2 May 2017

Chinese Tianjin ST-5 watch

The first watch designed from the ground up by the Chinese: proper roots.

By In Gear, Style 3 min read

My latest watch purchase is actually a relatively cheap one. I’m not sure it’s 100% correct – old watches on eBay and similar sites are often built out of mismatched spare parts. These so-called frankenwatches often have dials or hands that don’t match, or a movement that was made for a different generation watch than the case and dial, and are considered of dubious origin. But if it looks good…

This model is from the ’60s and is a Chinese Tianjin ST-5. It’s a watch with a typical ’70s design, with those typical Asian design choices that we don’t see in Western watches of the time, such as the short length of the hands. But the shiny applied markers and the bright blue lollypop second hand definitely make this watch pop. It’s actually an interesting model historically: this was the first watch that the Chinese designed and produced themselves.

Tianjin ST-5

Before the ST-5 the Chinese would buy or copy design of watch movement from other countries, like the Swiss or the Russians. The famous ST-19 movement used by the Chinese airforce is actually a Swiss Venus 175, the Chinese bought the design and the machines to build it when Venus upgraded to a new design. But this dependency on foreign engineers was shameful to the Chinese, so the engineers in the Tianjin factory were assigned the great task of devising their own movement from scratch – with all the knowledge they had gleaned from their Swiss and Russian counterparts, of course. The result was the surprisingly reliable ST-5.

Tianjin ST-5

This same model would be exported under the name Dong Feng – the Eastern Wind – but this consumerist form of propaganda did not sell particularly well outside of the motherland. A next attempt was made to sell the watch under the less obvious name Sea-Gull, which turned out to be so popular that the brand still exists to this day. Sea-Gull is in fact the second-largest producer of watch movements in the world, second only to the Swiss ETA factories.

Because these were export models the mechanical movements got a few upgrades that were not considered worthwhile for the domestic market, such as decorated movements with hand-engraved linework. But ironically the Dong Feng cases are solid and anti-magnetic, which means that means nobody but watchmakers ever saw the decorated movement. Still, kinda cool to know it’s in there.

Tianjin ST-5

A fun addition to the collection, especially because of the history behind it. It’s more fun to have a few watches with a story behind it than to buy a new Swiss watch that is just yet another ‘limited edition’ copy of an existing model. And of course with my Chinese roots it’s fun to have an actual Chinese watch that the country was proud of, as opposed to a cheap copy-cat.

(Original post in Dutch)

What do you think?