MODERN: Discovering Grand Seiko

There are common threads through many of the most illustrious brands in the watch industry: heritage, history, and a dedication to precision and quality. We often talk about their roots dating back several decades, if not a century or more. A number of these watchmakers will lay claim to historical achievements, innovations that they have contributed to or are particularly known for. Many will point to the unique landscape in which their timepieces are developed and constructed, and how their local heritage and customs have shaped their collections throughout the years. Should you talk about this with a group of collectors, the natural association will be with the Swiss watch industry, but I would submit that all of these threads, and more, are also linked to another locale, much closer to us: Japan.

The mere mention of the Japanese watch industry will raise blood pressures in their Swiss counterparts, for it has long been associated with the “Quartz Crisis” that almost decimated the Swiss watch industry in the 70’s and 80’s, before mechanical watches were elevated beyond their pure functional aspects into their current status, at the crossroads of the technical and artistic worlds. To be fair, today’s watch industry owes much to a number of countries and historical contributors from beyond the Swiss borders; I digress though, so allow me to bring you back on course, to an examination of the watch industry in Japan, and, very specifically, to Grand Seiko, where I was fortunate to be guided on an extended visit through its facilities across the country, which I found, in short, truly eye-opening.

Although today’s Grand Seiko is considered a brand in its own right (more on that later), the historical aspect needs to start in 1881, where a young watchmaker, Kintaro Hattori, opened his first shop handling the repair and sales of timepieces, including clocks. Although only 21 years old at the time, this was not a spur of the moment venture for Hattori, who had discovered the Kobayashi Clock Shop when he was 13 years old, and decided then and there that he would become a clockmaker. His training until then was as a merchant, and he learned the technical aspects on the job, working at the Kameda Clock Shop in Nihonbashi, and the Sakata Clock Shop in Ueno. In 1877 he started offering his own services on the sales and repair of second-hand timepieces from his house (with a signboard “Hattori Clock Repairer”) before establishing K. Hattori and Co. in 1881. Hattori would go on to found the Seikosha factory in 1892, manufacturing clocks with a technical partner called Tsuruhiko Yoshikawa. Loosely translated, Seikosha means “The House of Precision”, a fundamental guiding principle that is still very apparent in today’s Seiko.

Grand Seiko Laurel MechanicalThe first Japanese wristwatch, the Laurel, made in 1913

The first wristwatch to come from the house of Hattori was the Laurel, which was presented in 1913, an impressive feat at the time given that wristwatches in general had only been introduced a few years earlier in the West; the Laurel was not only Hattori’s first wristwatch, it was Japan’s first as well, and it was developed specifically for that purpose; that is, at less than 30mm in diameter, it wasn’t a pocket watch with lugs welded to it so it could be worn on the wrist.

The business grew healthily over the years, until the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, which devastated Tokyo, causing over 100,000 deaths, and destroying virtually all of Seikosha’s facilities. Within days, the 62-year old Hattori decided to rebuild the factories. One of the first steps he took was to commit to the free replacement of the 1,500 or so timepieces that customers had entrusted to the company for repair prior to the earthquake, a decision that would go a long way to building the trust of the general public in the company. Even with temporary factories in place, just over a year later, the company would invest further into the production of wristwatches, under a revised name: Seiko. It then took until 1932 to re-build the main office building, which is still an iconic landmark in Tokyo’s Ginza district, complete with a clocktower, and which is today the home of Wako, a high-end department store wholly-owned by Seiko Holdings Corporation.

Seiko Wako Ginza Tokyo Clock TowerThe Seiko clocktower, atop the Wako department store, a Ginza landmark

Today’s Seiko is a complex conglomerate, which has expanded well beyond its watchmaking origins into electronics and systems solutions. There are three main components: Seiko Watch Corporation, Seiko Instruments Inc., and Seiko Epson Corporation. The watchmaking roots are very much present though in each company, as they all work together to produce the watches that Seiko is best known for. The intricacies of the companies and how their interoperability could be the subject of lengthy tomes, so allow me to bring the focus back to the topic at hand, namely Grand Seiko.

