Vintage Chinese electronic watches

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While the vintage Chinese watch industry was dominated by mechanical watches (particularly the Chinese Standard Movement) and is best known for this by modern enthusiasts, all three generations of electronic watch technology were manufactured by Chinese state-run factories at one time or another. Much of the work on electronic watches took place under the direction of the Ministry of Light Industry, similar to the Standard Movement project.

Electronic balance wheel watches

The world's first electronic watch was Hamilton's "500 model", released in 1957. The design retained the familiar balance wheel of the mechanical watch for timekeeping, but with a different source of energy: the mainspring was replaced by an electromagnetic system powered by a battery. This general design was later implemented in watches by Timex, Citizen and Seiko (among others), and is referred to in contemporary Chinese literature as the "first generation electronic watch".

The development of electronic balance wheel technology in China began in the late 1960s and was centred around Shanghai. In 1967, China's first electronic balance watch was developed by Shanghai Watch Factory and the Shanghai Metal Watch Strap Factory (上海金属表带厂). It is unclear whether this early watch used mechanical contact or transistor switching. In 1969, production of this movement was transferred to the Shanghai Ballpoint Pen Factory (上海园珠笔厂), where it would remain for the rest of the techology's lifetime. In 1972, the Wuxi Clock and Watch Factory began to assemble watches featuring a 17 jewel, probably transistorised electronic balance wheel movement, using parts provided by Shanghai Ballpoint Pen Factory. These watches are given the brand name "HongXing" (红星, meaning "Red Star"). However, the Wuxi factory is unable to successfully scale up the production process and HongXing watches are never released to the market.

In March of 1974, the Ministry of Light Industry initiated intense efforts at Shanghai Ballpoint Pen Factory to refine and bring to market their electronic balance wheel technology. The process was arduous, but the result was a 12 jewel, 36,000 bph transistorised movement known as the SD2. The SD2 was used in XiangYang branded watches, the only Chinese electronic balance wheel watches to enter mass production. It is unclear exactly when production of XiangYang watches began or ended, but production probably began no later than 1976. Production was probably shortlived, as by this time quartz watch technology was well established elsewhere in the world as being a cheaper and more reliable form of electronic watch, and quartz watches started to become available in China in the late 1970s.

Photos have been found online of two other Chinese electronic balance wheel movements, about which nothing else is known. One is shown in a YanFeng branded watch from Xian, and the other has the wheel train bridge of a mechanical SB5 movement from Beijing Watch Factory, suggesting that it is perhaps an early prototype from Beijing.

Tuning fork watches

The world's first "all electronic" (i.e. not containing a mechanical balance wheel) watch was the Bulova Accutron, released in 1960. It kept time using a miniature tuning fork, vibrating at 360 Hz. The tuning fork technology was soon implemented by other manufacturers and is referred to in contemporary Chinese literature as the "second generation electronic watch".

Tuning fork watch technology was developed twice in China, first in Tianjin and again in Shanghai. Shanghai Watch Factory successfully built a tuning fork movement in 1972, but very little is known about it. It does not appear to have ever been brought to market, mass produced or even given an official designation.

Tianjin Watch Factory successfully constructed a tuning fork watch on the 29th of September, 1965, the culmination of work having commenced in February of the same year. Even though it used "second generation" tuning fork technology, this was in fact the first electronic watch constructed in China. A "first generation" electronic balance wheel watch would not be built until 1967. The Tianjin tuning fork movement was designated ST4, following the standard format for Tianjin movements. In 1969, the designation was changed to DST2, the "D" standing for "dianzi", meaning "electronic". It has been rumoured that the ST4's development was based upon the reverse engineering of a Bulova Accutron-based timing instrument recovered from to cockpit of a Taiwanese U2 surveillance plane] shot down over China. This has never been confirmed by any official source, however this would probably be the case even if the story were true. The ST4 does bear a resemblance to the Bulova 214 movement, lending credence to the story.

Sometime in the 1970s, the ST4 was used in Tianjin branded watches, whose dials were marked "Dian Zi Yin Cha Biao" (电子音叉表, "electronic tuning fork watch"). These watches were sold in markets, at a much higher price than any Chinese-made mechanical watch. It is unclear when production of these watches began and ended. Like the XiangYang watches using the SD2 electronic balance wheel movement, by the time the technology had been perfected to the stage that it was ready for mass production, quartz had emerged the most cost-effective and robust solution for an electronic watch and quartz watches soon outcompeted both earlier technologies.

