CHINESE/ASIAN WATCHMAKING HISTORY

With the Japanese being a particular case study, the rest of Asia, in particular Far-East, has developed around China in a dominant participant of the global watch industry, ready to surprise anybody willing to underestimate their qualitative parameters and practices. Regarding their quantitative ones, in the late 2010s, China and Hong Kong were producing approximately 1 billion watches per year, and this figure stands for the three quarters (75%) of the timepieces sold globally! Considering that after 2015, Hong Kong alone imports Swiss watches of higher turnover than the USA, even the Swiss should praise for the Asian market development!

CHINA

The contemporary history of Chinese watchmaking tracks its roots back in the middle-late 1950s, primarily around four centers, Beijing, Dandong, Shanghai and Tianjin. Following their experimental first assembling efforts, with the very first watch “WuXing” in 1955 and the model “Wuyi” in 1957, their central plan materialized in 1958 with the operation of 8 factories producing wristwatches with copies of Swiss hand wound mechanisms from companies like AS, ENICAR, FHF. Those first steps, with models like BEIJING BS-1/2 and SANGHAI 581/611, along with the 1961 military chronograph project 304 depending on the Swiss Cal.VENUS-175 from TIANJIN (SEA-GULL), were succeeded in the 1960s by the more original 19 jewel Standard Chinese Movement (“Tongji”) introduced in 1969, and the differentiated SEA-GULL Cal.ST5 introduced in 1966 and used in their first Chinese export model in 1974.

After the “dead” years of the 1980s/90s, the first decade of the 21st century was a transition period for the development of a leading industry, next to the mass production facilities for counterfeit watches. The important centers remain the same although micro-brands mostly depend on Shenzhen, the new watch metropolis of China next to Hong Kong. Tianjin SEA-GULL ended up the last state manufacturer, and has become the biggest producer of mechanical movements worldwide, keeping diachronically the position of the most significant Chinese watch brand.

Examining the mechanical Chinese movements, the majority falls in 4 categories. (1) The scrap for fake watches. (2) The basic mechanical line including SEA-GULL ST16/17, DIXMONT GUANGZHOU DG28/38, BEIJING SB18, all based on MIYOTA/SEIKO mechanisms with extensive modifications per case. (3) The middle line including the fully legitimate ETA caliber clones, but also more original designs like SEA-GULL ST25 and LIAONING-PEACOCK SL6601. (4) The domestic Tourbillon mechanisms developed since the middle 1990s (based again on Swiss calibers). Focusing on the 2 middle categories, the basic mechanisms are produced in various grades, with the high grade being in par with the respective Japanese, whereas the ETA clones, despite the logical gap in quality (75%) compared to the Swiss standards, with proper cleaning, lubrication, and regulation, are credible cost effective substitutes, especially the UNITAS origin hand wound versions.

In the early 2020s, there are more than thirty (30) established brands in mainland CHINA. Apart from the 4 remaining traditional center brands, BEIJING (BWJAF), LIAONING PEACOCK, SEA-GULL, SHANGHAI, most of the rest brands are located in Shenzhen, and are primarily engaged in the mass production of homage watches.

HONG KONG

One country – two systems. Despite belonging typically to China since 1997, Hong Kong is still considered a separate industry with its own evolution in watchmaking, although the fusion with the mainland is almost complete. An industry of watch parts, primarily cases and metal straps since the 1930s, developed in an international center of whole watch production in the late 1960s reaching its peak capacity in the mid 1980s with approximately 1,400 companies registered in the local watchmaking sector (1/3 for cases). The development of the rival and neighboring city of Shenzhen in the 1980s resulted in the shifting of several production facilities, but HK never lost its position of being the production center of Chinese watches equipped with Japanese or Swiss mechanisms, especially after the boom of the last two decades.

In the early 2020s, along with its dominant position in the production of OEM parts, there are more than twenty-five (25) established brands in Hong Kong belonging to all four ranges. The quality presented is comparable to Westerners and Japanese, with competitive pricing, safeguarding the “value for money” dogma. Exaggerated or not, Hong Kong traditionally is the place that “regulates” the watch tags on planet Earth!

The rest of ASIA

Essentially, it Includes 5 countries, primarily Malaysia-Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand, with tradition in hosting production facilities of foreign companies, primarily the big Japanese names. It was a natural development that some local minds would eventually establish their own brands, with approximately twenty (20) entities active in the early 2020s. Almost all of them present middle-high range affordable timepieces of good quality (equipped with Chinese, Japanese, Swiss mechanisms), usually assembled in HK or China. GS