Previously, I posted about an affordable mechanical chronograph I've had on my radar for a few years now known as the Seagull 1963 Reissue. I ended up purchasing one around the new year from Thomas in Hong Kong, and the watch arrived at my doorstep a few days ago. After a quick strap change, it's been on my wrist ever since. While the prior post skimmed some of the details about the watch and focused more on the difference between models, this review should serve as a more in-depth look at the original 1963 Reissue, and this specific variant on hand.
Background and History
|Wu Xing/Five Stars Reference|
Compared to its Swiss, German, and Japanese counterparts, watchmaking in China has actually been a relatively recent undertaking. In January of 1955, four craftsmen working out of a single room workshop were tasked by government mandate with creating the first domestically produced watch in the nation's history. Given a modest budget and 100 days to make the watch, they produced the "Wu Xing (Five Stars)" watch in late March - a simple three-handed watch with hour/minute/seconds hands featuring Arabic numeral applied indices, a central star emblem, and "Made in China" printed below on the dial. Out of these humble beginnings, Tianjin Watch Factory (eventually becoming Seagull, as it's known today) would eventually be born.
The group would go on to produce the first Chinese large scale production watch by 1958 called the "Wu Yi (51)," recognizable by its "51" emblem, graceful applied dauphine and stick markers, and English text.
|Wu Yi/51 Reference|
In 1961, the First Ministry of Light Industries commissioned Tianjin Watch Factory to produce an aviator watch for the People's Liberation Army Air Force under the name "Project 304." The movement for this watch, designated the "ST3" and modernized in 2002 into the "ST19" found in the 1963 Reissue, was built off of the Venus Watch calibre 175 purchased from the Swiss brand and made on the same tooling machinery. Several prototypes were made from 1961 to 1965, with production carried out after they passed rigorous government inspection to deliver 1400 watches to the Chinese Air Force.
|Vintage ST3 Reference|
It's from this heritage that the Seagull 1963 Reissue draws its inspiration. In the watch world, history is arguably just as important as the components of the watch itself, and the 1963 has a pedigree that lacks for nothing in that regard.
Design, Materials, and Construction
Depending on who you purchase from, the 1963 can arrive in anything from a collectible tin to an oakwood box. Mine came in a plain black wooden box with a felted interior and simple pillow. Nothing fancy, though honestly these types of things couldn't matter to me less. Still, it's worth noting that packaging may vary from different sources.
The specific watch I bought is a 38mm acrylic version with a display back (clear crystal on the back of the watch to display the movement inside). The watch is housed in a 38 mm x 14 mm thick faceted steel case and covered with domed acrylic crystal, enhancing the vintage aesthetic in a way that sapphire can't match, in my opinion.
|Domed Acrylic Crystal|
The layout of the silver cream-colored dial breaks down into a blue minute, slightly thicker blue hour, and red chrono hand as well as running seconds and minute subdials - one subdial with a blue tailed hand and the other with a simple stick hand. The vintage reference pictures I've seen houses the tailed hand on the minute subdial, though the reissue has versions with either. In the top center of the dial is a red star outlined in gold which has led to this version being dubbed "the Red Star" 1963. Under the red star is printed "19 Zuan" (19 jewels) or "21 Zuan" and at the bottom of the dial are Chinese characters translating to "China - Tianjin Watch Factory" or a simpler line reading "Made in China." The dial is surrounded by a seconds track at the rim and alternating gold applied numbers and dart-shaped indices. The crown is signed with a Seagull emblem (though the original obviously did not have that), and I would say the size is perfect in that it's easy to wind but doesn't dig into your arm as you're wearing it.
You might think the combination of gold, blue, red, and silver sounds odd or a bit ridiculous (and it does), but somehow it just works. The applied markers and hands reflect pops of color when they catch the light at the odd angle, but otherwise read more muted in person that you would think. The blued hands appear dark navy most times, and the gold indices complement the dial tone, which can appear iridescent in direct light and more of a vintage ivory in low light.
Of note, the 19 Zuan version with "China - Tianjin Watch Factory" printed and a right tailed subdial hand is the closest to the original I've seen, along with an empty yellow star rather than the red filled star - there are versions out there with various combinations of these, but I've yet to see one with all of them together. As you can see, my watch has a few dissimilarities - not ideal, but to be honest it surprisingly doesn't bother me at all.
Turning the watch around, you can see the decorated ST19 movement through the display back. The porthole of the display is surrounded by engraving that translates roughly into "Chinese Air Force First Aviation Chronograph Reissue Engraved Edition - 1963" (If ever there was a language that translated awkwardly into English, it's Chinese). The movement looks generally very good, though I have to be honest that I'm probably in the vast minority in thinking the watch may have looked better with a plainly finished movement like the original ST3. However, it still looks great, just a little rough compared to my JLC if you are examining very closely - a ridiculous comparison, obviously, though sometimes obvious statements need to be made as people can sometimes get caught up in the euphoria of a new purchase and end up speaking nothing but endless hyperbole in the heat of the moment. For a $250 watch, I'd say damn impressive nonetheless.
