Made in Hong Kong
From Chinese Watch Industry Wiki
Made in Hong Kong
Given that Hong Kong is part of China in is perhaps not surprising that watches marked 'Made in Hong Kong' are commonly regarded as Chinese watches, however for much of its history, including its period of most rapid growth, the Hong Kong watch industry remained entirely separate from that of mainland China. Since the return of Hong Kong to China, Hong Kong made watches have been marked 'Made in China'. Strictly speaking, 'Made in Hong Kong' watches are not Chinese watches.
History of the Hong Kong watch industry
Watchmaking in Hong Kong was established in the late 1950s. Due to political/historical factors, the British-controlled Hong Kong had almost no contact with the adjcent People's Republic of China. Instead, the new industry was founded by a combination of local business people, watch company owners fleeing the nationalization of the industry in Shanghai (e.g. Hua Cheng Co.) and foreign business interests (e.g. Swiss-American entrepreneur George von Burg).
The watches produced were a combination of imported movements with locally produced cases and dials. The earliest watches feature mid-grade Swiss movements; fully jewelled with jewelled-lever escapement. However these were soon outnumbered by low-grade movements with pin-lever escapement and few or no jewels. The vast majority of these were sourced from such Swiss companies as Bettlach, Baumgartner, Ronda and Semag. The movements were either imported as ebauches for local assembly or imported fully built-up by movement finishers such as Basis, Claro and Agon. Once established, the Hong Kong watch industry became a prime source for counterfeits of famous Swiss watches, particularly Rolex.
In the late 1970s at the height of the digital watch craze, quartz watch production commenced in Hong Kong. At the time, Hong Kong had the fastest growing national watch industry in the world. The combined effect of both Hong Kong and Japanese quartz production had a devastating effect on the low-grade Swiss manufacturers (the greater part of the Swiss watch industry). By the early 1980s, the Swiss pin-lever was dead. Hong Kong watches now predominantly housed locally-built digital modules or imported Japanese quartz analogue movements. The residual mechanical watch industry switched to non-Swiss sources such as the USSR and mainland China (whose economy was by then beginning to open up to the world). As these sources only built mid-grade movements, the quality of movements in mechanical Hong Kong watches actually improved, even as the cases that housed them became ever cheaper to compete with quartz watches.
Hong Kong's access to mainland markets had a devastating effect on the Chinese state-run watch industry, particularly in southern coastal provinces. The Chinese Standard watch was rapidly devalued by the flood of imported quartz watches. Due to the constraints of Light Industry Ministry mandated quality standards, some factories found it more profitable to sell the Standard movement to Hong Kong companies than to produce the complete watch for the domestic market. Other more enterprising manufacturers saw in Hong Kong a ready market for a new kind of low-cost automatic movement built up from a small woman-sized movement on a large main plate with large date wheel and auto winding with a large rotor. Examples of these include the Guangzhou SG6ZS, Sea-Gull ST6D and Hangzhou Xihu. Unfortunately by the early 1990s, a high proportion of these were being used in counterfeit watches.
As Chinese industries increasingly developed an export focus, and as new industrial centres like Shenzhen opened up, China became a primary parts source for Hong Kong watches, including cases and electronic components for quartz movements. Hong Kong watch businesses were quick to exploit the opportunities of China's new 'Special Economic Zones' by forming joint ventures with newly-formed State-approved enterprises. The first of these was the ZhuHai Gree Rossini Watch Industry Ltd in 1985. When watch industry analysts with a primarily Hong Kong focus speak of the 'Chinese watch industry' it is most often these new enterprises that they are referring to.
Increasingly it became difficult for purely Hong Kong-based businesses to compete. More often companies maintained design and marketing offices in Hong Kong while buying or building factories for manufacturing on the mainland (e.g. Million Smart Enterprises), or formed partnerships with well-established Chinese manufacturers (e.g. PTS Resources). After the British mandate ended in 1997 and Hong Kong returned to China, the process was almost complete. Hong Kong companies and new Chinese companies inspired by the same business model now dominate the new emerging brands in Chinese watches. The old formerly state-run watch factories have mostly been relegated to building the mechanical movements for these new brands. Notable exceptions are Sea-Gull and Shanghai, who have recently put more effort into raising awareness of their own brands.
Since 1997, watches made in Hong Kong are labelled 'Made in China' so they no longer stand apart from those made on the mainland. Modern Chinese watches, particularly mechanical watches, are predominantly a product of Hong Kong marketing and Chinese engineering. The question is now not whether Hong Kong watches are Chinese, so much as to what extent new Chinese-made watches can be considered Hong Kong watches.
Comparing Chinese and Hong Kong watches
The Chinese watch industry was created under a centrally controlled economy for the purpose of providing simple, reliable timekeeping for the world’s most populous nation. By contrast, the Hong Kong watch industry was created in, by and for a rapidly changing international free market, and pitched its products primarily to the lower end of that market. From 1997 onwards, a new Chinese watch industry has grown out of the strengths of both of these traditions. In watches made before that, the differences can be stark.
» Watch cases:
China - Simple, conservatively styled. Usually all steel.
Hong Kong - Very diverse styles, reflecting constant changes in fashion tends. Usually plated brass. Sometimes plated aluminium in later watches. Quartz watches usually have more lightweight cases.
» Mechanical watch movements:
China - Manufactured in-house. Fully jewelled with jewelled lever escapement.
Hong Kong - Imported (Swiss, East German, Soviet, Chinese). Sometimes fully jewelled. Swiss movements are usually simplified construction with one or no jewels with pin-lever escapement.
» Digital watches:
China and Hong Kong - Manufactured in-house. Cheap, simple modules in lightweight cases.
» Quartz movements:
China - Rare. Manufactured in-house. Robust construction.
Hong Kong - Imported (usually Japanese). Usually small generic sizes.