1 - 2 of 2 Posts

· Registered
105 Posts
Discussion Starter · #1 ·
This has been briefly summarized only once in the archives of WTF that I can find.

Back in the early 60's, so the story goes, the People's Liberation Army Air Force wanted a watch for their pilots. It needed a chronograph function, but the Chinese watch companies of the day had not developed their own. About the same time, the Swiss ebauchery Venus was on hard times, and their famous caliber 175 was no longer popular as it had been (having been found on early Breitling Navitimers, among others), because it was a handwind movement.Their idea was to sell their tooling for the 175 and use the proceeds to fund the development of a lever-action replacement that could be made into an automatic. And they had long-since replaced the 175 in their lineup with the 188. But that's a different story.

Venus looked around for a buyer, again so the story goes, and couldn't find one. Poljot was already disassembling a Valjoux 7733 to reverse-engineer it, and that ultimately became the Poljot 3133--a copy of the 7733 but clearly made from new drawings and showing little or no parts interchangeability with the 7733. They had no need or desire to buy anything.

Then, the Tianjin Watch Factory in Beijing expressed interest, and the deal was done. They bought all the tooling and training to use it for the Venus 175, and they embarked on Project 304 to create a Chinese chronograph for their pilots to use. They came up with several designs for the watch and presented them to the PLAAF in late 1962, and the committee selected one model and they delivered the first batch in 1963.

Here's a picture of an original 1963 PLAAF chronograph from Joel Chan's site:

Fast forward to the last decade or so. The Tianjin Watch Factory, now the Seagull Watch Company, offered a limited-edition remake of the original watch, dubbing it the D304. It uses the Seagull ST-19 movement, which is made using the tooling that was originally bought from the Swiss. One assumes that the tooling has been updated along the way. But that limited edition is only available on the secondary market now. Seagull HK (whose connection to Tianjin Seagull is mysterious, but not complete) created their own 1963 reissue. But where did they get the movements? I'm unwilling to believe that they created their own ST-19 line, to sell a few hundred or even a few thousand watches for a coupla hundred bucks each. I can only conclude that they bought the movements from Tianjin. The person driving that project at Seagull HK left to form his own watch-making company, and he continues to offer 1963 reissue watches, as well as several other companies. I believe that Tianjin makes the movements for all of them. But have I stood in the factories watching them being made? No. And neither had anybody else whose willing to say so (in English, at least). I've heard from credible sources that despite the myth that the side-door movements from Tianjin were sub-par, the ST-19's were premium movements with only one line and thus received the full quality control. Tianjin is the most respected of Chinese watch factories, but quality control is still not up to Swiss, Japanese, or German standards, by any means.

The bottom line is that the only new watches using the ST-19 movement are bought by people willing to figure out how to buy them. Some searching around will turn up sources. I bought mine a couple of months ago from "Thomas" who hangs out on WUS, and here are some pictures of what I received. The case is 38mm, maybe 13mm thick, with a typically deep-domed acrylic crystal and a display back. The crystal is true to the original design, and I prefer it to some of the modern alteranatives, which always require the case to have a deep bezel that just looks wrong on this particular watch. Anyway, my $240 for the watch plus EMS shipping from Hong Kong got me a the closest thing available to a modern Venus 175.

1963 Reissue, from somewhere near Hong Kong

The dial is similar to the original, and there are some production versions of the original watch that were the real models for this dial and hands. The dial is marked "19 jewels" but the movement has 21--showing that the movement has been modified over the years. The movements some in different numbers of jewels, probably depending on which batch whence they came. The hands are lacquered blue, of course, as are the "blued" screws on the movement, but that's to be expected for this source and price point. Variations will occur in these, and tracking those has become a minor sport among Chinese mechanical watch enthusiasts. Of particular interest is which hand goes on what sub-dial.

The hands are flat with no lume, and the only hint of fanciness on the dial are the applied markers and numerals on the even hours.

The back of the watch shows a screwed caseback with a display window, which in this case is really worth having, because the movement is fun to look at. I own two automatic chronographs of high quality, but this one is more fun than either to stare at, simply because there's no rotor to block the view.

The movement is a classic Venus 175 hand-wind column-wheel-operated two-register chronograph. It uses a jumping minute totalizer (as does my Zenith, but not my Ebel) at 3 in addition to the running seconds hand at 9. The wheels are nicely finished, and the chronograph levers are plated and polished. The bridge is decorated with a flycutter to simulate cotes de Geneve, but with a magnifier it becomes obvious that the pattern was cut and not the result of polishing. When comparing to the Zenith or Ebel movements, it's apparent that the decoration is on the top, rather than within. The parts that are not visible without looking past all those levers and gears are plain on the Tianjin movement, where they are as carefully decorated on the Ebel or Zenith where you can't see them as where you can. This one has a lot of surface glitter, but less deep beauty. But that doesn't undermine at all my fun when looking at it. It just says that you do get what you pay for.

Here the column wheel actuation is highlighted for those who have heard the term but haven't explored its meaning. Near as I can tell looking through the glass, the wheels were adjusted for proper engagement, and everything works smoothly. The actuation force for the start/stop pusher is about the same as for my Zenith, and the reset pusher requries almost no effort at all. The beat rate is 21,600. My watch runs pretty well--always well within about 8 or 10 seconds a day and positional variation seems to fit within about a 12-second window when fully wound. It's not ready for COSC but it runs pretty well for a $200 chronograph.

This one sure has a high ratio of horological fun to price.

Rick "thinking this makes a good addition to any chronograph collection" Denney
1 - 2 of 2 Posts
This is an older thread, you may not receive a response, and could be reviving an old thread. Please consider creating a new thread.