The history of Chinese watches goes back a long way. For many historians, China is the cradle of human time-keeping. Chinese time-keeping devices date back over 4000 years, but the country’s clock-making industry only really began business in earnest after a European clock design was introduced to the Emperor’s court by a Jesuit monk by the name of Michele Ruggieri, sometime around 1600.
The country’s first clock-building workshops appeared during the Ming Dynasty in Shanghai, Nanjing, Suzhou and Guangzhou. This initial surge in clock manufacture was followed by the founding of a royal clock-making service in 1723, and lead to a Chinese clock-making peak in 1796. The Yantai Polaris Timepiece Factory, China’s first industrial-scale clock-making plant, began production in 1915 and today, over 100 years later, is still in operation.
Widescale watch-making in China, however, has a relatively short history. It begins in the early 1950s when, under the direction of China’s Ministry of Light Industry, factories were established in Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai. Production spread during the 1960s and 1970s with hundreds of additional factories springing up around the vast country, some of which are still manufacturing wearable timepieces today.
But this heady period of watch production proved to be a time of mixed fortunes for the Chinese watchmaking industry. On the one hand, the relaxation of trade barriers after Nixon’s visit to the People’s Republic in 1972 had led to a boom in China’s global exports. On the other hand, many of those early watch factories fell victim to the so-called ‘quartz revolution’ which decimated the mechanical watch markets not only in China but in Switzerland, Germany and in America too.
Present day Chinese Watches
Consequently, the next few decades were an especially tough time for the mechanical watch industry, worldwide. But despite these earlier difficulties, China’s horological industry rebounded. Today it challenges established leaders like Switzerland, Germany and Japan, certainly in quantity, but increasingly in quality too.