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Independent Watchmaking

The Discovery Of Qin Gan, Chinese Watchmaker Extraordinaire

The world of high-end watchmaking is not solely confined to Switzerland, or even Europe.

| By Robin Nooy | 9 min read |

As the story often goes, there’s a lot to discover through the magic of the internet and social media. And with that, a whole new world of creativity opens up to each and every one of us. A world beyond borders, that stretches to the far corners of our planet. In today’s case, it stretches to China, as we discover Chinese watchmaker extraordinaire Qin Gan. This man, in his fifties, demonstrates fine high-end watchmaking isn’t necessarily confined to Switzerland but can be found everywhere, just as we’ve expressed numerous times before. We take you with us on a journey through time and discover some of his amazing work and devotion to finishing, and the superbly elegant Pastorale I and II wristwatches.

Qin Gan with industry veteran Dominique Renaud.

The Chinese watchmaking stigma

Whenever the topic of Chinese manufacturing comes up, there’s the stigma of inferiority and copycat behaviour looming around the corner. And as much as that might have been true in the past, things have taken a massive turn for the better over the years. Despite the fact that the Chinese government is very protective of its people and industry, a great number of individuals and companies have ventured far beyond its borders. Yes, there’s the occasional bewilderment of the unexpected and often misunderstood cultural aspects, but on certain levels, we all speak the same language. Take, for instance, the rise of brands like Atelier Wen or Celadon HH, two companies hard at work to break barriers in luxury and high-end watchmaking. Both produce watches with oriental inspiration, but in such a way that it easily resonates with the rest of the world.

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But it goes beyond that, to me at least. Gone are the days when fine watchmaking is reserved for the Swiss only or even the continent of Europe. Sure, it’s still the epicentre of the industry, but we shouldn’t shun the rest of the world when it comes to watches. We see incredible stuff from Canada, the US, Korea and Japan, it’s literally idiotic to think the Swiss are the only ones that matter. All it takes is an open mind to observe and appreciate a product for what it is, and not where it comes from. With that being said, let’s once and for all do away with the stigma on Chinese watchmaking and enjoy the incredible work of Qin Gan, a second-generation watchmaker from Chongqing, China.

Qin Gan’s father working in his watch shop.

Qin Gan, second-generation watchmaker

Qin Gan was born in 1970 in Chongqing, a mountainous city west of the heart of China. He literally grew up in watchmaking, as his father was a respected local watchmaker by trade, and naturally, he developed an interest in the craft. Despite this, his father steered him in another direction as he saw no future for Qin Gan due to the devastating quartz crisis that hit the industry at the time. As a result, he embarked on a career in art and graphic design which saw him spend about 30 years in various jobs before finally pursuing his passion in full.

At a young age, he would often use his father’s tools to make little clockwork gadgets. Over time Qin Gan perfected his skill by taking apart, adjusting and reassembling all sorts of clocks and watches provided by locals. The experience he amassed eventually landed him the position of head watchmaker at Poly Hong Kong auction house. In this position, he would be in charge of the restoration of vintage watches and antique clocks and frequently make an appearance in watch-related conferences, lectures and talks across China. Qin Gan has also published numerous expert articles and stories in most of the influential watch media in his home country. To say he was a public figure in the Chinese watchmaking industry would be appropriate. All this would ultimately lead to the fulfilment of his dream, to create a watch himself, under his own name, something he never gave up on.

The Quarter Strike prototype, built in 2007.

Expressive creation

Qin Gan has always loved to experiment with precision mechanics and it clearly shows in some of his early work. He brings free-spirited creativity to the table, with elements like an animated dragonfly or miniature sculptures and paintings in his creations. Starting in the early 2000s, his earliest watches would be adorned with traditional Chinese paintings and art, such as the ones you see below. Following that first foray into watchmaking were a number of much more complicated prototype pieces, often incorporating some form of miniature sculpture or art form.

Tourbillon Prototype watch with Dragonfly Automaton.

One of his first complicated watches is the Quarter Strike, completed in 2007. This reveals a complex mechanism on the dial where a hammer strikes a uniquely shaped gong every quarter of an hour. Although the finishing seems rough in places, do take into consideration these watches are prototypes and mostly handmade pieces by one man. Details such as the delicate hands and blued screws are signs of the direction Qin Gan was looking to take his watches. What followed was a watch with a retrograde minute display and miniature scarab figurine set in a classical case with sculpted lugs, and later a watch with a tourbillon escapement and a bumblebee automaton.