Quartz watches

The world's first quartz watch was the Seiko Astron, released in December 1969. Quartz technology proved to be a superior solution to the problem of electronic watch design compared to earlier electronic balance wheel and tuning fork designs, and quickly replaced them both. The "third generation electronic watch" caused a major upheaval of the global watch industry, with mechanical watch manufacturers forced to either shift their focus to quartz or to move into the high-end/luxury segment of the market to avoid going out of business.

Like the previous two generations of electronic watch, development of quartz technology in China happened mostly in Shanghai and Tianjin. Scattered hints of early work at Beijing also exist, but exactly what happened there and when remains very unclear. Development began with simple prototypes in the early 70s, with mass-produced watches entering the market right at the end of that decade. China was no exception to the global upheaval and by the 1980s, many of the factories which had been established in the 1970s and had prospered building Chinese Standard Movement mechanical watches began to struggle or close down, while others developed quartz technology capabilities of their own, following in the footsteps of Shanghai and Tianjin.

Early Chinese quartz movements were typically high quality, designed and built in-house with the same mindset as the mechanical watches of the time. They typical featured all-metal gear trains, jewelled pivots (with earlier movements typically having higher counts than later movements), and adjustable "trimmer" capacitors which can be used to regulate the frequency of the quartz oscillator for maximum accuracy.

Early development at Beijing

A reliable source suggests that in 1974, Beijing Watch Factory began to develop a prototype quartz movement designated ZBS1. This would have been one of the earliest quartz development projects in China. However, it remains completely unknown what became of the ZBS1. It is not clear whether or not it ever went into mass production or was used in watches sold at market.

Beijing did release Shuangling and Double Rhomb branded quartz watches, some of which featured DST3 quartz calendar movements from Tianjin Watch Factory (see below), while others featured different movements which have not been identified and are presumably in-house movements from Beijing. Any of these movements may be the ZBS1, but they may also be later developments if the ZBS1 was never mass produced.

In 2015, a listing appeared on the Chinese auction site Taobao for a Beijing-branded quartz watch using a movement which bears a striking similiarity to the Roamer Microquartz, including the use of an RCA-branded integrated circuit (however, the Beijing movement is *not* an exact clone). The Microquartz was released in 1972, so it is possible that this movement is the ZBS1. It is not clear from the limited photos in the auction listing whether or not the Beijing watch also features the Microquartz's unique electromechanical escapement or whether the RCA IC was adapted to a more conventional stepper motor design.

Early development at Shanghai

Work on quartz technology at the Shanghai Watch Factory begain in 1972. Early that year, the factory built a prototype analogue quartz movement. The movement was powered by 4 AA batteries, which were mounted externally to the movement. This impractical power source suggests that this early prototype was little more than a proof of concept and not a wearable watch. Later, in October of 1972, a more practical prototype was assembled at the Shanghai No. 14 Radio Factory (上海无线电十四厂). This prototype used a CMOS technology integrated circuit and was more practically powered by a single 1.5V battery. Experimental work on quartz technology, especially on frequency division circuits, continued throughout the 1970s.

In March of 1978, at the behest of Hua Guofeng, Shanghai industry leaders organised an intensive effort to accelerate the development of quartz technology in Shanghai. Several different factories and institutes in the city began joint design and testing of quartz watches, including the Shanghai Watch Company, Shanghai No. 2 Watch Factory, Shanghai Watch Component Factory, Shanghai No. 2 Watch Component Factory and the Shanghai Watch Institute. This effort led to the the DSE quartz movement family. Prototype versions of these movements were released in Jinxing branded watches by the Shanghai Watch and Clock Component Factory (上海钟表元件厂), and these are believed to be the first quartz watches availble in China. In August of 1979, the Ministry of Light Industry spent 11 days inspecting 370 hand-finished quartz watches produced as a result of the collaborative effort. The DSE quartz movement and its DHSE date-only calendar variant met the ministerial quality standards and were approved for mass production. However, the DKSE day-and-date double calendar variant proved to have unstable performance and was not approved for mass production. It is unknown whether the DKSE was subsequently improved and mass produced. One month later, in mid-September of 1979, Baoshihua branded quartz watches produced by Shanghai No. 2 Watch Factory using the DSE and DHSE movements were made available for test sales on the Shanghai market, just in time for the 30th anniversary of the founding of the PRC (October 1st 1979). Jinxing branded watches continued to be produced using DSE movements up until the end oof 1984, with 4,177 having been produced in total.

