If I keep processing only old photos, I’ll never get ahead, so I thought I’d process some photos I took recently with four different cameras . They’re all of the same subject so you can see how camera/lens choice affect composition and processing. But since this article is not about photography, I’ll put that discussion the the photo captions.

Instead I’ll talk about a watch I “splurged” on: the Seagull 1963 Re-issue. Here it is after I just opened the box (taken with a Nikon D810):

Seagull 1963 just opened
The Richmond, San Francisco, California

Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-80mm f/2.8G
0.4sec @ ƒ14, iso 100, 62mm

Since I already set up my tripod and lightbox for a different shoot, I used the same setup to photograph the unboxing of my newly purchased watched. This image is nothing to write home about as I only take unboxing photos to document how to return something to its original packaging.The nice thing about a tripod photo is that long exposure times don’t matter (as long as the watch isn’t running). The only adjustment I had to do was in exposure and contrast.

I guess they ran out of commemorative tins.

I’ve always had a thing for cheap small dial analog mechanical watches since my first watch: a Timex Snoopy 1958 Tennis Mystery Dial in Denim that my grandmother bought me in Seoul Korea in 1978. At $350, the Seagull 1963 takes the prize for my most expensive watch, though in the mechanical watch world this is pretty cheap. Less than $1000 is nearly unheard of for a mechanical chronograph but the price is low because this is made by the same manufacturer in China that makes the few remaining non-quartz Timex watches. I did spring an extra $50 for the sapphire crystal—a good value to me since I’ve scratch every watch face I have worn regularly, and it was that failure that did in my beloved Snoopy. (Note: you can save a bit much by contacting the importer, hked, directly on WatchUSeek.)

About the 1963 and re-issues

The Seagull 1963 is a re-issue of the “Project 304” watch. This design was first produced in the end of 1963 and mass-produced from 1966 to 1969 by Tianjin Watch Factory for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force in China. Ostensibly, the re-issue was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the model, but there have been copies of this watch made a number of years before 2013 and continues to be made in small batch orders today. (I suspect it was the popularity of those orders that caused Sea-Gull to re-issue it and call it commemorative.)

In fact, because of all these orders, there are now so many variations that a person can wonder which are fakes and which are authentic replicas. Well the truth is they’re all fakes and they’re all authentic. None of these watches are vintage with the same 19-jewel ST3 movement (the ST-19 movement in the Seagull 1963 has been updated and is now decorated) or strap (comes on a **NATO** strap!) nor are officially from Sea-Gull USA (ergo they’re all fakes). However every watch was part of a batch ordered from and assembled by Tianjin Sea-Gull and there is no other factory has the resources to produce the Venus caliber 175 Swiss movement at less than an astronomical price (ergo they are all authentic):

Venus cal. 175 vintage movements (1940-1964) are identical to the ST-3. This one was recovered and restored from a vintage piece to rebuild this Minerva Watches Heritage that retailed for $4500 in the 90’s.

All the equipment to manufacture this movement was sold off by Venus to China in 1963. This became the the ST-3 and later reworked into the ST-19 that is in the Seagull 1963.

Think about it this way: this is basically a Swiss movement, just an obsolete design with Swiss-made tooling just manufactured in China. To see that this is just a decorated version of the Venus cal. 175, here is a slow motion video I shot of display back with the chronograph engaged (shot on an iPhone 6):

Here are some variations of the Seagull 1963 you can find out in the wild:

