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The Hidden History of Swiss Watchmaking’s Biggest Rivals • Gear Patrol

The Hidden History of Swiss Watchmaking’s Biggest Rivals • Gear Patrol

There’s a cause you don’t hear the time period “Asian watchmaking” typically: watchmaking within the East, although highly effective, is most simply grouped into Japanese, Chinese language, and different country-focused classes. Learning these markets collectively is like lumping collectively British, Swiss, and German watchmaking — they’ve totally different histories, totally different priorities, and totally different meanings to the fashionable watch collector.

But there’s worth in exploring the vast scene of watchmaking in Asia, if solely as a result of it’s understudied and under-appreciated. So let’s ask the query: what might we imply once we speak about these separate teams and their which means to international watchmaking and watch possession?

China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan are essential manufacturing hubs — not only for low-end, mass-produced items, however for a lot of elements that go into watches made by worldwide microbrands and, sure, your “Swiss-made” magnificence, since that label signifies that solely 60% of every timepiece should have been produced in Switzerland. Hong Kong, as an example, was second solely to Switzerland for watch exports by worth in 2017. China, its business at totally different occasions hobbled and intensified by intense authorities management, leads exports based mostly on variety of models, and exported 688 million accomplished watches worldwide between 2013 and 2017.

Asian nations aren’t simply producing watches — they’re shopping for them at historic charges. Each China and Hong Kong are monsters of the posh watch market share. Collectively, based on the Federation of the Swiss Watch Business, Asian nations accounted for 40% of the whole Swiss luxurious watches bought worldwide in 2017 — greater than $eight billion. With that type of buying energy, you higher consider that the whims and style of Asian consumers drive the marketplace for the remainder of us.

After which, in fact, there’s the story of the East’s most iconic manufacturers themselves. These focus on Japan, whose historical past and trendy prominence type an important narrative for Western watch collectors. Within the 1890s, Japanese watchmakers started constructing pocket watches with lever escapements; by the top of the Meiji period, in 1912, based on the Japan Clock & Watch Affiliation, 20 factories turned out three.eight million timepieces a yr. Virtually all Japanese watchmaking business was destroyed throughout WWII, however within the 1950s and ‘60s, Japan decided it will grow to be the “Switzerland of the East.” Manufacturing through the Korean Conflict boomed within the 1950s, and by the 1960s and ‘70s, technological innovation and high quality had made Japanese watchmaking well-known worldwide. There may need been a “Quartz Disaster” in Europe, however not so in Japan, the place the brand new know-how drove innovation of all types (a small marvel, because the Japanese invented the quartz watch). As we speak, Japanese makers are a number of the largest producers of mechanical actions and of accomplished watches, and shipped some 65 million timepieces in 2017.

Although there are a lot deeper histories of those watchmaking feats, burgeoning markets, and industrial powerhouses, the easiest way to review such a large swath of watchmaking is to take a look at the watches themselves. That is really what differentiates Chinese language, Japanese, and different Asian watchmaking from the Germans, the British, the Swiss, and the People. Asian manufacturers have strived, and in lots of instances succeeded, to match high quality from these markets; they’ve turn into a number of the largest producers of watches, and mechanical actions, in the complete world; they’ve shaken the watch world to its very core with a technological revolution, and steered the best way we take into consideration our favourite sorts of watches, from divers to decorate watches.

Right here’s a fast primer on the manufacturers you must know, and the watches that matter.

Some Background:

China’s Lengthy Street to Diversification: China started making watches in 1955. Designs have been strictly based mostly on Swiss items, however ultimately, some unique design and watchmaking occurred within the 1960s. Then, within the 1970s, the Chinese language authorities pressured all watchmaking, most of it targeted in eight giant factories, to start work on a single, standardized motion referred to as the Tongji that was meant to be reasonably priced and correct. Within the 1980s and 90s, manufacturing modified and lots of factories closed due to the rise in quartz watches and the introduction of foreign-backed watchmaking corporations within the Particular Financial Zones. Right now, 9 giant factories nonetheless exist and make their very own actions for luxurious mechanical watches, together with Tianjin Seagull, which makes an reasonably priced chronograph motion; smaller makers that import actions and serve the “reasonably priced” market; and some legendary particular person watchmakers, too.

Hong Kong’s Luxurious Market Share: For those who’ve watched Loopy Wealthy Asians, you understand Hong Kong is a crucible of immense wealth. The Swiss luxurious business, after planting seeds out there within the 2010s, is reaping what it has sown in the present day to the tune of $2.eight billion a yr. (The U.S., by the best way, purchased simply over $2 billion in high-end Swiss watches in 2018.)

