: Ken Okuyama
Text Sean Li, Nicholas Biebuyck
Photos Kimio Ng

Most presentations on modern watchmaking have a significant component devoted to the technical aspects, about how a particular calibre performs incrementally better than its predecessor (or competitors), or the specificities of the material employed in the case or bracelet that ultimately justify the investment that the brand is asking you to make in the watch. The aesthetic elements are certainly important, yet they are not often discussed in as much detail as they should be; the watch designers are seldom put forward, certainly not as much as they used to be, and considerably less than the watchmakers themselves. However, the design of a watch is perhaps the most important, because it’s the first aspect that’s meant to grab our attention, and it’s also what we will see on a daily basis. Great design, whether it’s for a timepiece, cars, or any other object that somehow elicits an emotional response, is not accidental.

It was at last year’s Baselworld that we got to meet the person behind many of the designs that we, at Blackbird, are particularly fond of, as he was behind some of Ferrari’s most iconic designs, notably the Enzo Ferrari supercar, named after the company’s founder. Ken Okuyama was present to discuss his collaboration with Seiko on their new Prospex LX line of watches. He is certainly a household name in his native Japan, as he worked on a number of Shinkansen (bullet trains), as well as the original Honda NSX, with his body of work extending beyond to industrial vehicles, office furniture, home appliances, and eyewear. His involvement with Seiko is a clear signal that the company wants to elevate its namesake brand, linking it more closely to the accolades that the Grand Seiko brand has been receiving internationally.

With his significant interest in the automobile industry, we started our conversation with Okuyama talking about Blackbird and our company’s automotive interests, his own series of coach built “kode” cars under his own brand, and, of course, his work on the Enzo, before we were able to bring it back to the main reason for our interview, the new Seiko line.

Kiyoyuki Ken Okuyama founded his design consultancy in 2007.

Sean Li: Shall we talk about how you got interested in working with Seiko?

Ken Okuyama: I was invited and decided to cooperate with them because the typical Japanese manufacturing company mentality is innovation, every year you come up with new stuff, and, of course, Seiko has great technology and innovation too, right? But then you have to think from the customer’s point of view, spending that much money because the watches are not cheap anymore., we used to make them around US$500, but this is US$5,000 or more. Then it’s an investment, and then if you look at this as an investment from a customer’s point of view, I would hate to see something drastically new coming out next year, as it denies the value of this one. It depreciates, and I would hate that. Ferrari [for example] is really careful when introducing new products. I worked on the original California, and they made the Portofino pretty much the same configuration as a California, so that it doesn’t get totally dated when you look at the newer car, there’s something similar. The next one is probably going to be different, but I designed California back around 1997,. so it took a long time to put on the road [Ed: the Ferrari California was formally introduced in 2008].

When it came to the Seiko watches, again, we have to protect the value for customers, so I said that we need to look at not drastically changing what we have been doing. We need to really solidify our image of these products, and sometimes combine them together and make it clear that this is a luxury line of sports watches. We put three of them together in the same design in the Prospex line, which is a sports watch, a sequel sports watch, kind of a new luxury brand. There’s a huge market for the line in Thailand, in Southeast Asia, then that movement kind of went through to the US and some of Europe too. So people love sequels to their existing watches, but now they have no place to go because we have pretty much all our products below the $3,000 price range.

The Seiko Prospex LX line, developed in collaboration with Ken Okuyama Design and powered by Seiko’s signature Spring Drive calibres.

We figured that we want them to grow with Seiko, so we established the LX series from US$4,000 to 10,000; we haven’t quite gone to US$10,000 with this  yet. We will, eventually, with the right movement and right new materials and everything. So this is the beginning of a long term consulting and collaboration, which I think is exactly what they need. That’s something I learned from European brands; when you look at the Porsche 911 from the 1963 model to the 2019 model, all the elements are the same, even if everything’s different. As a designer, actually, I worked for Porsche for three years, but designing Porsches is uninteresting because you do the same thing. You’re going there, whether you do the SUV or a Boxster, mid-engine or rear-engine, it’s within the body. Ferrari is great. For a designer, it could be front-engine, mid-engine, eight cylinder, twelve cylinder, but it has to look like a Ferrari. Porsche is a little more literal in the  translation of the original design, it has to be this, has to be that. So as a designer, it was a lot more fun to design for Ferrari.

To make sure they look like a Ferrari, not a Lamborghini, not an Aston Martin, not something else, it takes, not learning, because I grew up with it, not driving, but looking at it. As designers, we learned so much from the Audi TT, for example. My friend, Freeman Thomas, designed that car but he loves the Porsche 911, he loves Volkswagen, so you can kind of see the model inspiration and the Volkswagen architecture. The beauty about the Audi TT is that all the surfaces are facing upward, so it catches the light. It’s not like this (gesturing to the watch), and that’s the beauty of it. In fact, having learned from that, [on the new Prospex LX watches] we changed the angle [on the bezels] from 22 degree to 30 degree and also we tried to lower the centre of gravity, so we changed the distance between the skin and the edge from 5.8 to 5.1. It’s only 0.7 millimetres, but the whole thickness is greater compared to the 1968 model, which is the icon of a Seiko Diver’s watch. We have a few more great diver’s watches, for example the Tuna Can which I use when I scuba dive, but that’s almost too professional, too strong.

Each model is also available as a Black Edition.

