Watch Dating Profiles: China — Seagull, CIGA Design, And Celadon Haute Horlogerie Are Hot
China is a country of rich history, strong cultural heritage, stunning landscapes, and people that strive to refine crafts and skills to the highest level. Much of the world has known China only through damaging stereotypes and the products that leave its borders. Today, I’m happy to showcase three “made in China” watches that are putting in the work to illuminate some of the country’s history and heritage and shift the popular perception of what the label entails. Sea-Gull’s 1963 Chronograph, Celadon Haute Horlogerie’s Century Cloisonné “Peacock and Peonies”, and Ciga Design’s U-Series Blue Planet collectively embody some of China’s history, present, and possible future. The future of Chinese watches looks promising.
I have a personal connection with China. I have Chinese friends and family members. I’ve worked for Chinese organizations alongside Chinese colleagues and managers. I have a toddler’s grasp of the language. I’ve been to China multiple times and traveled extensively. I’ve experienced first-hand the multifaceted country and culture and many of the elements that comprise it. To the outsider, getting to know China and its people is a vivid experience in comparison to the little that is “known” about them beforehand.
The foreignness of being a westerner in China has never left me. The recognition of the likeness I share with the people and my appreciation and respect for the culture, however, never ceases to grow. As a watch aficionado, learning about and sharing these Chinese watches with the rest of the world is a way for me to extend some of the “vividness” of the real China to those that are unfamiliar. Let us start, then, by first stepping back in time for a watch firmly grounded in China’s past.
Sea-Gull 1963 Manual Chronograph
In 1961, the Tianjin Watch Company made the first Chinese watch. The People’s Liberation Army soon commissioned a chronograph for the Chinese Air Force codenamed “304”. Shortly after, the Sea-Gull Air Force chronograph was approved, and units began making their way to military members.
The modern Sea-Gull 1963 Chronographs are accurate re-issues of that original watch. Like with the original, inside ticks a Sea-Gull column-wheel chronograph caliber. The Sea-Gull caliber ST19, a variation of the Venus 175, made its debut in the original Sea-Gull Air Force Chronograph. China had acquired the rights, plans, and machinery for the Venus 175 specifically for jump-starting its domestic watch industry.
Variations that rival the Speedmaster
Variations on the Sea-Gull 1963 abound. Different sizes, dial colors, and crystal materials cater to the consumer. It doesn’t help that there are multiple sources for Sea-Gull 1963 Chronographs and different slightly different iterations of reissues. The most “standard” 1963 reissue is the 38mm uni-compax (dual-register) chronograph with an acrylic crystal. This version comes as close to the original watch as possible, though it is also available with a sapphire crystal. Options in 42mm cases also exist with either acrylic or sapphire crystals. Additionally, there’s a panda color scheme and both blue and black reverse-panda options available in that size.
Excluding the more radical panda variations, the shared elements of the various Seagull 1963 Chronographs are the blued hour, minute, and sub-dial hands, the red chronograph seconds hand, and the gold-colored indices/numerals. The hanzi (Chinese characters) on the dial may vary from watch to watch. The model pictured here, however, states “China” (中国) and “Tianjin Watch Factory” (天津手表厂). The red star below 12 o’clock is present on all models, but the 42mm version deviates from the original watch and standard reissue by indicating “21 Zuan” (21 jewels). The original and reissue state “19 Zuan”. Also changed (or upgraded) in the 42mm model is the hue of the dial. It has shifted to a warmer gold tone from the cream color of the 38mm. The cases are stainless steel with exhibition case-backs. Certain editions in 38mm, however, have solid case backs and state “21 Zuan” on the dial.
Simple, accessible, unique
China’s Flying Pigeon bicycles are the most-produced model of transportation in history at over 500 million units. These bicycles, however, are almost completely unknown outside of eastern Asia. Like the Flying Pigeon, a lot of Seagull Chronographs have been made over the years (not quite 500 million), but outside of China, it’s a watch that is fairly unique and unknown outside of the hardcore watch-enthusiast community. The trope that everything made in China is cheap is only true regarding the Sea-Gull to the extent that one can acquire a manual-wind column-wheel chronograph with a rich history for under $500. Not everything that’s affordable is junk. China’s domestic industries have had the unique problem of serving over one billion people. It wouldn’t do to make products expensive or with short lifespans. The Chinese have perfected manufacturing the affordable consumer good that can be maintained along unto perpetuity.
