Tianjin Sea-Gull Watch Group (often simply called "Seagull") is a Chinese watch manufacturer located in Tianjin, a city with a strong connection to China's watchmaking industry. Tianjin Sea-Gull has over 50 years of history and is presently the largest manufacturer in China by volume. The factory was founded in 1958 (growing out of earlier watch making efforts in Tianjin beginning in 1955) and was originally known as Tianjin Wuyi Watch Factory. The factory was relocated in 1962 and renamed Tianjin Watch Factory, and operated under this name during the rest of the vintage period of Chinese watch making. It produced several mechanical and electronic movements in this timeframe, but is best known for its ST5 movement, produced in 1965, which was the first movement to be 100% designed and built in China and was used in Dongfeng and later Seagull brand watches (among others). In 1992, after the Chinese watch industry had been shaken up by the quartz revolution, Tianjin Watch Factory became the Tianjin Sea-Gull Watch Group Co. Ltd. After five years of producing only quartz watch movements, it returned to its historical strength in 1997 by switching to producing only mechanical movements. Since then it has grown to be a major figure in the global watch industry, producing one quarter of the world's mechanical watch movements.
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.
In 1961 the Ministry of 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 was purchased for Project 304. 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.
Meanwhile also in 1966, the 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 21600 bph 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.
In the early 1970s, the factory successfully produced a small batch of watches designated ST4 using a tuning-fork movement very similar to the Bulova Accutron. It was first prototyped in 1965 based on a design recovered from a crashed spy plane. Production development was prolonged and difficult, and after the initial batch, the project was abandoned.
Approval for export of the ST5 watch was granted in 1973. The name East Wind was probably recognized as too political for the international market, so the caseback logo of a windswept sea had a flying sea gull added to it, and the dial was signed SEA-GULL. This was the first exported Chinese watch.
In 1975, the woman's watch ST6 was developed. The smaller size meant it was neither as accurate or robust as the ST5, however it was still a good watch with a good reputation. It was China's first export-quality woman's watch. Due to a simplified construction, the ST6 was significantly cheaper to make than the ST5.
Building upon these two successes, ST5 and ST6 movements were sold to Mechanica Fina in Romania for the manufacture of Orex watches.
In the late 1970s/early 1980s, Tianjin Watch Factory developed a watch of a higher grade than the ST5. This was the Sea-Gull ST7 day/date automatic. The movement was a sophisticated design, and the micrometer regulator suggests the kind of accuracy that was expected of it. Unfortunately at this time 'Red China' was a closed country to the rest of the world, and nothing was known of their watch industry. It now seems unreasonable that a foreign watch buyer might have chosen a Sea-Gull over the nearest equivalent from Tissot or Titoni. On the other hand, how many ordinary people in China could have afforded such a watch? The ST7 was an excellent watch without a market.
Sea-Gull watches were sold in parts of Asia, and in 1977-78 some were sold in Britain. However, unlike the Soviet Union, the Chinese watch industry lacked a coordinated approach to exports, and Sea-Gull did not become a household name outside of China.
By the early 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. 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. Tianjin Watch Factory met the challenges of the 1980s by developing the quartz calibres ST9 and ST11, which were reliable and successful at least on the domestic market.
Their other response to quartz competition was slightly controversial, although by no means unique in the Chinese watch industry. Mechanical watches were still competitive against quartz on some markets so long as they were self-winding and not too expensive e.g. Seiko 5. The calibre ST6D was based on the woman's watch calibre ST6, but with an over sized dial plate supporting a calendar mechanism big enough for a man-sized watch. An auto-winding module was installed with a large diameter rotor. The result was low-cost and of reasonable quality, albeit somewhat fragile.
In spite of the factory being given self-management of their export program in 1988, Sea-Gull watches remained obscure on most markets. However the factory realized that there was a ready market for cheap automatic movement for foreign watch assemblers, particularly in Hong Kong. As the 'quartz revolution' peaked, the 'mechanical renaissance' began, with mechanical watches slowly gaining popularity in the developed world, this time not in the mainstream, but as a niche market. This was fertile ground for the makers of counterfeits of famous brands like Rolex and Omega. Sadly a large proportion of ST6D movements have found their way into fakes over the years.
