...are now made by Tianjin/Sea-Gull, so, I thought I'd put together a short history of the company using watches from my collection (with only a couple of exceptions):
Here's some Tianjin/Sea-Gull watches in order of build with some introductory notes...
Tianjin/Sea-Gull started in 1955 with just 4 workers that were asked by the government of the People's Republic of China (PRC) to gather in a small workshop and build a wristwatch. The company is now the world's largest single manufacturer of mechanical and automatic movements.
The four workers built a very few watches called Wuxing or ?? or 5 stars (I don't have one) and because of this success, the company began making watches on a larger scale for general distribution and sale to PRC citizens. Here's a borrowed picture of the Wuxing from Joel Chan's wonderful MicMicMor Vintage Watch site.
The first general distribution watch built by Tianjin was...
WuYi (5.1) or May 1st (simple: ?? trad: ??)
This is an earlier Wuyi model, likely late-50s or very early 60s. The use of the older/simpler zuan symbol ? instead of the more complicated "jewel" character ? indicates before around 1964, same as with A-581 watches.
"Shoubiao chang" means "watch factory", so: "Tianjin Watch Factory" and a nice example of the kinds of engraved casebacks common on vintage Chinese watches of the period.
An earlier 17 jewel "no anti-shock" 62-A movement. Although a very reliable and well-finished movement in its own right, once the 62-A was adequately improved with shock-proofing, the 62-A was then renamed the ST-2 model. Very clearly based on an FHF 25 movement, the watch was most likely produced on machinery purchased from Fabrique d'Horlogerie de Fontainemelon as (unlike the less-than-honest practices of some Hong Kong based manufacturers in modern times) it was very much the practice of the PRC in those years to legally purchase designs and plants/production machinery like they did for the 1963 Air Force chronograph which I'll show later, here.
Somewhat later during the 1958 to 1966 WuYi production run, the logo changed from 5.1 to WuYi in script...
...the caseback changed to reflect the movement upgrade...
and the movement was now shockproof, 18 jewels and anti-magnetic. Now designated ST2A, these were the last models in WuYi production history.
Meanwhile, in 1961, the Tianjin factory was asked to produce a chronograph for aviators of the People's Republic's Air Force (People's Liberation Army Air Force/PLAAF). Since such tooling did not exist in the country, the Chinese government negotiated for--and purchased--the designs and tooling for the Venus 175 chronograph movement which Venus wanted to sell so they could develop the 188 calibre. In 1966, 1400 Tianjin chronographs were provided to PLAAF pilots.
Here's a borrowed photo from MicMicMor of the original PLAAF chrono:
This event would benefit Tianjin/Sea-Gull in an unpredictable way some 40 years later. At about the same time Tianjin/Sea-Gull was looking to expand the market for its own branded watches in the North American and European markets, a commemorative re-issue of the original PLAAF chronograph was being produced in China. As it happens, a couple of entrepreneurs asked for quantities of the watch as did a few European distributors and the "1963 Chinese Air Force Re-Issue Chronograph" became an almost instant hit, with most sellers running out of stock in fairly short order. Sporadic further issues come to market occasionally and the 1963 re-issue has done much to increase the visibility of Sea-Gull watches in the targeted markets.
Here's one version of the re-issue (there are a few with minor cosmetic differences) from my collection:
...and the modern Tianjin/Sea-Gull version of the movement based on the PRC purchased Venus tooling and plans...
Meanwhile back in the 1960s (1966 to be exact) the Tianjin factory created the very first 100% Chinese designed and built wrist watches and re-named the product DongFeng (?? or "East Wind") which were produced until 1973.
These watches contained the robust, accurate and finely finished 18,000 BPH ST5A (again, 100% Chinese designed and built) movements--a 19 jewel product with jewelled mainspring barrels. Here's the ST5A hand-wind:
According to my observations, this watch runs about one second out per day on the wrist. :thumbright:.
The movement was so well-designed and accurate that the Tianjin factory was one of a very few factories exempted from the late 1960s edict that had the vast majority of Chinese watch factories cease production of any movements of their own design in favour of what is known as the "Unified" or "Chinese Standard" movement.
