Beginning Of Chinese Watchmaking
While the first mechanical watches date back to the 14th and 15th centuries, China would not create its own watch until the mid 20th century.
It was in 1955 that a small group of men were commissioned by the Chinese government to craft the first Chinese mechanical watch, the WuXi watch. This model laid the foundation for endless others, though it was only a prototype.
A total of eight watch factories would be planned and completed by 1958. Of the eight, the Shanghai, Beijing, and Tianjin factories would serve as innovative leaders in the Chinese watch industry.
The factories began production astonishingly quickly as the machinery was imported directly from Switzerland and Russia. Given this, the majority of calibers that were “Chinese-made movements” were essentially copies of tried-and-true Swiss and Russian counterparts.
An Aviator Chronograph For The PLAAF
In 1961, an order came down indicating that an aviator chronograph was to be created for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. The watchmakers of Tianjin would respond with the ST3, a manual-wind column wheel chronograph. Subsequently, thousands of these would make their way to pilot’s wrists.
While production and innovation persisted, most watch movements developed in Chinese watch factories were copies of Swiss movements. However, in 1965 this would change. The Tianjin watch factory once more broke ground with their ST5 movement, the first ever caliber to be designed and produced in China.
The ST5 was known for being accurate, thin, and of high quality. Additionally, it possesses Seagull Stripes, hand-made decorations done by Tianjin watchmakers.
The Chinese Standard Movement
By the end of the ’60s, the Chinese government would change its stance on watch production to one of consolidation. The existing watch factories were to head in a new direction, though they had enjoyed great success.
The expertise of more than a dozen of the existing watch factories would be employed in creating a Standard Movement to be produced by all watch factories. Throughout that decade, these same factories would also be forced to stop producing any previous movements. They were to focus solely on the SZ-1, the Chinese Standard Movement (“Tongji”).
Likewise, countless more factories would be built to produce the Tongji. Even so, they were not held to a specific standard as far as branding or styling. This fact allowed for the individual personalities, as well as the culture of each province, to shine through in the watches that they produced.
Quartz Crisis Hits The Chinese Watch Industry
The Tianjin, Shanghai, and Beijing watch factories heavily researched quartz watches, as these were revolutionizing the globe in the late ’70s. Unfortunately, by the time that the mass manufacture of these would spread through China, it was into the 1990s and effectively too late.
China could not compete with the quartz production in nearby Japan. Although many of the watch factories did transition to quartz movement production, their efforts amounted to too little, too late. An industry crash in the year 1997, where watch output dropped massively across all of China’s factories, would serve as the final blow.
Where Are They Today?
Peacock Watches Tourbillon Movement
Only the most technologically advanced and developed factories, like the Tianjin watch factory, remain in business today. Most continue to craft watches under their own brands. Moreover, they supplement their revenue by selling movement components to brands from all over the globe.
Unbeknownst to many, Chinese watch components regularly make their way into today’s luxury & Haute Horlogerie timepieces, including those certified as “Swiss Made.” Chosen for their high quality at an unmatched cost, this practice is only likely to increase, undoubtedly helping the “Made in China” label to garner more positive attention and esteem.
The contemporary landscape has also seen the factories of old, as well as some newly hatched brands, themselves step into the middle and high-end watch segments. Next, with many exciting horological propositions, we dive into the best Chinese watch brands around!
Best Chinese Watch Brands
Seagull Watches – What Makes Them So Successful?
As you may have gathered from our recap of Chinese watchmaking history, the Tianjin watch factory has been right there since the beginning. However, the name that’s brought them their fame today, Seagull or Sea-gull watches, did not come into being until 1992.
Currently, the Tianjin Sea-Gull Corporation is one of the largest movement producers in the world. Aside from fitting their own watches, their calibers are used by different brands around the world e.g. Stührling.
Aside from producing simpler movements, and along with the renaissance of the luxury watch industry, Seagull watches has put their horological prowess to work. In 2005 came their first tourbillon; in 2006, a double tourbillon. Some of their other complication offerings include alarm watches, minute repeaters, and perpetual calendars.
Naturally, these complications can be offered at a fraction of the price of Swiss equivalents, which has caused quite a stir in the watch industry. Nonetheless, Seagull’s reputation for quality has proven true, and the brand is making strides in bringing provenance to “Made in China” as has never been done before.
The Liaoning Peacock Watch Company, located in the Liaoning Province, is yet another modern watch factory which formed part of the first 8 established in the ’50s.
