Peace, man: the town of Peace River is home to a collection of Chinese watches owned by Ron Good
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In Peace Country, far to Canada’s west, aspen woodlands divide fields of rapeseed and grassy acres of grazing cattle dotted with hay bales. Peace River, a town of 7,000, stands where the Peace and Smoky rivers meet. During the long northern winters, the river valley traps low-hanging clouds that veil the pick-up trucks travelling the muddy highway.

Six years ago, Peace River resident Ron Good decided he needed a new watch. There was nothing wrong with the garden-variety Timex he wore — it was serviceable and kept good time. “But it bored me,” Mr Good says. He wanted something unique, and spent hours researching watches on the internet (obsessive compulsive disorder “can be a skill set”, he says), when he came across an online forum about Chinese mechanical watches.

He was aware of the reputation Chinese goods have for being poorly produced, but the vintage watches he encountered in forums apparently still functioned 50 years after they had been made. “And some were really quite charming,” he says. They were also cheap: the average vintage Chinese watch cost around $20, whereas he could spend $5,000 or $10,000 on a Rolex. “If I did that, I would be one of a million people with a Rolex,” he says. But for the same amount of money, he could develop a substantial collection of vintage Chinese watches — “and that had not been done in the western world”. (A Hong Kong-based collector supports this claim.)

Ron Good © Lori Day

Mr Good found some watches on Taobao, a Chinese ecommerce site. At the time, Taobao could not fill orders from Canada, so he searched for the seller’s name to find his email address, then used Google Translate to introduce himself and inquire about buying the watches. The seller, a chemist named Ma Rong who spoke good English, was baffled by Mr Good’s remote Canadian geography, but nevertheless sent him six watches for a couple of hundred dollars. This was the beginning of the unlikely Alberta Museum of Chinese Horology in Peace River and, perhaps more significantly for Mr Good, an important friendship.

Charmed by the pieces in his first shipment — especially the Taihang military watch (below) which won praise from his watch-forum friends — Mr Good continued to purchase watches from Mr Ma and other Chinese dealers he found on the internet. Mr Good posted information and photos of each piece on watch and clock forums, and other collectors started to contact him looking to connect with his dealers in China. Mr Good obliged. As his collection grew, so did his reputation among collectors as an intermediary between buyers and Chinese sellers.

Taihang military watch © Lori Day

Mr Good’s collection now includes roughly 300 watches and represents an investment of between $10,000 and $12,000. Nearly all of them are Chinese and more than two-thirds are vintage mechanical pieces. Rows of wristwatches lie on his shelves, while newer models are displayed in the velvet-cushioned interiors of presentation boxes. As he explains his collection, he almost grows breathless. He lifts watches off their bamboo mats or plucks them from their plush boxes, and pries off back plates to reveal their intricate interiors. He shines a desklamp on elaborately painted dials and pulls old Chinese ration cards from their envelopes. Calligraphic gifts from his friends in China hang on the walls. Among his most treasured watches is a Jiusko 153LS0107, a birthday gift from the brand’s American distributor. Most of Mr Good’s watches, however, are more modest communist-era models.

One day, a collector on one of the forums joked that Mr Good should open the Alberta Museum of Chinese Horology, and so he did. His virtual museum displays photos of his collection along with information about the history of Chinese watchmaking and a list of English horological terms with their Chinese translations to assist other collectors. The website has its quirks: few of the photographs are captioned and many of the watches are photographed, incongruously, alongside ceramic figurines of cats, elephants and chickens.

Mr Good’s buyer-seller relationship with Mr Ma grew into a friendship forged in Chinese chat rooms. Mr Good did not know how to address Mr Ma at first; he knew nothing about Chinese culture or etiquette and did not want to offend him. “The walls are down,” Mr Ma said. “I understand you think the east is so mysterious, but it is not like that. Relax.”

The two discussed their lives, their jobs, their families. “Everything under the sun,” Mr Good says. And when Mr Ma mentioned that his only brother had died 10 years earlier, Mr Good told him, “Now you have a brother again.”

Ron Good working on a watch © Lori Day

Mr Good had moved to Peace River about half a dozen years before this after a long career as a professional harmonica player, touring with bands and performing for commercials in British Columbia and Montreal. His life in Peace River is much quieter; he has no wife or children there, other than his twin brother, Don, who runs a computer and musical instrument repair shop in the town.

But through Mr Ma, a new door had been opened, and Mr Good, who, aged 60, had never travelled outside of North America, decided to visit China. He banked his paycheques as a community support worker and did shifts at Don’s shop to raise money. “I started saving up to meet my brother.”

In the meantime, he remained active on the watch forums and posted about his plans to visit China and “maybe pick up some watches”. A worker at Tianjin Seagull, the world’s largest manufacturer of mechanical watch movements, contacted Mr Good and invited him to visit its factory while he was in China. Another Chinese watch collector and scholar also wanted to meet him. What began as a trip to meet Mr Ma and his family expanded into a month-long tour of China’s watch industry.