Nicholas Biebuyck: It’s very industrial.

KO: Yes, it is. It’s difficult to make that as a core luxury product so we chose this ‘68 model, which I think is a good choice. When you look at the original 1968 watch compared to this 2019 version, everything looks the same, but everything’s different. So we’re going to continue doing this, it’s not just for one or two years, I hope! We’re going to continue doing this, for this price range, more of a European approach, which I think is correct, again before anything else, to protect customers’ value.

SL: I think it’s interesting because it’s not something that we’ve heard actually from the European brands. They’ve gotten caught up in the same cycle of feeling like they have to bring something new every year. And it’s, I think for me, for us as collectors, one of the frustrations, because like you said, it’s an investment. You don’t want to feel that the watch that you just spent a good amount of money on is outdated or out of fashion by the next year. And, you know, you go to the fairs and there seems to be this push to always do something completely different.

KO: Completely different. And luxury products and premium products and commodity products. Luxury products appreciate, real estate, Ferrari, classic Ferrari, boy, they appreciate. We have that value, really. Part of the key issue I think is they can continue having that type of product for maybe the next hundred years, and also the brand seems to be staying for a long time, so there’ll be a parts supply. The brand image won’t be ruined. I have a Panerai Ferrari, and I was upset when they cancelled that and moved on to Hublot because I thought the Panerai link was pretty neat. And having worked for Ferrari, then I bought that and naturally thought, great Italian Panerai with the Ferrari brand. Then a couple of years later, they cancelled the whole thing and it moved on to Hublot. They should never do that because Ferrari kept doing their thing and you never know how long they’re going to stay with Hublot, probably you’re going to cancel that and two years moved on to the next… I mean, I don’t know, but I feel that way.

Angles and proportions are designed to optimise how they capture the light.

NB: This is a conversation we have on pretty much a daily basis: what’s the idea, what’s the plan? It’s frustrating because when someone like you works with Seiko, you both understand each other’s values and because of that fact, everything gets elevated. The problem is, at the moment, when certain brands get together, maybe they do have some shared values, but no one’s communicating them and everything just gets lost.

KO: And that’s why I don’t work for such brands. It’s not just me being Japanese, I’ve been working with European luxury brands for a good 25 years, and they came back to Japan 10 years ago. I felt that there’s a good, a kind of niche for luxury or premium Japanese or Asian brands,. so among all my clients, I only choose one client in the watch industry. When I do work for Seiko, I can’t work with Citizen or Casio. I can’t do that because we share confidentiality and I’m a face of the Seiko’s LX line now. When Jean-Christophe Babin was the president of TAG Heuer, we collaborated on Grand Carrera and did a few models, and then moved on to Bulgari, where we did a few models on Octo – well, he was actually a designer on that one, too. But then, I’m sure they’re not going to call me anymore because when they see my video with the Seiko, I have to commit myself to it. It’s fair though and it’s a great opportunity for me to make Seiko what it deserves to be.

We worked on various surfaces, so everything’s positive. It may not look like it, but the only negative surface is below here. The side and the top and this inclined surface here, it’s all positive or flat so that you can polish well and there’s no twist there. So it shines well from distance, like a stealth fighter. And Enzo’s the same thing, right? The beauty of the Enzo, actually, is everything on that car is positive. Besides the C-pillar bottom has some hollow negative fitted surface, pretty much everything is positive surface. And positive surfaces, just like the Audi TT, makes it very strong, which from a distance you can kind of tell. Normally sports cars have a lot of negative surfaces, and Pininfarina does a lot of those are negative surfaces, too. Which makes the beauty of it too, but for the Enzo we wanted to make it closer to the F40 instead of the F50.

The Enzo Ferrari, the highlight of Okuyama’s involvement with the Maranello brand and Pininfarina.

So we wanted to get closer to the F40, which is, as you know, Enzo Ferrari’s last direct involvement. We calculated how we make the surface so positive, and we made an offset behind the front, the fender and rear fender and things like that. For the LX watches, we did a careful analysis and 3D construction of this one with only positive surfaces. That’s why their polishing quality is excellent, in this price range, actually, doing the polishing is really amazing. Just like on Grand Seiko, we did the same [Zaratsu] polishing but we grabbed that and took it on to this one. It’s going to be scratched but we think it’s kind of the beauty of it: you can be kind of proud of it, you can tell a story about it. Nowadays it’s really important to be able to tell a story about the product you purchased or you sell and you could be proud of. Polishing is one part of that. When you go there and see the factory of Seiko in either Nagano or Iwate, it almost makes your eyes water because those people do fantastic work every day in a quiet environment, beautiful, in nature, mountains and the pure water and air is so crisp and clean and they just do meticulous work. It’s the beauty of the company.

SL: So this is definitely a long term relationship?

KO: [Laughs] I hope so, I think so.

SL:  Would you cast your eye on Grand Seiko as well?

KO: Grand Seiko is doing well, so they don’t need my help right now. Once it comes to, for example, well I shouldn’t say this but… certain products, if they need help, I’d be more than happy to do that. I’d like to buy one. I think any company goes through success through a kind of stairs or steps. I think they’re undervalued, under-evaluated, now their people really realise it and they’re putting up all the flagship stores in key cities all over the world. But after it gets to a certain point, yeah, I’d like to have one. They’re not quite there yet, but LX, I think, it’s here.

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