In 2016 Zhang Jianmin was on a go to to Milan when he determined to purchase an costly swimsuit.
The acquisition was one thing of a flight of fancy: Mr. Zhang, founder and president of CIGA Design, a wristwatch producer based mostly in Shenzhen, China, imagined carrying it to the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. The annual awards occasion, generally referred to as G.P.H.G. or the Grand Prix, is commonly described as “the Oscars of watchmaking.”
“I advised myself, I’ll solely put on this swimsuit on the G.P.H.G. stage once I win the award,” Mr. Zhang recalled on a Zoom name earlier this month, talking by means of his interpreter, Liu Rensong.
On Nov. 4 not less than a part of Mr. Zhang’s bold imaginative and prescient got here true: CIGA Design turned the primary Chinese language model to win a Grand Prix prize when its Blue Planet automated wristwatch, a 46-millimeter titanium mannequin that includes a rotating blue aluminum 3-D globe, beat 5 different contenders within the Problem Watch class. (The class is open to timepieces that retail for not more than 3,500 Swiss francs, or $3,800, and was launched in 2018 to encourage new, value-oriented watchmakers to enter the competitors.)
However pandemic journey restrictions stored Mr. Zhang from attending the ceremony. The Italian swimsuit continues to hold, unworn, in his closet.
Within the tight-knit world of Swiss watchmaking, China’s twin identification as a producing middle and a fast-growing luxurious market is nicely understood. However till the 2021 ceremony just about nobody within the Swiss watchmaking institution considered the Chinese language as opponents — because the trade’s shocked response to CIGA Design’s win underscored.
“There have been folks gasping throughout me,” mentioned Elizabeth Doerr, co-founder and editor of the net watch publication Quill & Pad and a former member of the G.P.H.G. jury, which helps make the ultimate prize choices. (The author has been a G.P.H.G. member since 2020, however has by no means participated in prize choices.)
“The opposite contenders had been all very deserving watches, well-made, you recognize the folks behind them, you recognize their tales,” Ms. Doerr added. “And this made-in-China watch comes out of left discipline.”
But the success of CIGA Design — the initials stand for China Worldwide Nice Artwork — hardly occurred in a single day. Mr. Zhang mentioned he started engaged on the design that might develop into the Blue Planet in 2013, the identical 12 months he created his first wristwatch, a minimalistic quartz timepiece that received an award from the German worldwide design competitors Purple Dot for aesthetics that conveyed “exclusivity and an easy character,” in response to the jury assertion.
Impressed by Bauhaus design ideas, Mr. Zhang had lengthy sought to convey good design to a wider viewers. Born in 1967 in central China’s rural Qinghai Province, on the southern fringe of the Tibetan Plateau, he studied industrial design on the Northwest Institute of Gentle Business in close by Shaanxi Province. (In 2002, the institute was renamed the Shaanxi College of Science and Know-how.)
In 1993, he moved to Shenzhen, town of 12.6 million close to Hong Kong, the place he spent the following 20 years designing graphics, steering techniques for mass transit and civic structure initiatives.
A few decade in the past, Mr. Zhang mentioned, he noticed a possibility to create reasonably priced watches for China’s rising era of fashion-conscious youth. Globally, “there are about 800 years of historical past of the mechanical clock and 200 years of historical past of the watch,” he mentioned. “If we examine the watch provide chain in China to Switzerland, we don’t have the benefit to supply high-end watches however there are nonetheless some benefits: the fee and the effectivity.”
As he was producing his first watches, Mr. Zhang started doing the technical analysis to create a single-hand wristwatch, with the aim of subverting a whole bunch of years of watch and clock design. “When he studied clock historical past, he noticed loads of improvements throughout these 800 years, however one factor that’s not modified: They use two or three arms to inform time,” Mr. Liu, the interpreter, mentioned in the course of the Zoom name with Mr. Zhang.
“He needed to innovate.”
In 2019, Mr. Zhang created the primary era of his globe watch and submitted it to the Grand Prix, the place it earned a finalist slot within the Problem Watch class, the primary Chinese language model to advance that far within the competitors.
He mentioned he continued to refine the design till he settled on an avant-garde show dominated by the 3-D globe, microcarved to replicate precise terrain information (the design was meant “to remind all of us to guard our solely dwelling,” in response to the model’s G.P.H.G. entry). A compass rose served because the hour hand whereas a revolving minute disk indicated the minutes.
“We name it a nonsynchronous comply with,” Mr. Zhang mentioned. “The hour hand rotates 30 levels and the minute hand rotates 390 levels. With this expertise, one hand can inform time.”
In August CIGA Design produced 48 of the watches, simply in time to ship one to Geneva for prize consideration. Anticipating that it will price a terrific deal to make sufficient of the watches on the market, the corporate priced the mannequin at 1,800 Swiss francs.
“In September, we did a market take a look at with an early adopter version of Blue Planet, and we discovered it was very welcomed by customers, but additionally there’s a robust voice from customers of ‘don’t make it that costly’,” Mr. Liu wrote in a follow-up e mail. “In China, 10,000 yuan [about $1,570] is a de facto ceiling for a home luxurious model. Thus we cut back its value, and we’re fairly certain it’ll promote.”
Mr. Liu mentioned CIGA Design was deciding easy methods to market the watch globally, and “within the close to future,” deliberate to make it out there on Amazon, the place its different watches already are offered.
In contrast with the model’s different fashions — largely modern designs, usually that includes a skeletonized dial, that retail for $200 to $400 — the Blue Planet is priced extra like an entry-level Swiss timepiece. However Mr. Zhang mentioned he didn’t intend to take the model upmarket; conserving CIGA Design’s watches reasonably priced for younger consumers was one in every of his crimson strains. “We need to make a watch good trying, simple to make use of and never costly,” he mentioned.
All of which places the model in a very good place to capitalize on the rising stress on Chinese language customers to assist homegrown manufacturers, mentioned Christopher A. McNally, a professor of political financial system at Chaminade College in Honolulu and an adjunct senior fellow on the East-West Middle.
“There’s this push in China from the highest down, but additionally from the underside up, of going extra Chinese language,” Mr. McNally, an knowledgeable on China’s transition to capitalism, mentioned in a current cellphone interview. “Search for Gen Z in China — it’s a completely new era. They’ve a really totally different worth system from their mother and father. It’s all about self-identity. And from the highest down you’ve President Xi Jinping saying, ‘Love your nation, love your manufacturers.’”
Mr. McNally mentioned CIGA Design’s win on the Grand Prix might ship advantages to Mr. Zhang nicely past merely promoting extra watches.
“The payoffs for somebody in China for getting such a prize are huge,” he mentioned. “It’s not simply cash, it’s good promoting. But it surely’s additionally political status. I wouldn’t be astonished if he meets Xi Jinping sooner or later.”