The Asian Watch Market
The Hidden History of Swiss Watchmaking’s Biggest Rivals
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There’s a reason you don’t hear the term “Asian watchmaking” often: watchmaking in the East, though powerful, is most easily grouped into Japanese, Chinese, and other country-focused categories. Studying these markets together is like lumping together British, Swiss, and German watchmaking — they have different histories, different priorities, and different meanings to the modern watch collector.
Yet there’s value in exploring the wide scene of watchmaking in Asia, if only because it’s understudied and under-appreciated. So let’s ask the question: what could we mean when we talk about these separate groups and their meaning to global watchmaking and watch ownership?
China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan are important production hubs — not just for low-end, mass-produced pieces, but for many parts that go into watches made by worldwide microbrands and, yes, your “Swiss-made” beauty, since that label means that only 60% of each timepiece must have been produced in Switzerland. Hong Kong, for instance, was second only to Switzerland for watch exports by value in 2017. China, its industry at different times hobbled and intensified by intense government control, leads exports based on number of units, and exported 688 million completed watches worldwide between 2013 and 2017.
Asian countries are not just producing watches — they’re buying them at historic rates. Both China and Hong Kong are monsters of the luxury watch market share. Together, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, Asian countries accounted for 40% of the total Swiss luxury watches purchased worldwide in 2017 — more than $8 billion. With that sort of purchasing power, you better believe that the whims and taste of Asian buyers drive the market for the rest of us.
And then, of course, there’s the story of the East’s most iconic brands themselves. These center around Japan, whose history and modern prominence form the most important narrative for Western watch collectors. In the 1890s, Japanese watchmakers began building pocket watches with lever escapements; by the end of the Meiji era, in 1912, according to the Japan Clock & Watch Association, 20 factories turned out 3.8 million timepieces a year. Practically all Japanese watchmaking industry was destroyed during WWII, but in the 1950s and ‘60s, Japan determined it would become the “Switzerland of the East.”
Production during the Korean War boomed in the 1950s, and by the 1960s and ‘70s, technological innovation and quality had made Japanese watchmaking famous worldwide. There might have been a “Quartz Crisis” in Europe, but not so in Japan, where the new technology drove innovation of all kinds (a small wonder, since the Japanese invented the quartz watch). Today, Japanese makers are some of the largest manufacturers of mechanical movements and of completed watches, and shipped some 65 million timepieces in 2017.
Though there are much deeper histories of these watchmaking feats, burgeoning markets, and industrial powerhouses, the best way to study such a wide swath of watchmaking is to look at the watches themselves. This is truly what differentiates Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian watchmaking from the Germans, the British, the Swiss, and the Americans. Asian brands have strived, and in many cases succeeded, to match quality from these markets; they’ve become some of the largest manufacturers of watches, and mechanical movements, in the entire world; they’ve shaken the watch world to its very core with a technological revolution, and steered the way we think about our favorite kinds of watches, from divers to dress watches.
Here’s a quick primer on the brands you should know, and the watches that matter.
China’s Long Road to Diversification: China began making watches in 1955. Designs were strictly based on Swiss pieces, but eventually, some original design and watchmaking occurred in the 1960s. Then, in the 1970s, the Chinese government forced all watchmaking, most of it focused in eight large factories, to begin work on a single, standardized movement called the Tongji that was meant to be affordable and accurate. In the 1980s and 90s, production changed and many factories closed because of the increase in quartz watches and the introduction of foreign-backed watchmaking companies in the Special Economic Zones. Today, nine large factories still exist and make their own movements for luxury mechanical watches, including Tianjin Seagull, which makes an affordable chronograph movement; smaller makers that import movements and serve the “affordable” market; and a few legendary individual watchmakers, too.
Hong Kong’s Luxury Market Share: If you’ve watched Crazy Rich Asians, you know Hong Kong is a crucible of immense wealth. The Swiss luxury industry, after planting seeds in the market in the 2010s, is reaping what it has sown today to the tune of $2.8 billion a year. (The U.S., by the way, bought just over $2 billion in high-end Swiss watches in 2018.)
