The Best Brands
in Chinese Watches and Smartwatches
While the Chinese watch industry is a fairly sizable one, no one is going to argue that Chinese watches are, on the whole, the equal of their Swiss counterparts.
Don’t misunderstand; while many watches from China are of marginal quality, some of them are of exceptional quality and there are people who will argue that the best watches to come from China are every bit as good as those from Switzerland.
That is an argument for another day. Today I thought I would write about Chinese-made watch movements. Some companies make watches. Some companies only make components for watches that are used by other companies in products that are sold under the buying company’s name. Some companies make movements for sale to others as well as completed watches.
One example of a company that makes only movements is the Japanese company Miyota. They are owned by Citizen, a company that does make watches, but Miyota only makes movements that are sold to other companies that put them in watches that they sell under their own name.
The Chinese company Seagull, on the other hand, makes both watches and movements. They are not only one of the largest watch companies in the world, but they are the single largest manufacturer of watch movements on the planet.
Seagull sells millions of watch movements, yet few people are aware of this, nor are most watch buyers even familiar with the Seagull brand.
Still, there are hundreds of companies around the world that sell watches under their own name that are actually powered by movements that were made by Seagull. They sell watches, but it’s the movements that pay their bills. The millions of movements they sell are what allow them to create watches on the side that are interesting and of very high quality.
What is interesting, however, is that relatively few watches sold in China under names other than Seagull actually have Seagull movements in them. Most of the movements that Seagull sells are exported, rather than being purchased and used domestically.
Why is that? Many Chinese buyers (the Japanese are like this, too) think that the quality of Chinese-made watches are just fine and they have no problem buying them or owning them. But they are attracted to the appeal of owning something foreign, and the appeal of buying a foreign-made item adds a certain cachet to the purchase.
As such, many Chinese manufacturers who buy third-party movements for their watches purchase them from Japan. It has little to do with quality, but it’s more about giving customers what they want. At the end of the day, that is all any manufacturer wants to do, since the customer is the one with the money.
Sometimes, the world of Chinese watches involves watches made elsewhere. I’ve written before about watches of interest to collectors of Chinese watches, and here is another example.
In this case, the watch in question has been manufactured by Ulysse Nardin, a Swiss watch company that was founded in 1846. They make some very nice, and very expensive, watches for those who can afford them. The company was once known for making marine chronometers, but today, they are known as one of the world’s foremost makers of luxury watches.
This is where their maritime history and China fit together. A new limited edition watch from Ulysse Nardin honors Zheng He, a famous seaman from the Ming dynasty. Zheng He made seven famous voyages during the fifteenth century, with a crew of up to 500 men.
The Classico Zheng He depicts one of the navigators boats using a centuries-old technique of enameling that takes the craftsmen at Ulysse Nardin some 50 hours to complete and which involves more than two dozen different processes. The artwork is crafted in fine gold wire and then filled in by hand with enamel, a technique known as cloisonne enameling.
The result is a beautiful watch, measuring 40 mm in diameter and displaying a rose gold case. Powered by an in-house Ulysse Nardin UN-815 automatic movement, the watch reportedly has a 40 hour power reserve.
The Classico Zheng He is certainly a work of art, and is likely to find multiple buyers in Asia. Chinese buyers in particular favor Swiss watches, though the Chinese government has been taking steps to try to get their citizens to buy locally produced timepieces instead.
Though there are certainly some well made watches coming from China, there is no disputing that older companies such as Ulysse Nardin have a rich and long history of craftsmanship that collectors around the world admire. While Chinese companies may eventually develop the same sort of reputation, Swiss companies have that reputation now, and that is what attract Chinese buyers.
Chinese buyers also appreciate quality and finely made watches. If you read the Ulysse Nardin watch reviews, you’ll find that these timepieces are highly regarded.
That, and, of course, the fact that the watches they’re showing off are simply different from those that the average Chinese consumer might own. That’s not a Chinese trait; that is simply the common trait of someone wanting to show off something that they own that other people do not.
