The Seagull 1963 Chronograph: An Overview
The story of the famous Seagull 1963 chronograph begins, interestingly enough, not in China, but in Switzerland. Back in the ’60s, the Swiss had three competing chronograph movement manufacturers: Venus, Valijoux, and Lemania. Of these three, it was Venus who produced the Calibre 175 column, the popular wheel chronograph movement which had been incorporated into several wristwatches during the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Competition in the Swiss movement arena was naturally fierce, and when Venus sought a financial boost to design and develop new movements, they offered to sell their treasured Cal.175 designs and machinery to Russia. However, as the Soviets already had a copy of the Venus Cal.150 movement, (the Strela,) they declined the offer. Undeterred, Venus turned to China.
In the 1960s, Chinese chronographs were almost exclusively imported from Switzerland and the Soviet Union. Uncomfortable with this situation, China’s Ministry of Light Industry launched an initiative to break the dependency and develop the production of timepieces made in the People’s Republic. Given the code number 304, the project set out to develop, test, and source nationally manufactured chronograph wristwatches for the Chinese air force.
Project 304 fell to the Tianjin Watch Factory. This was partly due to the fact that the factory had already created a popular watch movement of their own, and also because the city of Tianjin was physically closer to Beijing than the already established watch factory in Shanghai.
Tianjin purchased the Cal.175 designs and machinery from Venus and promptly upgraded the original 17-jewel movement to their own ST19, a 19-jewel movement. The second round of prototypes was completed by 1963, the year which is added to the watch’s name by collectors outside of China. (Inside China the watch is named after the project code, and is referred to as the ‘304 Airforce chronograph’.)
By 1965 Tianjin’s watches had met all requirements and passed all the Ministry’s tests. An order was placed, and one year later, 1400 watches were delivered to the air force.
In 1990, the Tianjin Watch Factory was appointed a national level enterprise. Soon after, in 1992, the Tianjin Seagull Corporation was created.
‘Sea-Gull’ was the name the brand gave to its export version of the ‘DongFeng’ (East wound) watch first produced by Tianjin in 1965. Exports of the 100% Chinese designed and manufactured timepieces began in 1973 and were the first watches to be exported from China, ever.
Seagull resurrected Project 304’s movements in 2003, and in 2005 the company issued the first wave of their commemorative aviation wristwatches.
Seagull’s ST19 movement is the modern version of Project 304, and while it is still primarily an updated Venus 175, the timepieces have gained in popularity and amassed loyal followers in watch communities around the world. The fact that Sea-Gull bought everything that was used to produce the Venus 175, including blueprints, the machinery etc. has established the brand as a legitimate made-in-China product.
True, for some items, that phrase may be understood in a derogatory light. But it’s good to remember that these days, China is home to some of the best case makers and general watch manufacturers in the world, and the country produces excellent timepieces at prices that appeal to a lot of budgets.