor the genesis of the movement itself. The new calibre’s name alone makes the point – it’s an acronym combining the initials of its source and the 21st century.

Interestingly, at the time of writing, the two companies were about to merge, launching a joint venture that will give the UK-based Christopher Ward access to Swiss facilities that will feed its long-term plans to become known as a maker of in-house movements.

For purists, all of this means SH21 will never be a true manufacture movement, but the fact remains it’s a proprietary design, developed and assembled on premises owned by the same brand whose name is on the watch dial. It may not be ‘under one roof’, but then with a handful of notable exceptions, few ‘in-house’ movements are.

In this Christopher Ward’s 10th-anniversary year, SH21 hints at future ambitions. As Swatch Group continues the process of cutting back supply of ETA movements and Nivarox parts, and assuming it remains viable, Christopher Ward’s set-up may yet come into its own. At the moment, SH21 will sit exclusively in Christopher Ward watches, but, says the brand, with production capacity open-ended, that might yet.

 
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