Monday, February 23, 2015

Parnis Portuguese Men's Wristwatch: Hidden Excellence

Hidden Excellence: A highly under appreciated men's wristwatch

In this article, we'll take an in-depth look at the Parnis PN-048A and its TY/ST 2542 Sea-Gull movement. No advertising spin on this watch exists. Fortunately, we cannot regurgitate information from the communications department of a slick multi-billion Swiss franc conglomerate. Parnis stands-up to some strict scrutiny on its own and the company doesn't have a communications department.


The foundations of one of world's great myths began in 1983. The Swiss government and several banks finally realized their watch industry would fail. From 1974 to 1983, 1000 of the 1600 Swiss manufacturers had already failed and the remaining companies had either stagnated, ended their operations or were not covering their cost of operations. Only Rolex remained viable.

What happened? The Japanese declared economic war and essentially won. The lethargic Swiss companies could not compete against modernized Japanese products, their distribution and marketing processes, reliability or cost. Also, the Swiss had to contend with an overvalued currency selling at a 60% premium to the dollar.

Omega, Breitling and other major Swiss watch companies seemed resigned to the end of the decades old Swiss virtual monopoly of timepieces.

In 1983, the government oversaw the merger of the two largest Swiss holding companies. Their consolidated sales equaled about 1.5 billion Swiss francs, but the new company had such significant losses that their equity disappeared off the balance sheet. The banks literally held the company together.

Unemployment reached 50% and the merger resulted in a conglomerate of movement manufacturers whose products few wanted. In fact, government made a tragic mistake and stopped the selling of movements to foreign companies like Bulova.

In 1983, only two viable finished watch brands existed in the merged companies: Hamilton and Rado. The others finished brands, such as Omega with its 1600 models failed.

The merged company, now known today, as the Swatch Group, Ltd. cut costs, liquidated factories, reduced employment and copied  Japan's global strategy. That strategy included handing off 50% of employment and production to China via Hong Kong and eventually Thailand.

It took the Swiss about twenty years, but they convinced the world that they were the only people capable of making watches. It took time, but enough advertising, celebrity endorsements, gifts to presidents and ambassadors gave Swatch a dominate foothold in the luxury section. Sponsoring international sporting events, massive displays at all the major watch fairs like Baselworld and the world's largest event - the Hong Kong Watch and Clock Fair - added to their panache.

Today, consumer believe the Swiss are the only people capable of making watches and for that, we pay a premium. When you walk into Neiman Marcus or an adjacent high-end jewelry store, the sales people will only show you Swiss watches. Don't expect to see watches from the people who actually make them.

Now to Parnis

Parnis produces high-quality mechanical watches and few companies can challenge Parnis standards. The company designs relatively simple watches compared to the Swiss. Parnis relies heavily on existing trends in the industry for the look and feel of their watches. Their business model serves Parnis in two ways. First, they produce excellent and attractive watches and secondly, they stay relevant within the Chinese/Asian pricing model. They make high-value watches, that is, a better watch for the same money as the competition.

It's difficult to make price/value comparisons among companies in the Chinese watch business. Parnis watches cost more to make than Chinese competitors Dixmont, Rossini, Nakzen and the Shanghai Watch Factory. Since Parnis has less market visibility, the company has to keep their prices low to compete.

To maintain relevance and continue to grow market share, Parnis follows two important strategies: 1) stay simple and avoid using cosmetics and decorations on bridges, rollers and engraved dials. 2) Reduce profit margins.

Let's look at number two. The typical pricing model for Swiss, Japanese and Chinese watches uses ratios to compute suggested retail prices. That ratio is usually 1:3 or three times cost. If a watch costs $100, then it will retail for $300 at what industry insiders call a triple key or three times mark-up. For example, one of my colleague bought 100 watches for resale at $75 each. The manufacturer's suggested retail price for that model is $225.

Parnis maintains a tighter pricing ratio. Cost is a percent of retail and leaves a profit margin of approximately 33%. A watch costing the retailer $65 will sell for approximately $99. If a seller wants to charge more, then the he or she must add value, such as local delivery, reduced shipping costs, gift boxes, cases, deployment bands and service.

The vast majority (99%) of Parnis sellers are Chinese. They can live with a 33% profit. Kenneth Cole might need that 300% mark-up to feed the distribution channel before it reaches the consumer. Parnis sells to distributors who sell direct to consumers.