The historic nature of the parent caliber, the Venus 175, lends itself to straightforward servicing, even if sourcing parts in the West might be challenging. But at around $350 for most versions of the Sea-Gull 1963 Chronograph, the watch, in my opinion, completely passes the Shrug Equation that I spelled out in an article about service intervals. That is to say, this is a watch that one could easily consider eligible to wear without regard to servicing until the moment it stops working.
Is it for you?
This watch can be found on the wrists of many enthusiasts of history and military watches. It’s a watch that speaks to a particular time and flavor of Chinese culture and governance. Beyond that, it’s a very practical chronograph. The ideal wearer might be someone with ties to or an interest in China, its culture, and its history. To such a person, wearing a bit of this history on the wrist means something special. No, I don’t own one, nor do I intend to (chronographs aren’t much my thing). But the next watchmaker may very well enter my collection as my special Chinese watch.
Celadon Haute Horlogerie’s Century Cloisonné “Peacock and Peonies”
While the Sea-Gull 1963 certainly captures a snapshot of China’s history, Celadon Haute Horlogerie’s (Celadon HH) Century Cloisonné “Peacock and Peonies” embodies a civilization’s cultural development to the present day. As the name suggests, Celadon HH’s founder Benjamin Chee seeks to establish China as a formidable competitor on the world stage of high horology. The Century Cloisonné “Peacock and Peonies” is the brand’s premier offering and brings together two behemoths of high craft.
A dial and caliber of the finest quality
The cloisonné dial introduces the first craftsman, Grandmaster Xiong Songtao. Grandmaster Xiong is the third-generation descendent in his family of Imperial Enamellers to the Emperors of China. That is to say, his craft is king. The intricate enamel dials that come from his workshop take over 50 hours to produce and have a success rate of just 10%. The successful ones, however, make it all worth it. The dial depicts a kaleidoscopic scene of the title’s elements, with gradations and different finishes that beg for the closest inspection and appreciation. It’s a showstopper of a dial that rivals (and might surpass) Europe’s finest enamel work.
The back of the watch presents the second master, AHCI Master Watchmaker Lin Yong Hua. The see-through case back reveals the hand-finished proprietary movement, designed and crafted by Master Hua. It’s a hand-wound piece with 45 hours of power reserve, and it beats at 18,000vph. An optional handmade Breguet overcoil hairspring is also available. Perlage, beveling, and anglage adorn every surface, with the large 3/4 plate reserved for Chinese calligraphic engraving, all performed by hand. The movement is not crafted in gold, but rather, is gold-plated. It’s a small concession considering this collaboration of Chinese master craftsmen costs under $13,000. That’s unheard of in the watch industry for this quality of craft.
The 42mm case, referred to by Celadon HH as a “moon case”, further plays on the theme with the recessed crown, evoking the “moon gate” found in traditional Chinese garden architecture. The opposite side has a recessed swoop, taking inspiration from the image of traditional arch bridges. The hands are unique with their transformation from silver to blue. While they play with the theme of the peacock tail, I find them bulky for a watch whose dial is what I want to see.
Fiercely, proudly, and elegantly Chinese
There’s no mistaking Mr. Chee’s drive to bring the highest quality of Chinese craft to the world and the elegance of high watchmaking to China (though Master Watchmaker Hua was around before Celadon). Celadon HH as a brand does an excellent job standing in both realms. The watches impart a uniqueness of design at a price point that seems almost suspicious, though nothing nefarious is occurring. It is a positive example of the financial magic that can be achieved with highly skilled Chinese labor with a focus on quality. As Celadon HH grows and develops, and other Chinese watchmakers enter the fray, we will undoubtedly see an increase in price for quality across the industry. Present, too, will be development and refinement as knowledge, technique, and the industry grows.
To own and wear a Celadon Haute Horlogerie piece such as the “Peacock and Peonies” is to rejoice in the finest elements of Chinese cultural craft. It is a celebration of the hundreds of years (at least) of Chinese cultural heritage while clamoring for more. “Peacock and Peonies” is art and a testament that the age of high Chinese watchmaking for the discerning enthusiast has arrived.
