Grand Seiko: Poised for Greatness

From about 1960, Seiko ran two strands of research – one to develop a mechanical movement that would equal the precision of its European counterparts at observatory competitions, the other to develop quartz technology to a point where it would fit into a wristwatch. Both essentially culminated at the end of the decade with Seiko winning competitions against the Swiss manufacturers while simultaneously providing a seismic shock to the world of horology with their Astron quartz watch.

At that time Grand Seiko was the preserve of mechanical watches. Precision governed – and still does govern – everything that Grand Seiko manufactured. Today, it benefits from Seiko Holdings Corporation which is a keiretsu firm where base materials are manufactured into an end product through every stage of the process. This means that Grand Seiko can undertake the type of research that is normally not available to watch firms producing limited numbers of watches.

A Grand Undertaking

In the Japanese market, the brand name “Seiko” is a source of national pride. It has been the country’s premier watchmaker for over a century. Grand Seiko had been the preserve of the special high-end watches produced in small numbers and generally only available in Japan, and the part of Seiko that deals with the domestic market was keen to keep the situation as it was. However, with international expansion, the need arose to single out Grand Seiko to function alone. It was left to company CEO Shinji Hattori, great-grandson of the founder, to make the all-important decision to separate it and Grand Seiko is now placed firmly at the top of the watchmaking structure controlled by Seiko Holdings Corporation. Hattori has even gone so far as to declare that he wants to see it as a top international luxury brand by 2020.

Not long ago, it was only possible to obtain a Grand Seiko by visiting Japan or through knowing someone who had access to the Japanese market as the watches were only sold in their home country. But with the interest in the brand growing, there was a demand for both an increase in production and the formation of a standalone brand. Grand Seiko’s tentative footsteps into international markets started in 2010 and the company has since set up points of sale and mono-boutiques in many of the world’s major cities. Grand Seiko has a separate Brand President for the US market and, with further expansion, it is set to become a global phenomenon.

Divided into two parts, Grand Seiko has one arm dealing with mechanical movements (the 9S series) and one dealing with Spring Drive and quartz movements (the 9R and the 9F respectively), “9” indicating Seiko’s finest movements. Nominally, the mechanical movements are made by Seiko Instruments Inc. and the Spring Drive and quartz by Seiko-Epson.

The Grand Art of Precision

Grand Seiko watches today are defined by high precision, high legibility and aesthetics (or a Japanese sense of “beauty”), the same characteristics that helped define the brand throughout the 1960s. Ambition required that high precision was a necessary prerequisite for wins at the observatory competitions. High legibility was linked to high precision: a need to tell the time exactly. Aesthetics were formed from a wish to separate the Seiko watch from others in the market.

The brand embodies the belief that technology is an aid to the perfection of watchmaking and that the human element and craftsmanship should dominate. With such a philosophy, Grand Seiko is against the use of silicon for components in its mechanical movements, preferring to put faith in metal alloys. There is an underlying belief that watches made a century ago can still be repaired with the same metals and likewise, a century from now Grand Seiko watches of today will still be repairable. According to the researchers at Seiko Instruments, the fragility of silicon means there is no way to know how it will age.

The balance wheels of all Grand Seiko 9S movements tick away at an impressive 36,000 bph, with the reliance on these “hi-beat” movements deriving from Seiko’s observatory competition days. The theory is that if the balance wheel moves faster, it should be less susceptible to position adjustments or shocks. The finish on each and every component is achieved through Seiko’s proprietary MEMS (Micro Electro Mechanical System) manufacturing system, a coating process that both enhances durability and efficiency for the components. It also aids the retention of lubrication oils.

High precision has been achieved by examining each small element of the mechanical movement and improving on it, starting with the metal for the main and balance springs. Teaming up with the Institute for Materials Research at the University of Tohoku in the 1950s, Grand Seiko developed “Spron” – a cobalt-nickel alloy – for improved elasticity, strength and resistance to heat and corrosion; Spron is in continuous development. The same watchmaker adjusts the hairsprings by hand each day, as he has done for the past 15 years. Each and every hairspring is made of Spron 610 and the adjustment requires about 30 to 40 minutes per spring.

Grand Seiko backs up its claims of precision timing with an inspection standard that requires testing at a higher number of positions (six) for a longer period of time (17 days) and over a greater temperature range (from 6 to 38 °C), to achieve a mean daily rate variation of between -3 and +5 seconds a day – a tighter requirement than COSC. With only 25 dedicated Grand Seiko watchmakers at the Shizuku-ishi Watch Studio and an approximate 41 days to make one Grand Seiko watch, production numbers are low.

The brand’s distinctive aesthetic has evolved from its origins as the product of a young designer hired by Kintaro Hattori in 1958. Haro Tanaka established the Seiko “Grammar of Design” after viewing watches in the Wako store in Ginza, noting there was nothing to distinguish the Seiko watches. The new design incorporates flat surfaces and two-dimensional curves to capture and reflect the light, giving the watch a shine and presence, using “Zaratsu” polishing. Each surface of a Grand Seiko case potentially requires a different holding arm to get the angle and surface polish exactly right. With a large number of polished areas to a Grand Seiko case (for example, the re-issue Grand Seiko GS44 had 24 separate surfaces to polish) the look is unique.

Grand Ambition

Grand Seiko’s aim going forward is to develop watches that are equal to, if not better than, its rivals at the same price point, but this will take time. Grand Seiko is not a watch firm to release models just for the sake of it. Although there are plans to grow – next year the estimate is approximately 10 per cent – it is a slow and steady philosophy: making sure that each step in development is secure before moving on.

Seiko’s ambition is grand, its dedication to manufacturing watches is grand, and the finish and timekeeping of the watches is equally – you guessed it – grand. It is not that Seiko was incapable of this in itself, but without the “Grand” part, there would be no separation or appreciation of that which pushes a Seiko watch into the luxury bracket. In order for Seiko’s premium range to be recognised across the globe, the separation of Grand Seiko is an absolute necessity.

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