Difference between revisions of "History of Chinese watchmaking"

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=== The rise and fall of Chinese quartz ===
 
=== The rise and fall of Chinese quartz ===

Revision as of 05:39, 29 January 2017

Watchmaking in China has a rich history dating back to the 1950s. The history divides fairly neatly into 4 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 mid 1980s in the face of major economic reforms in China and the global the quartz revolution.

From about 1985 to the end of the 1990s, the Chinese watch industry went through a turbulent transition period. New companies, were established as joint foreign ventures in the newly established Special Economic Zones. Often using cheap imported quartz movements from elsewhere in Asia, these new companies presented stiff competition to the established factories. Some of the old factories were able to adapt to the changing times by producing their own quartz movements, developing automatic mechanical movements, or selling movements to overseas manufacturers. However, many more factories were unprepared for the rapidly changing global market and went bankrupt.

By the new millennium, the dust had settled and the sun rose on the modern era of Chinese watchmaking, which continues to the present. This era is more complex, globally distributed and horizontally integrated. The domestic market is dominated by relatively young brands established during the transition period who mostly use imported movements. The surviving factories from the vintage period continue to produce mechanical movements, the majority of which are exported to watch manufacturers all over the world. Watches made entirely in China belong to two distinct market segments. The largest and most technically sophisticated factories from the earliest years of the industry 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, there is a flourishing "affordables" market, featuring many brands which are sold only on the internet.

The early era (1955 to early 1970s)

More information available at the Vintage Chinese watch portal.

The first watch made in China

Main article: WuXing

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.

The first eight factories

The first eight Chinese watch factories were all established in 1958. These were:

Shanghai Watch Factory was the first to be established, although since all the factories were founded in the same year Shanghai's headstart is measured in months only. Even though the Chinese watch industry would eventually expand to include over one hundred factories, with at one in almost every province, these original eight factories dominanted the industry through the 60s, 70s and early 80s. Almost all of the industry's major technological developments and most enduring brands are associated with one of the original eight factories. Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, sometimes referred to as "the Big Three" were particular leaders in innovation.

Early movements based on foreign designs and tooling

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the original eight factories began producing watches using movements based on foreign movements, using imported tooling. Most but not all of the foreign movements were Swiss. Perhaps the most iconic watch of this early period in the industry is Shanghai's A581. Based closely on the Swiss AS 1187] movement, but falling short of an exact clone, the A581 was China's first mass-produced wristwatch. Produced until 1968 and featuring a staggering number of different dial designs, the A581 remains a very popular target for collectors of vintage Chinese watches to this day. A variant of the A581 was manufactured at Qingdao Watch Factory, known as the A601, but its development was troubled and quality was generally poor.

Beijing Watch Factory produced a high quality copy of the Swiss company Roamer's MST 371 movement, known as the BS1, but only in very limited numbers (3,726 total) before switching to the BS2, built using surplus tooling bought from Switzerland. The BS2 was produced in greater numbers (160,861 total), up until 1968. The same movement, built using identical tooling, was also manufactured at Guangzhou Watch Factory, where it was known as the SG3. Much like the Qingdao's version of Shanghai's A581, the development of the SG3 was troubled and it was of poorer quality than the BS2.

Tianjin Watch Factory produced a movement based on the Swiss FHF 25/28 movement series, known as the ST2, which was used in Wuyi branded watches. A very limited number of movements either identical or very similar to the ST2 were produced early on at Jilin Watch Factory and used in the first Meihualu branded watches. Earlier, Jilin produced a very small number of watches based on Enicar movements, about which little are known.

Liaoning Watch Factory completed its first watches in 1960. While other factories used Swiss movements as the basis for their early output, Liaoning's first movement, the SL1, had a design identical to the 1st Moscow Watch Factory 2408 "Kirovskie" (without shockproofing) and 2409 "Stolichnie" (with shockproofing) calibres. These were probably made on imported Soviet tooling.

Nanjing Watch Factory's very first watches were copies of a Roamer movement, about which little is known. In 1959, Nanjing began producing its SN1 movement, the basis for which is also unknown.

