Model # NA
Brand/Model: Seagull 1963 Chinese Air Force Chronograph
Movement: Chinese manual wind column wheel chronograph
Material: stainless steel case, nylon NATO-style strap
Complications: chronograph timing in one-fifth second increments up to 30 minutes
Price: approximately $200 to $300 USD depending on exact model and options
Plenty of photos follow the review. Click on the pictures to enlarge.
The ‘retro’ movement in material goods is still in full swing. By ‘retro’ I mean products (watches, cars, furniture, clothes, etc.) that feature styling from years past being reintroduced in current times with the same look, features, etc. but also often times updated a bit with different color combinations, sizes, features or more modern techniques.
The challenge is to find a product that is truly retro in its appearance and function. Too many watch brands bring back a retro line, only to dilute the retro portion by jazzing things up in one way or another and somewhat ruining the retro idea to begin with.
Not so with the watch being reviewed here. The Seagull 1963 Chinese Air Force Chronograph holds amazingly true to its beginnings over 50 years ago in China. Yes, the current production of this watch is offered in two case sizes, with options for a display caseback; acrylic, mineral or sapphire crystals; two different dial color combinations and striped NATO straps, but if you order right, you’ll be rewarded with a watch that looks and feels straight out of the cold-war era.
The Seagull 1963 chrono that I bought is what I consider to be the best reissue of the bunch. It has a perfectly sized 37mm case, solid caseback, acrylic crystal and solid olive NATO strap, all like the original and best of all, this configuration is the least expensive of the current 1963 chrono offerings.
First, a bit of background on this unique and affordable watch. In 1962, the Tianjin watch factory was tasked with developing a chronograph watch for use by the Chinese Air Force. After receiving approval by high-ranking government officials, a run of 1400 watches were produced in 1963 and upon their reissue as a retro timepiece in recent years, the rest as they say in horological circles, is watch making history.
This 1963 Air Force chrono starts with a 37mm stainless steel case (39.8mm including the crown) that is fully polished. Thickness is 14.2mm and lug spacing is an odd 17.5mm (but there would be no problem fitting an 18mm strap to this watch).
The caseback is brushed stainless steel and screws down, with ‘1963’, an Air Force logo and some Chinese language characters stamped into the caseback.
The crown is simple and sized perfectly for manual winding duties. The chronograph pushers are a bit small, but are simple pushbutton style and operate with a satisfying ‘crunch’ when depressed.
Overall fit and finish on this watch is completely acceptable, especially given the humble origins and low price of entry.
The dial is a unique goldish hue. It looks great and is easy to read. The markers and arabics (2,4,6,8,10 and 12) are applied and are gold in color with super simple blued stick hands that are long and very slender. A full 60-second chapter ring encircles the dial, with small arabics every 5 seconds. Overall, it’s a superb presentation with a quality that belies its price.
One demerit, but in keeping with the original design, this watch does not have any luminous material on the dial, markers or hands; it does not glow in the dark.
The chrono seconds hand is a long red stick that tapers slightly to the end. There are two subdials; the subdial at the 9 position is the watch seconds hand and the subdial at 3 is the chronograph’s 30 minute totalizer. Both subdials have full minute tracks, with the seconds subdial featuring a longer blue hand with tailpiece, while the totalizer hand is also blue but without a tailpiece.
Below the 12 position is an applied red star rimmed in gold (a beautiful touch) and below the star ’21 zuan’ (21 jewels in English). Above the 6 position are Chinese language characters.
Capping the dial is a perfectly retro and super cool high-dome acrylic crystal that is slightly curved across its top.
Again, the overall look is spot-on and totally awesome!
The watch is factory rated at 30 meters of water resistance, but judging by the construction, I would not want to get this watch wet.
Another thing that makes the 1963 Air Force chrono so nifty is its high-quality movement. Based on the famous Venus manual wind column wheel chronograph movement and now made by Seagull with modern equipment, the ST19 movement features 21 jewels (19 jewels in some iterations of this watch) running at an acceptable 21,600 vph with complete shock protection.
Much has been written about this modern version of the Venus movement and I have owned several examples of this movement in recent years and it’s always been a quality piece that operates as it should.
The watch manually winds perfectly but does not hack, so measuring timekeeping accuracy is a bit of a challenge, but my best estimate is probably less than 30 seconds a day variation. Power reserve is excellent at 49-3/4 hours with my example. All the chronograph functions work well, starting, stopping and resetting properly. Overall, no complaints with the movement or its operation, especially at this price and also being that it’s a column wheel design, which would usually be found only in more expensive watches.
At first I was disappointed with the NATO strap on the 1963 Air Force chrono, but I went into this figuring this would be a low point of the watch (much like buying a Vostok and knowing the strap will be pretty crappy), but I have since changed my mind despite not being a NATO guy. Yes, the NATO on this watch is thin and a bit rough, but it’s the optimal shade of olive green and harmonizes with the watch and completes its look perfectly. It’s also more comfortable than I thought it would be.
The NATO is very long, so if you have a small wrist as I do, you will have to contend with the long end sticking out a bit, but it really hasn’t been a problem. The strap measures 17.5mm wide from lug to buckle. The buckle is a polished stainless steel type with standard pin, not the complicated wraparound style sometimes seen with NATO straps, so that is nice. There are two keepers, both metal and both are fixed.
The watch also has standard spring bars, so changing out the NATO for something else will be no problem should you choose to do so.
Presentation consists of a metal circular tin with the same markings as are on the caseback emblazoned in red and black on the tin’s lid. Nothing to complain about here, you don’t buy a watch like this expecting to be blown away by the packaging.
All in all, the Seagull 1963 Chinese Air Force chronograph hits the bullseye in regards to a true retro look and feel. Moreover, it’s a useable piece, with a quality movement and an undeniable cache to wearing it. At the price point these can be purchased at, it’s really a no-brainer if you want real retro style through and through.
Pros: true retro style as it was 50 years ago, quality column wheel chronograph movement, superb dial appearance, 37mm is the ideal case size, retro price
Cons: no lume, virtually no water resistance, somewhat flimsy NATO strap
Verdict: No-nonsense, real retro feel and one-of-a-kind looks come together to create a functional and stylish watch that will get noticed, from the cockpit to the kitchen. You’ll be hard pressed to do better at this price.
Thanks for reading and enjoy the pics.