Jilin Watch Factory
Jilin Watch Factory (吉林手表厂) was founded in 1958 in Jilin City in Jilin Province, as one of the eight original Chinese watch factories founded that year. After a brief early period manufacturing wristwatches, the factory's primary focus shifted to producing pocket watches. In its early years, Jilin also produced a number of clocks and timing devices for military use. In the 1970s, focus shifted to civilian goods, including pocket watches powered by an oversized version of the Chinese Standard Movement, known as the HJ1A. Later in the decade, wrist watch production resumed and regular sized versions of the standard movement were manufactured with the factory code ZJL. A few rare cases have surfaced of oversized wristwatches powered by the HJ1A The factory's main brand was Meihualu (Sika deer), which was used from the earliest days, but a number of other brands were used for standard movement wristwatches, most notably Hangtian and Jixing. The factory did not fare well during the crisis that faced China's watch industry in the 1980s and 1990s, and it folded in 2000.
Little is known about the earliest output of Jilin Watch Factory, which included wood-cased clocks, a wristwatch movement which was either a clone or close derivative of an unknown Enicar design, and a pocket watch movement which was either a clone or close derivaaive of an unknown Soviet design. The factory also produced a local version of the ST2 movement used in Tianjin Watch Factory's WuYi branded watches. The watches containing these movements were branded either Jilin or Meihualu, the later featuring a logo of a Sika Deer. Only 142 of these watches were produced until, in 1962, the Ministry of Light Industry instructed Jilin to cease trial production of wristwatches and focus instead on pocket watch movement, in response to a perceived deficit of domestic pocket watch production. These early Meihualu watches are therefore extremely rare, although the brand was resurrected in the 1970s for more extensively produced products.
The first pocket watch to have apparently been mass-produced by Jilin was a local version of the 584 pin-lever design developed by Shanghai in 1958. The first five trial movements were manufactured in August 1963, and so the movement was designated 638. In October of the same year, the Ministry of Light Industry approved the design for mass production, and allocated a budget of 6.88 million Yuan to facilitate the production of 638 as well as 100,000 stop watches and 10,000 military instruments.
During the 1960s, Jilin was a major supplier of timing devices to the People's Liberation Army. One such project, project 307, was a timing device derived from the 638 pocket watch movement. In the years after China's communist revolution, the People's Republic of China on the mainland and the Republic of China on Taiwain engaged in a propaganda war, and one of the techniques employed by both sides was to drop propaganda leaflets from balloons flown over the other's territory. The project 307 timer was developed for this purpose. Envisaged as a cheap, reliable and disposable device, the 307 has no complex functions and its sole purpose was to close an electric circuit after a preset time had elapsed, triggering the release of the leaflets. After a trial production run of some 73 units, the device was not put into mass production for various reasons. Nevertheless, factory employee Wang Gensheng received a "May 1" Labor Medal in recognition of significant contributions to the development of the 307 timer.
In the 1970s, the factory's focus began to shift away from military work and toward production of wristwatches and pocket watches for civilian use. By 1972, all military projects had ceased with two exceptions: project 301 was an aviation clock for installation in the cockpits of PLAAF fighters, and project 105 was a heavily waterproofed and shock-protected marine clock for installation onboard PLAN speedboats. Both clocks were originally developed at Shanghai Watch Factory's "608 workshop", which specialised in military and security projects.
The Standard Movement at Jilin
In the 1970s, production at almost all Chinese watch factories shifted to focus on the newly developed Tongji or Chinese Standard Movement. Jilin was no exception, although this time there was a twist. In July of 1971, trial production began of the HJ1A, an over-sized version of the standard movement designed for use in pocket watches, a historical strength of Jilin. Since blueprints for the regular sized standard movement were not finalised until November of the same year, design of the the two different sizes must have proceeded at least partially in parallel. In June of 1972, the factory floor was rebuilt and with an investment of 2.21 million Yuan the factory expanded through to 1975 with the installation of major new equipment, some of which was imported. Eventually, 200,000 HJ1A pocket watches were being produced every year. These pocket watches were branded Meihualu, the return of the short-lived brand used for the ST2 watches produced in the factory's early days, albeit with a simplified logo. Special versions which customised casebacks were produced for military and railway use.
The Meihualu pocket watches were initially very popular and sold well. Up until 1975, demand for the pocket watches outstripped supply, but in 1976 a balance was struck. In 1977 interest in the product began to decline, and by 1978 the factory had a backstock of over 20,000 unsold watches. Despite the obvious decrease in demand, the rigidly planned economy left Jilin with no choice but to continue production. Eventually, department stores in Jilin province began refusing to accept delivery of further watches and in 1979 production of the HJ1A finally ceased. Surveys were conducted to determine the cause for the decline in demand. A main motivation for the government's push to increase domestic pocket watch production was to outfit railway and mining workers, whose demanding work environments made wristwatches impractical. However, during the 1970s many of China's steam locomotives were replaced by diesel or electric models, and the mining industry underwent substantial mechanisation. With fewer workers shovelling coal or swinging pickaxes, the need for pocket watches decreased. As for the civilian market, over the decade the standard of living had improved to the point where many people were willing to pay the slightly higher price for a wristwatch to enjoy the increased convenience over a pocket watch.
Fortunately, in 1976, just before demand for pocket watches began to die off, Jilin began preparing to manufacture wristwatches again, for the first time since 1962. Jilin's version of the regular sized standard movement was designated ZJL1 and trial production began in 1977, with 12,000 watches produced that year. A further 18,400 watches were produced in 1978, and in the same year the Ministry of Light Industry declared that national quality standards had been met. Mass production was approved in 1979, the same year HJ1A production ceased, and ZJL1 production for that year increased to 153,339. Production of standard movement wrist watches became the factory's main focus, however in order to make good use of the vast stock of unsold HJ1A movements, in 1979 Jilin also began to produce oversized wristwatches using the pocket watch sized standard movement. These watches sold at a price only slightly than the Meihualu original pocket watches and proved quite popular. Half way into 1980, the HJ1A backstock had been cleared and the short production run of these watches ended.
As the factory's focus shifted to standard movement wristwatches and production figures increased, several other brands were introduced alongside the long-standing Jilin and Meihualu, most prominently Hangtian and Jixing, but also Fuxing, Jinlu, Lonngzhu, Shenhua and Tianchi. Some Hangtian and Jixing watches were designated for military use and feature specially marked dials.
Having discarded its pocket watch heritage, Jilin prospered in the first half of the 1980s, with standard movement production reaching half a million units in the first year of the decade. A series of factory expansions and upgrades were delayed multiple times for various reasons, but were eventually completed by 1985. Despite these setbacks, during this time the factory introduced a small movement for use in women's watches, designated SJL3. Furthermore, around 1983 Jilin began producing pocket watches with quartz movements. Branded Fushou, these used the DST5 movement developed at Tianjin (the second instance of technology transfer from Tianjin to Jilin, although it is unclear if the DST5 was actually manufactured at Jilin). In 1985, the Ministry of Light Industry presented Jilin with an award for outstanding new products.
- Factory code: ZJL
- Possible factory codes: SJ, SLJ