The first Chinese chronograph

Main article: Project 304 chronograph

In 1961 the Ministry for Light Industry received the order to develop a new 'aviator's watch' for the People's Liberation Army Air Force. This was designated Project 304. The Venus Watch Company, Switzerland, were wanting to offload the calibre 175 chronograph tooling to raise capital for development of their calibre 188. The USSR were not interested, but the Chinese were. The 175 tooling was purchased for Project 304 and installed at the Tianjin Watch Factory. By October 1965, the third test batch were completed and submitted to the Ministry and Air Force for approval, which was passed in December. The production version was designated ST3. By May the following year, 1400 chronograph watches had been delivered to pilots of the PLAAF. A seconds-only chronograph version was prototyped, but it did not enter production. A small test batch was produced bearing the WuYi brand.

Other early movements and factories

While the original eight factories all started manufacturing movements which were either exact clones of foreign movements or very close derivatives, throughout the sixties a series of incremental improvements were made to these movements, mostly aimed at simplifying production. While none of these movements were designed from scratch by Chinese designers, they represented the first steps toward totally indigenous design. Shanghai added shock-protection to the A581 to create the A611, and a later more drastic redesign resulted in the SS1. Beijing replaced the BS2 with the SB5, Liaoning replaced the SL1 with the SL2 and Nanjing replaced the SN1 with the SN2.

A number of other early factories were formed in the 1960s and very early 1970s, among them Chongqing Clock & Watch Factory, Fenglei Instruments Factory, Hongqi Watch Factory, Suzhou Watch Factory. These factories did not engage in movement research and design, and the vast majority of them either manufactured local versions of Shanghai's SS1 or built cases and dials for watches powered by SS1 movements brought in from Shanghai. The SS1 was unique in being produced across multiple factories, and in some sense it can be considered the major player in 1960s Chinese watches.

The first 100% Chinese watches

Main articles: ST5, DongFeng

In 1966, the Tianjin Watch Factory successfully developed the first 100% Chinese designed and built wristwatch movement, the ST5, and introduced the brand DongFeng (East Wind) for the watches powered by it. The ST5 was modern, thin, accurate and of high quality. It had 19 jewels, including jewels for the mainspring barrel. The A somewhat bulky automatic version was later developed but was produced in only limited numbers. 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.

Main articles: SM1A, Zuanshi

The ST5 milestone was followed shortly after by another high-quality movement designed from scratch in China, with the Shanghai ZuanShi Watch Factory developing the SM1A in 1969. The SM1A was used in Zuanshi brand wristwatches, and these would go on to win multiple national awards for quality.

Early electronic watches

Main article: Vintage Chinese electronic watches

While Chinese watchmaking in 1960s was very much dominated by the design and manufacture of mechanical movements, some early research and development into early electronic watch technology also took place. The first electronic movement known to have been produced in China was a tuning fork movement produced by Tianjin Watch Factory in 1965, designated first ST4 and then DST2. The movement bears a strong resemblance to one produced by Bulova. Since Bulova watches were known to be worn by U2 spy plane pilots, and since three Taiwanese-operated U2s were shot down over China between 1962 and 1964, it has been speculated that the DST2 was reverse engineered from a Bulova watch worn by a captured Taiwanese pilot, but this story remains unconfirmed. The only other well-documented Chinese electronic watch from this time period is an electronic balance wheel movement, developed by various factories located in Shanghai. Eventually designated SD2, the movement had a protracted development phase beginning in 1967, with a short mass production run not occurring until the mid 1970s.

The Tongji era (early 1970s to mid 1980s)

More information available at the Vintage Chinese watch portal.

The Tongji or Chinese Standard Movement

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 born.

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 of Light Industry, drawing upon the resources of Shanghai Watch & Clock Industry Company, Shanghai Watch Factory, Shanghai Number 2 Watch Factory, Tianjin Watch & Clock Factory, Beijing, Liaoning, Guangzhou & Xi'an Hongqi Watch Factories, Xi'an Fenglei Meters & Watch Company, together with the Watch & Clock Research Team of Ministry of Light Industry in Xi'an, 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. Because it had fewer parts than other similar movements 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, 21,600 bph escapement, a minimum of 40 hours power reserve and average rate within +/-30 seconds 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.

