Review: Seagull 1963 Chronograph
Lug to lug
Water resistance rating
Seagull ST1901 – hand-wound chronograph, column wheel, 21 jewels, 21 600 A/h, power reserve ca.45h.
209 euro (at Watchunique, within the EU, incl. shipping).
These days, the market for vintage chronographs is bananas. Unless you get lucky, it’s hard to get a bargain on a hand-wound chrono.
Besides, there are a few hand-wound chronographs still in production. The most accessible of them is the Omega Speedmaster Professional. Anything else is either priced similarly or way higher.
Well, that’s if we’re talking about Swiss brands. But what if we were to put Switzerland and Japan aside, and look where people don’t wish to look – to China?
It turns out that they offer a hand-wound column-wheel chronograph for roughly 200 euro. So, why not give it a chance.
Wonders of Cathay
The reputation of Chinese horology has been butchered by the last two decades. Most people seem to think that made in China = made badly. OK, if we think of fakes, that’s true. But we forget the watches that Chinese manufacturers made for the domestic market.
Chinese horology is going through a renaissance. Old and established manufacturers, like the Tianjin Factory (Seagull) and Beijing Watch Factory, are trying to appear on the WIS’ radar. Along with relatively young companies like Maison Celadon, they’re trying to go the “Made in China with pride” way.
So, how are they doing? I wanted to find out.
A bit of history
In 1961, the Chinese government ordered the Tianjin factory to create a watch for pilots of the air force of the People’s Liberation Army. Of course, for a severely understaffed facility, that was no easy task. Besides, designing a chronograph from scratch isn’t an easy task.
However, it so happened that a certain Swiss ebaucherie was very keen to sell all the tools and machinery used for making one of their movements. That company was Venus, and the movement was the cal. 175.
The Chinese were more than happy to buy it. The first version of the 175 made by the Tianjin Factory was known as the ST3. A 19-jewel version, the ST19, was developed later. By 1963, prototype batches of the “Project 304” chronograph were delivered. By 1965, 1400 pieces of the Project 304 chronograph were given to the pilots.
The original watch had a very civilian appearance: applied hour markers and no lume. As far as 1960s watches go, it wasn’t typical for its era either. They looked as if they were designed a decade earlier. The plated case also wasn’t state-of-the-art.
You could say that this was a kickstart for the Chinese watch industry. The very same year, 1965, the Tianjin Factory started producing one of China’s first mass-made watches, the time-only Dong Feng (East Wind). Only a few years later, the wildly popular Dong Feng became one of the first export goods of the Chinese watch industry.
A few years ago, Seagull (Tianjin), in cooperation with collectors and enthusiasts, decided to reissue the Project 304. The new iteration of this historic piece comes in a variety of versions. These range from reasonably faithful to the original to loosely based on it. Some feature the ST19 in its 19-jewel version, and some have the 21-jewel one. Some have a hesalite crystal, and some have a sapphire crystal. There’s a 38mm version, a 42mm version, “panda dial” versions. Well, you could say that the original re-issue is at the bottom of an extensive range.
The watch I’m reviewing is a 21-jewel version, in a 38mm case with a closed back and a hesalite crystal. You could say it’s the most basic version, but it’s also the one with the most vintage appeal. There are a few places to get these watches, and everywhere they’re a bit different, as Seagull seems to make different ones for every retailer.
If you want the most historically accurate version, you might want to check out an online dealer called hked, based in Hong Kong. Basic 1963s from Ed feature the very same hour markers, hands, and dial markings as the original 304, but you do get several hands and dial options. In the US, Long Island Watch sells the 1963 model in a 19-jewel version.
In Europe, you can buy the 21-jewel one from Watchunique, a Seagull importer and retailer based in the Netherlands. That’s where I ordered mine. It’s not as faithful to the original 304 as the ones from hked, but I don’t mind. For 209 euros, including shipping, there are many things I don’t mind.
The watch comes in a can with some spongy filling. No instructions manual or a warranty card.
Watchunique, though, offers a 1-year warranty for the watch, so I presume the invoice does it. And really, it isn’t rocket science to operate two pushers and a crown.
The top pusher starts and stops the chrono, and the bottom one resets it. You wind the watch with the crown, and you pull it out to set the time.
Dial and hands
In the version offered by most sources except hked, the dial is different from that of the original 304. It’s still attractive, though. It’s hard to describe the color accurately. Gold-ish silver? Off-silver? Metallic eggshell? I could struggle with trying to name it for a while. In different lighting, it ranges from silvery to sandy gold-ish.
The printing is nicely done, without any alignment issues. The Chinese text on the lower portion of the dial supposedly reads “Tianjin, China.” I can’t speak or read Chinese, so I can’t verify that. Then again, what else could it be?
The hands are blued, except for the red chrono second hand. It’s not heat-blueing, though – all the hands are painted. Upon a nose-against-the-crystal close inspection, it’s noticeable. Still, there’s nothing even remotely shoddy about them.
The applied hour markers, as well as the presence of a red star on the dial, are different from what you’d find on the original 304. Still, all these features are handsome and well-finished.
For whatever reason, the 304 and its reissues resemble the Benrus Sky Chief. I wonder if the designers of the original 304 have seen the Sky Chief, but it’d be safe to assume that they did. The similarities are beyond coincidental. The minute track, the design of the subdials. Even the hands, including the red chrono hand and an elongated counterweight on the running second hand.
Most importantly, the whole combination is very legible. And, if you can’t cope with a boring watch, believe me, the combination of this dial with these hands is anything but boring.