Well before the quartz watch even existed, Seiko embarked on a path the elevate some of its watches, both technically and aesthetically, which led to the creation of Grand Seiko in 1960. The idea was to create watches that would set the standard in terms of precision, as daily wearers, while aiming for aesthetic excellence and optimal legibility. The goal was to meet the standards established by the Bureaux Officiels de Contrôle de la Marche des Montres, the precursors to what we know today as the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres, or COSC. Given the millions of COSC certified movements we see today, you have to think back to more than 50 years ago, when the standards we take almost for granted in today’s timepieces were considered lofty targets in Switzerland, let alone in a country continents away, with a considerably smaller pool of watchmaking expertise to work from. It’s in Suwa Seikosha, near Nagano, that the first Grand Seiko watch would be produced; the factory is now part of Seiko Epson.

From its very inception, Grand Seiko would develop the watches “in-house”, using a term that has today evolved to connotate a certain prestige, well before the “in-house” rage became pervasive within the Swiss watch industry in the late 2000’s. In a way, it does bear some similarities with the way the in-house developments were driven in Switzerland as well; there simply wasn’t an easy supply of high-end mechanical movements for Seiko, so the development, production and construction would simply be done internally, going as far as the creation of their own specific alloys for the balance and hairsprings. It’s here that we see the first glimpses of the Japanese way of thinking; although this ability to manufacture internally would be presented as an ultimate achievement for most watchmaking brands, there’s a sense with Grand Seiko that it’s simply a fact of life, brought on by the goals that were set very early on. It’s part and parcel of the Grand Seiko DNA.

First Grand SeikoThe first Grand Seiko, produced in 1960 (© Grand Seiko)

Given their significant history spanning more than five decades, you would think that Grand Seiko watches would be better known around the world; the fact is, for much of that time, Grand Seiko was reserved for the Japanese market only. It’s not until 2010 that Grand Seiko would be launched on the international markets, with a few selected retailers around the world. A significant challenge since that international launch is that the difference between Seiko and Grand Seiko has not been very clear, except to ardent collectors and enthusiasts. As Grand Seiko was presented as a product line rather than its own brand, it was more often than not displayed near other Seiko products, contributing somewhat to the lack of perceived differentiation between the two. The watches themselves had simultaneous “Seiko” and “Grand Seiko” branding on the dials – ironically, a change from the very first watch in 1960, which bore “Grand Seiko” branding only. To address this, a decision was made to launch Grand Seiko as its own brand in 2017, and it’s in this context that we explore it today.

Before we look at how Grand Seiko timepieces are produced, it’s helpful to think of how the brand has delineated its offerings. There are three distinct collections: Elegance, Heritage and Sport. At their core, there are three types of movements: 9S Mechanical, 9F Quartz, and 9R Spring Drive. Purists may scoff at the inclusion of quartz calibres in the context of luxury watchmaking; I would submit that it’s a lingering by-product of the Quartz Crisis, and a tendency to look down on whatever is not fully mechanical. Let’s not forget that there are some very well regarded names in Swiss watchmaking that still have quartz movements in a few of their collections. Also, there needs to be a different way of looking at it, one which I find to be inherently Japanese, a focus on the task at hand and the best way to address it. The fact is, Grand Seiko’s leitmotiv is a quest for precision, and from the Japanese perspective, there is no reason to do that through mechanical means only. Quartz is inherently more precise and consistent than a mechanical calibre; it’s natural then to have both quartz and mechanical offerings within the collection, not only because Seiko introduced one of the very first quartz watches, the Astron, in 1969. Taking this thought further brings us to one of Grand Seiko’s signatures, the Spring Drive, which is the merging of the electronic and mechanical worlds for timekeeping.

