A current model on display at the Shanghai Watch factory.
Culture

China’s first mechanical watch is still a total steal

Jul 05, 2018

The Shanghai Watch company has the distinction of being China’s very first watch factory, and over 60 years ago, produced the country’s first mechanical watch.

Compared with Swiss counterparts, the first Shanghai watch was inexpensive, at just 120 yuan (or $295 at 1960’s exchange rate). But against the country’s average monthly income of 36 yuan, the watch was largely an aspirational luxury item for the masses.

And everybody in the ‘50s to the ‘70s in China wanted one, because the late Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was famously a devoted fan. Zhou wore the factory’s first calendar function model, the A623, until his death—it was removed from his wrist on the day he died in 1976.

The A623 Shanghai watch owned by the late premier Zhou Enlai is now kept at the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution in Beijing.
The A623 Shanghai watch owned by the late premier Zhou Enlai is now kept at the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution in Beijing.

About a decade ago, the Shanghai Watch company tried to reinvent itself into a luxury brand, to compete with European rivals. It produced a couple of bedazzled pieces with complex tourbillon movements.

But it never quite managed to turn itself into a Rolex competitor in the rapidly developing economy, whose people were starting to actually be able to afford Rolexes in the last couple of decades.

So other than several high-end models, most of the Shanghai line today remains at the $100-$200 mark.

If you're picking out a retro model, you'll see the company's original logo was an angular stylized block of the Chinese characters for Shanghai. This was replaced with a calligraphy style logo in the '70s. But in a nostalgic throwback, the company resurrected the block logo for its 50th anniversary, so you'll still find that on select models today.