  • 38mm or 42mm diameter cases, because larger watch faces are more popular today. (304 was 38mm as is mine.)
  • Dial color can be cream/silver, white “panda”, black “reverse panda,” or black. (304 was either cream or black (rare); mine is cream.)
  • Crystal can be acrylic, mineral glass, or sapphire with a slightly different case bezel (304 was acrylic; mine is sapphire).
  • Case back can be solid, solid with engravings, display, display with screen printing on glass, or display with various engravings (304 was solid, mine is display with engraving saying “The First Chinese Air Force Chronograph 1963 (Reissue)” in Chinese).
  • Crown can be unsigned, signed with a star, signed with the Sea-Gull logo, singed with the PLAAF logo. (304 was unsigned; mine is signed with the Sea-Gull logo.)
  • Logo on dial could be the PLAAF emblem, a gold-outlined star, or gold star painted red (304 had either the PLAAF emblem, gold-outlined star or none at all (with printed numbers); mine is a gold star painted red.)
  • Can say 19 zuan (jewel) or 21 zuan. (304 said 19 zuan and was 19 jewel; mine says 19 zuan even though the movement actually has 21 jewels.)
  • Can say (in Chinese) “China, Tianjin Watch Factory”, “Made in China”, simply “China”, or (in English) “Zhonguo” or “Zhonguo Tianjin” (304 said “China, Tianjin Watch Company” in Chinese or “Zhonguo Tianjin” in English; mine says “Made in China” in Chinese).
  • Applied markers at odd numbered hours can be darts or squares (304 had either; mine has triangles).
  • Can come in a commemorative metal tin or wooden box that is either printed or plain. (mine came in a plain wooden box).
  • …There’s a lot of other variations but you get the idea.

The style

Watch freaks love to talk about how the watch “wears on the wrist.” I never really understood it because even though I have a small wrist, I sometimes wear a 49mm watch! But for what it’s worth, military tool watches tend to have large dials for the size and 38mm is pretty large for the era it came from. If you think it’s too small, you can buy easily purchase a bigger one, and no one is going to think the 38mm watch is too big. Heck, my Mickey Mouse watch has the same size dial and is marketed as a Ladies watch!

As many others have mentioned, the mix of a silvered cream dial, Chinese and English text, gold-bordered red star logo, gold applied indices, chemically-blued hour, minute and subdial hands, and red chronograph seconds sounds like a nightmare but it actually works great.

This is a look that can be dressed up or down by the strap being used. While waiting for the strap I ordered, I swapped the bundled one with the Crown & Buckle Latigo Brown NATO I use to dress up my Seiko field watch but this photo gives you a good look at how a crazy mix on the dial can actually look pretty understated (taken with an iPhone 6):

Seagull 1963 with leather NATO
The Richmond, San Francisco, California

iPhone 6, Pro HDR X
1/120 sec @ f/2.2, iso 40, 4.15mm (35mm)

Isn’t it funny that when shooting with an iPhone I become too lazy to care about reflections? No post-processing on this image outside of what is applied by Pro HDR X.

The mishmash of colors works very well on the dial, and the applied gold markers and polished steel case do add a touch of class. What was once a pure tool watch — in the post-quartz era of cell phones and casual dress code — has that contradictory mix of informal and formal that can be appropriate for almost any setting.

While the watch missing the near-ubiquitous date complication, I prefer it this way. It’s not a watch I’ll be wearing every day, so having a watch without the day or date makes things much easier to set when I forget to wind the watch. Besides, if I need to know what day it is, I’d look at my cell phone or the menu bar of my computer.

I like the style of this watch because most Chinese-brand mechanicals watches pretend to be luxury watches in the Swiss, French, or German-style and, while that may work in Singapore and Hong Kong boutiques, to this American it ends up coming off as a knock-off. Yes, Seikos, Citizens, and Orients often are inspired by American or European designs but have a decidedly-Japanese take on things.

This watch doesn’t imitate like those other Sea-Gull’s do, it instead tries to be a Chinese military watch, because that’s what it was. This may explain why it has a cult following here. In the end the dial creates a decidedly communist look to it that happens to pair well with my messenger bag:

My custom Chrome bag
The Richmond, San Francisco, California

iPhone 6
1/15 sec @ f/2.2, iso 640, 4.15mm (35mm)

I should mention the dial is not entirely original. I believe it is a derivative of the Angelus cal. 215, which I think was a watch used by the Hungarian Air Force during WW2.

This person rebuilt a vintage 1951 Angelus. Other than the coloring of the hands and a 45 minute accumulator, it’s nearly identical to the Seagull 403 right down having a column-wheel chronograph movement.

The movement

Like many things Chinese, most Chinese movements are simple clones of other popular Swiss and Japanese movements. However as I mentioned earlier, this is not a clone but an actual Swiss movement from Swiss tooling, just made in China and then iterated on.