The Spring Drive story dates back to 1977, when Yoshikazu Akahane, a Seiko engineer, dreamt of developing a mechanical movement that would perform as accurately as the quartz movements that were de rigueur then. The basic principle seems relatively straightforward, having most – it would end up being 80% – of the same mechanical components as a traditional calibre, but regulating them with a quartz oscillator. In practice, it proved to be a tremendous challenge, which took more than two decades to come to fruition. With only a small team to work with at first, they had to develop a way for the mechanical power source to derive enough electrical power to drive the quartz regulator, which in turn had to be engineered to require considerably less power than would come from a replaceable battery. If you’re so inclined, the basic timekeeping function of a Spring Drive movement is not very different from a purely mechanical calibre; the idea is to replace the mechanical escapement, which regulates the power delivery and generates the regular oscillations that allows the time to be measured out at specific intervals, with an electronic one. In a similar way, it controls the power delivery, but by measuring the rotational speed of the balance wheel and electromagnetically controlling it so that it matches the intervals determined by the quartz oscillator. More than 20 years after Akahane started on the project, the first Spring Drive watch, with its manual winding calibre 7R68, was unveiled in 1999. The automatic version was already under development to further the ideology of Spring Drive, and it would be unveiled in 2004 as the first Grand Seiko Spring Drive, with calibre 9R65 providing three days’ autonomy.

Spring Drive movement componentsA deconstructed Spring Drive electro-mechanical calibre (© Grand Seiko)

For the 9S Mechanical calibre, Grand Seiko is one of the few watchmakers to have its own alloy for springs called “Spron”. Its origins are the work of Dr. Hakaru Masumoto, who invented Co-Elinvar in 1940, a derivation of the Elinvar alloy in use at the time. Working with Dr. Matsumoto guidance and support, Daini Seiko-Sha (today’s Seiko Instruments, Inc), would develop its original alloy, later named Spron, with elements such as cobalt and molybdenum added to the steel, nickel and chrome recipe (with some secret ingredients as well), with the goal of improving shock and magnetic resistance. Again, these are buzzwords that we are all-too-familiar with in recent years, but that Seiko had already sought to address decades ago. Components are manufactured entirely in-house, with some of the smaller parts required in the escapement made using Micro Electrical Mechanical Systems (MEMS) technology. This allows for a more complex gear profile that brings down the overall weight, and therefore reduces the power requirement, while also improving the retention of lubricants.

Morioka Seiko InstrumentsSeiko Instruments Inc.'s facility in Morioka, in the Iwate prefecture, home of the Shizukuishi Watch Studio (© Grand Seiko)

To see how all this comes together as Grand Seiko timepieces, we head to the Shizukuishi Watch Studio at Morioka Seiko, part of Seiko Instruments Inc., in northern Japan. It’s here that all the mechanical Grand Seiko are assembled, in an environment that is not dissimilar to what you’d find in the Swiss countryside, with a lake nearby and a mountain, Mount Iwate, which is volcanic. There are numerous hot springs in the area that draw visitors year-round. The subsidiary was established in 1970, with the watch studio opening in 2004, having a pure focus on high-end mechanical watches. It’s entirely vertically integrated, even having its own balance spring and hairspring production facility. The area was chosen in part because it’s known for its focus on traditional handcraftsmanship, in a tranquil environment that’s more suited to the mental aptitude required of fine watchmaking.

The watchmakers are stationed at handmade wooden “Iwayadou Tansu” workbenches that are sourced from the region’s craftsmen. At first glance, you see the same calm and focus that is present in most fine watchmaking workshops, but on closer inspection, there are some fundamental differences. An immediate observation is in the posture; whereas we generally see high desks in Europe, with the watchmakers placing their elbows on the sides at almost shoulder height, with their hands on the movements at eye level and using loupes to see the components, the Japanese watchmakers prefer to sit upright, arms lowered, as you would perhaps work on a computer, and to examine their work through microscopes when assembling the components. Loupes are used for tasks such as hand setting, when tools are required that would not be adapted to viewing with a microscope, and there are higher parts of the workbench to enable this.