Japan’s Movement Dominance: During a visit to the Seiko Instruments factory in 2015, Jason Heaton heard a distinct hum — the sound of a manufacturing line that turns out incredible numbers of quartz movements a day, all sold to third parties. This kind of manufacturing prowess stretches to Seiko’s and Grand Seiko’s mechanical watch movements, and to the mechanical movements made by Seiko’s competitor, Miyota. Together, the two produce a stunning number of movements per year, made possible by some of the most perfect vertical integration in the world. Turn over a mechanical watch not made by a big Swiss brand that costs over $150, and it’s likely you’ll see either Seiko or Miyota printed on the case back.
Japan’s most iconic brand started its journey some 138 years ago, when Kintaro Hattori opened a small watch shop 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 some of the biggest marks on watchmaking of any company. It innovated quartz with one of the first quartz watches, the first six-digit LCD display quartz and the first analog quartz chronograph. It is a dominant force in movement making.
Though the company doesn’t publicly share production numbers, Seiko movements — both mechanical and quartz — drive a huge number of watches worldwide. For over fifty years, Seiko has made a steel sports watch that’s one of the most beloved affordable timepieces ever. There’s a lot of beauty to be captured at Seiko, but its most important and iconic watches all intersect at unique design, affordable prices, and bulletproof build quality.
The first Seiko 5, released in 1963, ushered in a handful of exciting new innovations: a tougher mainspring, a shock resistant design, and solid water resistance. Still, even Seiko’s biggest fans could never have imagined the impact the Seiko 5 would have on watch fandom worldwide. The Seiko 5 was eventually expanded into hundreds of different watches, tied together by the specifications that comprised that “5” name: Diaflex mainspring, Diashock anti-shock system, automatic winding, day/date indication, and water resistance. (There is some debate over which specs constitute the 5—read more about that here.)
The steel watches with basic, bulletproof mechanical movements have remained popular because they can be bought for less than $200 today, and often for significantly less. Untold numbers of people who now obsess over Rolexes and Audemars Piguets started out watch collecting with a Seiko 5. Not that anyone ever really moves on from loving them.
Though the watchmaking world had toyed with non-mechanical watches prior to 1969, it was Seiko’s Astron that made quartz technology available to consumers. The watch had a gold case, sold for around $1,250 (at the time, the price of a small car), and, by using its quartz oscillator to turn a tiny stepping motor, was accurate to plus or minus one minute a year with a battery life of a full year.
The watch’s impact went far beyond the hundred or so watches it sold in its first week. Quartz, already more accurate than mechanical timekeeping, quickly became more affordable, too, precipitating what’s been called both a “Quartz Crisis” and a “Quartz Revolution” in watchmaking. The rest turned out mostly OK for mechanical watchmaking, and, of course, for quartz; today, Seiko continues to make loads of both, and watches like the Seiko Astron GPS Solar Chronograph continue the 35SQ’s legacy of innovation and utility.
SKX007 Dive Watch
The first Japanese dive watch might’ve been the reference 62MAS, first made in 1965, but Seiko’s made a number of iconic divers since then, like the Professional Diver’s 600m, affectionately called the “Tuna Can” for its chubby, encased appearance. Today, the brand’s most ubiquitous diver is the SKX007, which has the genetics of its forebears but a price 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 a brilliant essay, “the single best value at any price point” for a watch that qualifies as a dive watch under the ISO 6425 criteria.
The SKX007 encapsulates everything that’s beautiful about Seiko’s beautiful dive watches: a tank-like case, thick bezel, dial that’s infinitely clear and singular in style, unstoppable movement. Oh, and a price tag (around $200) that lets just about anybody afford it. Unfortunately, Seiko has recently stopped production of the SKX007, but so many were produced that finding a new one isn’t yet a problem.
