Style / World of Watches (WOW)

Why Buying Luxury Watches is a Waiting Game

“The C1 Bel Canto is a watch that should not exist at its RRP, making its success a foregone conclusion.”

Feb 15, 2024 | By Ashok Soman

Arguably, buying a watch has always been a journey of discovery, but when it comes to exploring an entirely new brand, it becomes a literal opening up of an undiscovered country. If you are a Joy Division fan, you might even think of Unknown Pleasures realised. Even if one is not so poetically inclined, getting into a new name in watchmaking is equal parts trepidation and transcendence. This is where I find myself now, with the Christopher Ward C1 Bel Canto, a watch I failed to buy on its launch last year.

Those of you who may have read this very section last year might recall the heavy presence of this watch, which came to represent all my failed attempts to buy a variety of popular watch models, from mainstream brands to independents. Trust me when I say there have been many, only the most famous of which graces the opening section of this recurring missive. It is no exaggeration though to say that Christopher Ward changed everything and not just for me. It did so in a way that put enthusiasts and collectors first, and I believe is what makes it particularly worthy of the Petite Aiguille at the GPHG in 2023. It is for this reason, aside from the purchase decision of course, that I decided to push out this story.

To get things off on the right foot though, I must note that I took possession of my Bel Canto, when this issue was being sent to the printer, and this sentence was part of a running change. It was meant to arrive in November, which would have given me just enough wiggle room to shoot the actual piece. That date turned into December and, well, you know the rest. However, while I continue to be against the practice of making people wait for an indeterminate period of time for a choice timekeeper, I do understand that some waiting is necessary. If nothing else, waiting gives you the chance to change your mind and – to be completely honest – you should definitely do that if your doubts cast too large a shadow. There are few things worse than buyer’s remorse over what amounts to a discretionary purchase of an object that is meant to make you feel good about yourself.

Brand Equity

So, before even getting to the watch in question, the brand must be addressed. Swiss Made is absolutely necessary for some, and that is perfectly fine. Despite being British, Christopher Ward fulfils this; the watches are certainly conceived and designed in the UK though. A. Lange & Söhne and Seiko probably have something to say about this sort of thing, and with good reason. Reasons even but then again, even Glashütte brands do use Swiss suppliers, and the Swiss themselves have suppliers outside the EU. I am of the Tony de Haas school of thought here, in the sense that I do not care a whit about who made the screws.

Despite being a recent arrival in watchmaking, Christopher Ward has fulfilled what I consider to be a reasonable grace period, from its inception in 2004, to be taken seriously. It now fits properly into the constellation of brands I regularly look at when considering a new watch. Of course, the price and nature of the Bel Canto ultimately convinced me to push Christopher Ward ahead of many brands whose watches I have wanted for decades, in some cases (see the second the watch on the list for an idea of why that might be). Although I am about to spend a little time extolling the virtues of the brand, I have only been properly aware of it (beyond a vague notion that it exists) since 2017, to my great shame.

Now, this story does not get into specifics about the C1 Bel Canto – that will have to wait for another time, preferably when the watch is actually here and I have images of it as well as a report of the wearing experience. Instead, I want to focus on the (ongoing) acquisition itself. Christopher Ward discovered it had a hit of unparalleled proportions with this watch, although whether that was before or after Watchfinder & Co and Swiss Watch Gang talked up the model is uncertain. Brand representatives have said that they would have had second thoughts had they known how challenging such a watch would have been, and how much demand they had to satisfy. Honestly, though, what did Christopher Ward expect would happen when it offered a chiming watch for approximately USD 5,000? It is certainly the most handsome hour-striker at its price point, and arguably superior to many other more expensive tickers.

No Issue Reissue

What made a consequential difference to me here was how Christopher Ward handled the mad scramble for the original C1 Bel Canto. It would have been all too easy for the watchmakers to have patted themselves on the back for a job well done with the watch, thanked everyone who bought the watch and expressed consternation that so many had been disappointed. That could have been all there was to it, but not for Christopher Ward.

With orders closed for that now-famous watch, the brand bothered to go through the list of people who tried and failed to buy it. It then came up with a process for all of us to find a little satisfaction – the second run of the C1 Bel Canto in the colours you can see on the brand’s website. Crucially, this was far in advance of any news of a renewed run for the Bel Canto, and all the failed buyers of the original watch were taken through a process to confirm our interest, and subsequently to order the version we wanted. This was not a wait-list, strictly speaking, because everyone paid a deposit; this process is now precisely how orders for all future Bel Canto watches are handled on the website.

That Christopher Ward reached out to me, I found deeply impressive. Of the many pieces I expressed an interest in, the attention of both brands and dealers have been, shall we say, tenuous. When demand is plentiful, this is unsurprising but I must dutifully report to those of you knew to this hobby that it was like this even 10 years ago (with some caveats, as noted below). Receiving an email, automated though it appeared to be, from Christopher Ward noting my interest in the Bel Canto and then moving from there in a clear and structured manner was very notable. Just knowing that they wanted to keep the connection going was refreshing and reminiscent of how authorised dealers used to treat people.