In 1973, Tianjin was given permission to export Chinese made watches and at this time the Sea-Gull "brand" was born and became China's very first export watch. Also, the ST5 movement was further improved to 21,600 BPH. Note the English wording on the dial...
...and the lovely (and now iconic) Sea-Gull caseback (actually 18mm lugs--I squeezed a 19 onto it :roll: ) :
The movements in these upgraded models are hand-finished in what has become known as "Sea-Gull stripes" and, since the engraving is hand-done, these movements are each unique and sought-after by collectors. They certainly show the pride these workers took in their products.
As well as hand-wind versions, automatic (ST5D) models were also produced. Although not extremely rare, they are still quite uncommon, especially compared to handwinds:
...and here's the ST5D automatic movement:
The ST5D was a first high point in vintage Chinese watchmaking. Very robust and accurate with a date mechanism but too late in the game to be as big a seller as the movement deserved.
Also--during this time--Tianjin did release a very few models under its own "brand" but most were commemorative models for one thing or another. Conjecture has it that explains the "J" on the dial of this example (the black face is much rarer than a whitish-faced version):
...with an unstriped but "Dongfeng" signed ST5 movement (which dates this watch to somewhere between 1966-1973)...
...and the plain (usually limited or special issue) plain caseback:
The next high point in Tianjin/Sea-Gull watchmaking was the very rare ST7 automatic wrist watch. Certainly, this watch owes a lot superficially to the Rolex "date-just" models so popular around the world at the time, but the clear "made in China" labelling, prominent Sea-Gull logo and hanzi date clearly show this is not an attempt to produce a fake or replica (and Sea-Gull was hardly the only watch to emulate the styling). This watch marks a very serious, but failed, attempt by Tianjin Sea-Gull to enter the export market with contemporary western styling and state of the art technical quality. The dial is marked 29 jewels, but both the movement and the rotor mechanism are marked 28 zuan (jewels), and 28 is correct.
This watch contained a first class movement with micrometer regulation...that, as I noted, could not find a market: the Chinese either couldn't afford it or, if they could, were more interested in the extremely recent influx of cheaper or flashier, and often quartz, watches--and export market customers were not aware of the high capacity for quality of Chinese manufacturers. Evidently, fewer than 3500 of these beauties were made. This example runs less than three seconds out per day, more than 35 years after it was built and with no known regulating. Unfortunately, the movement is no longer produced.
So, simultaneously having to deal with the double-whammy of a bunch of previously unavailable foreign models which were then entering the PRC Chinese market and the quartz revolution that was hammering mechanical watchmakers all around the world, Sea-Gull attempted to survive by producing a smaller, less-robust but also less expensive movement known as the ST6--a movement that is still common today in both mechanical and automatic versions, and that was Tianjin/Sea-Gull's first major world-wide money-maker (even though times stayed tough for quite a while).
Here's a picture of the ST6 borrowed from MicMicMor:
Although versions of the ST6 (with no huge movement spacer) are, even today, very common in womens mechanical watches and automatic, variations with spacers also find their way into mens watches:
First. a late 70s stylish-at-the-time mens small watch:
and something more controversial--an extremely rare Sea-Gull lookalike/homage of the wonderful Rolex Submariner that was built during the unhappy times at Sea-Gull during the early 1980s when the company was barely surviving and looking for ways to stay in business and keep its workers employed. This watch contains the automatic version of the ST6.
(From MicMicMor) The ST6 automatic movement:
Obviously things have improved greatly for Tianjin/Sea-Gull (as I noted at the beginning) and so, here--to close this post--is a much more recent 2008 example of a very affordable (around $225) Sea-Gull M185SP mechanical/automatic watch made by Sea-Gull for the world market. This still currently available watch is a favorite of mine because it is clearly Chinese (note the date) and...I think it's gorgeous :D
It contains the very common Sea-Gull ST16 Movement (used by a huge number of manufacturers around the world) - Sea-Gull's entry-level automatic movement, known for being simple, robust and accurate with very little second-hand stutter -- and it handwinds and hacks. A very competitive movement in it's price class, the ST16 is even the ebauche used in the legally-Swiss Claro-Semag 888.
(A very complete history of the Company is available here at the Chinese Watch Industry Wiki)