Marie’s reaction to this movement was what motivated me to purchase the watch. And, once you get rid of the NATO strap, it looks almost breathtaking, chemically blued-screws and over-the-top finishing are fine for something nobody but you will ever see (taken with a Nikon D810):

Seagull ST-19 movement
The Richmond, San Francisco, California

Nikon D810, Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8G VR II, Canon 500D
1/125sec @ ƒ5.6, iso 800, 78mm

This photo was shot handheld with a diopter on top of a 70-200, but optical image stabilization ensured the in-focus parts are sharp enough. Diopters tend to play funky with evaluative meters and so this image was overexposed by a half stop. Beyond that adjustment, the processing settings are taken from a DxO preset I use for macro with the vignetting center adjusted. Since this is a product shot, I’m using the Kodak Elite Color color rendering and grain which adds a small amount of warmth to the image while keeping the color saturation correct.

However, besides the overall look, there is the coolness of owning a pretty-much-nonexistant-today column-wheel chronograph as explained in this video:

In a world with smartphones and digital watches, a mechanical chronograph is more for the cachet and styling than any practical use. One small issue is because it uses a column-wheel and the finishing isn’t perfect, the start-stop pusher is pretty hard to press, while the reset pusher is trivial—backwards from what I would want. This also means that if this watch does fail, it will most likely happen in the chronograph function.

As for accuracy, my copy started losing about 1 sec/day, but it’s settled closer to losing 6 sec/day. For a mechanical, that isn’t bad. It is easy to remove the back and adjust the timing of them if it gets bad.

Here’s to hoping it doesn’t break down too quickly. Like other things Chinese, quality can be a crapshoot. And with a chronograph at this price, it might end up cheaper to replace rather than repair.

The strap

The olive NATO strap the watch came with was nice. It is sewn from higher gauge nylon than typical and has stainless steel hardware with a substantial buckle, unlike my chrome-plated brass piece-of-shit olive strap I stupidly bought from J Crew eight years ago.

However, NATOs hide the display back that is screaming to be shown off, so I decided on different light brown leather strap would occupy some happy medium between dressed-up or down for a work casual look which is the environment I’ll be wearing it in the most. I chose to buy a Hirsch Rivetta in golden brown. Unfortunately, Hirsch no longer makes this strap so I had to wait while it shipped from the UK and clear customs.

Given that I’ll probably not be able to find this same strap again when it fails years from now, I wanted a deployant clasp to keep the band from wearing down. A cheap butterfly deployment with a padded “calf leather” strap costs only a few dollars more than a the deployment by itself on Amazon or eBay, so I ordered that and it arrived much faster than the Hirsch. I placed it on my watch the day it arrived at work (taken with a Leica M8):

Off the wrist to get work done
WeWork SF SoMa, South of Market, San Francisco, California

Leica M8, Cosina-Voigtländer NOKTON 35mm F1.2
1/8sec @ ƒ1.2, iso 160, 35mm (47mm)

As always, close-focusing with a Leica is impossible, so you always capture it in its environment—in this case, my workstation at work. Since the lighting is very poor, the colors are flatter which seems to work out well on a Leica. Processing was done in Lightroom with the only major thing of note being the use of a the crop and straighten tool. What is it with the bad bokeh that cam come from Voigtlander lenses?

I’m not confident that this clasp will last long, even though it, like everything watch-related from China, has some over-the-top perlage etched into the grooves (you can just make it out in an earlier photo). However I paid a third of a typical aftermarket clasp, and a tenth of an luxury-brand OEM branded clasp, so when it fails I can just buy another or at least I’ve deferred the decision on what clasp to get.

The band did eventually arrive. Since the Rivetta is often said by others to resemble wood grain, I took out the most woody thing I owned (my portable Go set) and photographed it on that (taken on an Olympus E-PL3):

Go Seagull 1963!
The Richmond, San Francisco, California

Olympus E-PL3, Lumix G 20/F1.7
5 exposures, iso 200, 20mm (40mm)

I made a infinity (Ko) pattern with the stones to add some visual interest to the opposite third. As it was a handheld indoor scene, I didn’t see the harm in exposure bracketing for HDR photography. Too bad I’m so rusty, I left the camera in program mode. This is a no-no as it may be hard to deghost the image if the focus changes. Processing was done in DxO Optics Pro into Nik HDR Efex Pro because the Lightroom’s built-in exposure merging barfs up a cornucopia of oversaturated colors.

Overall, I htink it makes for a cool watch. Now if only I remembered to mount the strap on correctly!

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