If you are reading this post, of a Chinese-made chronograph, chances are you are a rational person that’s open to ideas. That’s right, I am not just offering free complement here, since “Made in China” doesn’t usually associate with sophistication – well, that’s so 80s (Cold War) by the way, look again and things have changed dramatically over the past decade. Well, let’s not get too far out – today I would like to tell you the story of a proud Chinese icon since the early 60s – the Seagull 1963 Pilot’s Chronograph.
There is an abundance of story-tellings on the internet about this timepiece, and certainly no lack of product offerings of different sizes, versions and prices. But we struggled to find one source that can answer the most important question – authenticity. And the history of this watch is somewhat secretive, complicated, just like everything (Communist) Chinese – So we decided to add this post to answer it all “definitively” – because our history lesson came first-hand from a former Seagull watchmaker, our friend and trading partner Mr. Zhang Yue, who also brings you all Seagull 1963 Pilot’s Chronograph Original and Panda in our store’s line up.
So, let’s dive in.
The time was January 1955, in Tianjin City at a four-man watch-repairing workshop. It’s a watch-repairing not watchmaking to note – at this point, the Communist Party had only just won the Civil War and took power from the KMT (defeated to Taiwan), with no proper machinery to manufacture watches. Jiang, Sun, Wang and Zhang, the 4 skilful craftsmen who managed the shop at the time (under State order, of course) were given a very tight budget and a hundred days to figure out a watch production plan.
So based on a Swiss Sindaco and with only hand tools, they learned how all parts fitted together and recreated each and every single delicate item – And on 24th March 1955, history was made, the first ever Chinese-manufactured wristwatch started ticking – Being so proud of their new-founded Nation, the dial was decorated with a five-pointed star, just like the centred one on the Chinese national flag, so the watch was named “Wu Xing” – “The Five Stars”.
And a fun fact that’s little known to people is that their workshop was called “Huawei” – “The Formidable”, when pronounced and written in Latin, it is just like the Huawei brand (“The Achievement”) we know of today but with one different character. It is the foundation of the famous Tianjin Watch Factory, so 1955 was the year the Factory proudly celebrated but technically the use of the name “Tianjin Watch Factory” appeared in 1957 and it wasn’t until 5th January 1962, it is officially registered and recognised by that name.
The new era started. The Factory started to grow. And it expanded rapidly with State funding.
Fast-forward to April 1961, the hero is about to come into spotlight. The PRC National Ministry of Light Industry commissioned a top-secret order to the Factory, code named “D304”. It was meant to ease the pressure that the young Communist Nation had to rely on foreign supplies to fulfil the need of the People’s Liberation Air Force – as we all know, at the time just after WWII, the world split into two Blocs and the international relationships had become increasingly hostile.
The original 1963 Chronograph was then born – and although the watch is marked with 1963 which is the year its final prototype confirmed, sample productions (and other prototypes including one we will come to in a bit) continued to run until Oct 1965 when it passed all stringent tests to meet military standards. And the first official production batch rolled off assembly line in Oct 1966, some 1,400 Pilot’s Chronograph finally made their way to the front line. These watches were rarely seen since they were official military supplies, and as we all know how things were like in a state-run economy back in those days. Different batches of these originals from different years also appeared to have different hour-markers and crowns.
The concept of a “brand” in a communist country wasn’t all that important, that’s for the period of time we covered so far, 1955 to 1966 – by the end of the day all factories were state-controlled, with similar managements and facilities, and every penny you spent on their products required ration coupons to go with. But then when the Factory expanded to become an exporter, brand and image suddenly became a thing.
The time was 1973, the Chinese Premier signed a permission for the Tianjin Watch Factory to export their “Dong Feng” (East Wind) watch – created in 1966 and matured through the years, they entered the international market with the name “Sea-gull” – a straightforward choice to symbolically convey a message of determination, resilience and endurance. So, that’s the Factory history and the Sea-gull watch covered, you must now be wondering – Why is the 1963 Chronograph suddenly a Sea-gull? You guessed it – the name of the Sea-gull watch (or Dong Feng under the hood) was reused – led by Tianjin Watch Factory, the Sea-gull Group was incorporated in 1997 (rather recent), with 16 manufacturer and 4 joint ventures. That’s right, the Group is made up of 20+ parties, including those who were producing under licence agreements.
And the chronograph is reclaimed by the Group of course and the first 1963 Reissued was launched in Hong Kong in 2007, a limited run of 208 with a numbered solid case back. It was then followed by another release of 500 with exhibition case back. The original beating heart of ST3 was also replaced by ST19, which saw the jewel number up from 19 to 21 (yes, small detail matters).
These watches were an instant hit, so mass production continued – well, sort of, because the official Sea-gull release of these came much later in 2013, to mark the 1963’s 50th anniversary – but even before that, between 2007 to 2013 loads of different versions emerged – Well, some of these are genuinely legit (we will come to this in a little bit) but even the fakes are not entirely fake, because inside every single one of them it’s a beating heart of ST19! Yep, because Seagull is not only a watch maker but also a movement manufacturer, so its ST19 is just as readily available to those who counterfeit as a bag of crisps readily available to you.
Let’s have a quick look at some of the listings you can find right at this moment on Ebay (and compare to our genuine in the middle):
Those who we mentioned earlier legally produced 1963s – they would proudly mark the dial with “China Tianjin Watch Factory” just like the ones we sell at Sai Cheung – our source and friend Mr. Zhang was a former Seagull watchmaker who now runs his own watch retail business, and under the licence of Seagull to distribute genuine originals and mods. The fakes on the other hand usually mark the dial with “China Made” as on the left or “China Tianjin” as on the right to avoid trademark infringements.
Some are even worst with wrong engraved characters – well, these are obviously targeting oversea markets:
There is an exception though with the “China Made” symbols (of course… too easy and it wouldn’t be Chinese…) – the D304 Plan B 1962 – as the name suggests, this is the confirmed Plan B prototype during its R&D years, and Sea-gull dug those blueprints out and ran a limited run of 650 to mark the 65th anniversary of its founding and watch making, so it’s literally just released (2020). And you can clearly see the differences – those rings on the dial and the use of a special font, a nice face-lift to give it a more modern touch. And of course the numbered case back since it’s a limited edition:
So, it’s been a very long post to share our knowledge of the 1963, and we hope our knowledge could help us as well as other genuine businesses out there, and most importantly – you – to make informed decisions, watches (and our posts) are meant to bring us joy, so don’t get tricked by the fakers.
Hope you enjoy the read!