Chinese watch timeline

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This timeline lists milestones in Chinese watchmaking in chronological order. In order to provide historical and technological context, the timeline also includes some major events in Chinese history and in the watch industry around the world.

1950s

The birth of an industry: China's first watch was produced in 1955, and by the end of the decade its first eight watch factories had been established. During these first five years the industry is small and fragile, heavily dependent upon imported designs, parts and production machinery.

1955

1957

  • Watches worldwide: The world's first electric watch, the balance wheel-based 500 Model, is released by Hamilton, USA.
  • Tianjin WuYi Watch Factory established.

1958

1959

1960s

The early years: During the 1960s, the pioneering Chinese watch factories began to produce new designs derived from foreign ones, and by the middle of the decade produced the first 100% Chinese designed and built wristwatch, followed by at least one other such design by the end of the decade. A few new factories are established, and total production increases steadily, but the decade is marked more by the development and refinement of technical capabilities than the expansion of production.

1960

  • Chinese history: Sino-Soviet split begins.
  • Watches worldwide: The world's first fully electronic watch, the tuning fork-based Accutron, is released by Bulova, USA.

1961

1962

1963

1965

1966

1967

1968

1969

1970s

The golden Tongji years: With the experience of the 60s having demonstrated that China's new watchmaking industry was now able to design and build its own timepieces, in the 1970s the government focused on consolidation of the industry and ramping up production. In 1971 the design for the Chinese Standard Movement, or Tongji, was completed, and the rest of the decade is defined by the mass production of this movement. Most existing factories ceased manufacture of their older movements, and many new factories were constructed in almost every province of the country, with the total factory count eventually exceeding 100. National watch production increased many times over as tens of millions of Tongjis were built each year. This decade represents the glory days of the vintage Chinese mechanical watch industry. The 1970s also saw early development work on Chinese designed quartz movements, with the first quartz watches reaching market in 1979.

1970

1971

1972

1973

1974

1975

1976

1977

1978

1980s

The winds of change: The 1980s were a time of great change for the Chinese watch industry. Economic reforms saw a greater focus on import and export, in contrast to the 1970s focus on domestic production for the domestic market. Quartz movements had begun to displace mechanical movements in the global market, and the 80s saw many of the larger and more advanced Chinese watch factories develop high quality, jewelled quartz movements of their own design; Many other factories, however, continued to turn out mechanical Tongjis. The later half of the decade saw the establishment of several large Chinese-foreign joint venture watch manufacturers in the country's newly established Special Economic Zones, especially in Guangdong. These companies typically used cheap quartz movements manufactured elsewhere in Asia, and annual output was prodigious, quickly outgrowing the indigenous Chinese industry which had been birthed in the 1950s. Due to these joint ventures, China's total watch output grew substantially throughout in the 1980s, even though by the end of the decade many of the factories established in the previous decade were beginning to struggle and output was dropping.

1982

1985

  • ZhuHai Gree Rossini Watch Industry Ltd is founded in the recently established Zhuhai Special Economic Zone. It is the first joint foreign venture in the Chinese watch industry, and the harbinger of dramatic growths in watch production in provinces with SEZs.

1987

  • Shenzhen Fiyta Watch Company is founded in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone.
  • Owing to the recent creation of several major joint foreign ventures (including Rossini and Fitya) in its multiple SEZs, Guangdong becomes the Chinese province with both the highest and the fastest growing level of watch production in the China.

1990s

Collapse: The Chinese watch industry, now mostly producing quartz movements, did not fare well against international competition. Output continued to decline in many provinces across the country, and by the middle of the decade both the most productive and well established vintage factories as well as the new joint ventures were slowing down. In 1997, the industry collapsed dramatically, with output dropping by 40% to 295 million watches, compared to 480 million in 1996. Many of the factories opened in the 1970s to mass produce Tongjis began to close down. In 1999, the watch factories of Shanghai, which had consistently been the highest producing factories in the country, began to be variously closed down, reoorganised and sold off.

1992

  • Tianjin Watch Factory becomes becomes Tianjin Sea-Gull Corporation. The new Sea-Gull decides to produce only quartz watches, apparently turning their back on their mechanical heritage.

1995

  • Work begins on China's first tourbillon watch by master watchmaker Xu Yaonan at Beijing Watch Factory, however it never enters production.

1997

  • Chinese history: Deng Xiaoping dies.
  • Chinese history: Sovereignty of Hong Kong is transferred from the UK to China.
  • Tianjin Sea-Gull reverses their 1992 decision to manufacture only quartz watches, and returns to manufacturing only mechanical watches.
  • Tianjin Sea-Gull develop the ST16 as a new general-purpose base calibre.
  • Total Chinese watch production decreases to 295 million, down 40% from 480 million in 1996.

1999

2000s

Rebirth, or Luxury and mushrooms: At the dawn of the new century, the Chinese watch industry which had flourished through the 60s and 70s lay largely in ruins. The closures of vintage factories which had started in the 90s continued into the next decade, with only a minority surviving. Quartz watches produced by relative newcomers such as Rossini and Fiyta had become the most popular and successful Chinese made watches for the average Chinese consumer. The surviving vintage factories turned to OEM work and the "big three" of Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin (now Sea-Gull) also began to target the higher-end, luxury and watch enthusiast markets. The "naughties" thus saw the appearance of Chinese mechanical chronographs, perpetual calendars, minute repeaters and tourbillons. At the same time, the rise of global online shopping via channels like eBay gave birth to a thriving market of very affordable "no name" mechanical watches, of varying standards of quality, assembled mostly using entry-level movements from surviving vintage factories such as Sea-Gull, Guangzhou and Huangzhou. These watches became popularly known as "mushrooms" amongst Western enthusiasts, due to the tendency for new brands to spring up overnight.

2000

  • Tianjin Sea-Gull corporation is floated on the stock market.

2003

  • Tianjin Sea-Gull release the ST19 mechanical chronograph, an updated version of the movement they manufactured for PLA Project 304 in in the 1960s as Tianjin Watch Factory.

2004

  • Beijing Watch Factory's TB01-2 tourbillon enters production.

2008

  • Chinese history: Taikonaut Zhai Zhigang completes China's first spacewalk as part of the Shenzhou 7 mission. Zhai wore a watch produced by Fiyta especially for the mission.
  • Beijing Watch Factory makes their first appearance at the Basel International Watch Fair, Switzerland, displaying a fully engraved version of their TB01-2 tourbillon.

2010s

2011

  • Guangzhou Watch Factory becomes Guangzhou Wuyang ("Guangzhou Five Goat") Watch Co. Ltd. The new company is 78% owned by the parent company of Rossini.