Japan’s Motion Dominance: Throughout a go to to the Seiko Devices manufacturing unit in 2015, Jason Heaton heard a definite hum — the sound of a producing line that seems unimaginable numbers of quartz actions a day, all bought to 3rd events. This type of manufacturing prowess stretches to Seiko’s and Grand Seiko’s mechanical watch actions, and to the mechanical actions made by Seiko’s competitor, Miyota. Collectively, the 2 produce a shocking variety of actions per yr, made potential by a few of the most good vertical integration on the earth. Flip over a mechanical watch not made by an enormous Swiss model that prices over $150, and it’s doubtless you’ll see both Seiko or Miyota printed on the case again.

Giant Corporations:


Kintaro Hattori

Japan’s most iconic model began its journey some 138 years in the past, when Kintaro Hattori opened a small watch store in Tokyo. It’s led Japanese watchmaking ever since, making Japan’s first wristwatch, its first chronograph and its first dive watch. And worldwide, Seiko has made a few of the largest marks on watchmaking of any firm. It innovated quartz with one of many first quartz watches, the primary six-digit LCD show quartz and the primary analog quartz chronograph. It’s a dominant drive in motion making. Although the corporate doesn’t publicly share manufacturing numbers, Seiko actions — each mechanical and quartz — drive an enormous variety of watches worldwide. For over fifty years, Seiko has made a metal sports activities watch that’s some of the beloved reasonably priced timepieces ever. There’s plenty of magnificence to be captured at Seiko, however its most necessary and iconic watches all intersect at distinctive design, reasonably priced costs, and bulletproof construct high quality.

Seiko 5

The primary Seiko 5, launched in 1963, ushered in a handful of thrilling new improvements: a harder mainspring, a shock resistant design, and strong water resistance. Nonetheless, even Seiko’s largest followers might by no means have imagined the influence the Seiko 5 would have on watch fandom worldwide. The Seiko 5 was ultimately expanded into lots of of various watches, tied collectively by the specs that comprised that “5” identify: Diaflex mainspring, Diashock anti-shock system, automated winding, day/date indication, and water resistance. (There’s some debate over which specs represent the 5—learn extra about that right here.) The metal watches with primary, bulletproof mechanical actions have remained well-liked as a result of they are often purchased for lower than $200 at this time, and sometimes for considerably much less. Untold numbers of people that now obsess over Rolexes and Audemars Piguets began out watch amassing with a Seiko 5. Not that anybody ever actually strikes on from loving them.

Quartz-Astron 35SQ

Although the watchmaking world had toyed with non-mechanical watches previous to 1969, it was Seiko’s Astron that made quartz know-how out there to shoppers. The watch had a gold case, bought for round $1,250 (on the time, the worth of a small automotive), and, through the use of its quartz oscillator to show a tiny stepping motor, was correct to plus or minus one minute a yr with a battery lifetime of a full yr. The watch’s influence went far past the hundred or so watches it bought in its first week. Quartz, already extra correct than mechanical timekeeping, shortly turned extra reasonably priced, too, precipitating what’s been referred to as each a “Quartz Disaster” and a “Quartz Revolution” in watchmaking. The remaining turned out principally OK for mechanical watchmaking, and, in fact, for quartz; at present, Seiko continues to make a great deal of each, and watches just like the Seiko Astron GPS Photo voltaic Chronograph proceed the 35SQ’s legacy of innovation and utility.

SKX007 Dive Watch

The primary Japanese dive watch may’ve been the reference 62MAS, first made in 1965, however Seiko’s made quite a lot of iconic divers since then, just like the Skilled Diver’s 600m, affectionately referred to as the “Tuna Can” for its chubby, encased look. Immediately, the model’s most ubiquitous diver is the SKX007, which has the genetics of its forebears however a worth that rivals the accessibility of the Seiko 5. The SKX007 was first produced in 1996, and it continues to be, as Jack Forster over at Hodinkee wrote about it in an excellent essay, “the only greatest worth at any worth level” for a watch that qualifies as a dive watch beneath the ISO 6425 standards. The SKX007 shows all the things that’s lovely about Seiko’s lovely dive watches: a tank-like case, thick bezel, dial that’s infinitely clear and singular in type, unstoppable motion. Oh, and a price ticket (round $200) that lets nearly anyone afford it. Sadly, Seiko has lately stopped manufacturing of the SKX007, however so many have been produced that discovering a brand new one isn’t but an issue.

