The phrase “Made in China” conjures up thoughts of inexpensive, low quality, and even knockoff products. While there is some fact behind these connotations, there isn’t an absolute truth. The Chinese watch industry is no different; quality is all over the map. For decades, China was the laughing stock of the horological world. Between the low-quality legitimate watches and the low quality Canal St. replicas, watch enthusiasts had every right to overlook China’s timepieces.
But in recent years, Chinese watchmakers have started taking quality more seriously. Putting aside the ever-present knockoffs and replicas, “Made in China” watches have the ability to fit low-priced niches that Swiss watchmakers can’t or won’t touch. This can be attributed to China’s low wages, their ability to leverage economies of scale, and, let’s be honest, Swiss pride (neutrality out, pretension in).
Leading the charge is China’s oldest watch company, Tianjin Seagull Watch Co., or simply, Seagull. Ticking since 1955, Seagull has risen to become the world’s largest producer of watch movements(!). Unbelievably, they produce roughly a quarter of the 20 million movements made each year. Oddly enough, watches made by other Chinese companies rarely use Seagull movements, more often opting for Japanese movements due to the Chinese’s preference for imported goods. Arguably Seagull’s most impressive feat is their production of in-house tourbillon movements — and fitting them into watches with prices starting at just over $5,000. In fact, at Basel 2008, representatives from Roger Dubuis raised a complaint that Seagull had produced a copy of their Dual-Axis Tourbillon. After the dust settled, it was determined that Seagull’s movement was completely different than the Roger Dubuis (other than having tourbillon functionality), and therefore was not a copy. Reviews of Seagull watches are generally favorable, especially considering how inexpensive they are relative to Swiss and German watches.
Other Chinese watchmakers like Beijing Watch Factory, Shanghai Watch, and Dixmont Guangzhou Watch Company are worth mentioning as well. These are standalone brands that also produce movements for outside watchmakers. The quality of their watches is solid, especially when bought directly and not from overseas eBay sellers or local Chinese markets. Just like Seagull, they produce everything from simple three-hand watches to double tourbillons and minute repeaters.
Outside of the major Chinese brands, there are literally hundreds of smaller ones — and here is where the quality loosens up a bit. Popular watchmakers that fall in this category include Invicta, Alpha, Rotary, and Parnis. If you’re attracted to the low prices but don’t want to end up with a p.o.s., be sure to purchase them from major distributors, specifically ones with good return policies.
To be clear, all is not equal when comparing something like a Patek tourbillon to a Seagull. Fit and finish of Chinese watches are, by and large, not quite at the same level of its Swiss equivalents, though functionality is. This is a good thing, I’d argue. Younger and/or less privileged enthusiasts now have the ability to appreciate high-end complications like never before. Why should tourbillon watches be restricted only to those with six- and seven-figure annual salaries.
Before you spray your monitor with a mouthful of green tea, let’s be clear: I am not saying that Chinese watches are equal to their European counterparts. There are appreciable differences in areas of finishing, innovation and quality. However, the Chinese industry is still in its relative infancy; China lacks the long horological tradition that Germany, Switzerland, England or even the U.S. has established. Brands like Seagull are breaking the mold and should be praised for the unique competition and accessibility they’re bringing to the horological world. In effect, they’re creating a new tradition of functional, affordable timepieces that can be appreciated for utility and efficiency over prestige and history.
There’s no doubt that many a nose will continue to be turned up at Chinese-made watches (shhh, don’t tell them many “Swiss Made” watchmakers outsource parts from China). Regardless, it’s impossible to deny the increase in quality the Chinese watch market has seen over the last decade. Watchmakers like Seagull are truly making quality mechanical timepieces accessible to the masses, particularly for those who couldn’t care less about where their watch is made. I, for one, welcome our new watchmaking overlords.