Chinese watch quality? From lousy to great

We are not the first commenting about that, but Chinese watch quality is always a big interrogation mark hanging in the air. And while you can get excellent timepieces, if you examine the products from the most advanced companies, you cannot say the same for the majority of the production of the Land of the Dragon.

The main issue is that statistically, the majority of horological products coming from China are of medium-low quality, mainly belonging to the “fashion” category.

Fast fashion and horology

While not strictly belonging to the fashion planet, the evolution of the typical watch has  taken it to be perceived as an ornament. Thus, it has fallen into the overall personal style, especially since its primary function – being a timepiece – has become somewhat secondary.
So, going back to fashion, around the end of the Seventies the fashion industry invented a business model called “fast fashion“.

In short, fast fashion is an extremization of the pret-a-porter: it is a model which sells trendy clothes of low quality, engineered to have a very short lifespan, like one season only.

After they have absolved its function, fast fashion clothes are eventually discarded. The typical fast fashion retail chains are Zara, H+M, C&A, Uniqlo and similar companies. As you can readily see, it is a hardly sustainable and little eco-conscious model.

The watch industry has adopted it by adapting the franchising model to it. Important brands license their asset – the brand – to be applied to objects of little quality, so to provide their customers and would-be customers an “easy entry” into the brand experience.

For example, even if you cannot afford to buy an Armani suit, you can afford to buy an Armani watch. You would get an official Armani-sanctioned object to appease your taste for everything Armani.

Specialized companies have extended the fast fashion business model

A few big groups – most of them US-based – have applied this business model into their strategy: so they have become both editors of licensed brands and original manufacturers. A few of them have bought the rights to use old horology brands, such as Ingersoll, and have released collections of trendy timepieces which are sourced using their existing business connections. That is, Chinese manufacturers.

The main feature of these productions is that they are extremely cheap. Because fast fashion products are expected to be cheap – they are not meant to last. So, even the watches which do not belong to a fashion brand are – in a away or another – mostly subject to this spillover effect. Obviously, the products are not of the same quality: there are several lines of different prices and of different makes.

To make an example, the Fossil group makes watches marked under different brands. Some belong to fashion brands, others are marked Fossil. And between the latter, there is a line of mechanical watches which are made in Switzerland and mount mechanical movements manufactured by STP, a Swiss subsidiary of the Fossil group. These latter represent the top end of the Fossil production, and cost accordingly. But a “basic” Fossil watch is made in China, and mounts Chinese-made quartz movements.

Most companies have embraced this business model

As the fast fashion business model is highly profitable, most companies have adopted it. So, most of the Kickstarter brands that you see around depend on it. And as we have stated, it is a completely predatory model made for producing endless junk – which is not what out planet is needing.

This takes us to the manufacturers (which are different from the originators) of it: China.

So, are Chinese watches bad? Not at all.

This is not a profession of watch snobbery. The issue is that Chinese production is not even – some is crappy, and some is excellent. This is the real issue for a Westerner you are never really sure of what you will get at the end. So, some of the best Chinese productions are on the par of Swiss-made watches, while other products are definitively lacking in quality and finishings, because they are not made to last. The issue is that we deal with a stereotype: that Chinese-made watches are of low quality. And this is ultimately not true.

Chinese watches, the beginning of a new phase

If we examine Chinese-made watches, we tend to compare them with other Eastern timepieces.And the paragon today is not favorable.

For example, watches coming from a Japanese manufacturer have overcome the stigma from their initial low-end positioning. All that you would get from companies such as Seiko or Orient today would be perfect – except for the proverbial lemon, but this would be very rare. From a company like the modern Ingersoll, you could get a great timepiece which would work for many years. Or not, if you are less lucky.

Celadon watches – “Made in China with pride”

We should always remember that Seiko and Orient watches from 60 years ago were much less valued – and technically refined – than what they are today. The “Made in Japan” of the Sixties was on the par of the “Made in China” of today. So, Chinese watch quality is bound to increase, in time – but more, the perception of it is going to become greater. We see the first effects already in the latest Chinese production. They will grow, no doubt.

You can find much more about horology and its fascinating history in The Watch Manual. It is a thorough e-book that explains all the basics about watchmaking and its protagonists.

To download a FREE 8-chapter extract from The Watch Manual

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