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Review: Christopher Ward Bel Canto

I’ll be as honest with you as I was with the people at Christopher Ward: I’m sorry, I’ve never really looked that close at these watches before. They all look fine and I’m sure they’re built very well, but for some reason they’ve just never got me asking to find out more. Well, I recently received a picture of a watch in my inbox that made me completely change my mind. That watch was the Bel Canto.

The Christopher Ward Bel Canto

Imagine Skoda pinged you an email to tell you about their new supercar. That would be pretty nuts. Good cars, Skodas, but not really super. And then not only was the supercar they showed you absolutely gorgeous, it also cost as much as—well, a Volkswagen. Not as cheap as a Skoda, but certainly a whole slice cheaper than any other supercar.

This allegorical hypothetical is the exact experience I had with the Christopher Ward Bel Canto. Oh hey, it’s Christopher Ward here. Okay, what do you guys want? We’ve got an interesting new watch. Yep, I’m sure it’s great. It’s called the Bel Canto.

I honestly didn’t read the rest of the blurb because the images did everything they needed to. As they say, a picture is worth a long email full of words, and at that moment, whether the promise was real or hyped, I needed to see it in person. If anything, to get the inevitable disappointment out of the way.

To save you the anguish, we’ll jump off the cliff-hanger right now: the Bel Canto is a masterpiece. It’s not the best watch ever created, don’t be silly—but for where it’s pitched and what it does, it’s a masterpiece. I’ll get into the specifics of the what, the why and the how in a moment, because first I want to relay my initial experience with this watch in my actual, internet famous hands.

Firstly, it’s not a heffa. It very well could’ve been and this was the pitfall I expected it to take. At 41mm and in titanium, it wears like it should and not a bit bigger. It’s not paper thin, but there’s some very clever case sculpting, particularly around the bezel that reduces the potential visual weight that could’ve been there. When all’s said and done, it wears on the right side of not knowing you’ve got a watch on, which I didn’t expect.

Secondly, it’s not the victim of good photography. So many companies out there hide behind well-shot images with fancy retouching, as though they’re buying time to getting the product in people’s hands and hoping everyone just goes along with it. Not here. The styling is great. The finish is good. Really good in fact. The proportions—my favourite thing, and where watchmakers tend to fall on their butts—is almost suspiciously perfect.

And thirdly, it doesn’t cost a fortune. Christopher Ward is primarily known for good value. It’s great to have a go at a halo model for the collection, but if it costs $10,000 then it’s just an exercise in giving the team something fun to work on so they don’t get bored and leave. Not the Bel Canto. If you’re thinking about buying a Tudor Black Bay 58, you could choose one of these instead. I’m serious.

This all sounds great, but what is the Bel Canto? Well, in Italian, Bel Canto means, “Sounds great” or something like that. This is a chiming watch, one that sounds the hour with a neat little ding. You can choose to turn the ding on and off, which is good because my dog absolutely hated it. I thought it was rather nice.

It’s also a proving ground for what’s possible. We’re in a weird space right now where watches cost as much as cars and somehow, that’s fine. Christopher Ward made the Bel Canto in part to prove just how much fluff and hogwash there is in the industry. They wanted to prove that top quality watchmaking could be made affordable to a great many more people than we think. That’s bel canto to my ears.

What’s The Catch?

All sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? A complicated watch that’s not the size of a house or finished with a cheese grater for the same price as Tudor’s value dive watch? Even before I’d actually seen the watch for myself, my biggest question was, “What’s the catch?” Once I’d ruled out the fact that the way the watch looked wasn’t the catch, I went digging. Solid case back, interesting. Better resonance I expect. Also hiding a Sellita movement. Is that a catch? When a watch looks this good, it’s hard to agree that it is. It’s at a price point where it competes with other watches packing a Sellita calibre that don’t have all the rest of the goodies. In fact, Christopher Ward would’ve put the in-house SH21 in but it just simply didn’t fit.

I just can’t find anything wrong with it. The crown is beautifully detailed. The chime pusher feels solid and satisfying. The chime itself is clear and resonant. The layout of the dial-side chime mechanism, balanced with symmetry, is incredibly well considered in all three dimensions. It’s layered without being messy. It’s complex without being busy. Every element is finished with a consideration and quality that makes me think someone’s playing a prank on me.

The dial it sits on too is just bafflingly good. Bright, deep and sunburst, it looks like it came straight off an MB&F Legacy Machine. In fact, the whole thing looks like it came straight off an MB&F Legacy Machine. Put them side-by-side in the window of a fancy shop and I don’t think anyone would be any the wiser. So, you can see why I was convinced there was a catch. There had to be one. If there wasn’t, I was going to need some serious recalibration.