Online First

A pioneer in the online space back in 2005, Christopher Ward knows a thing or two about how to keep people interested in its story – without the luxury of physical contact. In the case of the Bel Canto, this took the form of a series of six staggered emails that explained a variety of production details relating to how the watch is made. Aside from being extremely informative, especially if you like to nerd out as I obviously do, these emails served as tactical instruments. The last one was meant to mark the imminent arrival of the watch, and now I shall see how closely the watch tracks, especially since I know that the new watches have made their way to collectors in a variety of countries. On a final note on buying watches online, the C1 Bel Canto is my first significant online watch purchase (believe it or not) and paying for this – even if it was only a deposit – then just twiddling my thumbs while waiting indefinitely could have been anxiety-inducing. The consistent updates and production updates besides went a long way towards avoiding this…well, until now that is.

As some of you no doubt are curious about, the C1 Bel Canto does pop up occasionally, and very unreliably, on resale platforms. If you believe the listings, if you want to skip the wait then you will have to pay an unhealthy premium. For a watch still in production and available via the brand at a standard price, this is egregious – it might just be trolls and scammers because however amazing the unrivalled Bel Canto might be, it cannot compete with major brand offerings.

Now, by dint of some luck, I do know at least one other person who is waiting for his Bel Canto watch. I had no idea that he too had tried to buy the original and had fallen short but we did compare notes once he saw the story in last year’s Many More Hands story. No doubt you will see the photographic evidence on Instagram when we both receive our watches. Strangely enough, I apparently know yet another person who is also on standby while he awaits his watch. If nothing else, the fact that Christopher Ward has managed what amounts to a reissue so effectively is amazing. For me, all that remains is managing the waiting game.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas 41mm

Unlike the C1 Bel Canto, the Vacheron Constantin Overseas has been a constant companion in my dreams for years. I trust I need not repeat any refrains about Vacheron Constantin’s long and storied past to explain this but the choice of the Overseas itself is a bit of a personal idiosyncrasy. Amidst the madness surrounding luxury sports watches in recent years, I had to strongly consider how to proceed. In other words, I needed to decide if I wanted in on the action. As I have explained over the years in the pages of this magazine, I feel the ascendance of the sports watch is about as irreversible as the big watch trend. Thus, if you want one of the big standard bearers, you need to already be in good standing…and be willing to compete with speculators. As far as the Overseas goes, I might selfishly suggest to the alternative asset guys and flippers that they are barking up the wrong tree. Properly speaking, this is because the Overseas is really in its own odd little space.

While I would argue that the love for Gerald Genta-designed watches is properly separate from an appreciation of the luxury sports watch, there are overlaps. The Overseas is not one of them, with this watch having a rather interesting history that I do not have space to get into. Suffice it so say though that the Overseas is a sports watch, its history begins in the 1990s, and continued to evolve up to the early Aughts. The last revision to the collection happened in 2016, which was relatively minor. Even Vacheron Constantin does not make the case that the Overseas was meant to be the successor to the 222 in 1979, which was the brand’s proper contribution to the design language pioneered by Genta (though he did not design the 222 or the Overseas, just to be clear). It will not surprise you that this was when I discovered the Overseas because I was learning and writing about watches around about this time (especially the 2000s), when I first discovered the magic of mechanical watches in the 1990s. The watch today is quite different than it was at the start but it still says something about the era of its birth.

For the longest time, prior to the launch of the Fiftysix collection, the Overseas family served as the gateway to Vacheron Constantin. I feel positive about the change, although it did not influence my decision as far as reference 4520V/210A-B128 goes. Vacheron Constantin just wised up to the fact that a legend of fine watchmaking cannot use a design-forward luxury sports watch as an introduction to the brand. Now, this does open up pricing options for the brand, which admittedly might be very bad for me and for anyone hoping for a bargain here – the Overseas can be had for $16,500, although that is for the quartz model. Prices have been trending upwards with this collection for years, although resale prospects here were never in outlandish territory.

Something to note about this model here is that it is a boutique exclusive, at least in Singapore. That means buying it is a matter of when you expressed interest in it. Now, I have been on this list for a number of years now and I have not tired of waiting yet. This is one of the upsides to waiting for more than a minute (to put it mildly) to commit to a watch because neither the brand nor market conditions are responsible. Just me and my wallet. I will close with a brief note on why I decided to finally buy the watch. In a word, it was fear, just as it was with the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Milgauss in 2021.

Inflationary pressures aside, all brands continue to aggressively push their prices skywards and, as mentioned, the introduction of the Fiftysix signals as much to me. The Overseas is, in my view, no competitor to the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak or the Patek Philippe Nautilus, even if it plays in their arena. Like those watches, it tested the boundaries of watch design (by channelling the brand’s Maltese cross logo) to the breaking point. It may have passed that post and then waited for the market to catch up to it, which is a decision I continue to salute Vacheron Constantin for. Happily, the Overseas has not only finally found the audience it deserves but it also no longer needs to languish in the shadow of giants, thanks to Vacheron Constantin introducing the Historiques 222.

This article first appeared on WOW’s Legacy 2024 issue.

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