Chinese timepieces often get a bad rap in the watch collectors community. They are often associated with replicas or fakes, but this doesn't mean there are no good chinese watches out there.
Pragmatic people, like you and I, realize chinese watches are affordable and have an outstanding price/quality ratio. Even though a lot of the brands offer homages of swiss watches, there are also a lot of original chinese pieces out there.
The following list will give you the best Chinese mechanical watches, ranging in prices from $100 USD to $500 USD.
Sea-Gull 1963 Chronograph
The Tianjin Watch Factory built its first watch back in 1961. At first, it was only worn by the People's Liberation Air Force pilots, until it was later used by 1400 Chinese Air Force pilots in 1963.
The Sea-Gull 1963 Chronograph is a remake of this historical timepiece; it offers the same iconic styling, with modern technology.
The Sea-Gull Chronograph is smaller than your average pilot watch. The case diameter of 38mm is great for men with small to medium wrists.
The watch is quite thick,with its 15mm stainless steel case. This is explained by the beefy mechanical movement, and the exhibition case back.
As you can see on the picture above, the case back displays the gorgeous St-21 hand-wound caliber. You also get the Sea-Gull logo and the 1963 mention in a red imprint (on most recent models).
Speaking of the movement, the Sea-Gull St-21 caliber is one of the main reasons why you should get this particular watch. The 21,600 vph movement was specifically designed with shock protection in mind.
Without using chronograph features, the power reserve will last about 45 hours. Also, the caliber uses a column wheel, which is a design usually found on much pricier timepieces. This gives the pusher button a lighter feel.
Depending on which iteration of the Sea-Gull Chronograph you get, it will either be equipped with a curved acrylic crystal, or a much more scratch resistant sapphire crystal.
The styling is definitely the main selling point of the Sea-Gull Chronograph. The star of the show is the champagne dial, accompanied by the iridescent blue hands.
The red second hand match the red star above the 21 zuan (jewels) tag, which is probably the most notorious communist symbol after the hammer and sickle.
At the bottom of the dial, there are Chinese writing, which translates to China, Tianjin Factory, in honor of the original model.
Since it is a chronograph watch, you get two subdials with blue hands. The left subdial is the running seconds counter, while the right one is a 30 minutes timer.
All models come equipped with an olive green nylon strap, which completes the aviator look perfectly. It is one of the rare affordable watches that I recommend keeping on the original strap. If you still want to change it, I recommend staying with a Nato strap not to change the style too much.
Alpha Moonwatch 316L
The Alpha Moonwatch is a tasteful Omega Speedmaster Homage. It does get a lot of hate since it is basically identical to the original Speedmaster.
Since most of us can't afford a real Omega Speedy, I think the Alpha Moonwatch is the closest you can get without buying an actual replica.
The Alpha Moonwatch is what you could call a medium-sized watch. Considering its 42mm case size and 48mm lug-to-lug length, I can't recommend it to people with wrists below 6.5''.
This timepiece is even thicker than the previous one, with a 16,5mm case. This is mostly explained by the domed mineral crystal, which protrudes quite a lot.
The 316L model name comes from the grade of the stainless steel used for the case and bracelet. The quality is good, and the bracelet is much better than what you would expect on a watch with this price tag.
The Alpha Moonwatch also uses a Sea-Gull movement, this time the SG2903 caliber. This 20 jewels hand-wound movement has a 42 hours power reserve. The general consensus about this caliber is that it is pretty reliable.
As stated above, the Alpha Moonwatch is pretty much an exact replica of the Omega Speedmaster. Even though their logo and name is strongly inspired by Omega, Alpha is very clear that this is an homage watch, and not a fake.
The model shown above is the SB1957 variation, which features a blacked-out look. The black bezel is covered by a white-colored 500 unit tachymeter. Inside, you can find the same black and white pattern; black for the dial and white for the indices.
The only color that stands out in the dial is the bright red of the second hand. The three chronograph subdials use white hands, which is disappointing to me since the red color would've been nice.
Even though the SB1957 is my favorite model of the Alpha Moonwatch line, there are plenty of other color schemes to chose from, such as the very popular ''Panda'' variation, which is pictured above.
The Rodina R005 is the cheapest watch on this list, but it certainly delivers a lot of quality for its small price.
The brand name Rodina might not ring a bell to your ear, but that's totally normal. In reality, Rodina is only a sub-brand of Sea-Gull, the humongous watch/movement company.
As was the case for the first Sea-Gull watch of the list, the Rodina R005 is also designed specifically for men with small to medium wrists. This time, the case diameter measures 39mm.
In contrast with the 1963 chronograph, the R005's thickness is a mere 9mm. This is very impressive considering it uses an automatic movement and a display case back. Also, you get a sapphire crystal, which is rare on watches in this price range.
