Posted on May 08 2019
China is the world’s factory. The largest manufacturer on the planet. Due to a combination of low labour costs and a technically skilled workforce the Chinese have become a dominant force in manufacturing. Indeed, 30% of the Chinese workforce are employed in this sector compared to less than 20% in the UK.
Where British watch manufacturing was winding down in the mid-20th century, the Chinese were just beginning. From 1955 China, a Communist nation, began to produce its own mechanical timepieces, albeit based on Swiss designs. Those early factories established in the 1950’s include names that feature heavily in the story of Chinese watchmaking. Among these were the ‘big three’ of Tianjin, Beijing and Shanghai.
The Tianjin factory was the first to produce a watch with a fully Chinese designed and built watch movement.
By the 1970’s the other Chinese factories were also beginning to produce their own movements and original watch designs. However, movement production was then standardised by the government. With this new standardised movement being produced in factories throughout the country, by the 1980’s the Chinese were able to produce in excess of 30 million watches a year.
The Chinese were slow to be hit by the crisis caused by the introduction of Quartz watches.
Primarily this was because of the government's insistence that most of their mechanical watches used the same standardised movement. Spare parts were readily available as were experienced watchmakers to carry out repairs and servicing. Both were a cheaper alternative to the batteries that were required to power the new quartz watches.
Still, the decline in the use of mechanical watches was as inevitable for the Chinese as it had been for the British and Swiss watchmaking industries earlier. The Chinese responded with their own quartz watches, although they often imported the new quartz movements, and also began to build mechanical movements for export. This strategy worked for a while.
The Chinese watchmaking industry crashed in 1997 with production numbers half of what they were just a year before.
Recovery came from a combination of creating brands for the Chinese domestic market, building mechanical movements for export and manufacturing complete watches for Western brands.
Rather than look at brands that have their watches manufactured in China, here we’re going to highlight our favourite Chinese brands.
The full name for the factory that produces this brand is Tianjin Sea-Gull Watch Group. The brand traces its roots back to the creation of those first factories in the 1950’s and is one of the ‘big three’. By volume, the Tianjin factory is the largest watch manufacturer in China, having produced only mechanical watches since the crash of 1997.
There are a number of great Sea-gull watches but the 1963 Air Force chronograph is a must for anyone interested in Chinese watches. Originally produced for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force it’s a mechanical chronograph that features the ornate Sea-gull inhouse movement the ST19. The watch includes an exhibition back to see this gem in action.
The watch itself is unashamedly Chinese with both a red star and Chinese script on the dial. There’s currently two sizes available with the 38mm being more authentic than the 42mm. Although the latter might cater more to modern tastes. There’s a lot of watch here considering it’s a mechanical chronograph that is priced at a little over £200. Arguably this is your best place to start with a Chinese watch.
Beijing Model 1
As you’d expect the Beijing brand is produced in the Beijing watch factory, one of the original Chinese manufacturers. The Beijing name has been used on the factories watches throughout their history and the distinctive Tiananmen logo is instantly recognisable.
Beijing Watch Factory have positioned themselves as one of the premier manufacturers from China and produce, amongst other complications, some Tourbillon models.
The model we’ve highlighted here is one of the more affordable watches in their current collection. Like the Sea-Gull it’s a remake of one of the companies own back catalogue.
Model 1 is just that. A new upgraded version of the first watch produced by the Beijing watch factory. The initial run of watches was a batch of 17 produced in 1958 and this update was released to celebrate 55 years since the factory opened.
This new version has upgraded the inhouse movement from handwinding to automatic and increased the size to 38mm. There’s also the addition of a date window.
Fiyta Aeronautics GA8370
Fiyta are China’s most successful domestic watch company and now own the Beijing Watch Factory. Founded in 1987 the company has been involved in many of the areas you’d expect from a modern western brand including celebrity endorsements. They were also the official watch company of the Chinese manned spaceflight program.
Although the company has produced mostly quartz models there has been a move towards mechanical movements in their premium lines and the acquisition of the Beijing factory has given them access to the best Chinese movements.
