Who doesn’t know Seiko in this part of the world? The brand was a part of my life and childhood growing up, from the wall clocks I had at home growing up, to the earliest watches I owned. Yes, my collecting days started early, with a selection of Flik-Flaks, Casios, Swatches, Seikos that I’d pick from each day I went to school. I had a Seiko 5 when I entered my teens, one that I saved up for, and had until quite recently.
But though Seiko is ubiquitous in the Far East, its secrets are in the upper echelons of the company, from the prestigious and specialised Credor collection that’s dedicated to ultra-fine and high complications, to the pragmatic yet highly sophisticated Grand Seiko. The latter demonstrated that particular quality when it introduced the reference SBGZ001 “Snowflake” hammered case at the Baselworld fair earlier this year.
Grand Seiko has hosted journalists for the last 15 years in the summer, a dozen at a time, to visit its facilities across all of Japan, and like its watches, each press visit gets better and more engaging, with more information steadily flowing out of the watchmaker. The programme itself doesn’t change, but as the brand readies its strategy for global engagement, we’re seeing the full picture of its plans.
In many ways, the strange duality of Japanese culture is the same duality that exists within Grand Seiko. What I’m referring to is that embrace of both the traditional and the infinitely futuristic within the country. Technology and the pursuit of new solutions are at the heart of Grand Seiko (and Seiko Watch Holdings in general) but so is a reverence for the oldest of crafts and skills. That duality isn’t split into age groups either. Across young and old, a love of washi paper or the latest Sony robot dog is shared. It’s a country where the possession of knowledge is respected and admired. It’s thus unsurprising that watchmaking would thrive here.
A Brief History of Japanese Watchmaking
I’m not going to delve too deeply into the history of Seiko, since the people from the brand and in particular, its founding family, the Hattoris, are far more capable of sharing details from its past. Of course, the brand today is public, with a diverse portfolio that covers high technology and traditional watchmaking, of which the latter is showing steady growth today. Suffice it to say that Seiko’s founder, Kintaro Hattori, had encountered mechanical watchmaking in Western society and began to import it into Japan, but soon began to wonder if he could go further and in fact develop a Japanese mechanical clock brand of his own. Thus began the House of Seikosha, which literally translates to “precision work in timekeeping”, both in the Japanese and Mandarin translations of the kanji in which it’s written.
The first watches emerged from the brand in 1924, but steady growth required expansion and dedicated focus from the other business arms of its holding firm, K. Hattori & Co., Ltd. Thus in 1937, the watch production was sectioned off into a separate firm, Daini Seikosha which literally means, “Second Seikosha”. As wristwatches became ever more popular, additional factories were required and one was added in Suwa, Nagano, with seed money from Seiko. This was the Daiwa Kogyo, which would evolve to become the Seiko Epson Corporation, but I’m jumping ahead of the story.
We arrived in Japan and were whisked off to the Imperial Hotel, where I indulged in several drams of Miyagikyo while my UK colleague, the sporty Mr Holt, chose to hit the gym diligently. But the very next day, we set off to the town of Morioka and hopped on a bus for a brisk drive to Shizukuishi, the modern watch studio which is the temple of Grand Seiko’s movement development.
Shizukuishi produces a number of different movements but the most notable is the 9S series of movements, the pinnacle of Grand Seiko production. The number ‘9’ also resembles the word ‘pinnacle’ and thus is used in the company’s most celebrated line (amusingly, it also sounds like the word ‘agony’, which might be a reference to the diligence needed to create the 9S and 9R movements). Two other movements are produced here, the 6S chronograph and the 8A series of movements. While the 6S is effectively discontinued but also licensed to other watch brands, the Shizukuishi studio will be introducing a new watch movement to the world at Baselworld 2020, where Grand Seiko will be celebrating its 60th anniversary.
It’s also in the Shizukuishi studio that the finest Seiko Credor movements are developed, including the ultra-thin calibre 68, that’s just a sliver of a watch at 1.98mm thick. Additionally, and perhaps to add some levity and personal pride for the studio, they also produce a small series of watches that are similarly priced to Grand Seiko’s mechanical timepieces, called the Shizukuishi watch brand, a tradition that goes back to the early days of the factory and one they’ve preserved.
Defining Grand Seiko
Grand Seiko was born in 1960 as a subsidiary line in a challenge to Swiss watchmaking’s rock-solid grip on the industry. Realising that in order to break through to a wider audience than just the local market, the brand began to present its timepieces at international chronometric competitions against Swiss peers. While its first attempts weren’t incredible successes, subsequent efforts rapidly improved the quality and performance of Grand Seiko timepieces, from ‘VFA’ (Very Fine Adjusted) editions to its champion of modern watchmaking, the Spring Drive.
The design language of Grand Seiko’s earliest pieces remains a core value of the brand today — an emphasis on legibility and utility in a classic manner that’s a combination of several Japanese aesthetic ideals. These are iki (straightforward, measured, original); shibui (simplicity and subtlety); miyabi (refinement). These ideals are translated on multiple levels: within the watches, in their design and the technologies that are used in creating them.
Within the studios of Shizukuishi, the watchmakers developing the timepieces work in teams of a dozen or so, in a manual assembly line style production, with a master watchmaker who oversees each team’s work. Each is dedicated to specific tasks, and work in the same processes for years, before they graduate to more complex tasks. Every watchmaker is armed with the same sets of skills, and the country is the only one which has an enrollment process for students interested in entering the watchmaking industry, with official tests for skills and even a trial programme.
