History of Chinese watchmaking

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Watchmaking 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 were closing down.

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)

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 amongst the movements of the time in being produced at several different factories, meaning that 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.

The Tongji era (early 1970s to 1990s)

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.

The quartz revolution

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.

The modern Chinese watch industry

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.

The rise of the mushrooms


Old brands go high-end

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

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.