If Swiss watches have reached an unequalled level of perfection, it is a little bit because of China. In 1599, the Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, landed in Beijing to spread the gospel in the nation. In order to obtain an important interview with the emperor, Wanli, he showered him with gifts from Europe, but only a clock attracted his attention. Very quickly, timekeeping pieces became articles of negotiation, and every Jesuit, diplomat, and head of state would not see the emperor without bringing a new model…
Swiss watchmakers boosted by China
In the end, China, with its deep-seated cultures, resisted the evangelizing efforts, but the passion for timekeepers would grow in the Forbidden City. European production enjoyed such a success that it gained a large following. In 1680, the emperor Kangxi opened several watchmaking workshops. The decoration of these pieces was entrusted to Chinese master artisans who used jade, ivory, lacquer, wood and metal to create a fabulous collection of imperial clocks in the Forbidden City.
Then came the two opium wars of the 18th and 19th centuries, led by the British and the French, which would destroy the relations of Beijing with the West. Only Switzerland, “which had never declared war against the Chinese,” remained on good terms with the government, which increased its imports from Switzerland, while banning those from France and Britain.
Starting in 1820, the Geneva watchmaker, Vacheron Constantin, provided the Court with exceptional pieces, including the famous ‘Magician’. Bovet Fleurier and Omega in turn delivered high quality movements. In 1960, before the Cultural Revolution, products from 500 Swiss brands were being imported into the nation. Today, China has become the world’s largest market for haut de gamme watches.
Timekeeping in China is thus an old story, without even mentioning that the country invented the first mechanical clock in 1020… Surprisingly, we find a little of this culture in the Beijing Watch Factory, notably in the artisanal skills such as enamel painting on dials. In the following interview with Mr. Hong Miao, its managing director, we discover this brand—nearly unknown to the public but highly appreciated by watch collectors and aficionados.
Europa Star: How did the Beijing Watch Factory come to be?
Hong Miao: The ‘BWFA’ was launched by the government in 1958, making it one of the oldest Chinese brands. It has always produced its watches in their entirety in its own manufacturing facility—movements, hands, dials, bracelets, etc. We even have our own division to treat the raw materials. Earlier, it was not a prestige brand, but simply and purely a planned production.
ES: Was BWFA the idea of Mao Zedong?
HM: No, it was the initiative of Peng Zhen, the municipal secretary of the Beijing communist party who later became president of the People’s National Assembly.
ES: In those troubled times, where did the factory find a qualified labour force?
HM: It was not easy because Beijing had not had a watch atelier for a long time. But we recruited some watchmakers from the south, and the universities of Tsinghua [editor’s note: the prestigious technical university in Beijing] and Tianjin provided us with the first group of technicians.
ES: Is the company still run by the State?
HM: No, since 2004, the Beijing Watch Factory has been a private company, but we have not stopped production for even a single day. The great majority of workers accepted to work in the new structure and I, myself, have worked here for the last 25 years, before as director, and now as general manager. You see, nothing so revolutionary (smiles).
ES: In the 1970s, like the Swiss brands, the ‘Beijing’ suffered with the arrival of the quartz movement, notably from the Japanese, is that correct?
HM: Everyone wanted quartz watches because of their precision, so we also starting making them. With our success at a maximum, we produced more than 100,000 quartz movements per month! In spite of this volume, we never stopped making mechanical watches.
ES: In 1995, the mechanical watch regained its prestige and then you make a tourbillon, the most complex watch movement, which compensates for the effects of gravity on its operation to increase precision…
HM: Frankly, at that time, we were not aware of the prestige that a tourbillon could bring to the brand. It was the ‘semi-official’ initiative of Xu Yaonan, the great master watchmaker, who was literally obsessed with its development. In 1996, the first prototype came out, the year before his retirement. In 2001, we decided to make a tourbillon watch, and Xu came back to help us. In 2003, we finally launched the ‘Hong Jin’ (red gold) model equipped with the calibre TB01. It was the first Chinese tourbillon watch.
ES: The calibre TB01 is a ‘flying carrousel tourbillon’, in other words, a rather classic tourbillon. But since then, the development has intensified…
HM: Yes, that’s right. Since then, we have developed a double tourbillon (TB02), an eight-day tourbillon (TB03), a minute-repeater tourbillon (MRB1), and, in 2007, a passionate orbital tourbillon (TB04).
ES: Yet, Sea-Gull (cf. Europa Star No. 311) also produces a flying tourbillon and a double tourbillon. Technically, what is the difference?
HM: Yes, all of our tourbillons adopted the technology called ‘free balance spring’ thus assuring greater precision. In addition, thanks to the high quality of our springs, our calibres obtain a power reserve of 64 hours, the best performance in the country. Lastly, contrary to our competitors, we do not sell—not today and not tomorrow—our tourbillons to the outside world. They are integrated into all the haut de gamme Beijing timekeepers. The average price of a gold tourbillon watch is 100,000 yuans (14,000 Swiss francs) and we sold 300 of them in 2010, including a ‘Playing Dragon and Phoenix’ model that sold for a million yuan.
ES: What about your mechanical watches?
HM: We sold about 10,000 in 2010. On the other hand, our production capacity is about 700,000 movements. Here, we supply little known domestic brands and a few foreign brands. I cannot tell you more.
ES: Are there any new products in the pipeline?
HM: Yes, there is a new double-escapement mechanical watch coming out. I am wearing its prototype on my wrist. Its power reserve will be a record for a ‘Chinese Made’ watch—120 hours! It will be released during the second half of the year.
ES: Contrary to your ambitious competitors, BWFA seems to be immersed in its own universe. The ‘Beijing’ brand itself hardly seems suitable for global expansion…
HM: I share your viewpoint. Our ambitions are limited to the Chinese market in the mid-range and the high-end, with watches that are culturally Chinese.
ES: Ebohr is making an attempt with CodeX (see Europa Star No. 3/2010), a ‘Swiss Made’ brand. Fiyta has acquired Emile Chouriet and Sea-Gull is involved with a Swiss movement manufacturer to try and attain the standard of ETA. What about you?
HM: Well, look at the result of our three rivals. Up to now, none of them has been successful overseas. Of course, we have thought about expanding in this way, and even participated in BaselWorld in 2006 and 2008. But, in the end, our market is here.
ES: In my opinion, the most Chinese of your watches are the ones with the enamelled dials. They are so delicate and detailed, and are reminiscent of certain Vacheron Constantin collections.
HM: The artisans who do the enamel painting, polishing, and lacquering have worked for many years in our factory and have thus ac-cumulated much experience. It is also an art that existed in Beijing for some time already and we have revived it. Sometimes, the contours are outlined with gold wire. Yes, the designs are very harmonious and the themes are very Chinese. But the client can choose it, as well as the dedication on the back, visible through the sapphire crystal. Each piece is therefore unique.
ES: What is your opinion about the Swiss watch industry?
HM: I have visited many Swiss watchmakers and their technology remains relatively confidential… But I greatly appreciate the long-term vision of the Swiss enterprises in favour of just wanting short-term gain. Their workers have real competence and everything is accomplished in an air of tranquillity.
ES: This calm is also felt here…
HM: Those who rush will die sooner… In Chinese, we still say “Yin Chi Mao Lian,” which means “we use today the resources of tomorrow.” Our goal is thus not to become the largest producer, nor the richest. We only want to make the best Chinese watches with a reasonable profit.
Source: Europa Star August - September 2011 Magazine Issue