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Bargain hunt Hunting for the cheapest mechanical watch in Baselworld

The world’s biggest watch fair is where luxury watches from the famous Swiss brands are launched. swissinfo.ch went looking for low-budget alternatives. 

Since the 18th century, the automatic watch is as good as it gets for watch aficionados. One can enjoy the beauty and complexity of mechanical components working in harmony without the hassle of winding the watch. The self-winding ability comes courtesy of a rotor that moves when the wearer moves, thereby winding the mainspring. A symbiosis of human and watch, working in synch for mutual benefit. 

Simple Swiss-made models (without complications like date, time zones, moon phases and so on) usually start at over CHF1,000 ($1,005). That is until Swatch disrupted the industry in 2013 with its Sistem51external link range (starting at CHF110). Made completely on an automated assembly line, it made automatic mechanical watches accessible to the average Joe. Journalists covering watch fairs like Baselworld could finally afford to wear a timepiece they were writing about instead of leaving their Quartz watches at home in embarrassment. 

However, this watch was not an option for swissinfo.ch as Swatch pulled out of Baselworld this year. Could anything else be found at the fair that could compete on price? 

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Made in China

Away from the glitz and glamour of the premium Swiss brands lies the Hong Kong Pavilion. Around 30 stalls are present in the rather bland Hall 4. No giant screens, Ferraris or famous brand ambassadors here. What can be found, however, are very cheap watches. 

The stalls are occupied by Original Design Manufacturing (ODM) and Original Equipment Manufacturing (OEM) companies. They produce watches from their own designs or based on a client’s design for the lowest price. The average price of such watches is $10-$15. 

“Automatic watches are usually expensive as manufacturers use high-grade materials like sapphire dials or Swiss Super-LumiNova pigment on the dial,” says Evan Chan of Ching Chi Industrial, which targets the more “high-end” segment from $80 per watch. 

The watches are produced in factories in mainland China (usually Shenzhen or Dongguan) and normally use a Japanese movement like Miyota. Some are even infringing on Swiss territory by producing more complicated watches with tourbillons. 

“There’s a niche market for collectors who like tourbillons at an affordable price. Retail price would be around $2,000 while a Swiss-made one would cost at least five times the price,” says Edward Ma of True Gain Company.

However, the mainstay remains cheaper models as they are easier to manufacture yet offer similar margins to more expensive models (because pricey components are hard to procure in China). The cheapest automatic watch that swissinfo.ch could find at the fair retailed at $45. The catch: you need to order a minimum 300 watches.

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SWI swissinfo.ch on Instagram

SWI swissinfo.ch on Instagram

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