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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
The Sea-Gull 1963 military chronograph has become one of the most iconic and collectible Chinese mechanical watches, and for good reason. But I also think it deserves to be seen as one of the most iconic 20th century military watches from anywhere in the world - it's up there with the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, Rolex Submariner, Vostok Amphibia and Omega Speedmaster in terms of its importance to the military it was designed for. Simply put, the 1963 was a landmark tool watch and a design classic.

The problem for collectors nowadays is that so few of the original Sea-Gull 1963 were ever made - there were only a handful of prototypes, and later only 1700 production models (some sources say only 1400). Fortunately, reissues of the 1963 began to emerge within the last decade. There are now a variety of versions available from different sellers, both reputable and shady, with a variety of different specs - 38mm or 42mm cases; or acrylic, mineral or sapphire crystals. Choosing a legitimate, original and historically accurate reissue is a difficult exercise, however, especially for a beginner. One need only look at other threads to see how much confusion is out there.

The good news is that the Sea-Gull 1963 reissue is now stocked by what I consider to be the most trusted online source for genuine Sea-Gull watches, www.seagullwatchstore.com. As I mentioned in my review of the Sea-Gull designer series tourbillon, they have recently negotiated a deal with the Tianjin Sea-Gull Watch Company to offer steep discounts on Sea-Gull 1963 and D304 chronograph watches, exclusively to foreign markets. The 1963 reissue is currently on sale for a competitive US$350.

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Firstly, a little history. The Chinese government first commissioned a chronograph watch for pilots in the People's Liberation Army Air Force in 1961. The development contract was awarded to the Tianjin Sea-Gull Watch Company, and was code-named Project 304. Sea-Gull based their first chronograph movement, the ST19, on the Swiss-made Venus 175 movement. Whereas the Swiss movement had 17 jewels, the Chinese movement used 19, 21, 22 or even 23 jewels. A number of prototypes were made, and the watch was finally certified for military use and put into production in 1965. Fewer than 2000 prototype and production models were ever made.

There are two main reissues of the Project 304 military watch - one based on the 1963 prototype, and the other based on the D304 production model. This review is of the Sea-Gull 1963 FKJB reissue. The FKJB stands for Fu Ke Jun Biao (复刻军表 in Chinese), which in English translates to Military Watch Reissue.

The FKJB is among the most historically accurate of all the Sea-Gull 1963 reissues. The original watch came in a 37mm brass case plated in nickel; the FKJB comes in a similarly sized 38mm case. The key difference is that the FKJB's case has been upgraded to much more durable 316L premium stainless steel, while retaining the original shape and finish. And, importantly, the size is right - while the 40mm and 42mm reissues may appeal to today's tastes, they're simply not accurate. The FKJB is the real deal.

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The case is nicely finished to Sea-Gull's typically high standard. It's entirely mirror-polished, which is a point of difference for a military watch - most field and pilot's watches these days tend to have blasted or brushed finishes. The two chronograph pushers and the large, hand-winding crown are also nicely finished. Water resistance is adequate at 30m.

The FKJB stands an impressive 11mm tall (without the crystal) or about 13.5mm tall with the bubble-domed acrylic crystal - another historically accurate touch. While mineral and sapphire crystals are more in line with modern tastes, they lack the vintage charm of domed acrylic, which really stands out and makes the dial pop. Acrylic is also very shatter-resistant, and while it scratches more easily than mineral or sapphire, it's also much easier to buff any scratches out. I also love the way the domed crystal distorts the hands and dial when viewed from very acute angles.

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The simple case back is the only part of the case with any finishing or ornamentation - it is brushed with concentric circles, and engraved with minimal text and the Red Star of the People's Liberation Army. It's nicely done.

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The dial and hands are the real stars of the show. The dial is a gorgeous finely-speckled champagne colour that constantly shifts and changes with each movement of the wrist - it can be silver, beige or gold, depending on the angle and intensity of the light. The dial colour beautifully contrasts and complements the applied gold-tone Arabic numerals and indices, as well as the gold rimmed Red Star below 12 o'clock. The chronograph seconds are marked out in fine black printed indices around the edge of the dial. There are two subdials - one at 9 o'clock, which is the small seconds dial, and another at 3 o'clock, which marks elapsed minutes on the chronograph, up to half an hour.

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The hands are simply stunning. The heat-treated blue hour and minute hands are the perfect lengths for at-a-glance legibility, and they reflect light wonderfully. The subdials also have blue hands, with attractive spade counterweights. They all contrast nicely with the red chronograph second hand, which sits at 12 o'clock when not in use, and gracefully traces the edge of the dial when in use.

