History of Chinese watchmaking

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Watching in China has a rich history dating back to the 1950s. The history divides fairly neatly into 3 different eras, with some overlap, and the structure of this article follows this division. The first watch made in China was built in 1955, based on a Swiss design. The first era of Chinese watchmaking stretches from this point until the early 1970s, with several factories produced watches in China, each factory producing its own distinct movements. In the earlier days these movements were built using foreign designs and/or tooling, but in the mid-60s, truly native watches appeared, 100% designed and built in China using Chinese manufacturing technology. In the early 1970s, the Chinese government ordered all watch factories in the country (with a few exceptions) to discontinue producing their own movements and concentrate on the production of a single, standardised watch movement, and many factories (each with their own brand identities) were built all over the country to facilitate large scale production of simple and affordable but accurate and dependable watches for the Chinese population. This is the second era of Chinese watchmaking. This era began to dwindle in the 1980s in the face of the quartz revolution, and by the 1990s many of the factories which had produced watches based on the standard movement had closed. This led into the modern era of Chinese watchmaking, which continues to the present. This era is more complex, globally distributed and horizontally integrated , and is characterised by two distinct trends. The largest and most technically sophisticated factories from the first two eras (Beijing, Seagull and Shanghai) still exist today and are attempting to move into the high-end luxury watch market, producing movements with elaborate complications such as tourbillons and minute repeaters. At the same time, several factories (including Seagull) are manufacturing movements for sale to other companies for use in their own watch products, and this had led to a flourishing of new brands, including those focused on producing homage watches (such as Alpha and Tao), extremely cheap "Mushroom brands" sold only on the internet (such as Parnis), and nominally European brands which are in fact mostly Chinese products.

The pre-Tongji era (1955 to early 1970s)

The first watch made in China

In January 1955, on the basis of a Chinese government order to establish a watch industry in the north of the country, four men in a small workshop with limited tools set out to build China's first wristwatch. Starting with a Swiss Sindaco 5 jewel pin-lever design, they successfully completed the prototype on 24 March. This first watch was called WuXing (5 Stars). This low-grade watch went into very limited production, each unit virtually hand-made. From this humble beginning began what is now one of the world's biggest mechanical watch enterprises.

Preparations began in 1957 for the establishment of the Tianjin WuYi Watch Factory, which was completed the following year. An all-new 17 jewel watch entered production, with the brand name WuYi (5-1 i.e. May Day). These watches were based on Swiss designs (FHF 25/28 series) and were of good quality. Today they are much sought-after by collectors. Later calibre ST-2A WuYi watches featured some detail enhancements including shockproofing and extra jewels. In 1962 the factory moved to a new site and was renamed Tianjin Watch Factory. Production of the WuYi continued until 1971.

Early movements based on foreign designs or tooling

The first 100% Chinese watch

Main articles: ST5, DongFeng

In 1966, the Tianjin Watch Factory successfully developed the first 100% Chinese designed and built wristwatch, the DongFeng (East Wind). The calibre ST5 was modern, thin, accurate and of high quality. It had 19 jewels, including jewels for the mainspring barrel. A somewhat bulky automatic version was later developed but was produced in only limited numbers. The ST5 met the National First Grade standard, which may have been a factor in the Tianjin factory being granted an exemption from production of the Chinese Standard (Tongji) watch. In line with national industry standards, the ST5 was upgraded to a 21600bph escapement and designated ST5-K. The ST5 movement is prized by collectors for its distinctive 'Sea-Gull Stripes' decoration comprising graceful radiating arcs engraved deeply on the plates. Due to the hand-finishing, no two are exactly alike.

The Tongji era (early 1970s to 1990s)

Main article: Chinese Standard Movement

By the late 1960s the Chinese watch industry had matured, with good quality and quantity of output from those factories in operation. To build upon this, the 4th Five Year Plan called for a program of 'consolidation' for the industry, in which a standardized watch design would be manufactured in factories in (almost) all provinces. Thus the Chinese Standard (统机 Tongji =‘Unified’) movement was borne.

The prototype SZ-1 was developed by a design group formed by engineers from many units, and was under the Light Industry Ministry. The project commenced in 1969 under the guidance of the Ministry for Light Industry, drawing upon the resources of Shanghai Watch & Clock Industry Company, Shanghai Watch Factory, Shanghai 2nd Watch Factory, Tianjin Watch & Clock Factory, Beijing, Liaoning, Guangzhou & XiAn HongQi Watch Factories, XiAn FengLai Meters & Watch Company, together with the Watch & Clock Research Team of Ministry of Light industry XiAn, and the technicians and scholars of Timing instruments of Tianjin University. The group studied many foreign watch designs, and combined merits of them for the prototype SZ-1. It has least parts compared to other similar movements, so that it was easier to produce and service, while at the same time maintaining high accuracy and reliability. The basic specification of the Standard wristwatch calibre is; a minimum of 17 jewels, 21,600bph escapement, a minimum of 40 hours power reserve and average rate within +/-30seconds per day. Blueprints were finalized in November 1971.

The resultant design most closely resembles the Enicar AR1010, found in one of the limited range of Swiss watches sold in China at that time, however there is no evidence of Enicar involvement in the SZ-1 project. A substantially larger version of the same design, designated HJ1A, was developed by the Jilin Watch Factory for use in pocket-watches.

The quartz revolution

By the early 1980s, the mechanical watch market was declining, quartz digital watches, especially mulit-function models, were reaching the peak of popularity, and a new demand for very thin quartz analogue watches was emerging. At the same time, economic policy in China was changing, leading towards more international trade, both import and export. This was a tough time for the Chinese watch industry. Simple hand-winding watches still had their uses (for example China's first South Pole expedition in 1985 was equipped with Sea-Gull ST5 watches) but on the general market they were simply not competitive.

The modern Chinese watch industry

Old brands go high-end

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The rise of the mushrooms

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