Credor Eichi II

The Eichi I, when it was launched in 2008, represented a completely totally different strategy to watchmaking than Seiko’s different watches: its platinum case, enamel dial and painted by hand markers seemed not like one thing out of the perfectionist grand watchmaker’s high-tech studio, however like a single, good piece that was clearly hand-made by an artisan, in all probability cloistered atop a lonely mountain. The Eichi II makes the primary watch’s minimalism much more austere. Inside is the hand-wound Spring Drive motion, which is each mechanical and quartz, powered by a “glide wheel” that’s distinctive even amongst hybrid actions. The very best-end Seiko-produced line of watches that you would be able to purchase.

Seiko Modders

The low value, ubiquity, and modularity of Seiko timepieces has executed extra than simply promote a whole lot of watches or construct a big following. Through the years, tinkerers around the globe, falling in need of the coaching and toolset wanted for full-on watchmaking, have turn out to be what we now name “Seiko modders.” The thought could be easy: take a Seiko watch, pull it aside, and swap in a special dial, perhaps some arms from a special watch, to customise its look. Modders have explored these design refurbishments and hundreds of others for years because of a great eye and a powerful Seiko half stock. Modding a Seiko may also be extraordinarily heightened: hand-plane a particularly difficult dial, say, or custom-make your personal bezels that may be popped on any Seiko diver. The world of Seiko modders is a large one, however the largest and most fascinating names in modding full watches and constructing custom elements for these modes embrace Yobokeis, Dagaz, Dave Murphy, and Damien Lau.


Based in 1950, Orient discovered success in Japan and China specializing in mechanical watches all through the 20th century. In 2009, it was purchased by Seiko, and in the present day continues making principally mechanical watches, working comparatively freely from its mum or dad firm. Its designs and manufacturing are dealt with individually, and its actions are made in-house. Lots of its watches function an influence reserve indicator or different problems, which on this case is completed with exceptional affordability. Orient, like Seiko, is an excellent worth proposition, and a straightforward touchdown pad for Seiko followers who need a Japanese watch with a special look and attraction.

Orient Bambino

The Bambino has shortly grow to be a darling of the reasonably priced gown watch set, filling a notable hole amongst Japanese watches for a classically styled, good-looking and stylish piece that value lower than $500. It’s obtainable in numerous totally different iterations, together with a number of totally different variations of the date-equipped three-hander, plus a model with a small seconds sub-dial and an “open coronary heart” model with a barely open-worked dial.

Orient Mako USA II

Orient’s flagship Mako was launched in 2003 and has, identical to the Bambino, develop into a darkish horse hero of reasonably priced Japanese watchmaking. As with the Seiko SKX007, it presents the correct quantity of dive watch options at an impulse-buy worth. In 2014, the model reached out to Reddit’s /r/watches subreddit on the lookout for suggestions. Among the many requests: a sapphire crystal, a reworked bezel, and a bezel graced by a screaming bald eagle and an American flag. Orient used these requests (nicely, a few of them) in its Mako USA and subsequent Mako USA II –each of which turned cult classics (no less than amongst reddit’s watch set).


Kamekichi Yakamazi

The early historical past of Citizen is definitely one in every of a Swiss-Japanese partnership. The corporate was based in 1930 by a gaggle of Swiss and Japanese buyers; it took over a Japanese manufacturing unit based in 1912 by Rodolphe Schmid, a Swiss. Citizen turned a worldwide identify after the second World Struggle, however its impression on watchmaking worldwide actually started within the 1970s and 1980s, when it made necessary improvements in digital watches. The opposite aspect of the Citizen coin is Miyota, one of the ubiquitous mechanical motion makers on the planet, which is a 65%-owned subsidiary of Citizen. Yearly, Miyota makes 1.eight million watch actions, most of them reasonably priced workhorses that discover their method into not simply Japanese watches, however watches produced worldwide. Collectively, these two names are a drive of nature in each quartz and mechanical watchmaking.