Credor Eichi II
The Eichi I, when it was released in 2008, represented an entirely different approach to watchmaking than Seiko’s other watches: its platinum case, enamel dial and hand-painted markers looked not like something out of the perfectionist grand watchmaker’s high-tech studio, but like a single, perfect piece that was clearly hand-made by an artisan, probably cloistered atop a lonely mountain. The Eichi II makes the first watch’s minimalism even more austere. Inside is the hand-wound Spring Drive movement, which is both mechanical and quartz, powered by a “glide wheel” that’s unique even among hybrid movements. The highest-end Seiko-produced line of watches that you can buy.
The low cost, ubiquity, and modularity of Seiko timepieces has done more than just sell a lot of watches or build a large following. Over the years, tinkerers around the world, falling short of the training and toolset needed for full-on watchmaking, have become what we now call “Seiko modders.” The idea can be simple: take a Seiko watch, pull it apart, and swap in a different dial, maybe some hands from a different watch, to customize its look. Modders have explored these design refurbishments and thousands of others for years thanks to a good eye and an impressive Seiko part inventory.
Modding a Seiko can also be extremely heightened: hand-plane an extremely complicated dial, say, or custom-make your own bezels that can be popped on any Seiko diver. The world of Seiko modders is a wide one, but the biggest and most interesting names in modding complete watches and building custom parts for those modes include Yobokeis, Dagaz, Dave Murphy, and Damien Lau.
Founded in 1950, Orient found success in Japan and China focusing on mechanical watches throughout the 20th century. In 2009, it was bought by Seiko, and today continues making mostly mechanical watches, operating relatively freely from its parent company. Its designs and manufacturing are handled separately, and its movements are made in-house. Many of its watches feature a power reserve indicator or other complications, which in this case is done with remarkable affordability. Orient, like Seiko, is a wonderful value proposition, and an easy landing pad for Seiko fans who want a Japanese watch with a different look and appeal.
The Bambino has quickly become a darling of the affordable dress watch set, filling a notable gap among Japanese watches for a classically styled, handsome and elegant piece that cost less than $500. It’s available in a number of different iterations, including several different versions of the date-equipped three-hander, plus a version with a small seconds sub-dial and an “open heart” version with a slightly open-worked dial.
Orient Mako USA II
Orient’s flagship Mako was released in 2003 and has, just like the Bambino, become a dark horse hero of affordable Japanese watchmaking. As with the Seiko SKX007, it offers the right amount of dive watch features at an impulse-buy price. In 2014, the brand reached out to Reddit’s /r/watches subreddit looking for feedback. Among the requests: a sapphire crystal, a reworked bezel, and a bezel graced by a screaming bald eagle and an American flag. Orient used those requests (well, some of them) in its Mako USA and subsequent Mako USA II –both of which became cult classics (at least among reddit’s watch set).
The early history of Citizen is actually one of a Swiss-Japanese partnership. The company was founded in 1930 by a group of Swiss and Japanese investors; it took over a Japanese factory founded in 1912 by Rodolphe Schmid, a Swiss. Citizen became a worldwide name after the second World War, but its impact on watchmaking worldwide really began in the 1970s and 1980s, when it made important innovations in electronic watches.
The other side of the Citizen coin is Miyota, one of the most ubiquitous mechanical movement makers in the world, which is a 65%-owned subsidiary of Citizen. Every year, Miyota makes 1.8 million watch movements, most of them affordable workhorses that find their way into not just Japanese watches, but watches produced worldwide. Together, these two names are a force of nature in both quartz and mechanical watchmaking.
Crystron Solar Cell
Citizen’s most famous feature is its EcoDrive movement, which uses light to keep a watch charged. That technology was pioneered in 1976 by the Crystron Solar Cell, a watch that had all the visual appeal of a rooftop solar panel but managed to extend its quartz-powered battery up to five years. Its four miniature solar wafers made it the first analog solar-powered watch and proved the Eco-Drive concept, paving the way for such hugely popular watches with the technology as the Promaster Diver, or, 40 years later, the EcoDrive One, the world’s thinnest solar powered watch, at just 2.98mm thick. (Visual solar wafers no longer included.)
