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Chinese watchmakers won't stop ticking

Wang Jun, a salesman for the Tianjin Sea-Gull Watch Group Company, is proud of the watches his company manufactures, even if they aren't as well-known as their Swiss counterparts.

"Older Chinese watch brands like Sea-Gull have started to attract more attention from consumers," Wang said, adding that the shoppers tend to range in age from those born in the 1950s to younger customers who were born in the 1980s.

The People's Republic of China had no watch manufacturers in the early years following its founding in 1949. It was not until former Premier Zhou Enlai called for the creation of such companies that China's watchmaking industry began to take shape.

Four workers from northern city of Tianjin manufactured the first Chinese watch in 1955. Three years later, the Wuyi Watch Factory was founded, changing its name to Sea-Gull in 1973.

"Sea-gull has witnessed the progress of China's industrial prowess and represents precision machining," Wang said.

While most of Wang's customers are older people who have nostalgic feelings for the company's timepieces, younger people who wish to buy high-performance watches are starting to trickle in as well.

"A Swiss-made tourbillion watch costs over 200,000 yuan (32,107 U.S. dollars) while a similar domestic watch only costs 30,000 yuan," Wang explained.

To that end, Sea-Gull has worked to attract younger consumers by opening an account on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

"Although our capacity is top among Chinese watchmakers, it is not outstanding in comparison with Swiss brands," said Liu Ke, vice director of Sea-Gull's general management office.

Sea-Gull now operates 31 franchised stores across China, as well as sells watches in 12 southeast Asian countries and regions.

During the 12th Meeting of the Council of Heads of Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Chinese President Hu Jintao gave the visiting guests Sea-gull watches as state gifts.

Chinese watches, though not as advanced as their Swiss counterparts, have seen some innovation in recent years. In 2006, Beijing Watch Factory Co., Ltd., one of China's oldest watchmakers, produced its own tourbillion watch.

"Tourbillion" refers to a type of watch machinery that aims to counter the effects of gravity on the watch by allowing parts of the watch to be mounted inside a tiny rotating cage located inside the watch.

In 2010, Sea-Gull produced a watch that blends three types of watch technology, including tourbillion machinery.

"Crafting such watches is hard even for Swiss brands," said Lu Jun, Sea-Gull's director and general manager.

Chinese watches were symbols of trendiness in the 1960s and 1970s, when people would save their salaries for months to buy a new watch.

"If a young person could afford a watch, it would be similar to holding an iPhone 5 these days," said Miao Hongbo, general manager of the Beijing Watch Factory.

To fulfill market demand, watchmaking degrees were even offered at Tianjin University and Harbin Institute of Technology.

However, the entry of Swiss-made watches into China changed the market. The development of quartz-movement watches also affected Chinese watchmakers, who were manufacturing mechanical watches at the time.

Japanese watch factories industrialized quartz technology in the 1980s, heavily influencing the manufacture of mechanical watches, Miao said.

Subsequent sales declines forced the Beijing Watch Factory to sublet most of its plants to neighboring factories. The company could not even afford to pay its workers.

The watchmaking degree offered at Tianjin University was removed due to limited interest in the subject.

"Younger students couldn't see a future in the career, so why apply for the major?" said Su Wenbin, a 71-year-old technician at the Beijing Watch Factory.

Although he is about to retire, Su will work for the factory, explaining that there are few people who can take his place.

"We can't expect an uncompetitive monthly salary of 2,000 yuan to attract young people," he said.

Chinese watchmakers are still doing their best to get by, however. Sea-Gull remains a state-owned company and is working to narrow down its product range and tailor it to a new audience.

Many Swiss and Japanese brands have celebrity spokesmen, Lu said. But Sea-Gull expects each Chinese to represent the brand.

The Beijing Watch Factory, which was purchased by a local real estate developer, has taken a different route, choosing to develop high-end watches that they hope will take off among China's moneyed elite.

Although China has more than 100 watchmakers of varying size, none of them has built a brand culture that is as well-recognized among Chinese consumers as the Swiss and Japanese brands they compete with.

Chang Wei, a watch collector, said that Switzerland has a watchmaking history much longer than China, a fact that has stunted the domestic industry's growth.

However, Chang said he believes that Chinese watchmakers should work to create their own value and maintain their traditions, as well as boost their promotional efforts in order to win greater numbers of customers.

"This can help consumers understand the additional value of the watch and build their sense of identity," Chang said.

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