Owning something that other people do not is certainly what you will have if you buy the Ulysse Nardin Classico Zheng He as production has reportedly been limited to 30 pieces. Part of that is the desire to keep limited edition watches truly limited, as that will keep interest levels high, along with inspiring would-be buyers to wonder, “What is coming next?”
It’s also a likely assessment of the nature of the marketplace, as there are only so many people who are going to buy any watch with a specific theme. That’s true all the more when one sees the price – the Ulysse Nardin Classico Zheng He has a suggested retail price of U.S. $39,800 and when I write that this is the “suggested” retail price, I mean, “that is the exact price that you will pay, provided that you can find one.”
It’s a beautiful watch, regardless of price.
I try to write about Chinese-made watches and other watches from Asia on this blog, but sometimes other timepieces pop up that are interesting, not only to me, but to other collectors who might be interested in either Chinese watches or Asian culture.
In this case, the watch I’m going to write about today comes not from China, but from Switzerland. In fact, this watch comes from one of the oldest watchmaking companies in the world – Vacheron Constantin.
What does this old Swiss watch company have to do with anything I might write about on this blog? They have introduced two watches that were created specifically to commemorate 2018, which on the Chinese calendar is the Year of the Dog.
The Year of the Dog watches, one of which is available in platinum and one in rose gold, is part of a series of the company’s “Legend of the Chinese Zodiac” series.
What watches they are!
Each watch depicts an incredibly lifelike sculpted dog in the center of the dial, which is either blue or bronze enamel, depending on which of the watches you buy.
The dog will attract attention, because he is right in the center of the dial, which features no hands. Instead, the time is displayed through small windows that appear at the 2 o’clock, 4 o’clock, 8 o’clock and 10 o’clock positions.
These windows depict the hours, the minutes, the day of the week and the date. All of this is operated via Vacheron Constantin’s own in-house Caliber 2460 G4 movement, which features 237 individual parts. You can see these parts through the back of the case, which has sapphire crystal covering the back.
The watch case measures 40mm across, and as I previously mentioned, the cases are available in either platinum (blue dial with a white dog) or rose gold with a bronze dial and a pink gold dog.
Only twelve of each of these watches will be made, making them a rarity as soon as they are completed. Of course, buyers for them will likely be somewhat of a rarity, as well – the price of the watch is quite high: reportedly a bit more than U.S. $100,000 for the gold version. The platinum version will likely be a bit more; perhaps U.S. $125,000 or so.
People do buy such watches, however. Part of the appeal is their scarcity; if you want one, you pretty much have to make the decision to buy it as soon as it has been announced. It’s possible that even then will be too late. Companies such as Vacheron Constantin have a handful of loyal, but well-heeled customers who are likely informed about any new models the company might be producing.
These customers are no doubt informed about these models well in advance, and by the time they are actually done being manufactured, they’re likely already spoken for.
Of course, it’s possible that one or two might be available to the public for actual sale. If you are interested in this beautiful watch (and who wouldn’t be?), you may wish to contact the company directly via their Website.
Most of the companies in China that make watches are trying to become the next big thing and get the attention of the world by building watches with amazing features, elaborate complications or loads of jewels and diamonds.
That is one possible approach. Many companies believe that if you want to get the attention of a market that has been collecting wristwatches for more than one hundred years, you need to think big. That is why so many Chinese watch companies offer at least one watch with a tourbillon. They want to attract attention and, of course, be able to justify asking higher prices for their watches.
You do not, however, have to build something bigger and better to get the attention of the marketplace. Yes, you do have to build a good watch, and if it is fairly priced in the marketplace, that is even better. What you can also do, though, is to build a watch that is simply different from everything else that is out there for sale.
If your product is different enough from everything else, people will notice it, even if it doesn’t have a tourbillon or a minute repeater or 88 diamonds around the bezel.
That is the approach that Temporis watches, based in Hong Kong, is taking. Right on their Website, it says, “Temporis watches are designed for stylish youngsters.”
