Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Sea-Gull M185S Review

Let me start off by saying that I have been uneasy about getting a Chinese watch for some time now. It isn’t that I have anything personal against the Chinese people or nation per se, far from it in fact. It’s just that, in my mind, the phrase “Made in China” has always meant cheap, not quality. Cheap is fine for a pair of socks or a plastic toy for my kids. However, buying a “cheap” watch (as opposed to an inexpensive but otherwise excellent watch) was never something I was interested in doing. Well, an odd turn of events not long ago made me realize that I was looking at China through a poor filter that was screening out a lot of good things.

As is the case in many places of business, employees in my office give one and other gifts, cards and other tokens of appreciation during the holiday season. Nothing new there for most of us. This year though, one of my co-workers gave me a very fancy box of tea. Not Twinnings or Teavana or Harney but Chinese green tea in an unreadable (to me) Chinese box. I love tea. I honestly have not met a cup of tea that I don’t like. (As an aside, my mother was and avid tea teetotaller and teapot collector. She had at least one hundred teapots at one time. We used to joke that if the Royal Navy stopped by for high tea one day, we could handle it). This particular Chinese tea was truly excellent. It had an almost nutty flavor that I’ve never experienced before. My only regret is that I have no idea what it is called or where to get it. That being said, it warmed me up during the worst of this winter’s cold spells (so far) and got me thinking, if China can make good stuff like this, what else have they got that I’m ignoring? And that, of course, got me wondering about Chinese watches. Was there a Chinese watch that was the equivalent of fine tea? Thanks to Google and a number of watch forums, it quickly became apparent that one such Chinese watch company was really very well regarded, Sea-Gull.

Sea-Gull got its start in 1955 when the Chinese government established a watch factory. The story apparently goes that four watch repairers were instructed to find a way to build a watch domestically. They supposedly started with a simple Swiss movement, modified the design to suit their needs and built China's first real watch, largely by hand. From this humble start, the company has since made a variety of watches varying from simple, utilitarian types to mechanical chronographs to some very fancy (and pricey!) tourbillions. While Sea-Gull watches have been sold outside of China since the early 70's, in the last few years, the company has begun an international expansion with sales/service locations in the U.S. and the European Union. For more on the history of Sea-Gull, see here.

In addition to watches themselves, Sea-Gull movements are sold to other watch companies for incorporation into their products. As of 2005, Sea-Gull was manufacturing approximately 25% of the watch movements in the world. Fossil and Timex, among others, have taken this approach with apparent success to date. Some Sea-Gull movements are even being put together in Switzerland apparently under the name Claro-Semag. These Swiss/Chinese watch engines are apparently modified somewhat in Switzerland to allow them to legally carry the label Swiss Made. Bizarrely, there have even been reports of fake Sea-Gull watches that have been assembled by unscrupulous vendors with real Sea-Gull movements. I think it's safe to assume that you've got a quality product when it's worth it for someone to try to make money off a copy. Imitation may not be the sincerest form of flattery in this case but it suggests that the real thing is quite good.

It also bears mentioning that there is apparently a notable difference in quality between a Sea-Gull branded watch and many of the watches that have one of their movements. EBay is crowded with watches that have Swiss and German sounding names. Many of them fall into a gray category commonly called "mushroom" brands, so called because they pop up in no time and vanish quickly too. It is not uncommon to find a Sea-Gull engine in these watches. The problem with them though is that there is little, if any, in the way of service, support or quality control behind them. Their watches may, in fact, work just fine but, ultimately, their products are built to earn a fast buck and deceive their buyers into believing that they are something they are not.

With all of this in mind, I decided to take the plunge and make a Sea-Gull my first new watch of 2012. The model you see above is the M185S. I liked this one for its classic looks and blued hands. I didn't see it in stock at Sea-Gull USA so I used the global tag sale after pestering an expert at the Poor Man's Watch Forum as to the authenticity of the watch. (Ebay seller was trusthonestman btw. Apparently pretty well thought of. The watch shipped in the original box with Chinese language documentation. Seller included a photocopy of some basic English language instructions as well. According to a friend, the watch carries a one year warranty and will achieve full power from the auto winder after six hours of wear on average). Sea-Gull uses this same case design for several other models as well. The main difference between the M185S and the others is the addition of a Chinese language day complication in addition to the date window. (I can't read it, of course, but I think it looks cool). In terms of dimensions, the watch measures 39mm in width (43mm with the crown), 47mm lug to lug, 14mm in thickness and has a 20mm band lug width. As this is a dress watch, there is no lume on the hands or dial. The hands are blued and the overall appearance with the large onion crown is one of classic elegance. Water resistance is rated at 3atm which is fine for a dress watch. The M185S uses a domed mineral glass crystal. The lugs are curved downward and the leather band and buckle are Sea-Gull branded and appear to be of very good quality. The case-back is held to the watch case with screws, which is a little unusual these days but it certainly seems to function adequately. Lastly, the watch features a display back through which the decorated automatic movement can be observed.

Internally, the M185S is powered by a Sea-Gull ST16 21 jewel automatic movement. The ST16 is one of many in-house movements manufactured by Sea-Gull. It is technically interesting in that it borrows the Seiko "magic lever" automatic winding system design while following the overall layout of a Miyota automatic movement. The ST16 hacks and hand winds as well if those abilities matter to you. The movement is considered sort of an entry level, work horse model in the Sea-Gull line. It has been around for a long time and the Sea-Gull branded watches equipped with it (as opposed to other "mushroom" brands that may use it) have a good reputation for reliability. The movement is nicely decorated with machined striping on the rotor and bridge plates.

Subjectively, the watch wears very nicely. It has that solid feel that I generally associate with a well made piece. The included band both is fairly long and reasonably thick so it should fit a large range of wrist sizes. I particularly appreciate the "China Made" identifier at the six o'clock position on the watch face. Unlike the mushroom brands with their Germanic and Swiss sounding names, this Sea-Gull is not pretending to be anything other than what it is. In light of how well it appears to be built, it's makers should be proud to state it's place of origin clearly.

I started off this review by admitting my unease with the idea of a Chinese watch. It seems clear to me though that the Chinese watch industry is following the well travelled trajectory of both the Japanese and Swiss watch industries. Initially, both of them were considered merely cheap imitators of other nations quality timepieces (Yes, I did say the Swiss. Their early efforts at watch production were considered low quality knock-offs of then American made watches). I think we all know by now how things worked out for the Swiss and Japanese in this industry. From the looks of my Sea-Gull example, China has entered these ranks as well. Now I just need to save a few grand ($) for one of those amazing looking tourbillions of theirs. One day...
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