Robb Read: Seiko’s Grand Plan
Seiko once nearly destroyed the luxury watch industry. Now its extraordinary dials and mechanical innovation are earning it cult status.
In many ways, Japan does things differently. In place of the mere four seasons that make up a year in much of the world, Japan has measured the passage of time since the sixth century with 24 annual seasons, which are then subdivided into some 72 micro seasons. They are nuanced and observational: uo kori o izuru, a five-day window when fish emerge from the ice in February, or kawazu hajimete naku, when frogs start singing in the early days of May. Time operates by a different set of rules here. Einstein be damned.
“It’s unique, the feeling of how we perceive time, because we don’t try to control it,” says Shuji Takahashi, Seiko Holdings’ president, COO and CMO. “It’s more that we live together with time. We try to harmonise ourselves to the flow of time that exists.”
The Japanese may be onto something. Seiko Holdings’ Grand Seiko, along with its ultra-high-end sister brand, Credor, is increasingly gaining a worldwide cult status thanks to its dials and movements, many inspired by the island nation’s perennially changing landscape.
It’s certainly not the kind of romanticism you would imagine from two names born under the shadow of Seiko, the company that nearly killed the entire high-end watch industry with its cheap, battery-powered and ultra-precise quartz movements in the 1970s. But these two small-batch brands have been steadily building prestige beyond their borders as the digital age lifted the veil on Seiko’s best-kept secrets. Buoyed by its increasing popularity, Grand Seiko, founded in 1960, began selling outside Japan in 2010 and was spun off from the Seiko brand in 2017. It has since had massive growth and hype on a scale that many Swiss watchmakers, selling in the US for over a century, can only dream of.
Some Grand Seiko collectors own enough models to dangle a watch from every finger. John Chiang, a 40-year-old executive at a California manufacturing company, has acquired nine in the mere two years since some watch-collector friends introduced him to the brand. Chiang started out as an Omega collector before moving into Rolex and Patek Philippe and, most recently, independents such as F. P. Journe. “A lot of my friends in the Patek Philippe crowd said it was a brand I should check out,” says Chiang. “Seiko has been around for a long time—but I had never associated them with high horology. Once I did more research and started to understand their philosophy, I was even more interested.”
Collectors are snatching up new models at retail, where they’re priced from $4,000 for a basic quartz style to $110,000 for a highly decorated platinum version with Spring Drive technology (more on that below), and the newfound fascination with Grand Seiko is resulting in a boom on the secondary market as well, where sales last year included a 2013 steel Grand Seiko limited-edition SBGW047 for US$6,875 (approx. $10,040) at Christie’s and a 2011 limited-edition platinum SBGW039 for CHF 18,750 (approx. $28,780) at Phillips. Both went for more than double their top estimates. The vintage market, though, is a bit murkier to navigate for Grand Seiko than for Swiss timepieces. “They’re still undervalued,” says dealer Eric Wind of Wind Vintage. “But they’re hard to find Stateside, because they’re almost all in Asia. It’s hard to know whether what you are buying is authentic because there is little information on them.”
What is drawing interest in Grand Seiko, both vintage and modern, is a Zen-like balance among aesthetics, technical prowess and a poetic approach to the creation of time, making these watches a covetable alternative to Swiss timepieces. While much of Grand Seiko’s mechanics and design rely on traditional European craftsmanship, it’s the brand’s unorthodox spin on time-tested rules that have propelled the company into the spotlight. Much like Japanese culture, the watches are rooted in a strict ethos of precision combined with an inherent desire to think outside the box.
Case in point: Grand Seiko’s Spring Drive technology is a groundbreaking invention, consisting of a mechanical movement with a hybrid regulating system that uses quartz to achieve extreme accuracy without a battery. Doggedly insistent upon exactness, Grand Seiko prides itself on a standard for timekeeping accuracy that’s more rigorous than the certification rules for the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute (COSC). Mechanical watches undergo more temperature testing (twice each at 8, 23 and 38°C versus once) and are tested in more positions (six versus five) and for more days (17 versus 15) than most watches coming out of the motherland. The company also touts its watches equipped with its Hi-Beat movement. The mechanical Hi-Beat 36000 GMT’s caliber 9S86 delivers an accuracy of +5 to -3 seconds per day with a hefty amount of power reserve (55 hours), beating at a frequency of 36,000 vibrations per hour (10 beats per second). To put into perspective how fast it’s vibrating while still maintaining extraordinary accuracy, a typical mechanical watch operates with 28,800 vph.
Technical statistics like these drive hard-core collectors mad with enthusiasm, yet Grand Seiko was not on most American collectors’ radars until recently. “I didn’t think it was going to sell to our clients, because they want a Swiss brand and aren’t going to buy anything with ‘Seiko’ on it,” says Damon Gross, CEO of Colorado-based retailer Hyde Park Jewelers, an early adopter of Grand Seiko. “But within 18 months it was our number-two watch brand.” Grand Seiko’s first stand-alone store, in Beverly Hills, was even more successful. It reportedly sold out of select limited-edition models such as the original SBGA211 and the new blue SBGA407 within days of opening.
Grand Seiko, however, is not only trying to one-up the Swiss with clever engineering for tech geeks. It’s also embracing its unique heritage, with artful dials and movements designed as tributes to Japan’s landscapes and culture. Designer Shinichiro Kubo conceived the delicately textured, three-dimensional dial and case for the Snowflake watch based on a childhood memory of visiting the Hokuriku region of northern Japan. The Hotokuji temple in Kiryu was the inspiration for the dial of the Grand Seiko Heritage Collection limited-edition SBGH269. The dial borrows its rich ruby hue from the autumn maple leaves reflected on the temple’s polished wood floor, and the gold minute markers and seconds hand mirror the rays of sun that pierce the windows.