Unsurprisingly, like much you’ve heard about Japan, these tests are graded and top students invited to join Seiko. Across the regional and national level, watchmaking competitions are organised and participants awarded titles for their performance, which are indicated on an achievements wall and ranked. The result is a friendly competition between colleagues, one that encourages the sharing of knowledge across generations as younger staff seek to prove themselves.
In the teams of 12, six are senior watchmakers performing more advanced tasks, and six are junior members. A handful of master watchmakers ensure their work is up to par, while finessing some of the most complex parts of the work, such as adjusting the proprietary Spron hairsprings by hand. We witnessed this up close, as a master watchmaker took around 120 seconds to perfectly align the hairspring with the balance wheel, with just a loupe and tweezer, an impressive manoeuvre.
Among the many secrets within the Shizukuishi studio include one of the most precious machines they’ve developed themselves, that no visitors are allowed to capture, only admire. That’s the measurement and notching tool for the balance wheel, which is bereft of screws but is instead laser-measured and then notched with a cutting tool that is accurate to micrometres, which ensures that each balance wheel weighs just right, offering optimal precision to the mechanical movement.
The second “holy” secret is Spron, the alloy used in Seiko’s springs which was jointly developed with the Metal Materials Laboratory of Tohoku University, and deployed across the board in Seiko’s movements. In 2009, Seiko introduced Spron 610, which in addition to offering temperature resistance and amagnetism, is also ultra elastic and therefore does not deform easily. While its composition remains a secret, it’s also notable that this technology is well due for a refresh, perhaps in 2020, we hope.
But what remains unknown to most is the extent to which Grand Seiko tests its watches before releasing them to the public. Each watch goes through a 300-hour long running test before further fine-tuning the watches for accuracy, and a subsequent 400-hour quality control test on the movements before testing. After the movements are cased, a third test is employed to run the watches in six positions. Movements must maintain a +5/-3 seconds accuracy before casing and +8/-1 after casing for mechanical movements. Spring Drive movements require a different testing rigor, with the final product holding at +1/-1 seconds a day.
Then there’s the process by which they enhance their components’ strength through a firing process, not unlike how Japanese katana blades are made. Each component is placed on a conveyor belt that goes into a miniature furnace, that fires up the parts to 850˚C with nitrogen gas, followed by a quenching and cooling to harden the material, before a tempering process that enhances the Young’s modulus of each component by 1.5 times. As a result, the components are harder, stronger, and also less likely to break. But the real treasure of Grand Seiko is of course, Spring Drive, the hybrid tech that made the brand the Prius of the watchmaking world.
A Spring in its step
In 1943, a new factory was born in Suwa to develop a watch movement manufacture under the Daiwa Kogyo label, a company that would later become Suwa Seikosha and finally, Seiko Epson Corporation. During the 1960s and the race for timekeeping precision thanks to quartz clocks, the firm began a project to miniaturise the quartz timekeeper into a wrist-sized timepiece. It was a competition that the Swiss and Japanese pursued, with Seiko winning the race in 1969 on Christmas Day. The Astron, which was just re-issued to celebrate its jubilee in a near-exact remake of the original, was a spectacular feat of engineering and a truly impressive success, lauded by the world.
The rapid reduction in cost of producing these quartz timekeepers would bring about a massive downturn in the Swiss watch industry, one that it took over a decade to recover from. In Japan, however, development never stopped, both on the front of quartz devices as well as mechanical ones. At the Seiko manufacture in Suwa, a gallery of past successes included a wristwatch which could receive and show television signals on a LCD screen, well before the smartphone came along and revolutionised the world.
The following revolution in high-end quartz timepieces was the Auto-Quartz, harnessing the traditional winding rotor with a dynamo system and energy-storing capacitor to power the integrated circuit within the watch. And in 1999, the brand found a way to truly integrate the two into a sophisticated mechanical watch, the Spring Drive (cue chorus music).
Spring Drive builds on the strengths of the traditional gear train but does away with the escapement and balance wheel, replacing it with what Seiko calls a “glide wheel”, which acts as the fixed fourth wheel of the movement and drives the seconds hand. Regulation of the entire gear train is maintained with an electromagnet which acts as a brake to keep the motion of the glide wheel constant.
To give you an idea of just how efficient the system is, modern Spring Drives deliver 256 brakes per second, with an electromagnet that holds up to 25,000 coils. The magnet core is made of samadium cobalt, and delivers 62 Gauss. Housed within the watch is a quartz oscillator as well as an integrated circuit, and the former is hermetically sealed to maintain its accuracy regardless of temperature fluctuations or other conditions. The quartz oscillator is a reference to which the system drives the brakes so as to keep the time precisely. Then in 2005, the first automatic Spring Drive movement was presented, which made the watch essentially a constant performer. Spring Drive remains a unique calling card of the brand, a mechanical movement that delivers the precision of quartz with the elegance of the sweep seconds hand.
The fact is, we could go on and on about Seiko’s creations with and without Spring Drive, and it could fill a book or two. But what impresses us most about Grand Seiko, and its sibling companies, is just how sensible each phase of development has been, whether it’s an aesthetic change or a technological one. Each product transformation embodies the philosophies of iki, shibui and miyabi, in a brand that’s just turning 60 and in a technological invention that’s 20 years old. We’re betting Grand Seiko at 60 will prove to be the grand dame of Japanese watchmaking that all will aspire to.