In 2019 Qin Gan created the Dragonfly Automaton with an offset dial for the time, exposed running gear and a mechanically fluttering dragonfly, activated by a pusher in the caseband. This was set in a stainless steel case measuring 38.5mm in diameter and 13mm in height. Two years later a Tourbillon Dragonfly prototype watch was created, that saw the automaton move to the back of the watch. Up to this point, Qin Gan was working on prototypes only, making many of the components by hand.

During these years he had a brief partnership with a conglomerate group of investors, who financially backed Qin Gan with the goal to create a brand with in-house movements. It wasn’t meant to be however and despite valiant efforts, numerous trips to Europe and meetings with industry experts (including Dominique Renaud) the whole project was scrapped. Parting ways, Qin Gan decided to register a brand under his own name that would allow him to do things how he envisioned them. At that point Qin Gan the independent watchmaker was born, which would pave the way for the Pastorale I.

The Qin Gan Pastorale I

The Pastorale I and II

The Pastorale I came to life after extensive designing and prototyping and was first revealed in 2018. The name is a reference to a Chinese poem about a man choosing a reclusive life in the countryside. A fitting name if you look at the expressive and complex displays of his work before it, really. Only six of these classical three-handed watches were ever made, all set in a neatly shaped 38.5mm by 9.5mm stainless steel case. Details like the concave bezel and brushed and polished surfaces, along with a rather modern profile, made for a very handsome watch overall.

The Pastorale I has a grained sterling silver dial with very finely engraved Roman numerals filled with black vitreous enamel. The small seconds subdial cuts into the hour ring, which is embraced by a subtle minute track. Time is indicated by a handmade set of lance-shaped hour and minute hands and a needle-like seconds hand. The hands are blued, and cleaned back in some areas to reveal the colour of the original material. The result is surprisingly fresh and elegant, and something that will resonate with a lot of people.

The movement inside the Qin Gan Pastorale I is based on the vintage hand-wound Longines 30L calibre. Using the basic architecture, all components are made from scratch by a specialist manufacturer in Hong Kong before being meticulously finished by hand by Qin Gan himself. The bridges and plates are made from German Silver, fitted with gold chatons for the jewels, and finished with anlage, perlage and Côtes de Genève. Even the spokes of the wheels have been polished by hand, as well as the (black-polished) cap for the escape wheel cock. All in all, it’s properly impressive Haute Horlogerie levels of detail, elevating the humble Longines 30L-based movement to great heights.

The sketches of the front and back of the Qin Gan Pastorale II

And while the first batch of the Pastorale I have long sold out, Qin Gan is currently working on the Pastorale II, scheduled for release in Q4 of 2022. Although no finished prototype is shown, it falls in line with the design set by the Pastorale I. It will again be a simple three-handed watch, with a case of 38.5mm by 9.5mm. This time it will be made in 18k white, yellow or rose gold instead of stainless steel though. Also, the dial will be made of precious metal, but it will retain the engraved enamel numerals and markings. The logo is intended to be a bit more subtle, and possible the Chinese representation of the Qin Gan name. The hands will again be lance-shaped, but now in 18k gold as well. The movement for the Pastorale II is the same base as the Pastorale I, but with updated finishing. It will include nickel silver plates and bridges with a mix of grained, polished and brushed finishes. It runs at a 2.5Hz frequency and will have a power reserve of 36 hours.

As I said, not all details have been set in stone yet, but Qin Gan does show the progress of the movement and watch through his Instagram page, which already shows some very promising details. We cannot communicate a price as of now but expect it to be quite costly given the level of manual labour. Approximately 20 pieces are to be made and hopefully, we can update you on this fascinating watch in the near future.

For more information, please visit QinGan on Instagram.

Editorial Note: The images in this article are directly provided by the people representing Qin Gan.

8 responses

  1. I’ve long believed that some of the best watches now come from Asia rather than Switzerland. Grand Seiko being a typical example but China also manufactures beautiful watches at affordable prices. I strongly believe that Shenzhen is now the epicentre for watches that ordinary folk buy and wear everyday, Switzerland is for the elite with bottomless pockets.

  2. Anyone who has put together a swiss watch knows that the gap between chinese and swiss watches is 1000 years

  3. Con los Smartwatch batería de larga duración atacando por todos los flancos en el futuro cada vez más cercano,
    China comienza a gatear en relojería mecánica, Suiza tiene listo su sillón de ruedas.

  4. With long battery life smartwatches attacking from all sides in the near future, China begins to crawl into mechanical watchmaking, Switzerland has its wheelchair ready.

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