Expansion of the industry

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, many more watch factories were built all over China for the express purpose of manufacturing watches powered by the Chinese Standard Movement. Further, with only a few exceptions (see below), the existing factories, including the original eight, were ordered to cease production of their earlier movements and switch over to the Tongji. Production of the SB5, SG3, SL2 and SS1 movements all ceased in the first half of the 1970s, as their respective factories converted to the new design. This was the beginning of a "golden age" for the Chinese watch industry. Eventually there were over 100 factories manufacturing standard movements, with at least one in almost every single province of the country. Production figures rose steadily as more and more factories hit their stride: the nation produced 4.2 million watches in 1970, 7.8 million in 1975 and 22.2 million in 1980. Total production for the 1970s was 83.3 million, compared to just 11.4 million for the 1960s. By the early 80s, annual national output was above 30 million watches, and the standard movement accounted for around 80% of this.

While the myriad new factories were all manufacturing exactly the same movement, by no means were they manufacturing exactly the same watch. Each factory had its own brand or brands, these often being named after local landmarks (e.g. Taishan after a mountain in Shandong province or Tianchi after [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heaven_Lake a lake in Jilin provice), local fauna (e.g. Meihualu after the Sika deer or Xiongmao after the Giant Panda), local flora (e.g. Shenhua after the ginseng flower) or other distinctive traits of the region (e.g. Qingdao Watch Factory's main brand Jinmao, meaning "golden anchor", reflects Qingdao's long history as a seaport and naval base). Revolutionary slogans or imagery were another common source of brand (e.g. HongQi, meaning "red flag", or Jiefang, meaning "liberation"). Despite the "cheap and cheerful" nature of the Chinese Standard Movement, it is not at all uncommon for watches powered by the movement to have elaborately decorated casebacks and/or signed crowns reflecting the branding, and even within a single factory these designs were varied over time. While dial designs were often quite conservative white or silver affairs, colourful dials were occasionally produced and, more often, dials were textured with simple striped patterns, elaborate repeating floral or geometric patterns, or images of natural scenery or wildlife. The resulting wide range of styles makes vintage Chinese watches from this period a collector's paradise. It is sometimes possible to build a collection of a dozen or more interestingly distinct watches of a single brand from a single factory!

Purchasing one of these watches required both a special ration card and saving several months of an average worker's salary. While this was not exactly cheap, the massive production of the Chinese Standard Movement ushered in the era where a simple but accurate and reliable watch became a realistic and attainable goal for the average Chinese citizen.

Exceptions to the Tongji order

While the 1970s was unquestionably the Decade of the Tongji, a small number of alternative mechanical movements remained available. Tianjin were permitted to continue to manufacture the ST5 and Shanghai Zuanshi were permitted to continue with SM1A production. These two movements were of very high quality and were both original Chinese designs, the hard-won fruits of labour in the late 50s and early 60s copying and then slightly improving foreign designs. This is likely the reason they were spared the same shortened lifespan which befell the SB5, SS1 and other movements. On the other hand, Nanjing were also permitted to continue producing the SN2 movement. While the ST5 and SM1A were "premium" movements compared to the Chinese Standard Movement, the SN2 was a simpler and much cruder design, with undecorated, roughly machined parts and most versions featuring unjewelled bearings. This movement was aimed at the very lowest income segment of the Chinese population, for whom even a Tongji-powered watch was unattainable. Despite the bare bones design and low price point, the SN2 has in fact proved itself a reliable workhorse, with many examples still in working condition today. Further, most of them found their way into Nanjing's Zhongshan branded watches, which are well known to collectors due to their very wide range of textured dials, which are amongst the most elaborate produced in the time period.

Early quartz development

Main article: Vintage Chinese electronic watches

Early research into quartz wristwatch movement development happened throughout the 70s at the Big Three factories (Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin), with the first complete watches appearing at the end of the decade. Relatively little is known about Beijing's quartz efforts. Shanghai Watch Factory started quartz work in 1972 with a prototype movement powered by an external pack of 4 AA batteries. After many years of refinement, Baoshihua branded watches using the DSE quartz movement and the DHSE date-only calendar movement appeared in Shanghai markets in September of 1979. Work at Tianjin began later but proceeded faster. Development of the DST3 quartz movement began in 1978 and was completed by the end of that same year. Between 1978 and 1982 Tianjin produced several quartz movements, including calendar movements and smaller movements for women's watches.