Crystron Photo voltaic Cell

Citizen’s most well-known function is its EcoDrive motion, which makes use of mild to maintain a watch charged. That know-how was pioneered in 1976 by the Crystron Photo voltaic Cell, a watch that had all of the visible attraction of a rooftop photo voltaic panel however managed to increase its quartz-powered battery as much as 5 years. Its 4 miniature photo voltaic wafers made it the primary analog solar-powered watch and proved the Eco-Drive idea, paving the best way for such massively common watches with the know-how because the Promaster Diver, or, 40 years later, the EcoDrive One, the world’s thinnest photo voltaic powered watch, at simply 2.98mm thick. (Visible photo voltaic wafers not included.)

Citizen X8 Titanium Chronometer


As we’ve written earlier than, titanium is an final watch materials: it’s light-weight, robust, and hypoallergenic. Citizen was the primary to make a watch virtually solely out of the fabric (some 99.6%), utilizing virtually pure titanium for the case, bezel and crown — again when it was thought-about “area age” materials. The X8 had an electro-mechanical chronometer motion, the Cosmotron 0820 — along with its swooping case form, pale blue dial, and matte case materials, it had visuals to make fortunate wearers of the restricted version batch of two,000 items really feel like they have been taking a look at a watch from the celebs.

Miyota 9015

Miyota actions have been staples for small watch manufacturers (typically referred to as “microbrands” or “boutique manufacturers”) for a few years now. Particularly, watchmakers who aren’t making their very own actions love Miyota’s 9015, which is skinny, comparatively costly, and just like the lauded Swiss-made ETA 2824-2. In comparison with Seiko’s NH35, it has a better beat fee, which suggests it’s extra correct and its seconds hand sweeps extra easily. When the worth is true (such issues fluctuate with demand), it’s a motion that nears Swiss high quality, at roughly half the worth.


The 4 Kashio Brothers

The marvel of Casio is that this: Earlier than 1974, it solely dealt in computer systems, calculators, and a hoop that allowed you to smoke a cigarette the entire means down. The quartz revolution diverted the river of watchmaking proper into Casio’s waterwheel, if you’ll; the corporate started watchmaking with a bang in 1974, with a digital quartz watch referred to as the Casiotron. Check out that Casiotron and also you’ll see all of the hallmarks that also make Casio nice in the present day: utilitarianism with fashion and overtly embracing know-how, relatively than making an attempt to make it slot in a basic package deal. No different watch firm ran wild with know-how this early on, from touchscreens to digital readouts to novel particular features, like health trackers within the 1990s.


Need to know if a watch has been profitable? Verify to see if the unique continues to be in manufacturing almost thirty years later. The unique F91W — 1/100th-second stopwatch, alarm, calendar, tiny metallic pushbuttons and all –nonetheless is. You should purchase one for $10. When you do, you’ll be sporting what’s been referred to as “a modest masterpiece,” somewhat microcosm of every little thing that makes Casio nice.

Casio Databank


The calculator that put Casio on the map was the 14-A, which in 1957 was the world’s first all-electric compact calculator. However to observe nerds, there’s just one Casio calculator: the Databank. It was first launched in 1984, after numerous different calculator watches, from Casio and others, had already been bought. However the Databank was particular, in that it might retailer knowledge, like telephone numbers. It got here to face for the cool sort of nerd, like Marty McFly. At present, it and its progeny stand as icons of the truth that sensible might be attractive.


The Casio identify sparks loads of conversations having to do with nerd tradition. Rightly so. However it’s additionally value noting that they’ve additionally made a lot of watches favored by the coldest-blooded army varieties on the planet. That’s proper: the Particular Forces love Casio. However they’re not sporting calculator watches — they’re sporting G-Shocks. Casio designer Kikuo Ibe designed the primary G Shock, the DW-5000C, in 1983, with the purpose of making a watch that would survive a 10-meter fall, had 10 bars of water resistance, and had 10 years of battery life. Since then, G-Shocks have been made for all types of specialties involving toughness, most notably the Masters of G collection, together with the Frogman, Gulfman, Mudman, Riseman, and Rangeman. These watches have clearly primed the pump for Casio’s profitable smartwatches, just like the Professional Trek, which incorporate connectivity, health monitoring, and GPS navigation. And, in an odd twist, the decidedly utilitarian watches have additionally develop into road fashion icons, necessitating an entire vary of whacky colorways and aesthetic spin-offs. Which means there’s a G-Shock for anybody, whether or not you put on it defusing mines underwater or to the subsequent Jay-Z live performance.