Early development at Tianjin

Development of quartz technology at Tianjin Watch Factory began in 1978, with work on the DST3 male-sized quartz movement, which was completed by the end of the year and followed in 1979 or 1980 by the dual calendar DST3K variant. Development began on a smaller, female-sized movement, the DST5 in February of 1979, and in 1980 this was followed by a DST5B calendar variant. The DST3 and DST5 families of movements were the mainstay of Tianjin's early quartz lineup and were used in Yinjian branded watches.

In July of 1978, Tianjin began work on their DST4 movement, a digital quartz watch with an LCD display and a chronograph feature. This is believed to be the first digital watch movement developed in China. 149 prototype DST4s were completed by September of 1979, but it is not known if the movement ever entered into mass production or was released to the public. No photographs of the DST4 are known to exist. Solar-powered sporting stopwatches with LCD displays bearing Shanghai No. 5 Watch Factory's JinQue brand are known to have existed, and there is a remote possibility that these are powered by the DST4.

In August of 1981, development began on a second female-sized quartz movement, the DST6, and a prototype was ready by May 1982. The DST6 did not feature a calendar complication was was designed to be thinner than the existing DST5. Little else is known about this movement.

Other early developments

In February of 1978, the Suzhou Electronic Watch Factory began development on what would become the SZD quartz movement. There were problems with motor control in the early stages, leading to a design change in December 1980. These movements went on to be used in Dengyue brand watches.

Later developments

After being pioneered by a small number of factories in the 1970s, the manufacture of quartz movements became more widespread throughout the 1980s and 1990s. At the same time, Shanghai and Tianjin continued to develop never movements. As time progressed, there seems to have been a trend away from larger, circule-shaped movements toward small tonneau-shaped movements, allowing interchangability with common Japanese quartz movements such as the Miyota 2035. Some known movements and their approximate dates of development are:

Movements with unknown dates:

There are also known cases of factories using other another factory's quartz movement in their own watches. It is not known if the movemnets involved were built or assembled at the "borrowing" factories or if they were supplied complete from the "donor" factories. Examples include:

The fall of Chinese quartz

The 1980s and 1990s were a difficult time for the Chinese watch industry. Japanese watch manufacturers producing cheap, high quality quartz movements provided fierce competition. Furthermore, as part of a wave of economic reforms, a number of "Special Economic Zones" were established in the early 1980s. New watch making operations were established in these SEZs, in the form of joint ventures between the Chinese government and foreign corporations (mostly from Hong Kong, which was under British rule at the time). These new joint ventures (many of which would go on to become major players in the modern market, such as Rossini and Fiyta) tended to use Japanese or Swiss quartz movements, providing an additional source of competition for the vintage Chinese factories, this time internally.

Many of the watch factories established in the 1970s for the Standard Movement project went bankrupt during this time. Those which survived sometimes had to resort to drastic measures. During the 1990s, both Shanghai and Tianjin Watch Factories released watches under their flagship brands using Japanese quartz Miyota movements. Presumably they discontinued manufacturing their own quartz movements at around this same time. It is unclear how widespread the practice of Chinese brands switching to Japanese movements was. Many later Chinese quartz movements were designed to be interchangeable with common Japanese movements. Vintage Chinese quartz watches may be found for sale today featuring Japanese movements, and in some cases it may not be clear if this was how the watch left the factory, or is the result the original Chinese movement being replaced before the sale due to malfunction or damage.

Today China is not a major player in the quartz movement industry, which is dominated by Japanese companies like Miyota and Seiko (although these companies may operate factories in China for manufacturing Japan-designed movements).

Open questions

A lot remains unknown, at least in the West, about China's early electronic watches. Some particular open questions or issues are:

External resources

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