I dug some more and here’s what I learnt: the movement is indeed a Sellita. No surprises there. The dial is finished by Positive Coating, the same company MB&F uses for the Legacy Machine. Well, I guess that makes sense. The finishing of the chime mechanism is done by Chronode, the same company MB&F uses for, you guessed it: the Legacy Machine. The design is figured out internally by the Christopher Ward team.

Much of the meat of the cost is actually just absorbed by Christopher Ward. CEO Mike France told me that they save money by selling direct to the customer and the customer saves money because Christopher Ward operates on a margin five times smaller than the industry standard.

It’s all starting to make sense. There’s no one big thing the Bel Canto does to save money. It’s just smart, modern thinking here and there to bring the cost back down to reasonable levels. I half wonder if the exploding prices of Swiss watches is partially down to an attitude that they should cost too much, that cost consideration in production is a sign of inferiority. Well, Christopher Ward doesn’t think it is—again, bel canto to my ears.

From The Horse’s Mouth

There’s something I’m still missing here. We’ve spoken about the physical experience of this watch, as well as the measures Christopher Ward took to bring efficiency to its operations. That still doesn’t explain the fact that every other time an affordable watchmaker tries to do something like this, it always ends up looking like a dog’s dinner. This does not look like a dog’s dinner. It looks like a human’s dinner. A very important human who’s eating it on a hundred-foot yacht.

To this we turn to the product team. Now, the peeps at Christopher Ward were very keen for me to talk to Mike France, and Mike France was very lovely—but I wanted to talk to the boots on the ground. The people who made this thing happen. I wanted to see if I could weasel out what they’d done to the watch that would finally root out the proverbial fly in the ointment.

You’ve got, in no particular order, William Brackfield, Designer; Frank Stelzer, Head Watchmaker; Adrian Buchmann, Head Designer; and Jörg Bader, Head of Product. I arranged a call with all of them in a group in the hope I could ruffle some feathers and provoke some hard truths.

What I discovered astounded me. Right, so Christopher Ward produces watches for Meistersinger. Did you know that? I certainly didn’t. They also developed an in-house jump-hour module too. Head Watchmaker Frank Stelzer had a notion that he could turn the lever action of the jump-hour into a striking complication. Mike France said sure, why not? Easier said than done. Here’s the thing: developing a watch movement, or even a module, is a very expensive business. For every prototype, there’s a minimum order of parts that generates enormous cost and wastage. Each change goes back to the supplier to make more parts. This is why a basic movement can cost $1m to develop.

The team had a better idea. Instead of working the prototypes up physically, why not in CAD? That way they could argue back and forth between the designers and makers without paying a penny. Parts were moved in front of the dial and behind to reduce what the designers called visual “pasta”. Layouts were tweaked left and right to make an asymmetric complication symmetrical. It was an ongoing battle, one screw at a time, between what looked good and what worked.

This ongoing refinement just wouldn’t have been possible outside of the digital space. The downside, however, is that after many hundreds of hours of tweaking, the team still didn’t know if it would even make a sound. Was the mechanism too weak to strike? Would it sound like a dull thud? They had to bite the bullet and move into the physical. Today, there are almost 100 prototypes for the Bel Canto movement. How did that not bankrupt the entire project? Instead of getting the parts made traditionally, they just laser cut them in-house.

That meant lightning-fast turnaround, cheap production and easy amendment. In fact, many of the parts you don’t see behind the dial and some you do see in front of it are still laser cut. That way the mechanism can be not only cheaper, but also made of fewer parts, some shaped in such a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible traditionally. The rocker lever that switches the hammer between the off and on position, for example, is a single complex piece that would have otherwise been multiple. Even the gong is laser cut, tapered in such a way to get the chime just right. I’m told it’s amazing how much difference that little taper makes.

What you’re looking at here is something game-changing in the industry. This is a watch that’s been built with care and consideration not just to the possibility of making something great, but also in making something many more people can enjoy. The more I spoke to the team, the more I realised just how much thought had gone into every detail, how visibly rewarding it was for each of them when I spotted something they had engineered or designed in to make even a small difference. This wasn’t PR spin; it was genuine enthusiasm.

It's a very different, very fresh vibe for me, and it’s long overdue. Never mind me just telling you this; there’s one last little detail about this watch I want to show you that goes a long way to proving just how much of an endeavour of achievement the Bel Canto is. Take a look at the dial, and you’ll notice something. Not the sculpted, three-dimensional bridges, although those are lovely. Not the recessed, blasted finish in the hammer, although that does look great. Not even the perfectly centred gear train right down the middle of the dial, although that is cool.

It's the absence of something I’m talking about. There’s no logo. You’ll have to look to the crown to find it. That’s because the team were so pleased with what they’d achieved with this watch that they didn’t want to ruin it with something as vulgar as branding. It just … is. Now that is bel canto.