Right there, they tell you. They are looking for the youth market, and they are looking for buyers who are interested in style, or, to put it differently, they are interested in buyers who are interested in how a watch looks.
Yes, they need to make a watch that works and works well, and Temporis watches do that. Their watches are available in both quartz and mechanical models and from what I can tell, all of the movements used in Temporis watches are Japanese in origin, rather than Chinese.
There are some good Chinese movements, but if you are buying from a Japanese company, such as Miyota, you know that you are getting a time-tested movement that will be accurate and reliable.
After that, you can go on and work on the design, which is where Temporis watches shine. At the moment, they offer five different collections:
- Armour Collection – influenced by a heroic armour of the mysterious universe.
- Sentiment Collection – A love-based collection of colorful watches with an open heart on the face that shows the escapement.
- Nature Collection – A collection of watches based on the notion of simplicity.
- Military Collection – Rugged chronographs with tough, all-business looks
- Musical Note Collection – Fun, whimsical watches with a music theme and Swarovski crystals
Temporis watches are fun and colorful, but also well made. They have leather bands in a variety of colors, and stainless steel cases. They have mineral crystal protecting the face and models for men and women. Best of all is the price – these watches all seem to be priced at less than $200, and some models are even available for under $100.
No, Temporis watches are not going to attract people who might otherwise want to buy a Piaget or a Tissot. But they very likely will attract people who otherwise might not buy a watch at all.
That is a good thing.
There are hundreds of companies in China that manufacture watches; they are not particularly rare. What is unusual, however, are Chinese watches that are distinctive.
This is not to criticize the Chinese watch industry, however. The industry is relatively new and the Chinese have not been making watches for nearly as long as the Japanese, the Americans, or the Swiss. Because of this, one should not be surprised to see that many Chinese watch manufacturers are simply copying the work of other companies. That’s usually how any new industry in any country gets its start.
Not all companies in China are doing this, however. FIYTA watches, for example, are surprisingly advanced for the product of a relatively new company. FIYTA was founded in 1987, which is relatively recently for a watch company, especially one that manufactures mechanical watches.
They specialize in high quality mechanical watches, many of which have elaborate designs and complications. Their most famous watch is likely their Space Watch, which has actually flown in space. Their latest series to attract attention is their “extreme” series, which was highlighted in the 2009 and 2010 Dakar motorcycle rally.
FIYTA watches are now so well known that the company was not only allowed to exhibit their watches at the annual Baselworld watch fair, but they were actually located in the main exhibition hall, rather than one of the smaller, secondary halls.
FIYTA has worked constantly to come up with new and innovative styles and materials for their watches. Their patented ATiC (Advanced Titanium Carbide) material is used in some of their watch cases. It is harder and lighter than either steel or titanium.
Like many Chinese watch companies, FIYTA makes models with a tourbillon, though in this case, the tourbillon is made and designed in-house, rather than being sourced from another manufacturer. Perhaps their most famous watch model is the People’s Republic of China 65th Birthday limited edition tourbillon model.
This model, which was limited in production to only 65 pieces, was created to celebrate China’s 65th anniversary. The watch featured an 18k gold case and the tourbillon itself was surrounded by a ring featuring 40 diamonds.
The face of the watch had a large 65 on it to signify the anniversary, and the bezel itself was surrounded by 86 additional diamonds.
While this watch made use of cutting-edge 21st century manufacturing techniques and materials, there is no mistaking the design for one that is uniquely Chinese in origin. That’s one of the things that FIYTA works to do – make watches that are unique and which have styling that no one will confuse for the work of any other company.
While the company does make watches that are very expensive (the gold anniversary watch mentioned above retailed for U.S. $17,000) they also make watches that are very affordable, with many models priced to sell at under U.S. $100.
They also make watches that have more traditional styling. While FIYTA wants you to remember their unique designs, they also know that many buyers would like a more traditional style for their watches.
With FIYTA watches, you can have cutting edge styling or traditional. It is up to you.
