From the time the Chinese watch market began to gain momentum in the mid-1990s, local buyers learned fast and acted faster. Within ten years, as sales of mechanical watches increased, so did interest in complications. Small groups of enthusiasts and aficionados formed, and these helped spread important knowledge to the general public, especially potential customers. It’s worth noting that, by average figures, more tourbillon watches are sold in China than anywhere else in the world, whereas the opposite is true for perpetual calendars and split-second chronographs. Similarly, local manufacturers are investing fortunes in tourbillons while almost ignoring other traditional complications.
The reason the tourbillon is the most popular luxury watch complication in China is, well, complicated. The Chinese market has a reputation for preferring medium-size, time-only mechanical watches… but these are for entry-level buyers who are purchasing their first or second timepiece. As their experience and, especially, knowledge of watches grows, they start wanting to upgrade their collection with something more sophisticated. Now, the ancient Chinese philosophers believe that the ultimate simplicity is ultimate complexity. Apply this concept to complicated mechanical watches, and both the perpetual calendar and the split-second chronograph will seem too busy on the dial. Only the tourbillon shows the clean dial and simple appearance which the wise man extols.
Secondly, a tourbillon is expensive. Very expensive. A serious watch buyer who wants to acquire something understated but at a premium price has few choices outside a tourbillon and a repeater. Given the repeater’s rarity and higher cost, he or she will likely choose a tourbillon.
Whereas a Swiss-made tourbillon costs upwards of US$ 50,000, a Chinese-made tourbillon sells for around US$ 3,000.
It helps that not only experts but also the ordinary public can tell a tourbillon from a regular watch at a glance. The unusual aperture on the dial, the moving carriage with the escapement inside, all these details hint at the complicated mechanism that sits quietly beneath. Once recognized, it becomes a badge for the good taste and wealth of its owner.
Tourbillons for a limited budget
That said, in China a tourbillon is not always expensive. As mentioned, local watch manufacturers place great emphasis on this complication with the result that whereas a Swiss-made tourbillon costs upwards of US$ 50,000, a Chinese-made tourbillon sells for around US$ 3,000. In fact China produces more tourbillons than any other country. There are currently five manufacturers producing tourbillon movements in China. They are Sea-Gull, Dan Dong, Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou. Sea-Gull, the country’s biggest movement manufacturer, has developed a complete range, including a flying tourbillon, off-center tourbillon, double tourbillon, orbital tourbillon, etc. The entry price of a Sea-Gull tourbillon watch is just RMB 10,199 (around US$ 1,500). This has also helped stimulate the tourbillon market in China.
Thanks to these makers, many Chinese watch buyers now have the opportunity to own a tourbillon, despite a limited budget. At Beijing Watch, tourbillons account for more than 20% of sales. Their flagship store in Wangfujing, Beijing, can sell one tourbillon watch every three to five days. This higher ownership rate in turn contributes to the popularization of tourbillons in China.
More than two centuries after its invention, and far away from Abraham-Louis Breguet’s Paris workshop, the tourbillon has Chinese watch buyers in a spin!