Published - China, a Huge Market, With New Players

An 11th-century Chinese mechanical marvel — a water-driven astronomical clock tower in Kaifeng that has long since been dismantled — has inspired the introduction of a new Hong Kong-based watch brand, the Chinese Timekeeper, which proudly proclaims its 100 percent Chinese-made pedigree. "Greater China is a huge market for watches, and when you look specifically for mechanical watches, they’re almost all sold as Swiss-made,” Adrien Choux, the Frenchman who is founder and marketing director of the new brand, said in a telephone interview. “Yet when you look into the details, most of them have some parts manufactured in China. This proves that the quality of Chinese-made components is good and you just have to pay attention during the assembly process and apply a strict quality control.”

A report released in November by Bain & Co. said that the Chinese luxury watch market was worth 15.5 billion renminbi in 2009, or $2.34 billion, and that it was growing at 35 percent a year. The high end of the market was dominated by foreign brands, especially the top five: Cartier, Longines, Omega, Rolex and Tudor.

While there are several large Chinese watch brands — like Sea Gull, made by Tianjin Sea Gull Watch Manufacturing Group, the largest producer of automatic movements in the world, Rossini, Ebohr, Shanghai Watch and Fiyta — they have mainly focused on mass-market production. Aspirations toward the luxury end of the market, however, are starting to emerge among several Chinese players.

“The Chinese have always had a unique relationship to luxury products, such as silk, jade and porcelain,” Mr. Choux said. “They also have a long history in time-keeping, creating the first water-driven escapement mechanism, the first armillary sphere or even the mechanical gears. I felt there were all the elements to establish a strong new Chinese brand: A clear opportunity in terms of manufacturing, a huge consumer market and a history you can play on.”

Mr. Choux, who has lived in Asia for more than a decade, noted that in the two years before the introduction of the Chinese Timekeeper in December he had been encouraged by the fact that the French luxury house Hermès took a similar strategic approach to the market by introducing a China-made luxury brand tailored for its Chinese customers, Shang Xia. Of his brand, he added: “It’s a Chinese brand designed and assembled in Hong Kong by local watchmakers, inspired by a fascinating Chinese history and destined to intrigue the Chinese customers. The fact that I’m French doesn’t really matter. I see a great opportunity here.”

Another Hong Kong brand, Longio, started producing tourbillon watches in 2007 and now has seven models, with retail prices ranging from $2,800 to $8,000.

In 2009, Shanghai Watch released its first tourbillon, a piece designed by Eric Giroud, the Swiss designer behind the Harry Winston Tourbillon Glissière. In January, the brand offered the Unity 128 Tourbillon, again designed by Mr. Giroud in consultation with Carson Chan, managing director and international watch specialist at Bonhams Hong Kong.  Read the whole story in IHT .