Widespread quartz movement manufacture did not begin in China until the late 80s and early 90s. In general, quartz adoption in China was slower than the rest of the world. The manual labour required to service and repair a mechanical watch was abundant and cheap compared to the expensive early batteries manufactured by China's fledgling electronics industry, and the success of the Tongji project meant that spare parts for most watches could be found easily anywhere in the country.

Transitional period and crash (mid 1980s to late 1990s)

By the mid-1980s, the mechanical watch market was declining, quartz digital watches, especially multi-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, and the period is characterised by two simultaneous processes. On the one hand, the many factories established in the 70s and 80s in the wake of the Tongji period, as well as the early factories from the 50s and 60s, tried their best to adapt to the changing market conditions, with mixed results. On the other, several new companies and brands were established to take advantage of the relaxed economic conditions, presenting stiff competition to the established factories. Many of these newcomers would go on to be very successful on the domestic market. After initial dramatic increases in productivity, unrivalled in the industry's history, by the end of the 1990s China's watch industry suffered a major crash. Many of the old factories went bankrupt in the late 90s or early years of the 21st century, representing the end of an era.

A new beginning: Joint Foreign Ventures

In the 1980s, China underwent substantial economic reforms under the new leadership of Deng Xiaoping. Part of this included the establishment of Special Economic Zones in Guangdong and Fujian provinces in 1980. In these zones, newly established companies with joint Chinese and foreign ownership and investing could operate in a more free-market oriented environment, with minimal oversight from Beijing's central planners. The Chinese watch industry was strongly affected by a number of such joint foreign ventures established in the second half of the decade. The first was Rossini, established in 1985, followed closely by Fiyta in 1987, both in Guangdong. Ebohr was established in 1991.

These new companies did not have any of the existing Chinese watch industry's experience in designing and manufacturing mechanical movements. Instead, they imported cheap, mass-produced quartz movements from more industrially developed nations such as Japan and Hong Kong (which was under British rule at the time) and installed these in locally made watch cases. While perhaps less interesting to horology enthusiasts, these new companies were very successful on the domestic market, offering cheap and accurate watches in large quantities. They represented extremely difficult competition for the established industry, and were a likely impetus for much of the change which happened during this time.

These new ventures operating in the SEZs contributed a staggering boost to national watch output. Prior to the founding of Rossini and Fiyta, watch production in Guangdong province was dominated by the output of Guangzhou Watch Factory, one of the original eight factories founded in 1958. In 1983, the province was producing 1.2 million watches per day. In 1985, the year Rossini was founded, provincial output was up to 8.8 million, and by 1987 when Fiyta came along this was up to 20.9 million. In that year, Guangdong became the most productive province in the country, overtaking the city of Shanghai. In fact, at this point Guangdong province was producing more watches than the cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin combined. Explosive growth continued and by the middle of the 1990s, Gaungdong was producing more watches per year than the entire Chinese nation had been producing prior to the establishment of the joint foreign ventures.

Adapting the mechanical movement industry

(stub)

  • 1981 - Shanghai B movement
  • "early 80s" - Beijing ZB-2, thinner Tongji
  • Various automatic movements developed
  • 1990s - beginning of trend to movement export and OEM work
  • 1991 - PTS Resources Limited formed
  • 1992 - Tianjin Watch Factory becomes Tianjin Sea-Gull Corporation
  • 1997 - Sea-Gull creates ST16

The rise and fall of Chinese quartz

Chinese research into quartz movement production occurred in the 1970s, with the earliest models available for sale by the end of the decade. However, production did not become widespread until the mid 1980s and early 1990s, when strong competition from foreign quartz production essentially forced the industry's hand. After pioneering work by Shanghai and Tianjin, quartz movements were eventually being manufactured at Yantai, Shanghai Zuanshi, Hefei, Liaocheng, Jilin, and Qingdao Watch Factories. These movements were typically of a high quality. The factories producing them had spent decades manufacturing mechanical movements, and carried the same design mindset over to quartz production. Early Chinese quartz movements typical feature jewelled bearings and metal wheel trains and bridges.