Evidently, the Rodina R005 uses a Sea-Gull movement. The ST1701 automatic caliber is considered by some to be the weakest link of this timepiece. It is not inherently bad, you simply have a higher chance of getting a lemon than if you bought a swiss movement.
Fortunately, the watch comes with a 1 year warranty from the manufacturer, which means you should have the time to figure out its a lemon before the warranty runs out.
The Rodina R005 is practically a replica of the NOMOS Tangente. Not only is the dial layout practically the same, Rodina literally uses the same font for the numerals.
Still, the R005 has its own unique features that make it really worth the buy. For example, the hands are black in a darker setting, but as soon as the light hits them in a certain way, you can notice the iridiscent blue color.
When you buy the R005 directly from Sea-Gull's website, it might be equipped with either a black or brown leather strap. What's kind of odd is that the manufacturer doesn't give you the choice, you simply receive one or the other randomly.
As for most Chinese watches, the R005 is equipped with a display case back. As you can see above, the glass is quite small, and a good part of the case back is covered by stainless steel.
Beijing Watch Beihai
The Beijing Watch Factory is one of the oldest watchmakers in China. Since its inception back in 1958, the brand is renowned for its quality of craftsmanship.
The Beihai is a medium-sized watch, considering its 40mm diameter. The case is pretty thin as well, at 9.25mm. This timepiece gets the full stainless steel treatment that includes the bracelet, case, and bezel.
Even if it costs a pretty penny for a Chinese watch, the quality of its material, movement, crystal, and dial is easily equal to swiss watches worth upwards of $1000. The 3/4 splint B18 caliber is great in precision and durability.
This fantastic movement, composed of 158 total parts, both works great and looks good. It only uses 18 jewels, which is much less than you see on modern watches. That's partly why BWF considers it a ''classic'' movement.
This hand-wound caliber runs for about 42 hours after a full wind, and you can count on it to keep the time as precisely as -10 to +25 seconds per day.
Once again, the styling is inspired by the Nomos Tangente. This time though, the watchmaker was much more subtle, and the Beihai has plenty of distinguishing features.
For instance, you get a date display on this model, which uses a nice-looking circle configuration, with a colored outer ring. Also, the subdial uses a bright red color, both for the hand and the 60 seconds mark.
On the Beihai, you do get numerals, but they are incredibly subtle. Every 5 minutes mark is written in a tiny font, again in bright red. The rest of the indices are of a silver color, and there's one for every single minute.
As pictured above, the side profile of the Beihai is one of its greatest angles. It allows you to see the beautiful crown, the quality of the bracelet and the inclined, brushed stainless steel bezel.
Finally, the case back exhibits one of the finest looking movement in the game. The exquisite looking B18 caliber's silver plate is draped with gold, blue and fuchsia parts. This is a really singular styling.
If you're a watch enthusiast, you can certainly tell which classic the watch above is trying to replicate. Of course, the Parnis GMT is a not-so-subtle ''homage'' to the Rolex GMT-Master.
I put homage in quotes, since there are basically no styling differences, apart from the Parnis Logo. Still, I wouldn't consider this a replica, and I strongly recommend this model if you're looking for affordable classic styling.
As I said above, the design is practically the same as the Rolex GMT, this includes the measurements: 40mm case diameter, 13mm thickness. Even the bezel uses the same material, ceramic. This is very impressive for a watch this cheap.
The similarities continue with the crystal, which also uses a sapphire glass. Of course, the movement isn't as refined in the Parnis as it is in the Rolex, but you still get a good caliber for the price.
You need to be careful, since there are a lot of different variations of the Parnis GMT, you need to find one with the best caliber possible. The consensus is to get a DG3804 model, which is known for its precision and sturdiness.
As for most Chinese vendors, the most common complaint about Parnis is quality control issues, so make sure you buy from a reputable vendor (lots of positive reviews). One of the most usual problem is the loudness of the ticking.
Parnis replicates quite well the classic Rolex GMT model. My favorite model is the quintessential Pepsi bezel. Of course, you can get several other variations, such as the Batman layout or black and brown bezels.
Similarly to the Rolex, you get cathedral minute and hour hands, an additional GMT hand, applied indices and a magnification cyclops. Pretty much everything is alike, down to the shape of the hour marks.
The bracelet is quite well made for a sub 200$ watch. As most Chinese watchmakers, Parnis uses 316L stainless steel. You could almost consider it a two-tone bracelet since the mid links are polished and quite shiny.
While the quality of the bracelet is very good, it sadly doesn't offer micro-adjustments. This is disappointing for people with unusual wrist sizes. If this is your case, you might consider changing the bracelet for something like a nice Jubilee.
If you would like to get info on even more amazing Chinese watches, I invite you over this article, where I review 7 additional Chinese watches.