Early on, the Liaoning watch factory produced countless movements based on Swiss and Russian calibers. Later, around the early 1980s, they’d improve upon the Chinese Standard Movement. The upgraded caliber would be fitted into watches to be marketed under the Peacock brand for the first time. Likewise, this name would also be used when exporting timepieces.
Peacock Tourbillon Watch.
In more recent times, the Peacock Watch Company would move into higher complications, namely tourbillons. Their tourbillon movement proved good enough for Swiss Made, as the Swiss brand Cecil Purnell has been reported to have previously used a Liaoning Peacock tourbillon ébauche in one of the model lines.
With a brand name that translates to “culture workshop,” Atelier Wen is perhaps one of the most exciting horological propositions coming out of China in some time. Not only this, the brand touts their pieces as “proudly made in China” – when’s the last time you heard that from a watch brand?
The Ji and Hao were the brand’s first foray into luxury watches and they did not disappoint. With crisp porcelain ceramic dials (in white & blue) and design elements inspired by Chinese culture, these two were not only beautiful timepieces but ones that ultimately sold out. Since then, various iterations of the Hao in different colors were also released.
Most recently, in April of 2022, the brand broke ground once more with its newest watch, the Perception. Following the popular style of stainless steel sports watch with an integrated bracelet, Atelier Wen yet again imbues its Chinese heritage not only with the Peacock automatic movement beating but also throughout the watch’s external design.
Most notable of the Perception is the guilloché dial that is individually crafted by Master Cheng, the sole guilloché master craftsman of China. Offered with a grey, salmon, or ice blue dial, Atelier Wen achieves a contemporary look with many traditional Chinese details that you may miss at first glance but will undoubtedly appreciate upon closer look.
To read our individual review of Atelier Wen’s Ji Porcelain Odyssey watch, click here.
Much like Atelier Wen, and unlike some of the long-standing Chinese watch manufacturers featured on this page, CIGA Design is a younger brand bringing forth new propositions.
CIGA Design X Series
One of these propositions is modern and innovative (if not unorthodox) designs intended to capture the attention of younger watch collectors. Not only this, CIGA Design is also aiming to capture those who may have never taken an interest in mechanical timepieces at all.
Towards this end, CIGA Design has also kept in mind a critical aspect of attracting a younger demographic – price and value. The CIGA Design Series Z and Series X, two models that the brand launched and which subsequently set sales records on the crowdfunding platform IndieGoGo, both boast price points below $300.
CIGA Design Series Z
Also of note is the fact that CIGA Design’s watches have also caught the eye of traditionalists, with the brand receiving a GPHG award in 2021 with their Blue Planet watch which was entered into the “Challenge Watch Prize” category. This milestone marked the first time that a Chinese watch brand ever won a GPHG award, and when you consider the company that CIGA Design now keeps following this monumental achievement, then it’s easy to become excited about what CIGA Design and the Chinese watch industry have in their future.
For our individual reviews of CIGA Design’s most recent releases, visit the individual blogs: Series Z and Series X.
Based out of Hong Kong, Memorigin concentrates on the manufacture of tourbillon movements in-house. Touting over 40 years of experience, they have previously supplied many well-known international brands with the complication.
Memorigin Jonquet. MSRP: $258,000
They’re also regarded as one of the few to design and produce their own tourbillons. Beautiful yet difficult to create, tourbillon movement are generally purchased by brands who don’t want to spend the R&D to make their own.
Memorigin does not use Chinese parts exclusively, given that some components are incredibly specialized. Regardless, they devote resources R&D, continually raising the bar on their own technical limitations.
Their tourbillon watches can range in price from a couple of thousand dollars to over a quarter million.
Longio Watches are the youngest watch brand that we present in this guide. Unrestrained by tradition as older brands are, they are free to push the boundaries of creativity.
Founded by Changhong Mi in 1996, Longio looks to integrate his ingenuity and originality in a unique way. The introductory model lines, including the Telamon and Asmara lines, stood out by their unorthodox cases and mix of high complication with classic functionality.
Subsequently, Changhong pushed Longio to new extremes with the Art of Time line. Through these exceptional timepieces, of which many are one-of-one, we encounter traditional Chinese legends translated by hand onto opulent timepieces.
Perhaps most impressive of them all, and the most expensive, is the Mythos Unique. It boasts a 46mm case crafted entirely of Chinese Hotan white jade, a Swiss tourbillon, and black enamel dial. If that wasn’t enough, delicately displayed on the dial is a highly-detailed handmade 18K gold phoenix.