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Shanghai Watch makes big moves into the Swiss groove

SWISS watches have captured the local imagination and, in most Chinese people's minds, high-end Swiss watch brand names are exalted symbols of superior quality and social status.

It's no secret that China has been making watches since the 1950s. But it's gone largely unnoticed that Chinese watchmakers are starting to show their skill and artistry by mastering the mechanics of tourbillons and other high-end watch movements to break into the monopoly of Swiss watchmakers.

Shanghai Watch Industry Co Ltd is one such company and general manager Ni Haiming makes the country's traditional watchmakers' ambitions clear.

In 1955, a team of old technicians produced the first batch of Shanghai Brand watches, regarded long since as the country's first fine, workhorse mechanical watch. Over the years, it became established as China's top watchmaker and made its name producing wind-up watches popular with everyone from common people to officials like late Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, who wore the classic A581.

"A Shanghai Watch used to be a signature wedding gift for millions of couples during the 1960s and 1970s," said Ni. By the early 1990s, the company accounted for 25 percent of China's watch production.

But during the last two decades, Japanese quartz watches and prestigious brands like Omega and Rolex have emblazoned their names over the increasing number of luxury goods shops in the Chinese mainland.

The rush to more expensive, imported brands eclipsed the made-in-China pieces, including Shanghai Watch.

However, when a tourbillon prototype developed and produced by Shanghai Watch was exhibited at premier watch fair Baselworld in 2001, it was clear that the company had started to reposition the brand and take aim at the high end market. At the time, it had not yet developed for production the tourbillon and complex add-ons.

"From 2000, we started to improve the research and development capabilities and succeeded in developing grander, more complicated models, including the tourbillon movement, chronograph, and multi dial," Ni said. The company produces only a few hundred tourbillon watches a year, he added.

The tourbillon movement, dubbed the jewel in the crown of watch-making technology, was invented by Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1795 and has long been the exclusive preserve of elite Swiss watchmakers.

Shanghai Watch released its first limited-edition tourbillon watch with a price tag of about 100,000 yuan. It has since consistently released new tourbillon models, including the double tourbillon, orbital tourbillon, and double orbital tourbillon with a dial run once per hour.

At the end of last year, on the occasion of the 55th year of the brand's founding, it released 110 gold and white gold watches featuring the double orbital tourbillon at the retail price of 300,000 yuan each. The creation was made to order and marked the most expensive watch yet designed by the company.

While most luxury watches are powered by Swiss movements, every single part of Shanghai Watch's timepieces is made entirely in China.

"Certainly these aren't quite on par with Swiss-made tourbillon movements in terms of raw materials, construction, luxury finish, accuracy and performance," Ni said. "But with a price only one-tenth of Swiss-made tourbillon watches, our creation is designed for a domestic collector who is more reasonable and only has a hundred thousand to invest.''

Three years ago, the brand also teamed up with Shanghai-based design studio Jellymon and W+K Shanghai to create a series of limited-edition metallic silver and gold watches using dial designs inspired by Chinese and Shanghainese local culture.

"We are open to trying new things to appeal to both Chinese and non-Chinese consumers," Ni said. "Of course we will still produce the classic series but we also want to re-introduce and rejuvenate the heritage brand and reach out to younger generations with designs featuring modern Chinese flavors,'' he added.


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