The better-known Chinese watchmaking companies usually engage in mass production, and sell to both the public and to other watchmaking companies. Seagull, also known as Sea-Gull, for instance, produces one quarter of all of the watch movements made in the world.
While many of the mass-produced movements go into inexpensive, mass-market watches, a few of the companies that offer movements on an OEM basis also work with small shops that produce limited edition, high quality watches.
Perpetual Watch is one such company. This Chinese watchmaker is small, and has only four employees. With such a small company, they do not design their own movements. Instead, they buy high quality movements from other manufacturers and install them in watches of their own design.
This way, they can offer a quality watch in limited editions at a fair price without the high overhead that comes with designing movements in-house.
The company tests all of their movements thoroughly, and those that do not meet the minimum acceptable standard of being accurate to +/- 15 seconds per day are discarded.
Though they are a small company, Perpetual Watch is able to offer mechanical watches with an automatic movement, sapphire crystal, and 30 meters of water resistance, complete with free shipping, at prices that would shock most buyers who are accustomed to seeing sky-high price tags on the popular Swiss watches.
The SC-01, for instance, includes an automatic movement, a case made from 316L stainless steel, sapphire crystal and even a transparent case back. All of this is offered for less than U.S. $200, which is quite a low price.
The watches sold by Perpetual Watch are limited editions and they do sell out. They also require that you preorder, as the watches are likely manufactured on an as-needed basis.
Recent models included the PR-01, an automatic watch with a power reserve indicator, which quickly sold out.
Other current models include a chronograph that also has a moon phase indicator as well as a small seconds dial and the date.
Perpetual Watch also has made several models that include a tourbillon, which has now become something that Chinese watch companies feel that they have to include in their product line. That they make a watch with a tourbillon is not unusual. What is unusual is that they make one that sells for only $1500 or so.
That particular model includes sapphire crystal, a 41mm 316L stainless steel case, and a 25 jewel manually wound mechanical movement.
Perpetual Watch also provides a two year warranty and a 7 day money back guarantee.
It’s nice to see some small companies entering the watch market from China that are making some good quality mechanical watches. Most of the Chinese watches that the public sees are low-quality quartz models that sell for just a few dollars.
Those watches are just fine, for what they are, but when you see so many inexpensive plastic watches on the market, it is easy to forget that there are also companies that work hard to produce a good quality watch at a reasonable price.
Many Chinese watch brands set out to compete with well-established Swiss brands. That’s a lofty goal, and while it’s certainly possible for Chinese manufacturers to create a quality watch that can compete with the Swiss, it’s unlikely that the public is going to change their buying habits anytime soon.
A better move is to create a quality watch that no one will mistake for a Swiss watch. That way, if someone likes what you’re making, they can make an active choice to buy it instead.
This seems to be the approach taken by Longio Watch, a company founded in the mid-1990s in China by designer Mi Changhong. For a dozen years or so, Longio Watch made watches for other companies, but in 2009, Changhong decided that it was time to set out on his own and show the world what he could do.
The results are pretty amazing, as these watches look nothing like what you might expect when you’re looking for a luxury watch. OK, some of them do; the company makes a few chronographs that are attractive and would not attract undue attention.
Other timepieces, however, do attract attention and in a good way. The Zhuke series of watches, for instance, have cases crafted from bronze, and as far as I know, no one else is doing that. The Zhuke Auto Green, for example, has a bronze case, a date complication, and automatic movement, and a 65 hour power reserve. It’s a limited edition of 200 pieces, and sells for roughly $3000.
Like many other Chinese watchmakers, Longio Watch makes a few models with a tourbillon. These days, it seems like a rite of passage to include at least one in your product list. The Volcan Tourbillon is a striking example with a titanium case and a distinctive blue glow. Limited to 1000 pieces, the Volcan sells for $12,000 or so.
It’s the Asmara series, however, that truly stands out. Named after a city in Africa, the Asmara series is a limited edition group of watches that currently includes some 18 models. Some include a tourbillon with extreme Art Deco influences. Others have skulls or animals on their faces. Colors are odd for this series, with many using pastel pinks and blue-green hues. Others have bold yellows. As the models vary quite a bit, so does the pricing, which ranges from roughly $2500 to $20,000.