The GA8370 is a part of the brands Aeronautics line, very much influenced by their collaboration with the space program. This particular model features an automatic chronograph movement, a chunky 43mm case and a sapphire crystal and is relatively easy to find in the west.
Shanghai Watch Factory are the last of the ‘big three’. Again, their history begins in the 1950’s, and mirrors that of Tianjin and Beijing - a development of its own movements, the introduction of the standardised movement and a decline that led to the closure then rebirth of the brand. In simple terms, Shanghai watches have been in continuous production since 1958.
Currently the factory makes a series of mechanical movements featuring at the bottom a version of the Standardised movement, through to the high-end Orbital Tourbillon.
Overall the Shanghai collection is dominated by classic dress watches. However, continuing the theme of reissued designs the Shanghai watch we’re looking at is a military diver. Like Sea-Gull who remade the first watch issued to the Air Force, this is a remake of the first divers watch issued to the military. The original ceased production in 1976.
Aesthetically it’s clearly a retro piece with over-sized markers that place the design in the 1960’s. The current version is 37.5mm, so quite modestly sized, and is powered by Shanghai’s 24 jewel automatic movement. It’s a little on the pricey side compared to some of Shanghai’s other lines, but it’s a pretty unique watch that is certainly worth a closer look.
This modern Chinese brand are a real contrast to those above. The watches they produce are direct homages to Swiss luxury brands. There’s no originality and no history. No innovation or distinctive branding.
But they’re popular.
Like it or not, there’s a market for well made homage watches. The most popular watches from the Swiss are often priced around the level of a cheap family car and even then you may find you have to join a waiting list to be offered one. As noted earlier, the Chinese have a skilled but low paid workforce. They’re perfectly placed to manufacturer cheap versions of popular Western products.
Brands like Corgeut offer a line of cheap, reliable mechanical watches that look very similar to your Swiss favorites. Interestingly, they’re not just making Rolex Submariner clones. This model is clearly inspired by the Omega Railmaster that we highlighted here.
There’s not much to be said for the design. It’s an Omega clone. A cheap one that comes with an automatic Japanese Miyota movement, full stainless steel case and a sapphire crystal. For less than £100 you can see why this part of the Chinese watch industry is popular.
San Martin Bronze Diver
San Martin are a little less obvious in their inspiration than Corgeut. This young brand still pay homage to the Swiss but there’s more of an attempt to create their own brand. Based in the Pearl River Delta the company make quite a broad selection of watches, but seem particularly keen on their bronze models.
This colourful model features a 41mm bronze case with a very respectable 300m water resistance. The bezel is ceramic and complements the blue dial. There’s a sapphire crystal and a 22mm real leather strap. The watch is powered by an automatic movement.
Perpetual Chronograph 2
This is an interesting little company. In many ways it’s what you might expect from a niche Western company. The team consists of the owner, two watchmakers and an assistant. This team produce well made, attractive watches in small numbers that the sell direct to the consumer. They seem to produce around two watches a day.
The designs themselves are traditional, with an emphasis on sub-dials on chronograph and tourbillon models. The movements in all models are Chinese.
Of the chronograph models, version 2 is the more modern looking. The black model here stands out as Perpetual tend to produce more white dial variations of their designs.
It’s an automatic chronograph powered by the Sea-gull ST1940 movement and features both a sapphire crystal on the front and rear. The stainless steel case is 41mm plus the pushers and crown. A nice touch is the choice of straps. Calf comes as standard but there’s the option to upgrade to Alligator. Both come with a branded deployment clasp.
There's many more Chinese brands to investigate and most of those fall into two main camps.
Firstly, there's the brands created for the Chinese domestic market. A number of these, including Ebohr and Rossini, were created in the 1980's and 1990's when special economic zones were created by the government. These areas allowed select companies to operate, with foreign investment and partial ownership, in a more free market and capitalistic manner.
Both companies produce watches for the mass market and have a mixture of styles, leaning more towards fashion watches for both sexes.