Charting the Rise of Chinese Watchmaking with a Visit to the Middle Kingdom’s Largest Watch Fair

A trip to the major watch fair few know about.

Watch collectors are naturally familiar with SIHH and Baselworld, but the Asian equivalent is less well known. Taking place annually in the Shenzhen, the metropolis that borders Hong Kong, the China Watch & Clock Fair (CWCF) happened in late June inside the Shenzhen Convention and Exhibition Centre. A vast event with over 60,000 visitors annually in recent years, the CWCF is the largest watch and jewellery exhibition in Mainland China, and the third largest worldwide. Only Baselworld and the Hong Kong Watch & Clock Fair count more visitors.

Now in its 28th year, the CWCF has a thoroughly international exhibitor list. Swiss movement makers ETA and Ronda both had booths inside, as did Citizen-owned Miyota; this year’s CWCF was also the first with independent watchmakers of the AHCI. (The main hall of the CWCF 2017 is pictured above.)

The adjacent Ronda and Miyota booths

The CWCF began in 1988, mainly for component suppliers and OEM watch manufacturers to showcase their wares to the trade. However, in recent years, the focus of the fair has shifted towards timepieces catered to the consumer, making it more like Baselworld.

This shift in focus tracks the evolution of the exhibiting brands themselves, most of which are Chinese watch manufacturers that are developing their own consumer brands. One example is Peacock Watch, an OEM maker founded exactly 60 years ago, which is venturing into the consumer market for the first time with the T.S Series, a line tourbillon wristwatches starting at US$2470 for a single tourbillon, rising somewhat drastically to U$29,119 for the double tourbillon.

Peacock Watch T.S Tourbillon

The flagship T.S. double tourbillon has a large, sporty look with 45mm carbon composite case that’s a fairly slim 11.5mm. It will be available in four colors and is fitting to a fabric strap featuring a pin buckle also in the carbon composite.

Peacock Watch T.S Double Tourbillon

The movement is based on the P531-4 movement that Peacock has supplied to other makers, but here it has been given a more decorative finish. It’s partially skeletonized and finished with Geneva stripes and bevelled edges on the bridges, along with stamped guilloche on the base plate. However, all the finishing is obviously mechanically executed, which is understandable given its comparatively low price; similar watches from Swiss watchmakers typically cost twice as much.

Another notable watch spotted in the halls was the new tourbillon by Beijing Watch Factory, best known for the diversity of tourbillon wristwatches it offers. A radical departure from its earlier, fanciful designs, the Bladelegant tourbillon has sleek lines and a clean dial available in grey or silver. Most notably, the hour indices are set on a convex sapphire chapter ring, with a domed sapphire crystal over it for greater visual depth. It is still equipped with the TB01-2 movement found in most of the brand’s tourbillons, featuring the characteristic tourbillon cage shaped like a swallow.

The Bladelegant tourbillon

A variant of the Bladelegant tourbillon featuring a power reserve display

The most technically unusual watch at the fair was the Golgen T005, which boasts a depth rating of 12,000m, rivalling the experimental Deepsea Challenge watch Rolex created for James Cameron’s 2012 submersible expedition to the Marianas Trench, the deepest point of the Pacific Ocean.

The 12,000m Golgen diver

Tested in the laboratories of the State Oceanic Administration, China’s national maritime regulatory and scientific body, the T005 features a large DLC case with a massive front sapphire crystal and a magnifying bubble for the date window. Unlike the experimental Rolex, the T005 will be available for commercial sale in a limited series later in the year, though prices and specifications are yet to be released by Golgen.

The rise of Chinese independents

Notably, this year’s CWCF also marks the inaugural participation of the AHCI, the Swiss academy of independent watchmakers. With sponsorship from both the CWCF organisers and the Shenzhen city government, the AHCI was given a booth in the central area of the exhibition hall, right next to giants like Seiko and major Chinese watch brand Fiyta.

CWCF 2017 AHCI booth

Nine independent watchmakers took part: Konstantin Chaykin, Pita Barcelona, Meccaniche Orologi Milano, Vincent Calabrese, David Candaux, as well as a trio of Chinese AHCI candidates, Ming Guo, Tan Zehua and Lin Yong Hua.

The 1740 “The First 8” by David Candaux

More than a decade passed since the first Chinese AHCI member, Kiu Tai Yu, the Hong Kong-based watchmaker most famous for building his own tourbillon, was joined by the second, Ma Xushu, who entered the academy in 2015. The pace has since picked up, fittingly given China’s interested in luxury watches, with three Chinese candidates emerging in the past two years, signalling the rise of Chinese watchmakers in the field.

While the works of Ming Guo, Tan Zehua and Lin Yong Hua still require refinement to reach the level of craft and sophistication of established independent watchmakers, their timepieces are intriguing and highly promising.

The LYH No. 4 by Lin Yong Hua

The back of the LYH No. 4

Tan Zehua’s Work No. 4 wristwatch

The classically inspired movement inside Tan Zehua’s timepiece

The Work No. 1 “Mega Balance” by Tan Zehua

Corporate ambitions

A distinct trend amongst Chinese watchmakers, both independent and industrial, is the desire to compete globally with their Swiss counterparts. Many have focused on face-lifting out-dated designs and developed their own aesthetic instead of replicating well-known Swiss watches. At the same time, many watchmakers are rethinking their business models to boost growth domestically and abroad.

Beijing Watch Factory, the tourbillon producer that’s now over 50 years old, recently inked a strategic alliance with Shenzhen-listed Fiyta, which has an extensive retail network of 2600 stores across 400 cities in China. The tie-up aims to capitalize on the strengths of each company with Beijing Watch Factory concentrating on watch manufacturing while Fiyta manages sales and marketing.

Wang Guan Long, movement designer at Beijing Watch Co.

The Swiss watch industry has always regarded China as a key consumer of watches but never a serious competitor. That is rapidly changing as Chinese watchmakers catch up. The official CWCF slogan for 2017 may be prescient: “Time will prove everything”.

Tong You Xin is a student at the National University of Singapore, majoring in real estate. Over the years, he has developed a deep passion for watches, particularly for Chinese watchmaking.

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