While Longio Watch produces some amazing watches, they still do OEM work; if you need a company that can design a watch from the ground up to your specifications, they’re apparently still willing to do that sort of thing. I guess good business is where you find it, and even if you’re doing well selling your own unique product, you shouldn’t turn down opportunities to pay the rent in less obvious ways.
If you’re looking for a watch that’s well built, you can find one of those just anywhere. If you’re looking for one with some truly unique looks that will catch attention anytime you wear it, then you might want to have a look at Longio Watch’s offerings. It’s pretty much a given that you will be the only one wearing one the next time you have it on at a party.
Shanghai Watch Company
While millions of watches have been produced in China, that production is largely a recent development. Prior to the mid-1950s, there was no watch production in China to speak of. What little there was consisted of local companies buying pre-made movements from foreign sources and putting them in locally made cases.
By the mid-1950s, sources of foreign movements were drying up, so the state created the Shanghai Watch Company to produce Chinese-made watches. Their first factory opened in 1958, and for the next 40 years, they produced some adequate, though not technically impressive watches.
In 1999, the company was turned into a publicly traded company, and the new company began to develop movements in-house and began trying to produce innovative watches that the public would want to buy, offered to the public at a reasonable price.
The company has largely succeeded, and today, they offer dozens of watches for men and women direct for sale from their own sites, one of which is in English and the other in Chinese.
Unlike other companies, which try to be everything to everyone, the Shanghai Watch Company makes mechanical watches exclusively.
They do, however, make a wide variety of mechanical watches. They produce both manually wound models as well as automatic ones. They produce a number of skeleton watches, where the works of the movement are visible through the watch face, and of course, at least one model that features a tourbillon, which seems to be standard practice for any Chinese watch manufacturer who wants to get noticed.
Shanghai Watch also makes a few limited edition models. They two they are currently offering are quite interesting. One is a recreation of a watch worn by former Zhou En Lai. This watch was not originally offered to the public, but Zhou wore it in public for years as a show of loyalty to Chinese manufacturing. It’s a simple, but attractive time-only watch that the site describes as “Ancient Design!”
The other limited edition watch offered by Shanghai is a bit more up to date – the Space Movement 2992 commemorates the first spacewalk by a Chinese astronaut, performed by Zhai Zhigang in 2008.
This watch is a chronograph that also includes a day/date/month calendar, a 24 hour hand, and the phases of the moon.
Compared with other mechanical watches from Swiss manufacturers, watches from Shanghai Watch Company are quite reasonably priced. They start at about U.S. $229 and go up to about U.S. $6999 for the tourbillon model.
They all feature good water resistance, and the site has a good graphical indicator about what each rating (3 ATM, 5 ATM, 10 ATM, etc.) means. That way, there will be no confusion about whether you can wash your hands, swim, or go diving while wearing a particular watch.
For the most part, the watches from Shanghai Watch are all stainless steel. The company has not yet started making watches with precious metals or gemstones. That may come in time, as that will likely be the next step when it comes to competing with Swiss manufacturers.
For now, consumers can be content to know that they are buying a quality steel watch that works well, looks good and comes at an affordable price.
Big companies are usually well known, and lots of brands from around the world have become famous even in other countries. Everyone knows Coca-Cola, and lots of people know Michelin and brands such as Volkswagen. What people do not yet know are some of the famous brands from China, even though they are very large companies.
Seagull, for example, is the world’s largest manufacturer of mechanical watch movements. Bigger than anyone! But few people outside of China know of the company or are familiar with their watches.
Seagull, also known as Sea-Gull, was founded in China in 1955 with just four people working to make the watches there. They have grown substantially. In 1992, the company switched production to make only quartz watches, but in 1997, they changed their minds and now make mechanical watches exclusively.
The full company name is Tianjin Seagull Watch Group, and the company is now publicly traded. They make 25% of all of the world’s mechanical watch movements, including those that go into watches that are sold by many other companies under their own brand.