In 1990 the Tianjin Watch Factory was promoted to a national level enterprise, and in 1992, the Tianjin Sea-Gull Corporation was set up. In that year the decision was made to cease production of mechanical watches in favor of quartz watches. However just five years later the decision was reversed and the company committed to only make mechanical movements! The current success of the company is testament to the wisdom of this decision.
In 2000 the Sea-Gull Group was floated on the stock market. In 2001 watchmaking enterprises were acquired in Dalian and Yantai, and in Shijiazhuang in 2003. A Sea-Gull branch was established in Hong Kong that year to manage the export market. Movement manufacturing remains in Tianjin.
As successful as the ST6D has been, it was something of a stop-gap, so a new all-purpose base calibre was developed in 1997. The calibre ST16 drew extensively upon the design of the popular Japanese Miyota 8200 series, but incorporating a high-efficiency auto-winding system inspired by Seiko. This provided Sea-Gull with a modern, simple and efficient full-sized wristwatch calibre that served as the basis of a myriad of complicated variants. The revised ST17 allowed even further diversity. The ST16 and ST17 have proved very popular, but demand remains strong for the ST6D which remains as Sea-Gull's base model, and is also now available with many complications. By 2005, Sea-Gull were making more than 25% of all the world's mechanical movements.
As the Chinese watch industry has become crowded with auto-winding watches featuring simple calendar and dual-time complications, Sea-Gull sought to stay ahead of the competition by entering the elite world of mechanical chronograph manufacturers. In 2003 the Project 304 chronograph was resurrected, updated and given the designation ST19. This movement has been extremely successful, both in watches by third party manufacturers, and Sea-Gull branded watches. A series of watches commemorating the original Aviator's Watch was released in 2005 and sold quickly. Several reissues have also sold fast.
Around the same time, Sea-Gull also developed their first tourbillon movement, the ST80. This has also earned a good reputation in Sea-Gull watches and external brands. As other tourbillon manufacturers struggled to keep up, Sea-Gull released their Double Tourbillon in 2006, featuring one ST80 escapement and another common axis tourbillon from their new calibre ST82, geared together. It is available in an intricate skeleton version, as is also the ST80 and ST19. Sea-Gull have also introduced both a quarter-repeater and minute-repeater for production, as well as a smaller tourbillon for women's watches and an automatic watch with perpetual calendar. In 2011 Sea-Gull prototyped a microrotor automatic, a hand-winding movement with integrated music-box, and an orbital tourbillon, for which patents have been applied.
Not forgetting the mass-market, Sea-Gull have also introduced a wristwatch alarm movement, and a pocket watch movement. Responding to the shortage of ETA-type automatics, Sea-Gull are now offering their own version of the ETA 2824 and 2892, in direct competition with Swiss company Sellita. Continuing their push into Swiss territory, Sea-Gull are also supplying ST16 ebauches to Swiss movement finishers including Claro Semag and TechnoSablier.
While Sea-Gull's mass-market offerings turn a solid profit, their tourbillons and chronographs have promoted the Sea-Gull brand to a level of recognition never previously achieved. Indirectly, the success of Sea-Gull has also helped improve the image of 'Made in China' products. Among watch enthusiasts 'Sea-Gull' has become synonymous with good quality Chinese watchmaking.
Sea-Gull on the international scene
As of September 2008, Sea-Gull has taken an interesting new move towards internationalization as it is entering the European market via an agent. A European Sea-Gull website has been established to promote and sell a selection of primarily high-end Sea-Gull products. The website has a much more European 'feel' and profile (than Chinese). If successful, in establishing a network of authorized dealers around Europe and penetrating the market, it is certainly going to be very interesting to see how the European watchmaking industry will respond to this new competitor on their home turf. However, higher brand recognition and success for Sea-Gull in Europe, might also help strengthen the Sea-Gull brand in China, which is currently the single most attractive watch market in the world.