Small Corporations:

Grand Seiko

In 1960, Seiko handed a group of its grasp watchmakers a brand new task: Make an entire new sub-brand of watches with the identical Seiko ethos, however at a better degree of excellence, and, in fact, value. Within the virtually sixty years since, Grand Seiko has maintained the type of high quality and excellence that makes it a favourite model of watchmakers around the globe. In the present day, each Grand Seiko continues to be touched solely by grasp watchmakers because it’s made — their watches mix unimaginable ending high quality with a variety of actions, together with, apparently, high-end quartz. Every motion meets a stricter accuracy requirement than the vaunted COSC commonplace.

Hello-Beat 36000 GMT

In 2014, this watch gained the Petit Aiguille prize on the Grand Horlogerie de Geneve, an award given to one of the best watch of the yr priced underneath round $eight,000 — and stood out as the one non-European winner from that yr (and another). The Europeans are a reasonably unique group, however the Hello-Beat 36000 GMT is simply that good. Consumers comprehend it too, which is why it’s one in every of Grand Seiko’s greatest sellers. It’s pushed by the all-around beast 9S8X hi-beat motion; its identify comes from the motion’s 36,000 vibrations per hour (which is sort of excessive). Its ending is pristine, and it’s obtainable in quite a lot of variations.

9F Motion

The metaphorical hill that the majority horology nerds will die on is that mechanical watchmaking trumps quartz. It speaks to Grand Seiko’s talents that it’s maybe the one model to flee this non-starter. In an essay supporting the price of Grand Seiko’s $2,300 Quartz SBGX061 watch, Hodinkee’s Jack Forster, ever the horological poet, argues that a Grand Seiko quartz might be probably the most distinctive worth proposition in all watchmaking (apart from the SKX007, in fact). Certainly, the the method by which Grand Seiko has circumvents quartz’s pitfalls in its 9F motion constitutes watchmaking artwork. Grand Seiko grows its personal quartz crystals; as a result of temperature impacts quartz’s timekeeping, the motion itself checks ambient temperature 540 occasions a day, and adjusts itself; there are a great deal of mechanical mechanisms inside the motion, for controlling issues just like the date change and torque. The top result’s a motion that loses or positive factors solely ten seconds a yr.

Tianjin Sea-Gull

The Tianjin WuYi watch manufacturing unit was one among eight manufacturing amenities created by the Chinese language authorities in 1958, and performed a serious position in Chinese language watchmaking all through the 20th century, partially because of it being granted an exemption from manufacturing of the Chinese language authorities’s Chinese language Normal Motion, the Tongji. It made one in every of China’s first noteworthy watches, the WuYi, based mostly on Swiss designs, within the late 1950s. Within the 1960s, with the Chinese language military in want of a chronograph for its aviators, Tianjin was outfitted with tooling gear bought from the Swiss agency Venus, and ultimately made the primary Chinese language chronograph, the ST3. In 1966, it produced what was thought-about the primary Chinese language-designed and constructed wristwatch, the ST5, which was skinny and reliable, and was prized for its bridges’ hand-engraved “seagull stripes.” Later, through the chaos brought on by the quartz disaster, the Tianjin manufacturing unit was privatized, and since has been often known as Tianjin Sea-Gull. Since then, it’s made a variety of necessary actions, together with a tourbillon, however its largest impact on the worldwide watch market has been an enormous variety of ETA 2824 clones. As we speak, Tianjin Seagull’s most outstanding watch is the 1963 chronograph, which makes use of an reasonably priced chronograph motion and pays homage to the ST3.


Zelos is a product of Kickstarter. However in contrast to different microbrands, it doesn’t simply supply its supplies from Singapore — it’s additionally based mostly there. Its founder, Elshan Tang, is a mechanical engineer who pairs a variety of motion choices from ETA and Seiko with divers produced from distinctive case supplies like bronze, carbon fiber, and Damascus metal. His Abyss 2 and Helmsman 2 are good examples of younger and thrilling watchmaking popping out of the East.

Kiu Tai Yu

China’s watchmaking business has turned out a number of wonderful watchmakers. Kiu Tai Yu is probably the most world-renowned. He was born in 1946 and, after a stint making watches within the state-run Suzhou manufacturing unit, moved to Hong Kong and commenced designing and constructing his personal, together with China’s first ever tourbillon. His most well-known watches, the “Thriller Tourbillons” of the 1990s, featured free-floating actions, with no cage or any seen technique of help. These unimaginable watches earned him a spot as an honorary member of the Academie Horlogere des Createurs Independants (Academy of Unbiased Creators in Watchmaking), which incorporates a few of the greatest unbiased watchmakers on the planet.

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