|Column wheel visible on the far left of the movement (with a central large blue screw)|
The hand-wound ST19 beats at 21,600 BPH (with the original Venus calibre 175 at 18,000 BPH), and features a column wheel chronograph - a choice traditionally associated with higher end watches, as column wheels are generally more labor intensive to build than a cam/lever actuated chrono. That being said, the ST19 has a notorious reputation as being somewhat finicky, to put it mildly. Some owners have reported problems with their movements after some time (usually the chrono function), though others have said that much of this has to do with who is putting together the movement rather than intrinsic problems with the movement itself. For my part, the watch has been running smoothly with the time function for over a week or so. The chrono pushers, however, aren't the snappiest - specifically the start/stop pusher. It feels a bit soft and takes noticeably more effort to engage than the reset pusher, which clicks readily and easily to snap back the red chrono hand right to 12 every time. A couple of times the chrono hand has also stuttered oddly as it traversed the first few seconds. It still seemed to keep the correct time and I can't say that it was broken, but nevertheless it was unsettling to say the least.
|Stock NATO style olive strap|
The watch comes on an olive green NATO-style strap that complements the vintage military tone of the 1963, though it also adds a little height and obscures the case back.
|Horween shell cordovan strap (see below)|
I swapped mine out for an 18mm tapered Horween shell cordovan two-piece leather strap in classic color #8 I purchased through Shkira Goods on Etsy out of Ukraine ($55 shipped if you're a standard size - the best price I've seen by leaps and bounds). I hereby challenge anyone to do better.
Overall, I think the Seagull 1963 design is fantastic. The case finishing is generally good all around - more or less on par with other watches in the price range I've handled - with the exception of the movement decoration which seems superlative for the price, even if it doesn't quite meet its lofty ambitions.
Fit and Sizing
38mm is on the smaller end of what men are wearing these days, though I consider it to be a perfect size personally (for what it's worth, the pendulum seems like it might be shifting back towards smaller watches). The watch wears bigger than its size, though, give the thickness, 47mm lug to lug length, and the presence imparted by the domed crystal.
During the day, the readability of the dial is generally good due to the contrast between the dial and the hands and the lack of clutter on the dial, though the gold hour/minute markers can lose a little contrast at times in darker light with the face. I haven't had any trouble telling the time thus far, however.
The general rule of wrist (ha!) for watches is that as the level of formality of dress increases, the watch should conversely become more minimally styled until it supposedly disappears entirely with black tie or white tie attire. I have to admit, I don't strictly adhere to those maxims myself all the time, and neither do a lot of men, as evidenced by the infiltration of the luxury dive watch into the business and more formal setting (James Bond, for example).
For me, however, the 1963 Reissue works solely as a casual to business casual piece with similar application to something like a pilot watch. In that setting the 1963 pairs naturally with most combinations, limited more actually by strap choice than the watch itself usually. And because it nails the vintage feel so authentically, it really compliments most outfits without being distracting or feeling out of place.
Impressions and Value
Over the years, "Made in China" has become somewhat of a hushed statement, hidden away hopefully where no one will see it or notice. And yet the Seagull 1963 Reissue actually celebrates that fact and that heritage. Personally, I think the Seagull 1963 is a tremendous value. It has a history grounded in the pioneering days of Chinese watch production, it's aesthetically well-balanced, and features a design that seems simultaneously familiar, yet unique with a character all its own. It also fits into most states of attire with relative ease and confidence. Best of all, it's also extremely affordable. For around $200-300, a mechanical column-wheel chronograph is unheard of. I paid $258 shipped to the USA from HK, and I would do it again, even with my qualms about the movement reliability. To be clear, I still think $200-300 is not a small amount of money, but let's not forget that we are talking about an industry whose concept of "entry level" pricing would make most eyes water.
There are some potential downsides to consider, however. I've mentioned that, although a superb value for its price, my confidence in the reliability and durability of the movement is not without reservation. Because of that very reason, I'd strongly recommend you buying from someone with a good warranty and a dependable track record if you decide you want to pick one up. At the end of the day, there's always a few minor things I would change, but the hour stick being minimally thicker, the tailed hand being on the other side, etc. really don't detract much at all from my enjoyment of the watch at all.
Whether you are interested in getting into mechanical watches for the first time or you're a seasoned collector looking to add an interesting piece to your collection, I think the 1963 deserves some real attention and consideration. I have a feeling it will claim more time on your wrist than you think.
Thanks for reading and I hope this proves useful and/or interesting.
Things I Liked
- Well balanced and interesting design
- Very affordable (for a mechanical watch)
- Vintage aesthetic
- Column wheel movement
Things I Didn't Like
- Potential reliability issues
- Many variations with subtle differences
- Unremarkable finishing, especially compared to the ED1963, though par for its price range
Others to Consider
- Other Seagull 1963 Reissue variants - See the above link for further options
- Orient (cheaper) - Specifically the vintage-inspired Bambino, though oversized (at least to me) at 42mm and with a date window that breaks up the flow of the dial
- Vintage (more expensive) - Check out other chronographs with similar movements, like the Birks RCAF Chronograph and the Strela/Sekonda/Poljot 3017 models.
- Strela 3133 - As much as I like the 3017 models, the updated cal. 3133 watches don't ring the same bell for me. The dial is slightly off in a lot of different ways and loses its vintage feel, the date window is superfluous and distracting, and the shape of the crystal all just leave me with a slightly sour impression compared to the original version. Those are just my personal qualms, and there are plenty of people who enjoy the 3133 tremendously.