Grand Seiko Shizukuishi Watch Studio MoriokaThe Shizukuishi Watch Studio, where mechanical Grand Seiko timepieces are produced (© Grand Seiko)

Another fundamental difference is that hand-finishing tends to be reserved for visible parts of the watch, rather than on the movement, where the finishing is done with machines. Grand Seiko is well-known for the “Zaratsu” polishing that is applied to the cases and bracelets, which allows it to create mirror-like surfaces alternating with matte finishes. It would be easy to associate the term “Zaratsu” with an ancient Japanese technique or craftsman, however, when asked about the origin of the technique, the explanation is rather straightforward: it’s simply taken from the name of the polishing machine that Seiko started using in the 1950’s called “Sallaz”, which has been sourced from Germany. The difference with this machine is that the flat part of the rotating disc is used, rather than the edge, when the polishing is done. It’s certainly not to denigrate the origin of the term, as it’s simply the Japanese pronunciation of the name “Sallaz”, as it does take years of experience to create the distortion-free mirror polish that we see on Grand Seiko. The way it’s applied is very distinctive to the brand, and will remain one of its key aesthetic signatures.

Zaratsu case polishingApplying Grand Seiko's signature Zaratsu polishing on the case

Walking through the watch studio, there are certain watchmakers that proudly display certifications that are awarded through Seiko’s own in-house qualification system, with different grades of “Meister” and “Specialist” awarded, which in turn determines what type of work the watchmaker is given. Some are certified to work on Credor watches, another line with the Seiko family that has a different ethos, although this collection is primarily produced at the Seiko Epson facility, which we’ll visit later.

Hairspring and balance wheel adjustment at the Shizukuishi Watch Studio MoriokaHairsprings are made in-house with the Spron alloy, and the balance wheel assembly is adjusted by hand

Grand Seiko has also developed its own inspection standard, which does bear similarities to the COSC certification we are already familiar with, but which we’re told it’s more stringent, and also focused on real-world usage. In fact, when you look at the official specifications given by Grand Seiko for any of their calibres, there are two sets of accuracy numbers: one for a static measurement, and one for “normal usage” accuracy. While the COSC standard for the mean daily rate is -4 / +6 seconds per day for a mechanical movement, Grand Seiko’s standard is -3 / +5 seconds per day; this will vary though in the “normal usage” scenario, to -1 / +8 seconds per day. There is, perhaps, just a little bit of one-upmanship in these numbers, but COSC also has to consider the far greater number of movements that it certifies per year, as compared to Grand Seiko, so you can understand a slightly wider variance being permissible. Suffice is to say, you would be hard pressed to argue against the standards of precision that Grand Seiko imposes on itself and its timepieces.

Should you ever venture towards Morioka and a visit to the Shizukuishi Watch Studio, do allow yourself some more time to see the handful of watches that are on display at their small shop, for there are some very unique pieces available for sale, where the winding rotor, traditionally engraved with “Grand Seiko”, is instead decorated with the Kanji characters for the name of the watch studio. Try as you might, you will not be able to purchase these timepieces unless you personally visit them.

Seiko Epson ShiojiriSeiko Epson Corporation's facility in Shiojiri, in Nagano prefecture, home of the Shinshu Watch Studio (© Grand Seiko)