The ST1901 movement is a joy to use. Hand-winding on the big crown is easy, smooth and responsive, with just the right amount of give when it is fully wound. The movement is true to its 40 hour reserve rating, and keeps good time, within 15 seconds a day. The top pusher at 2 o'clock starts and stops the chrono. It has just the right amount of give to remind you this is a mechanical chrono, and its action is instantaneous. The bottom pusher at 4 o'clock is a similar story - it instantly snaps the chrono second hand back to place with just the right amount of pressure. This is a well-made movement, and you can really feel that you're using a mechanical chrono. It helps that, in quiet settings, you can hear the watch ticking away.

The FKJB has 18mm lugs and comes on a Nato-style one-piece nylon strap in a fetching military-beige colour. It's a high quality strap that suits the watch perfectly.

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On the wrist, the FKJB is the perfect size. It's not so large that it won't fit smaller wrists, like mine, but it's also not too small. It's functional, toolish and undeniably masculine. And it looks great.

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The bubble-domed crystal gives the watch real presence, but it doesn't look out of proportion. The only potential drawback is that it could be hard to fit under shirtsleeves - but that shouldn't be an issue, because this is a watch to be worn casually.

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Or is it? I tried it on a nice brown leather strap to see if it would work as an office watch.

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I'll leave it for you to judge whether it works. But if you ask me, it's pure class.

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On a two-piece strap, it fits even more snugly on the wrist than on the stock Nato.

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And check out how the dial changes colour in different light.

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There are plenty of other strap options over at this thread, but honestly, you can't really go wrong with the stock strap.

If you've been thinking about getting a Sea-Gull 1963, I can't recommend the FKJB from www.seagullwatchstore.com enough. You can be assured it's genuine, and it's among the most historically accurate. Put simply, it's a great watch. I've scarcely taken it off since I got it. It's that good.
 

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Great review, thanks for your hard work! I bought the mineral crystaled 42mm version because I preferred the size (for my 8" wrist) and the mineral crystal and especially the clear caseback but I did so knowing full well my version wasn't historically accurate. They are both very fun watches for the money and I wear mine alot!!
 

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What a nice review, I almost ignored the discounted price of 350$ compared to what I paid almost double in Shanghai :). I have also not taken it off much. My only wish is if they had better water rating.


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A well-written, thoughtful article. Great read. And your 1963 photos are wonderful; they're among the very best I've ever seen.

One minor quibble: "by far the most historically accurate" may be overstated.

For example: hked's 304 re-issue, which is based on LiWei's original 1963, and unlike some other 1963 variants, includes the 304 squadron logo and small rectangular indices, can make a case that is at least as strong. (Please understand, I'm not trying to be controversial, here. Seagullwatchstore's is a worthy version.)

Originals that I have seen and held...and drooled over:

LiWei's incredibly pristine 304...



Two originals at the Tianjin Watch and Clock Collector's Association private museum.

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Compare those to the hked cream dial variant (borrowed from "A Fine Tooth Comb")...

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As well, here's an original black dial version. (photo courtesy hked)

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...and my hked black dial variant based on that (with requested red second hand)

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I own 4 variants: two hked/ed1963s, one blank star variant from a great friend in China, and one "red star" like yours but with red lettering on the back :)

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Discussion Starter · #5 ·
Thanks for the feedback, everyone.

Special thanks to AlbertaTime - you're quite right that I overstated the FKJB's historical accuracy compared with other reissues. In my enthusiasm I must have got carried away! I'll amend the review to read "among the most most historically accurate".

Thanks for the wealth of great pics, too. Those vintage 304s are gorgeous!
 

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Discussion Starter · #8 ·
Great review.

I have seen a 38mm version with an acrylic crystal and a display case back from Island Watch. Other than the caseback are there any difference between these two watches?

Seagull 1963 Hand Wind Mechanical Chronograph with Acrylic Crystal #6345A-2901
Thanks for the feedback.

It looks to me like there's quite a few differences between the two. My watch has a 21-jewel movement, spade counterweights on both subdial hands, an unsigned crown, and is 11 thick; the Island Watch example has a 19-jewel movement, no counterweight on the 3'oclock subdial hand, different text on the dial, a signed crown, and is a substantial 15mm thick. I suspect the extra 4mm thickness is the trade-off for the display back, which allows you to see the beautiful ST19 movement.

Also, you may want to ask Marc at Island Watch where he sources his 1963s from. There's one review on his site which says the watch arrived without a box or papers, so it may not have come through official channels (or it may have been sent that way because the buyer lives outside the US). I'm not saying the Long Island watch isn't legit, but it pays to ask because there are knock-offs that use genuine Sea-Gull movements, but aren't made by Sea-Gull or a trusted source like hked.

For what it's worth, I always deal with seagullwatchstore.com because they have a direct relationship with the factory, so you can be guaranteed their watches are genuine. Their watches always arrive with boxes, papers and manuals - and, in the case of my tourbillon, a numbered certificate of authenticity for extra security. Fast free shipping, too.
 

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That's a good number of difference. Is yours more true to the original? I definitely think 11mm is more suitable for a watch this size.
 