Mr Good has returned to China three times. The priority of each visit was to visit Mr Ma, but he also continued to expand his education in the Chinese watch industry. Mr Good met Xiong Songtao, a third-generation enamel watch-dial artist whose ancestors created vases and pots for the royal court during the late Qing dynasty. Mr Good drained harsh shots of baijiu, China’s national spirit, with the chief executive of clock manufacturer Yantai Polaris — “the trick is not to breathe for 20 seconds after shooting it,” Mr Good advises — and ate jellyfish salad with workers at the factory’s cafeteria. He attended the China Watch and Clock Fair in Shenzhen as an honoured guest, took the sleeper train to the country’s oldest watch and clock factory and was shown Chinese military timing devices he was forbidden to photograph.

Mr Good’s fascination with Chinese watches and his openness to Chinese culture endeared him to his hosts. “They were really compelled that somebody who wasn’t Chinese had an interest in what they were doing and showed a real passion for it,” he says, and on his third trip to China, the Chinese Horological Association honoured Mr Good’s efforts by inducting him as their first western member. “I was in tears,” he says. “I was floored. I wasn’t aware how high I was rising in their eyes. I thought they were just treating the foreign guy nice.”

Last year, the China Watch Overseas Working Committee, an organisation formed to promote the Chinese watch industry abroad, named Mr Good their “chief expert”. More informally, some of Mr Good’s friends in China nicknamed him the “Norman Bethune of Chinese watches”, a reference to the Canadian doctor, revered by the Chinese, who treated sick villagers in China during the late 1930s.

Ron Good's collection now includes roughly 300 watches © Lori Day

While Mr Good does not take these honorifics too seriously, he does consider himself a historian of the Chinese watch industry, especially during the years following Mao Zedong’s rise to power in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Chinese watchmaking flourished at the time as factories were built across the nation. “During Mao’s time, watches were designated as a controlled product,” says Joel Chan, a Hong Kong-based collector and Chinese watch historian. “No imported watch was allowed to enter China, and no one would dare wear a western watch at that time.”

The desire for watches had long been part of Chinese culture: along with a bicycle and a sewing machine, a watch was one of the traditional “three things that go round” that Chinese brides-to-be expected their future husbands to provide.

Watches, though, were not easy to come by at that time. The central government issued a number of ration cards to the various workers’ collectives which, in turn, decided which of their employees would receive one. A card (below) might have been given to a worker whose wedding was approaching, for example, or to reward a worker’s long years of service to the organisation. But the ration card only granted the worker permission to purchase a watch; he still had to save up to half a year’s salary in order to afford one. A watch on a wrist, then, signified accomplishment. “They were real status symbols,” Mr Good says. “If you had a watch, you were a man.”

Some people could only buy watches with ration cards © Lori Day

This era of Chinese watchmaking ended in the 1970s. China started opening its markets to the outside world after the death of Mao in 1976 and the Chinese could buy foreign products for the first time. The desire for western watches devastated the local industry. So too did the introduction of battery-run quartz watches in the 1980s, which were more accurate and cheaper to manufacture than their mechanical cousins. Many of the old Chinese factories closed and highly skilled but suddenly unemployed Chinese watchmakers took jobs making counterfeit Rolexes and other luxury fakes.

For nearly 20 years the Chinese watch industry laboured under this reputation. But since the early 1990s, Chinese factories have been producing high-quality timepieces that stand alongside Swiss and German brands.

Peacock makes watches with complications like coaxial tourbillons, moonphase indicators and retrograde day indicators. In the 2016 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, a prestigious watch prize, three watches by Chinese brands Longio and Memorigin competed for awards with Bulgari, Hermès and Montblanc. And in 2014, the International Museum of Horology added two Koncise watches to its collection.

In addition, Chinese technological innovations have also made some European designs easier to produce. For example, the Chinese developed a way to manufacture complicated tourbillon movements (below), Swiss-invented mechanisms designed to counter the effects of gravity, which previously could only be produced by hand. A handmade Swiss tourbillon watch can cost upwards of $20,000, while a Chinese tourbillon sells for about $2,000, even though the mechanism is the same. “The Chinese brought tourbillon to the common man,” Mr Good says, perhaps optimistically. (The average annual wage in China in 2014 was $8,655, according to Bloomberg.)

The Chinese developed a way to manufacture complicated tourbillon movements © Lori Day

As for his search for an interesting watch to replace his boring Timex, Mr Good solved that problem years ago. “Of all my watches, the only watch I’d fight for is my Taihang,” he says, a simple military watch with a mountain scene etched on the caseback. This is “because it was from Ma Rong in his first shipment. I don’t know anyone in the world who has a military one like this, but it really has to do with Ma Rong.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.