Citizen X8 Titanium Chronometer
As we’ve written before, titanium is an ultimate watch material: it’s lightweight, strong, and hypoallergenic. Citizen was the first to make a watch almost entirely out of the material (some 99.6%), using almost pure titanium for the case, bezel and crown — back when it was considered “space age” material. The X8 had an electro-mechanical chronometer movement, the Cosmotron 0820 — together with its swooping case shape, pale blue dial, and matte case material, it had visuals to make lucky wearers of the limited edition batch of 2,000 pieces feel like they were looking at a watch from the stars.
Miyota movements have been staples for small watch brands (often called “microbrands” or “boutique brands”) for many years now. In particular, watchmakers who aren’t making their own movements love Miyota’s 9015, which is thin, relatively expensive, and similar to the lauded Swiss-made ETA 2824-2. Compared to Seiko’s NH35, it has a higher beat rate, which means it’s more accurate and its seconds hand sweeps more smoothly. When the price is right (such things fluctuate with demand), it’s a movement that nears Swiss quality, at roughly half the price.
The Four Kashio Brothers
The wonder of Casio is this: Before 1974, it solely dealt in computers, calculators, and a ring that allowed you to smoke a cigarette the whole way down. The quartz revolution diverted the river of watchmaking right into Casio’s waterwheel, if you will; the company began watchmaking with a bang in 1974, with a digital quartz watch called the Casiotron. Take a look at that Casiotron and you’ll see all the hallmarks that still make Casio great today: utilitarianism with style and brazenly embracing technology, rather than trying to make it fit in a classic package. No other watch company ran wild with technology this early on, from touchscreens to digital readouts to novel specific functions, like fitness trackers in the 1990s.
Want to know if a watch has been successful? Check to see if the original is still in production nearly thirty years later. The original F91W — 1/100th-second stopwatch, alarm, calendar, tiny metal pushbuttons and all –still is. You can buy one for $10. If you do, you’ll be wearing what’s been called “a modest masterpiece,” a little microcosm of everything that makes Casio great.
The calculator that put Casio on the map was the 14-A, which in 1957 was the world’s first all-electric compact calculator. But to watch nerds, there’s only one Casio calculator: the Databank. It was first released in 1984, after a number of other calculator watches, from Casio and others, had already been sold. But the Databank was special, in that it could store data, like phone numbers. It came to stand for the cool kind of nerd, like Marty McFly. Today, it and its progeny stand as icons of the fact that smart can be sexy.
The Casio name sparks a lot of conversations having to do with nerd culture. Rightly so. But it’s also worth noting that they’ve also made a number of watches favored by the coldest-blooded military types on the planet. That’s right: the Special Forces love Casio. But they’re not wearing calculator watches — they’re wearing G-Shocks. Casio designer Kikuo Ibe designed the first G Shock, the DW-5000C, in 1983, with the aim of creating a watch that could 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 kinds of specialties involving toughness, most notably the Masters of G series, including the Frogman, Gulfman, Mudman, Riseman, and Rangeman. Those watches have clearly primed the pump for Casio’s successful smartwatches, like the Pro Trek, which incorporate connectivity, fitness tracking, and GPS navigation. And, in an odd twist, the decidedly utilitarian watches have also become street style icons, necessitating a whole range of whacky colorways and aesthetic spin-offs. This means that there’s a G-Shock for anyone, whether you wear it defusing mines underwater or to the next Jay-Z concert.
In 1960, Seiko handed a team of its master watchmakers a new assignment: Make a whole new sub-brand of watches with the same Seiko ethos, but at a higher level of excellence, and, of course, cost. In the almost sixty years since, Grand Seiko has maintained the kind of quality and excellence that makes it a favorite brand of watchmakers around the world. Today, every Grand Seiko is still touched only by master watchmakers as it’s made — their watches combine incredible finishing quality with a range of movements, including, interestingly, high-end quartz. Each movement meets a stricter accuracy requirement than the vaunted COSC standard.