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Discussion Starter · #10 ·
That's a good number of difference. Is yours more true to the original? I definitely think 11mm is more suitable for a watch this size.
The thickness, unsigned crown and solid caseback are more true to the original. The dial text on mine also seems truer to the original. Check out the dial text on the vintage 304 in the Tianjin Watch and Clock Collector's private museum, as posted by AlbertaTime above. The text is exactly the same. The first line reads China (中国) and the second line reads Tianjin Watch Factory (天津手表厂). The Island Watch model only has one line of text, which reads Made in China (中国制造). I haven't seen that on any vintage 304s.

On the other hand, the Island Watch model's hands may be truer to the original - I haven't seen any vintage '63s with spade counterweights on both subdial hands.

In the end, I don't think any of the reissues are 100 per cent true to the originals. Adding to the complexity is the fact that were so many different 304s made within a short five-year period, so it's impossible to say any one of them was the definitive model. You're comparing apples, oranges, kumquats and lychees.

The production model, rather than the 1963 prototype, is much easier to pin down, since it was built in much larger numbers. You may want to check out Sea-Gull's D304 reissue, which is pretty true to the original production model. That said, it has quite a different look and feel to the 1963. Some, myself included, prefer the look of the 1963.

At the end of the day, you should go with what you like the best, and buy from a trusted source. For what it's worth, I don't think you can go wrong with the seagullwatchstore.com offering. But ultimately, it's up to you. Good luck!
 

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Nice, detailed review with great photos!

A few things I would like to add if you don't mind. The display case back is thicker than the solid (historically correct) but most people prefer to see the movement in action and choose the display. They are interchangeable so the case is exactly the same as you mentioned.

The ST1901 used in both watches is the same calibre movement with the same number of jewels. Some designs use 19 jewels and others 21 jewels on the dial.

Are there 40mm models available? I thought they only came in 38mm and 42mm :)

Enjoy your 1963 Reissue!


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What I gather from recent updates is that FKJB is the reissue produced at Tianjin thus having that 2nd line of text bearing factory's name.


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Discussion Starter · #15 ·
Nice, detailed review with great photos!

A few things I would like to add if you don't mind. The display case back is thicker than the solid (historically correct) but most people prefer to see the movement in action and choose the display. They are interchangeable so the case is exactly the same as you mentioned.

The ST1901 used in both watches is the same calibre movement with the same number of jewels. Some designs use 19 jewels and others 21 jewels on the dial.

Are there 40mm models available? I thought they only came in 38mm and 42mm :)

Enjoy your 1963 Reissue!


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Many thanks for your responses. I'm grateful to learn from two of the most venerable members around these parts!

I was particularly intrigued to learn that the jewel count is the same across all ST1901 movements, despite what the dial says. So the dial on mine is, in a way, the least accurate. It should either say 19 Zuan (historically correct) or 23 Zuan (currently correct, including the two 'hidden' jewels). How odd!

And Ed, you're quite right about there being no 40mm version. I got that detail from an (incorrect) website listing. I've now updated the review for accuracy.

I also agree that most people seem to prefer the display back. Out of interest, do you sell the display backs separately? It would be nice to be able to swap them out.

Oh, and feel free to send me one of your models for review, Ed. Your black dial model is stunning! ;)
 

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Do any of you have any proof these aren't just knockoffs?

The incorrect text on the dial (wrong number of jewels) would suggest it's a knockoff.

So what proof do we have this isn't just a fakes factory in China pretending these are official watches?
 

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I have seen the 1963 in the Seagull shop in Beijing. But at that time I was not aware of all these version so I didn't check how was the dial. I should go to check again!
@millionaire: in fact there are no real identical version to the original one, even the one from Seagull is not identical (considering the red star, the hand with a tail on the left subdial...). I don't think there are any knock off, just some seem to have a better quality than others (Ed or Thomas version seem to have better quality than the one from Watchunique from what I have read) and there are some slight differences between the models.
 

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The Sea-Gull 1963 military chronograph has become one of the most iconic and collectible Chinese mechanical watches, and for good reason. But I also think it deserves to be seen as one of the most iconic 20th century military watches from anywhere in the world - it's up there with the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, Rolex Submariner, Vostok Amphibia and Omega Speedmaster in terms of its importance to the military it was designed for.
I'm interested in getting a Sea-Gull watch and I've read all of your post, thanks for the review. What is it that makes this watch up there with the others you mention, in terms of its importance to the military - what did it do that other watches couldn't etc?

Thanks
 

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Discussion Starter · #20 ·
I'm interested in getting a Sea-Gull watch and I've read all of your post, thanks for the review. What is it that makes this watch up there with the others you mention, in terms of its importance to the military - what did it do that other watches couldn't etc?

Thanks
It was a first for China's armed forces - their pilots now had a domestically produced, accurate and reliable chronograph to time flight and mission-critical tasks. Just like the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms gave the French frogmen an accurate, robust, domestically produced watch they could use on military dives, etc.
 
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