Beijing Watch Factory Wu Ji “Infinite Universe” Bi-Axial Tourbillon Watch Hands-On
Beijing Watch Factory Wu Ji “Infinite Universe” Bi-Axial Tourbillon Watch Hands-On
JAN 28, 2018 — Review by Ariel Adams Published By Coolwatchbrands
Chinese watchmaking is nothing new, nor is it unsophisticated. All of this is evidenced by the 2013 Wu Ji watch by the Beijing Watch Factory. “Wu Ji” apparently translates from Mandarin to “Infinite Universe” in English, a lofty title typical of Chinese naming practices. That said, the Beijing Watch Factory should be proud. Once again they’ve broken ground for their country by producing what they claim is the most complicated watch produced on mainland China. What impresses me more is the brand itself, and their rather atypically refined sense of composure.
China isn’t known for creative watch design. China is known for production, copying, and diligence – which applies to their own watch industry as well. From a production and consumption standpoint, China is the most important place in the world for watches. All but the most exclusive of Swiss watch brands rely heavily on China for the production of watch parts – such as cases and straps – even when they contain “Swiss Made” movements. Native Chinese brands are nevertheless marred by national qualities which oppose many of the qualities that allow for beautiful watchmaking. Ask the Swiss how they make watches and they use the term “slow” and “careful” a lot. China’s industrial power comes from the fact that they aren’t slow and often not careful. So why do we expect them to make good watches the Swiss way? The simple answer is that they don’t.
Although, these generalities aren’t rules. Not all Chinese watches exhibit confusing and awkward designs that that woefully seek to emulate European aesthetics. There are, however, excellent examples of Chinese watchmakers who emulate the Swiss rather well. This is both the strength and weakness of the Chinese watch industry. To be considered “good” by traditional standards, they need to still copy the West. To be bad, they need only to copy poorly. No matter what China is still copying, my hope at least – and there are positive signs of this – is that with China’s serious and sincere love of watches we will eventually see unique design in both the outside and inside of their domestically made watches.
While there are many elements of Swiss watch design seen in the Wu Ji, it is a pleasantly original and interesting timepiece. While elements such as overall aesthetic in many of Beijing Watch Factory’s designs are inherently European, they do however take many artistic liberties in producing unique products. The Wu Ji is a glowing and ambitious example of what they can produce. Even though Chinese watch manufacturing is huge, those that can produce credible mechanical watches are still limited and few watch lovers would claim that Chinese-made mechanical movements are excellent. I am not an expert on all Chinese movements, but I do know that most of them are copies of Swiss movements. The mechanism in the Infinite Universe clearly isn’t. While an inspection of the movement makes it clear that this is a Chinese creation, I found many of the unique elements quite interesting. What I love about this watch is how the complications are much more than skin deep. What you see is only half of what you get. First and foremost, I’ll explain how you even tell the time.
It would be wrong to look at this watch dial and assume you can read the time as you would on most other round-dialed watches. In fact only the upper half of the dial is used to read the time. A shortened scale for all 12 hours is placed on the top half of the dial, and both the hour and minute hand have retrograde mechanisms that have them jump back to the starting point when necessary. This makes the dial extremely confusing at first if you don’t know what you are looking at. I was playing with it to set the time and noticed the hands were jumping around wildly. “Is the watch broken?” I wondered until I realized what I was seeing. The large bi-axial tourbillon at the bottom of the dial is so tall that the watch maker decided he never wanted the hands to go over it. The double retrograde system for the hour and minute hand is designed to prevent the hands from ever accidentally touching it. The benefit is a watch with such a tourbillon system that does not require a “bubble” in the crystal. At 17.2mm thick, the watch could certainly have been thicker.
The tourbillon element of the Wu Ji is quite amusing. What you have is a bi-axial tourbillon that is basically a smaller tourbillon inside of a larger tourbillon. Then you have a traditional flying tourbillon as a separate element on the dial. I’ve never before seen a watch with two different types of tourbillons on the dial. It is interesting, to say the least. The traditional tourbillon has a pleasant bird-shaped bridge which I enjoy. In addition to the tourbillons and the unique time telling system, the Wu Ji watch also contains a retrograde date indicator as well as a power reserve indicator. The manually wound movement holds just over 50 hours of power reserve. On the rear of the watch is an additional complication; a moon phase indicator, with a blue enameled disc.
Claimed accuracy for the caliber TB09 movement isn’t bad. Beijing Watch Factory says the Wu Ji is accurate to about plus or minus 10 seconds a day. That isn’t quite chronometric standards, but probably in line with many Swiss tourbillons. Other Chinese movements can often be off by as much as a minute a day. So all things being considered, 10 seconds a day for this type of complex movement is pretty good.
What the watch cannot escape from is China’s ubiquitous use of machine-decorated parts. Timepieces of this quality in Switzerland exhibit a high level of hands-on attention. Of course the Wu Ji was hand-assembled, but like its lower-priced brethren, it uses parts that have machine polishes. Skilled watch lovers, for example, can always spot “Chinese Geneva stripes” as oppose to the more refined Cotes de Geneve lines on Swiss watches. The Chinese watch industry has all the money and motivation to up their ante a bit when it comes to decoration, but it is possible it just isn’t in their DNA. Traditional Swiss watch making goes to great and careful lengths to ensure that movement aesthetics are perfect. They use special woods to polish metals and age-old techniques that perhaps never quite made their way over to China. The real culprit however is probably sheer time. Watch movement decoration is the most time consuming part of high-end watch making. To keep prices and production schedules reasonable, I simply don’t think that China can handle the intense slowness of the Swiss.
On the wrist, the Beijing Watch Factory Wu Ji is 44mm wide and sits large thanks to its wide lugs. The case comes in either 18k rose gold or platinum. The inspiration for the design is clearly Greubel Forsey-ish, but it looks decent and I am happy that it isn’t just something simple and round. Nothing like a boring perfectly round case to destroy an otherwise unique wearing experience. The Infinite Universe is conservative, but has learned that boring isn’t the same thing. The level of uniqueness mixed with traditional looks is an art that Europeans have learned well, and the Wu Ji is the latest to replicate that. Does it succeed? It really depends on who you ask.
Beijing Watch Factory has succeeded in impressing me – a lot. It has also succeeding in producing something that is both unique and interesting, but is also the type of thing that even the most snobbish watch lovers will take notice of. Complex Chinese watches are here and here to stay, and they are getting better each year. Are they alternatives to the more expensive Swiss stock? Yes, but they aren’t outright replacements. Swiss watches will probably always beat Chinese watches when it comes to sheer refinement and attention to detail. More and more I am convinced that this is caused by a fundamental difference in culture and values. It isn’t a matter of better or worse, but what goes into the production of tiny mechanical art. Having said that, the Chinese will always beat the Swiss when it comes to price.
What makes the high-end Chinese watch industry unique is that they are trying to provide something that the current culture is not set up to do as well as the Europeans, and to me that is an admirable feat. In a huge way it is ironic as the Chinese are the post ardent appreciators of Swiss watch making craftsmanship. Perhaps because it is so counter to their own culture’s production values. Pride however is strong in both cultures, and brands like the Beijing Watch Factory thrive on being able to be Chinese and be the best at what they do. As it stands we will continue to watch as the Chinese develop new and interesting movements, and no longer consider them as a a mere novelty not worth the investment of real watch lover money. And an investment the Wu Ji is. Given the complexity the watch it is arguably well priced, going for between 460,000 – 520,000 Chinese Yuan. That is about $75,000 – $85,000.