Seagull sells through a variety of retailers, and in the United States, the company sells direct to the public via their own Website, usseagull.com. The company sells a wide variety of watches on their site, and they are of much better quality than many of the less expensive Chinese brands.
Seagull watches have sapphire crystal on many of their models and good water resistance. They also offer a very good warranty – two years parts and labor from the date of purchase. This is a comparable warranty to many other famous brands.
Most of the watches that Seagull makes have automatic (self-winding) mechanical movements. They also make a few watches with manually wound movements for those who like a more traditional watch. They also make a few watches with gold cases. These are the high end models, most of which include a tourbillon.
You may recall that Chinese manufacturers admire the tourbillon and a few of them make them in order to demonstrate their watchmaking skills. Seagull currently offers eight different watches with a tourbillon that sell for prices that range from U.S. $6900 to U.S. $13,800.
Most of the company’s other watches are far less expensive, with many of them being sold at prices as low as $200. For that price, you can still get a watch with a stainless steel case, a Sea-Gull automatic movement, sapphire crystal, 30 meters of water resistance and a power reserve indicator.
One watch that Seagull recently introduced was a special model created to honor the company’s 55th anniversary. This special watch had the number “55” on the dial in place of the usual number “11.”
If you like the chronograph, Seagull makes three different models. What they do not yet seem to make is watches for women. This seems to be true for many Chinese watch manufacturers. While some make a few models for women, most offer only men’s models. This will probably change with time, but most decisions about models are made with Chinese consumers in mind, and right now, most watch buyers are men.
Still, Seagaull has more than 50 years of history making quality watches.
While a lot of Swiss watch companies are more or less household names, that isn’t true of Chinese watch manufacturers. There are good ones and not so good ones, and chances are you haven’t heard of any of them.
That’s because the Chinese watch industry is having a rebirth and many of the companies making watches in China, even the big ones, aren’t yet that old. One good example is Parnis.
Parnis makes watches for consumers as well as movements used in other brands. The company was founded in 2005 by three people with a long history of manufacturing and marketing. They wanted to create a high quality watch brand that could still be sold at a favorable price point.
Parnis has done well that way, and today they make a number of different models in automatic, manual-wound, and quartz styles. Most are surprisingly affordable; the company’s brand has models that start at U.S. $129. For that price, you get either a Japanese Miyota or Chinese Seagull movement, a 316L stainless steel case, and sapphire crystal. You also get good water resistance, which is not often found in Chinese watches.
Styling of Parnis watches seems to be inspired by traditional Swiss designs, so you’ll see styles that look familiar to you if you’ve been shopping for Swiss watches. A few of their models seem inspired by Rolex and others by Breitling. Most of the designs seem to be aimed at men, though you might see a few unisex models among the company’s offerings.
You’ll find some good features inside Parnis watches, too. Aside from the good build quality, you’ll find models with calendars that show the month, date, and day of the week. At first glance, you might think that the watch was a chronograph, though Parnis offers those, too.
Many of their mechanical models offer a power reserve indicator, so that you can see how much longer the watch is likely to run before it needs more movement or rewinding.
Unlike most watches from China, Parnis watches also offer a good warranty – in fact, most are sold with a warranty of 24 months from the date of purchase, which is a very good warranty and is quite unusual for Chinese brands. Many of the lesser brands from China do not come with a warranty at all.
It is nice to see well-built, attractive watches with nice features that are sold for prices that range in the hundreds of dollars, rather than in the thousands. Admittedly, there is no luxury in Parnis models. They all have stainless steel cases and they do not yet sell models with gold cases or with diamonds embedded in them.
I also have not yet seen a tourbillon in any of their models, though those may come at a later date. As I have mentioned before, a tourbillon is a very popular feature to include in watches from China, and many of the better brands include them.
Still, if you are looking for an attractive mechanical watch that looks good, comes with a good warranty and includes some nice features, you might want to look at Parnis watches.