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Talking Bel Cantos, Sealanders and Watch Design with Christopher Ward’s William Brackfield

William Brackfield

Christopher Ward may be a big player in British watches – one of the foundational names of the modern state of play alongside Bremont – but compared to the Swiss brands they’re an upstart. That however hasn’t stopped them becoming one of the most prolific, and in many cases, inspired, watch brands around. So, rather than talking to some celebrity about their latest ambassadorial deal, we at Oracle Time decided to lean on this issue’s Art & Design theme and talk to Will Brackfield, the man behind a lot of Christopher Ward watches. And I mean a lot – which isn’t bad, given he always assumed watch design wasn’t an option.

“I grew up interested in watches like the Dirty Dozen,” explains Will, “but despite studying product design at uni, I never really thought watches were something I could get to do. Even five or so years ago, the number of British brands was a lot smaller. My first job was designing plane interiors! Then I moved onto fire suppression systems – now I’ve been here since 2019. It’s been a journey.”

Christopher Ward C63 Sealander GMT

Christopher Ward C63 Sealander GMT

I’m not about to count up the number of watches Christopher Ward have released in that time, especially because it ranges from dial swaps to the kind of intense watches that only they would attempt. You know, anything with ‘Glow’ in the name. In fact, a quick glance makes it very clear that not all of Will’s projects are the same.

“Every project starts differently,” he explains. “Usually, we go through our collection each year and try to identify where we have a hole, where we’re not currently offering something that we should. The Sealander’s a great example of that. We’d never really done a three-handed sports watch, it had always been something more vintage or diving, so that was a glaring hole.

Christopher Ward Bel Canto William Brackfield

“At the other end of the spectrum, the Bel Canto was completely different. Jorg senior, CEO of Christopher Ward in Biel, came over with a little prototype module and saying, ‘could we do something with this?’ That particular module was actually for Meistersinger, for their Bel Hora. We’d developed the chiming mechanism for them but when we saw the actual sample, we thought it was ridiculous that they were planning on covering it up. So much more could be made of it! That’s where the Bel Canto started, thinking we could do the same and make the whole thing prettier. That was until it evolved… and pretty much everything we were planning changed along the way.”

It’s not just the range of projects of course, but the sheer number too. The volume could be seen as daunting by some with Christopher Ward consistently having to maintain a level of creativity, and find new and exciting sources of inspiration. Will, however, has a cheat sheet. “Over the years I’ve collected a whole image bank of loads of stuff I’ve come across. Just pictures of things, screenshots… usually it’s cars, architecture, cityscapes from sci-fi films. I have old pocket watches with interesting hands and fonts, and when we’re doing a project from scratch I’ll look through it all and see if anything fits.

Christopher Ward Bel Canto

Christopher Ward Bel Canto

“For the Bel Canto, we wanted to do something architectural, so I was looking back through my folder of bridges – suspension bridges, not watch bridges – and see what fits. You can see that in the final watch, where the bridges arch upwards, it looks fantastic. It’s all about bringing in ideas and details from wherever you can find inspiration, and seeing how they sit.” There are limits to what you can do though. If I was talking to a brand like MB&F, they’d probably argue that fact, but not everyone can shove a DJ panda into a haute horology unique piece. For Christopher Ward, commerciality’s actually a big factor.

Christopher Ward Bel Canto

Bel Canto’s steel spring that creates the chiming sound

“I do think watch designers can be a bit blinkered, which I try to avoid,” Will says of his design method. “But it’s hard sometimes, as there is a tried-and-true way of doing things in watches, doing what you know works. We did that with the Sealander. We were working in a very small box of what we could do. It was a volume, mass-market watch and we didn’t want to alienate anyone, so you need to stay more on the beaten path. The Bel Canto was a risk from the start, so adding some extra twists on top of that isn’t really an issue.”

Christopher Ward C60 Concept

Christopher Ward C60 Concept

Even at the more accessible end of the scale however, there’s still room for experimentation. Perhaps not as much room, but according to Will, you always have to be taking things to the sometimes illogical extreme to find that happy medium between personality and practicality.

“For every project I’ll come up with six different directions, ranging from the simple, straight-forward approach, right up to the silly. The C60 Concept is a great example. The design language for that had originally come out of a lumed C60, one that we thought was just too far. But, if we included a skeletonised movement, that might just work. And it did. So even if you know 90% of it will be thrown away, it’s still worth doing, even if you just bring some of those elements into more down-to-Earth designs.”

Christopher Ward Bel Canto William Brackfield
Christopher Ward Bel Canto William Brackfield

So, what’s harder, watches where you get more room for expression, or those that have to sit very nearly in their own box? You’d assume the ones without as much guidance, which are perhaps a bit more open to interpretation. Well, apparently not. “Honestly, the simpler watches are the harder ones, especially as they tend to be the more accessible. A lot of the design comes down to keeping things accessible. Again, the Sealander being our everyman, entry-level watch, needed to balance quality and price on a knife-edge. We didn’t want to do a flat, sand-blasted dial and make it cheap, so it was all about finding ways to produce components and interesting details without the cost. Big, flatter polished facets, brushing.

“Because of that, a lot of it came down to proportions. We ended up doing a lot of case samples to get that right. The dial opening was too big or the bezel was too small, sometimes it looks right on a screen but once on the wrist it just didn’t work. Proportions are one of those things that when it’s right, you just know. It makes for a lot of trial and error. Informed trial and error, obviously.”

Christopher Ward C63 Sealander GMT Dragonfly Blue

Christopher Ward C63 Sealander GMT Dragonfly Blue

It’s all well and good saying trial-and- error, but when that has a knock-on effect on production, surely it’s a big deal. The question therefore is, how often does that happen? “As we 3D print cases, it’s very rare that our samples need much work when they come in. Dials and hands though we need to change 25 to 30% of the time. We’re working on a project now actually – one that hasn’t quite come out yet – which is a very simple watch. The hands we chose looked absolutely fine on screen, but in person they ruined the watch. They took over completely. It defeated the whole point of the watch so we needed to rethink it – and this was late in the day, too. Thankfully we’ve brought it back in line to where it should be.”

On the other hand, are there projects that just don’t work out? Even if you start with a good, solid idea, one based on a watch you’ve done before, not everything can work out as planned. Sometimes a good idea doesn’t mean a good idea, right? “Oh yes! There was one in particular that internally we called the Power Glow. It was going to be the Moonglow but applied to an SH21. It was going to be a dressier watch, but with a load of lume, different bridges on the dial side with sapphire, rings and things. It just never quite worked. It just never seemed to click across the six or seven months I was working on it. At one point I just needed to say, ‘well, we tried.’ It’s not a watch I’m even considering revisiting now.”

William Brackfield Watch Design

Which is probably for the best. Given the international success of the Bel Canto, upcoming projects at that end of the scale and an ever-expanding slate of more down-to-Earth pieces, Will’s busy enough to not be needing to perfect the futile. And you can be sure that, whenever you read this, you’ll soon be seeing more of his handiwork – potentially with our name involved. Stay tuned.

More details at Christopher Ward.

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About the author

Sam Kessler

Legend has it that Sam’s first word was ‘escapement’ and, while he might have started that legend himself, he’s been in the watch world long enough that it makes little difference. As the editor of Oracle Time, he’s our leading man for all things horological – even if he does love yellow dials to a worrying degree. Owns a Pogue; doesn’t own an Oyster Perpetual. Yet.