Let's look at an example of a popular Parnis watch.


I've seen this watch referred to as a "Portuguese" and as a "Homage". It doesn't matter what label people use, it's really neither. Calling it a Portuguese might imply that Parnis made a clone or an exact copy or counterfeit product belonging to IWC.* Using a familiar design doesn't make a watch a clone or a copy. Stealing a trademark, that is, another company's name would.

In the watch industry, people refer to bilateral designs with different names. Hublot and Zenith have used this design as have many watchmakers. People credit Leondas as the first known bilateral chronograph wristwatch, prior to that model, companies only produced pocket watches with this design.

Parnis is not a "homage" watch, which means a "tribute". The generally accepted use of homage is one in which a watch company resurrects an important timepiece from its past.  For example, Rolex reissued a Cosmograph Daytona on its 50th anniversary at Baselworld in 2013.

* IWC has used the "Portuguese" moniker since the 1990's. Originally called the Portugieser when first made around 1939, the company stands by a story about two Portuguese businessmen (Rodrigues and Teixeira) commissioning the International Watch Company to create a chronometer. These alleged gentleman wanted a watch with the accuracy of a marine chronometer. IWC used a 43 mm pocket watch movement to create their Portugieser. To my knowledge, no trademarks exist for "Portuguese Series of Watches".

Parnis Chronometer

Parnis calls this model a Chronometer. A Chronometer differs from a Chrongraph in that the latter is a stopwatch built onto a standard watch. The term Chronometer implies superior accuracy, similar to maritime clocks.

To achieve its accuracy, Parnis uses a premium Sea-Gull movement ST 2542. It exposes a power reserve indicator at the 12 o'clock position with the second hand in the six o'clock position.

The ST/TY- 25  are automatic movements with double bridge, suitable for "open heart" applications (from the dial visible balance, in the style of Vacheron Constantin). 25-40 jewels, 21,600- 28,500 vibrations, 48 hour power reserve, ball bearing rotor. Developed in-house by Tianjin Seagull in 2000. It comes with a variety of complications, including a perpetual calendar. Currently, the ST-25 is Sea-Gull's primary line of movements.

Sea-Gull 2542

The specifications of the 2542 are:

  • 2542 - Small seconds at 6, power reserve indicator at 12
  • 34 Jewels
  • Lignes 13½
  • 28,600 BPS Frequency
  • 41 Hour Power Reserve
  • Novodiac Shock Absorber
  • Movement Diameter: 30.40 mm
  • Thickness: 7.4 mm
  • Automatic

According to this post: Seagull movements, when adequately adjusted, will match the performance specified by COSC, (the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute).

Parnis watches with Sea-Gull movements provide a best in class accuracy and notable features beyond basic timekeeping and provide a way to purchase a world-class timepiece otherwise unavailable at this price point.


Parnis reduces the cost of their watches by simplifying their cases. They uses the best materials without excessive designs. Parnis cases use high grade, high tensile strength 316L stainless steel without decorative surfaces, such as circular graining. They make their cases using stainless steel case blanks machined on CNC (Computer numerical controlled) lathes and milling machines. They use milling machines to cut the horns for the strap or bracelet and the apertures for the crown and push buttons into the casing rings.

Stamping and milling cases differs from methods deployed by the vast majority of watchmakers. Most use MIM (metal injection molding), which takes stainless steel powder, heats it and forces it in a plastic mold. The type of alloys used in MIM have low tensile strength and shorter life-spans.

Obtaining a watch with cases made of  solid metal (blanks) and milled surfaces provides a best-of-class product typically made by the prestigious European watch companies.

Understanding the materials used allows a watch buyer to know the difference between a great watch and a OK watch. First, understand the grade of stainless steel.

Marine grade stainless, or SAE 316 stainless steel, is the second most common non-magnetic stainless steel. Users prefer this grade for use in marine environments because of its greater
resistance to pitting corrosion. Manufacturers also use this grade in surgical steel and for implants.

Below, you can see photos of a typical Parnis case for a ST 2542 Sea-Gull movement. It has simple lines, a polished bezel and back on a satin holder. Parnis focused on workmanship rather than inscriptions and elaborate markings. The lines on this case are clean and the milling limited to essentials. Notice the quality of the threads and crystal.