We now turn our attention to the Seiko Epson Corporation facility in the Nagano prefecture, in the western part of Japan. The area was made famous as host of the 1998 Winter Olympics, and as we travel towards Shiojiri, the similarities with the Swiss landscape cannot be missed, as the train cuts across numerous valleys and mountains. The company was established in 1942 and originally called Daiwa Kogyo Ltd. The area was chosen so that watches could be produced in a better, cleaner environment than the vicinity of Tokyo. The business evolved through the years through various mergers, to become the Seiko Epson Corporation in 1985. It’s here that the other two Grand Seiko families are assembled, namely the collections with the 9R Spring Drive and 9F Quartz movements, in natural proximity to the microelectronics research and development of the company. It’s at the Shinshu Watch Studio that we’ll find not only Grand Seiko, but also a jewellery studio for Credor, and the Micro Artist Studio, where hand-finished movements and master complications are produced. It’s here that the pride in the Spring Drive is, arguably, the most palpable, and it’s definitely seen in how Seiko has devoted considerable attention to merging what would be considered haute horlogerie complications, such as the minute repeater, with its signature electro-mechanical calibre. While many of the Micro Artist Studio’s creations have been for Credor, it has turned its attention to Grand Seiko as well, with the 9R01 Spring Drive calibre, which boasts an impressive eight day power reserve, achieved through the use of three barrels instead of one. In the watch it powers, we see a number of nods to very traditional watchmaking, as it has a platinum case, Zaratsu-polished (of course!) with a diamond-dust effect dial, inspired by the region’s snow, and a contrasting heat-blued seconds hand. The movement’s unusual plate, visible through the sapphire display case-back, is designed to echo the outline of Mount Fuji, as seen from the highland near the Shinshu Watch Studio, and is traditionally hand-polished.

Spring Drive movement assembly Shinshu Watch StudioA Spring Drive caliber is also hand assembled; here you can clearly see the electro-magnet that's part of the regulator mechanism

The 9F Quartz calibre shares a similar, elevated status, being used exclusively in Grand Seiko watches. There is much emphasis put on the movement being significantly more complex than a traditional quartz movement, as mentioned earlier, as it addresses some of the potential pitfalls of the technology with increased torque, an instant date change and a unique protective shield construction, such that it befits the brand’s positioning and ambitions.

Throughout the visits at both the Shizukuishi and Shinshu Watch Studios, and to Seiko’s corporate offices in Tokyo, there is evidence that Grand Seiko’s status as its own brand is not simply a statement, but it’s being put to practice as well. There are teams now in place that are solely devoted to Grand Seiko, some with extensive years of experience within the company, whereas they may have had shared duties across Seiko prior to 2017. While production of other Seiko watches does take place in Morioka and Shiojiri, the Grand Seiko facilities are clearly marked and delineated. Even in the digital realm, Grand Seiko has a dedicated website, again to emphasize its positioning as a brand, and its own collector’s club and publication, which are unfortunately still reserved for Japan only.

9S Mechanical movement assemblyA tray of partially assembled 9S Mechanical movements, in Morioka

In short, the few days spent with Grand Seiko were a true discovery. It would be easy to assume that there are many similarities with luxury timepiece production in Switzerland; however, that doesn’t take into account the cultural and historic aspects that very much form the DNA of Grand Seiko. There is a sense of pride that is very perceptible throughout, of techniques and technologies that may originally have been inspired by traditional Western watchmaking, but that have since taken on a very Japanese approach. People and hand craftsmanship and machines seem to mesh more cohesively, with an emphasis on quality and precision at every level, pushing, and trusting the machinery to produce parts to very stringent specifications. The Spring Drive in itself is a landmark technological achievement, one that Seiko is justifiably proud of, and which shares the limelight with its fully mechanical calibres and the high-end quartz movements, almost on an equal footing, albeit with a tiny bit of healthy sibling rivalry between the two Watch Studios. Lastly, it’s perhaps the history of Grand Seiko, and of Seiko itself, that deserves to be mentioned. Much is made of watchmakers with historical roots, let alone uninterrupted ones; here we have a watch company that started humbly in 1881, established by Kintaro Hattori as a clock and watch importer and repairer. 137 years later, it’s thriving, and still in family hands, with Shinji Hattori, Kintaro’s great-grandson, as its Chairman and CEO. The company has imbued a purity within Grand Seiko that is refreshing, with a very practical, level-headed approach to producing timepieces that perfectly embody their core values of precision, legibility, and beauty. Grand Seiko SBGR301G Heritage Collection