Nature’s beauty and its cycles aren’t just weaved in for decor; the mechanics evoke the symmetry of Japan’s countryside. Flip over the Spring Drive 8 Day Power Reserve and you’ll see that its caliber 9R01 movement has a bridge that traces the outline of the famous volcano Mount Fuji. The polished rubies and blued screws that hold the movement together mimic the pattern of the city lights of Suwa, which sit below the company’s Micro Artist Studio.
Located in Shiojiri, in Japan’s Nagano Prefecture, this studio is Japan’s temple of high horology, where watches bearing the Credor name are created. Credor is a separate brand whose artisans and watchmakers occasionally work on some of Grand Seiko’s elite movements. If Grand Seiko watches are the icons of Japanese luxury watchmaking, Credor timepieces are the holy grails. While watches in the Grand Seiko collection are a mix of high-level mechanics with machine-made parts for larger-scale production, much like ready-to-wear clothing, each Credor piece is carefully assembled and finished by hand by a master watchmaker. But unless you’re a bona fide connoisseur, you’ve probably never heard of them. Only the most elite collectors can get their hands on a Credor, including its sonnerie (a watch that signals the time through sound) and minute repeater (a watch that sounds the time on demand by the wearer), not only because the brand is still available exclusively in Japan, but also because only four or five of each are made a year at a price tag of roughly $220,000 for the sonnerie and $490,000 for the minute repeater. A Credor rarely, if ever, shows up at auction.
Inside the studio on a crisp, sunny day, the Japanese artisans are huddled over the same equipment you would find in Switzerland’s main watchmaking hub, Vallée de Joux, assembling movements, painting porcelain dials and polishing microscopic parts by hand. It’s hard to believe the team hasn’t descended from generations of watchmakers who’ve passed down their technical knowledge for centuries, like its competitors 10,000 kilometres away.
Contrary to Swiss watch brands, which keep their master craftsmen under wraps, Grand Seiko and Credor proudly recognise their star employees publicly. One of those prized team members is Masatoshi Moteki, a 27-year employee of Seiko who spent six years working with the development team for the Spring Drive movement before becoming an elite craftsman at the Micro Artist Studio. Alongside studio leader Kenji Shiohara, Moteki developed a minute repeater and sonnerie that incorporated the brands’ Spring Drive movement and are unlike anything else on the market. Because the Spring Drive is a silent mechanism, it allows for greater sound quality in the other complications.
The clean, lingering sound in the minute repeater is achieved by two types of hammers striking two steel gongs, typical of sound-producing timepieces, but in this case made from a special steel by Munemichi Myochin, a craftsman from an ancient Japanese family that has been forging steel for 850 years. The sound produced by the gongs, says Moteki, “takes inspiration from Japanese wind chimes made by Myochin—the very comforting, relaxing sound of the summer wind”.
The sonnerie derives its ring from the big, strong gongs of Japanese temples, known as Orin bells. The micro re-creations of this ancient Japanese form of telling time produce sound with three seconds between each ring. “It is three because after the sound disappears there is a slight moment of silence, and that idea is inspired by traditional Japanese poems,” says
Moteki. “It’s similar to the sound water drops make as they slowly dissipate. That quality relates to the philosophy of the Spring Drive movement also—it’s a very calm, aesthetic motion.”
The Micro Artist Studio was founded two decades ago, with the first Credor sonnerie debuting in 2006 and the minute repeater in 2011. But in the early days, Moteki admits he and his colleagues didn’t know anything about making grand complications; most people in the company had never even heard the term “minute repeater”. The complication has been around in Europe since the mid-18th century. “I tried to persuade my boss about doing these high-level movements, and it was difficult,” says Moteki with a jolly demeanour that belies his genius. “But one day he saw a TV program where a local Nagano collector was showing his watches, one of which was a pocket-watch minute repeater. Then my boss wanted to do one, but he didn’t understand how difficult it is to develop. We were very behind.” That’s an understatement. Jean-Claude Biver, a connoisseur and the former president of LVMH’s watch division, once likened creating a minute repeater to climbing Mount Everest. Catching up would prove hard work.
When asked how he and the team learned to produce watchmaking’s most intricate complications in less than 20 years, Moteki turns to an old bookshelf and grabs a stack of watchmaking tomes written in English. Standing proudly in the centre of the small studio, he throws them on the table to suggest he simply read how to do it. He and the team are self-taught. Watchmakers in Switzerland spend years, often decades, apprenticing under masters to acquire the skills necessary to create minute repeaters.
Lest you think that means Credor’s quality is at all inferior, the work of Moteki and his colleagues was praised by Philippe Dufour, one of Swiss watchmaking’s most revered figures, who came to see the studio after hearing about their creations. A signed, framed photo of Dufour hangs there now. Dufour, already impressed with their technical know-how, lent a little expertise in aesthetic excellence. The Micro Artist Studio had previously finished the cases by machine; the artisans hadn’t known how to polish the movements by hand.
“Mr Dufour told me about the use of the gentian plant, but all he told me was that it is hard outside and soft inside, so we tried to find something similar in Japan,” says Moteki. “We looked for a long time.” (Gentian is a herbal plant that grows in the hills of Switzerland and is used for finishing watch movements in the Alps’ best ateliers, Greubel Forsey and Blancpain among them.) Moteki eventually discovered that a university in Hokkaido was growing the plant for medicinal studies—and was willing to share, allowing the Credor team to create movements on par with their elite Swiss counterparts.
The Japanese are not intimidated by the head start enjoyed by the Europeans. “Of course, we have high respect for the Swiss watchmakers,” says Seiko’s Takahashi. “They have their philosophy and their style, but we are from Japan, and our sense of nature has been fostered over many, many centuries in this country.”