As mentioned in the first paragraph and worth repeating:

Parnis reduces the cost of their watches by simplifying their cases. They uses the best materials without excessive designs. Parnis cases use high grade, high tensile strength 316L stainless steel without decorative surfaces, such as circular graining. They make their cases using stainless steel case blanks machined on CNC (Computer numerical controlled) lathes and milling machines. They use milling machines to cut the horns for the strap or bracelet and the apertures for the crown and push buttons into the casing rings.

Below you can see photos of a case made with a Metal Injection Molding Process (MIM). Note the more elaborate angles and detail. You can imagine the amount of work entailed in making this case using case blanks and milling.

The MIM uses finely-powdered metal mixed with binding material to create 'feedstock'. The powder allows for handling by plastic processing equipment. This is not a casting process, but the kind of process used to make plastic dishes, cell phone cases, inkjet printers and so forth.

It's a fairly straight forward process: 1) create a mold 2) heat the feedstock 3) inject it into the mold 4) cool it and 5) polish it if so specified.

You might prefer an aluminum ladder to one made with MIM when painting your house.

Manufacturers of MIM equipment use the headline:

The quality and feel of metal, combined with the design freedom of plastic.
Citizen Watch Co was the first to establish a MIM facility in Tokyo, Japan, in 1987 to produce parts such as stainless steel watch cases and tungsten alloy balance weights used in automatic watches.

Swatch Irony watches were among the first to use stainless steel MIM cases. The first metal injection molded nickel-free 316L stainless steel Irony watch cases for Swatch came off ETA Manufacture Horlogere Suisse’s in-house MIM production line in Grenchen, Switzerland, in October 1994.

When you look a the photos below, notice the inconsistencies in the finish, threads and the inside of the case back.
Other High-Quality Features Associated with the Parnis Portuguese

Parnis uses different types of crystal materials for the front and back of their watch models. The materials include Hardlex, Sapphire, hardened mineral glass and flame fusion.
Hardlex is a product developed by Seiko. It uses a combination of mineral glass and sapphire.

Sapphire is highly scratch resistant, but is prone to shattering. Mineral glass scratches easier than sapphire, but shatters less often than sapphire. Seiko developed a process to join together the best of both materials. They coat mineral glass with synthetic sapphire.

Hardened mineral glass results from a process intended to make it more scratch resistant. The inventors of the process improved the scratch resistance, but knowledgeable watchmakers consider the improvement marginal.

Flame fusion is one of the various methods used to make synthetic sapphire. When you see the term, Flame Fusion pertaining to watches, it literally means the crystal is sapphire.

Parnis Chronometer with a Bilateral Chronographic Design:

Let's pull the watch specifications together and write some concluding thoughts.

The major attributes of the Portuguese tell us quite a bit about Parnis. It's a man's luxury dress watch with these features:
  • Movement : Sea-Gull 2542 automatic, hacking support
  • Size : 43mm diameter w/o crown, 12mm thickness
  • Color : butler finish dial, silver sub-dials, steel hands & numerals
  • Material : 316L marine grade stainless steel
  • Case : polished bezel & see-through caseback
  • Glass : micro domed hardlex crystal
  • Band : black leather strap, 22-18mm width
  • Clasp : Tang comes standard and deployment buckle available
  • Sub-dial : power reserve at 12 o'clock, seconds at 6 o'clock
  • Water resistant to 3 ATM
  • Weight : approx. 110g

Target Market for Parnis Watch Company

Parnis products like the Portuguese target a market segment of people wanting a Swiss quality timepiece, but don't want to spend a thousand or more Swiss francs for trivial or superficial adornment. 

Supposedly, decoration is what elevates a watch brand from pedestrian or nondescript to excellent. To an uniformed buyer, decoration demonstrates attention to detail and accentuates complexity.

The only problem with that logic lies in technology - computer numerical controlled lathes that remove the artisan from the equation. A programmed rose engine lathe will etch a pattern in metal, but it says nothing about the watchmaker. In the twenty first century, selling decoration as symbol of excellence is a ruse. 

My appreciation of contemporary watches lies in accuracy, excellence and truth in form. A Parnis watch represents the work of clever people who compete not just on price, but also on merit. Consider it artwork in a high-tech world.