Despite concerted effort, the hastily developed Chinese quartz industry was ultimately unable to compete. Eventually, at some point in the 1990s, both Shanghai and Tianjin Watch Factories released watches under their flagship brands using Japanese quartz Miyota movements. If these two giants of the vintage industry, who had pioneered quartz movement production in China, were forced into this position, then there could be little hope for any other factories. Many of them had been producing quartz movements for less than a decade when the entire industry was struck by a sudden collapse.

1997 industry crash

While output was declining in many of the smaller provinces during the 1990s, on the whole China's total national wristwatch output continued to grow throughout most of the decade, fuelled by joint foreign ventures in Guangdong and Fujian as well as by the more successful parts of the old government factories. This would not last forever, though. In 1996 the national output decreased very slightly compared to 1995, but per-province figures paint a more grim picture. Output decreased in both Guangdong province (the more productive of the two provinces with SEZs) and in cities and provinces with strong elements of the old industry, including Beijing, Liaoning, Shanghai and Tianjin.

This minor downturn proved to be the harbinger of a looming market crash. In 1997, China produced 295 million wristwatches, down almost 40% from 480 million in 1996. Per-province decreases were sometimes even greater, e.g. Jilin province's output dropped by over 90% from 66.6 million to 5.8 million (Jilin Watch Factory would declare bankruptcy two years later). Output from Shanghai, long the production-leading powerhouse of the old industry, was halved compared to 1996, reaching levels not seen since the 1970s. The crash affected the new companies too, with output from Guangdong dropping 30% and from Fujian by 85%. Subsequent editions of Chinese statistical year books do not report wristwatch production figures as part of the nation's major industrial output, suggesting that the situation continued to worsen.

It is not exactly clear what caused such a great and sudden decrease to occur in both the new and old segments of the industry simultaneously. Possible contributing factors are the Asian financial crisis, the return of Hong Kong to China by Britain and the death of Deng Xiaoping.

The modern Chinese watch industry (late 1990s to present)

More information available at the Modern Chinese watch portal.

In the wake of Chinese economic reforms and the invention of quartz timekeeping technology, the majority of the China's watch factories established during the Tongji-era closed down. However, the largest and most capable factories continued to operation, and form the backbone of China's modern watchmaking industry. This industry is more complicated than the vintage industry, thanks to globalisation and wide-spread horizontal integration.

(rough stubs follow!)

The domestic market

Dominated by highly successful SEZ-based "fashion brands" who case up Japanese and Swiss quartz movements, e.g. Rossini, Fiyta, Ebhor. A more modern and slightly higher end appearance is Jiusko

Movement producers

Several movement producers also make their own complete watches, i.e. they are "manufactures d'horlogerie":

  • Beijing
  • Shanghai
  • Tianjin Seagull
  • Guangzhou
  • Liaoning
  • Qingdao?

Others just sell movements and/or act as OEMS making complete watches branded for other people:

  • PTS

Movement consumers

  • Homage brands (e.g. Alpha)
  • Mushroom brands (e.g. Parnis)
  • Counterfeiters

High-end Chinese watches

More information available at the High-end Chinese watch portal.

Fancy movements

For many watch enthusiasts, the most exciting development coming out of China in the 21st century is the tourbillon. The tourbillon has long been the exclusive preserve of elite Swiss watchmakers, but the new Chinese tourbillons, some even selling in the sub-$1000 range, have made this marvel of micro-engineering accessible as never before.

The first Chinese tourbillon was the 1993 'Mystery Tourbillon' by Hong Kong's master watchmaker Kiu Tai Yu, formerly of the Suzhou Watch Factory. Master Kiu's tourbillons may be considered pure art as they were never intended for general sale. In 1995 the Beijing Watch Factory created their first tourbillon prototype however this was not developed for production.

Fancy cases/dials

  • Enamel/embroidered dials