Case, crown, and pushers
The case is made of 316L stainless steel, which is a considerable improvement over the original 304’s nickel-plated base metal. Most of it is polished, with brushing only on the back. Nothing fancy, but well made. All the edges are crisp and even.
While the watch is available with a display back, I went for the closed one. It’s cheaper and feels more vintage. Just a plain back with circular brushing, a logo of the PLA air force, and “1963” below that. Nice and simple. The case back is a screw-in one, with faceting similar to that of old Taubert and EPSA cases. That said, it’s a lot like that of the Dan Henry 1970.
Obviously, a Jaxa or any other three-point wrench won’t open it, but maybe that’s for the better. If you feel like you need to see the movement, get the display back.
The crown is unsigned – this is also a detail that varies between 1963s from various sources. Ones from hked have the old Tianjin logo, ones from Poljot24.de – a star. Ones from Watchunique don’t have a logo at all.
The pushers are what you’d expect on a vintage or vintage-style chrono – typical pump/piston type. Not too big, not too small.
In theory, these watches are supposedly water-resistant to 30m, but frankly, as is the case with non-diver chronographs, I’d take that with a grain of salt. I suppose that it’ll survive rain or doing dishes. I don’t expect much more than that.
The heart of this watch is slightly different from the ST3 found in the original 304. It’s the ST19/1901. It’s a copy of the Venus 175, although operating at a higher frequency of 21 600 A/h (vs. the 175’s 18 000 A/h).
The basics: 21 jewels, 21 600 A/h, column wheel, 30-minute counter. Funnily, it’s unclear what the power reserve is. Watchunique describes it as over 40 hours, Poljot24 – 40 hours, the Ranfft archive – 51 hours. Here and there, it’s mentioned that it has 45 hours of power reserve. 45, as it’s between 40 and 50/51 hours, seems like a reasonable middle ground.
In a week of wearing the watch, I didn’t have to set it again, so accuracy-wise, it seems decent. I’ve heard conflicting reports of the accuracy of this watch. Some claim it to have been running at well below +10 seconds per day, and close to +5/+6. Some have claimed it to have been running at +14 seconds per day. Still, I don’t imagine that these movements are tuned to run within very narrow tolerances.
I’ve heard the action of the chronograph being referred to as “stiff” in the ST1901. This probably depends on how long the watch has been in storage, and how well the chronograph parts have been lubricated. For the record, the chronograph in mine works well. Nope, the pushers aren’t stiff. While the start/stop pusher doesn’t take a lot of force to press, the reset works very lightly. Which means that the chrono works just as it should.
If there’s anything that feels stiff here, it’s the crown. It takes more force to turn the crown than in any of my hand-wound watches (and I happen to have quite a bit of them). Still, it’s more of an observation than a concern. It’s not stiff enough for me to be a problem.
Some also say that the ST19 is loud. I’ve seen that being mentioned in a few places. I almost expected something as loud as a whole brigade of T-34 tanks on the move. I’m happy to say that this isn’t the case. Even the ZIM 2602 in my Soviet-made Start is a lot noisier than this one.
Another myth about the 1901 – a loud action of the chrono. I expected some clunky and clumsy noise. Yes, you can hear it. Of course, metal parts are clicking against metal parts. So, if you expect it to be completely silent, you might want to revise your expectations of how a mechanical chronograph works.
The 1963 is available on a choice of either an olive green/khaki NATO or a gator-grain leather strap. I went with the NATO strap. Aside from the fact that it’s cheaper, it seems more fitting for a watch with a pilot/military heritage.
Let’s not kid ourselves. This strap isn’t exactly what I’d call “good.” Well, it’s not bad, but I’ll likely replace it with a more comfortable NATO at some point. Once you get used to it, it’s manageable, although it takes a while for the scratchy edges of it to soften.
How does it feel on the wrist?
Surprisingly good. You’d think that with a height of 14mm, and on a NATO, it will feel top-heavy, but it doesn’t.
A considerable part of the thickness is the domed hesalite crystal, and the center of gravity of the watch sits relatively low. So, even on a NATO, it doesn’t feel uncomfortable. Then again, I suppose that’s a subjective matter. Your miles may vary.
All in all
If you’re looking for a mechanical chronograph on a budget, the Seagull 1963 is a great option. And it’s even better if you want to buy a modern watch as a vintage watch addict. It genuinely feels as if someone threw a 1950s/1960s chronograph into a DeLorean time machine to send it to 2019.
The one shortcoming that this watch has is the strap, but that’s pretty much it. The packaging is also disappointing. Still, the watch itself seems like incredible value for the money.
It comes in a wide range of options. There’s a version with sapphire crystal; there are panda dial versions; 42mm ones; the exact reissue from hked, 19 jewels, 21 jewels. In short, plenty to choose from.
Interestingly, it doesn’t have much competition in the market. The next watch with a similarly vintage feel to it, down to the size and the hesalite crystal, is the Baltic Chronograph Bicompax 001, which has the same movement. Still, the Baltic’s priced at 649 euros, which is more than three times the price of the 1963.
In the same price range as the Seagull, you’ll find the Dan Henry 1939 and 1963, but they’re both quartz, so they aren’t strictly an alternative to the watch in question. There’s also a whole range of Poljot/Strela chronographs, with the cam-switching, hand-wound Poljot 3133 movement inside. The prices of these start at 370 euros, which is less than the Baltic, but still well above the basic 1963.
As for my feelings about the watch. I still feel as enthusiastic about the Seagull 1963 as I did the day I received it. OK, it hasn’t been that long, I know. Still, I suppose that if every day you feel about a watch as you did the day you got it, that’s a big win.
What do you think of this Seagull 1963 chronograph? Do you have one, or would you like to add one to your collection? Let me know in the comments below.