While the Middle Kingdom enjoys one of the longest and most interesting histories of any country, its history in horology is only a relatively small blip on the radar of time. China began manufacturing wristwatches in 1955, and has since become one of the largest producers of both separate parts (of which many are found in Swiss watches) & completed movements. Many Chinese brands are getting more appreciation on an international level.
Here’s a short timeline of Chinese watchmaking:
1955: The Beginning - The government wants to establish a watch industry and 4 men in a small workshop are assigned to create a movement based on a Swiss Sindaco 5 jewel pin-lever design. A few months later a prototype was finished, and a small run of completely handmade watches by the name of WuXing (五星) or "Five Stars" went into production.
1958: The Big 8 - Eight watch factories were established in various cities across China.
- Beijing Watch Factory
- Guangzhou Watch Factory
- Jilin Watch Factory
- Liaoning Watch Factory
- Nanjing Watch Factory
- Qingdao Watch Factory
- Shanghai Watch Factory
- Tianjin Watch Factory
These factories continued to produce watches and movements based on Swiss designs throughout the late 50's and into the 60's before they began to develop their own original movements. The next 30 or so years China would see watch factories established in almost every province, but it was these original 8 that would dominate the market well into the 80's and beyond.
1961-66: Chronograph Development - The People's Liberation Army Air Force was looking for pilots watches, so the Tianjin Watch Factory took on the job and acquired an out-of-date calibre 175 chronograph tooling from the Venus Watch Company (Switzerland). It took 3 tries before the Ministry of Air Force finally approved the ST3 in late 1965, and in may of 1966, 1400 chronographs were delivered to pilots of the PLAAF.
1966: 100% Made in China - Seemingly always ahead of the pack, it was the Tianjin Watch Factory that developed the ST5 (pictured below) for the new brand DongFeng (东风) or East Wind.
1969: Chinese Standard Movement - Growing on the experience of the last decade, the watchmaking industry in China had matured both in quality and quantity. Under government guidance, a research team was compiled of engineers and designers from all the major watchmaking factories to produce a movement with the following requirements: minimum of 17 jewels, 21,600 bph escapement, a minimum of 40 hours power reserve and average rate within +/-30 seconds per day. Plans were finalized in 1971, and the SZ-1 movement went into wide production followed by many variations of the movement among the different factories throughout the different provinces and cities.
Now, & The Future - With the rise of the quartz movement in the 80's came the fall of many chinese watch factories. However the 21st century is seeing a resurgence with many new brands, including a handful of the original 8 producing affordable mechanical watches of fine quality. High end watches, including Chinese tourbillon movements are becoming extremely popular in China. China is, of course, one of the most patriotic nations I've ever had the pleasure of living and working in, and while the wealthy do enjoy showing off flashy foreign brands, many Chinese brands are also becoming increasingly popular domestically.