A bonus (and understated) alternative
Now, cloisonné and manufacture movements are only the top end of what Celadon HH produces. As a bonus watch, I’d like to present the “Imperial Plum” in Midnight Blue. This is the Celadon I’ve picked out for myself. I’m not one for peacocking with my wrist. The Imperial Plum is a refined, subdued watch that is still fully imbued with the Chinese-ness that makes it so special. And at approximately $1,100, it’s a watch that punches above its class.
CIGA Design Mechanical Watch Series U Blue Planet
If we’re going to recognize this ongoing shift in Chinese watchmaking, it’s only right that we talk about CIGA Design. It’s the first Chinese watchmaker to win an award at the Grand Prix d’Horologie de Genève (GPHG) — no small feat. The 2021 prize for Challenge Watch was awarded to CIGA Design for its Blue Planet. A first glance tells you exactly why this watch challenges.
The hand (singular) of the watch is the compass rose on the blue and silver embossed representation of the globe. The hand/globe/dial makes a full rotation every 12 hours (though its should’ve been a 24-hour movement) so that the outward point of the compass rose points to the hour on the outer ring. The minute hand, amazingly, rotates so that the compass point is always pointing to the current minute. To tell the time, one just simply looks at what the compass points to.
As CIGA Design describes, the double-domed sapphire crystal covers the globe of the watch like the atmosphere of our planet. It’s a hoaky metaphor, perhaps, but one that I’m in to. Interestingly, the profile of the watch has an uncanny resemblance to the stereotypical flying saucer UFO. This is an association that CIGA Design does not mention. The blue rubber strap essentially disappears into the case, granting smaller wrists access to its 46mm diameter.
CIGA Design’s press material points heavily to the necessity of reflection in regard to the environment. The packaging the watch comes in is pointedly recyclable. I imagine wearing a big blue Earth on one’s wrist might make them more conscious of their impact. Admittedly, though, I am disappointed that there isn’t any stated collaboration or fundraising regarding environmental activism like some other brands do.
The world on your wrist
Like with God, Atlas, or even four elephants standing on a giant turtle, carrying the world on your hand, shoulders, or back respectively is no small feat. Strapping a watch like the CIGA Design Blue Planet to the wrist is not a casual endeavor. It’s a conversation piece, first and foremost. It’s bold in design, inventive with the (patented) mechanics, and over-the-head-hitting with the metaphor.
The Blue Planet by CIGA Deigns is the best kind of “different” achievable by independent brands. It’s a reinterpretation of telling time and makes use of a “blank” dial for a powerful message. It’s also Chinese, from a China of the present looking to the future. There’s no reminiscing on heritage or emulating established styles. CIGA Design is grounded in the now and soon to be. It’s a unique design that is wholly its own, and it points to a future of watchmaking in China that can be inventive instead of derivative. A watch is a watch, simply. It takes designers, their cultures, and an evolving design language to make a watch the everything more that it becomes. What exciting things can we expect from a culturally rich country with a burgeoning watch industry?
To wear CIGA Design’s Blue Planet isn’t necessarily a choice to wear a Chinese watch. It’s a choice to wear a radically unique and well-designed watch. It’s a choice to wear a watch about the whole planet. It just happens to be Chinese. When a watch can be worn and discussed without commenting on its Chinese origin, a certain threshold in Chinese watchmaking and global perception will be crossed. We will have begun to accept China as a global player in the horological field, no asterisk necessary. The CIGA Design Blue Planet leads me to believe we’re almost there.
If You Are The One (a Chinese dating gameshow)
So, here we are. Which is it going to be? The historic Sea-Gull 1963 Chronograph, austere and pensive? Or perhaps the Celadon HH Century Cloisonné “Peacock and Peonies”, rich in culture and refinement? You could always throw out such geographically oriented choices and go with the global radical, the CIGA Designs Blue Planet. Let us know in the comments which one you’d prefer, and what you think about China’s watch industry and its future. Links to Celadon HH and CIGA Design here. Sea-Gull will require a search engine and some hunting.