Hi-Beat 36000 GMT
In 2014, this watch won the Petit Aiguille prize at the Grand Horlogerie de Geneve, an award given to the best watch of the year priced under around $8,000 — and stood out as the only non-European winner from that year (and any other). The Europeans are a pretty exclusive group, but the Hi-Beat 36000 GMT is just that good. Buyers know it too, which is why it’s one of Grand Seiko’s best sellers. It’s driven by the all-around beast 9S8X hi-beat movement; its name comes from the movement’s 36,000 vibrations per hour (which is quite high). Its finishing is pristine, and it’s available in a variety of versions.
The metaphorical hill that most horology nerds will die on is that mechanical watchmaking trumps quartz. It speaks to Grand Seiko’s abilities that it is perhaps the only brand to escape this non-starter. In an essay supporting the cost of Grand Seiko’s $2,300 Quartz SBGX061 watch, Hodinkee’s Jack Forster, ever the horological poet, argues that a Grand Seiko quartz is probably the most unique value proposition in all watchmaking (besides the SKX007, of course).
Indeed, the the process by which Grand Seiko has circumvents quartz’s pitfalls in its 9F movement constitutes watchmaking art. Grand Seiko grows its own quartz crystals; because temperature affects quartz’s timekeeping, the movement itself tests ambient temperature 540 times a day, and adjusts itself; there are loads of mechanical mechanisms within the movement, for controlling things like the date change and torque. The end result is a movement that loses or gains only ten seconds a year.
The Tianjin WuYi watch factory was one of eight production facilities created by the Chinese government in 1958, and played a major role in Chinese watchmaking throughout the 20th century, in part thanks to it being granted an exemption from production of the Chinese government’s Chinese Standard Movement, the Tongji. It made one of China’s first noteworthy watches, the WuYi, based on Swiss designs, in the late 1950s. In the 1960s, with the Chinese army in need of a chronograph for its aviators, Tianjin was outfitted with tooling equipment purchased from the Swiss firm Venus, and eventually made the first Chinese chronograph, the ST3.
In 1966, it produced what was considered the first Chinese-designed and built wristwatch, the ST5, which was thin and dependable, and was prized for its bridges’ hand-engraved “seagull stripes.” Later, during the chaos caused by the quartz crisis, the Tianjin factory was privatized, and since has been known as Tianjin Sea-Gull. Since then, it’s made a number of important movements, including a tourbillon, but its largest effect on the global watch market has been a huge number of ETA 2824 clones. Today, Tianjin Seagull’s most prominent watch is the 1963 chronograph, which uses an affordable chronograph movement and pays homage to the ST3.
Zelos is a product of Kickstarter. But unlike other microbrands, it doesn’t just source its materials from Singapore — it’s also based there. Its founder, Elshan Tang, is a mechanical engineer who pairs a range of movement options from ETA and Seiko with divers made from unique case materials like bronze, carbon fiber, and Damascus steel. His Abyss 2 and Helmsman 2 are good examples of young and exciting watchmaking coming out of the East.
Kiu Tai Yu
China’s watchmaking industry has turned out several excellent watchmakers. Kiu Tai Yu is the most world-renowned. He was born in 1946 and, after a stint making watches in the state-run Suzhou factory, moved to Hong Kong and began designing and building his own, including China’s first ever tourbillon. His most famous watches, the “Mystery Tourbillons” of the 1990s, featured free-floating movements, without a cage or any visible means of support. These incredible watches earned him a place as an honorary member of the Academie Horlogere des Createurs Independants (Academy of Independent Creators in Watchmaking), which includes some of the best independent watchmakers in the world.
A look at the brand’s R&D facility in Hamura and production line in Yamagata. Read the Story