As of October 2008, Sea-gull has given Mr. Kevin Ma (Manager of www.usseagull.com) the rights to "retail, wholesale, and develop distributors of SEAGULL watches in America." Unlike the European Market, SEA-GULL has rushed into the US market. A professional website was erected in the matter of months, and now has a fully operation online-store where the watches can be bought directly. An interesting feature of the website is the fact that the watches can be shipped to locations outside of the United States. The website introduces SEA-GULL to the American market, but also strategically allows SEA-GULL watches to be more widely available to interested customers in the western hemisphere.
In October of 2010 there was an interview with by Jean-Luc Adam of europa magazine with Mr. Jian Wang, General Manager of Tianjin Sea-Gull. The article can be found here - http://www.europastar.com/magazine/highlights/1004082674-tianjin-sea-gull-watch.html
ST6 – 3 sub-families:
- Woman-size automatic, hand-wind or hand-wind skeleton
- Man-size automatic, with various calendar and 24-hour/day-night display options
- Hand-wind rectangular form-movement, with open heart with optional big date display
ST16 – Miyota-style simplified construction with Seiko-style auto-winding. Many calendar and 24-hour display options available.
ST17 – Upgraded ST16 with even more options including jump-hour, big date and power-reserve. Skeleton versions, both automatic and hand-winding.
ST18 – Clone of ETA 2892 (Often incorrectly referred to as ST26)
ST19 – Hand-winding chronograph developed from Venus 175. Seven different variants being produced:
- ST1901: 2 register, small seconds at 9, 30 min counter at 3
- ST1902: 3 register, small seconds at 9, 30 min counter at 3, 12 h register at 6 that mirrors the time-keeping hour hand
- ST1903: 3 register, small seconds at 9, 30 min counter at 3, 24 h register at 6 that is not affiliated with the chronograph function
- ST1904: unused model number, possibly being reserved for an automatic winding or true 3 register chronograph version
- ST1905: 2 register, small seconds at 9, 30 min counter at 3, decentral power reserve at 4:30
- ST1906: 2 register, small seconds at 9, 30 min counter at 3, decentral power reserve at 6
- ST1907: 2 register, small seconds at 9, 30 min counter at 3, central power reserve indicator
- ST1908: 4 register, small seconds at 9, 30 min counter at 3, date at 12, real moon phase at
- ST1940: 2 register, small seconds at 9, 30 min counter at 3, automatic
ST21 – Clone of ETA 2824-2 (Often incorrectly referred to as ST24)
ST22 – A pair of small ST6 automatics on a common dial plate. Open-heart and big-date options.
ST25 – Premium movement with double-bridged balance for open-heart. Various calendar options. Top specification ST2590 is a perpetual calendar with day, date, month, moonphase and 4-year cycle
ST28 – AS1475-style hand-winding alarm.
ST31 – Unusual bowtie-shaped movement with linear train, open-heart, subsidiary seconds and day/night indicator. Also available as skeleton.
ST36 – Unitas-style 36mm pocket-watch movement, hand-winding with subsidiary seconds. Skeleton version with unusual bar-type bridges.
ST41 – Thin, small hand-winding movement, hour and minute display only.
ST80 – Blancpain-style flying caroussel-tourbillon. Various calendar and power-reserve options. Hand-winding or automatic. Skeleton version is hand-wind only, no options.
ST82 – Tourbillon with large-diameter balance on common axis with carriage. Hand-winding or automatic. 'Flying' or bridged tourbillon.
ST8080 – Hand-winding dual tourbillon; caroussel and common axis.
ST84 – Hand-winding common axis tourbillon. Narrow movement suitable for women's watches.
ST90 – Hand-winding quarter-repeater.
ST91 – Hand-winding minute-repeater. ST9150 includes perpetual calendar (as per ST2590).
Note: A thorough comparison of the Sea-Gull ST21 (ETA 2824 clone) and a ST18 (ETA 2892 clone) movements can be found on the TZ-UK forum: (In this article, the movements are incorrectly referred to as ST24 and ST26) http://www.tz-uk.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=43661&st=0&sk=t&sd=a
Corporate web site: http://www.tjseagull.com/
Watch collection web site: http://www.seagullwatch.com/
Tsinlien Sea-Gull of Hong Kong: http://www.seagullhk.com/
European web site: http://www.seagullwatch.eu
American web site: http://www.usseagull.com