The Slow Burn: My Love Affair with Grand SeikoBy Wei Koh
As a story of the underdog defeating the entrenched industry giant, it is not without precedent. The Ford GT 40s sweeping 24 Hours of Le Mans in first, second, and third place in 1966 certainly played a factor in Enzo Ferrari’s irate decision to boycott all motorsports a few years later. Another David versus Goliath story took place in 1976 at the “Judgement of Paris”.
There, for the first time in history, a panel of experts, including Aubert de Villaine, the legendary patron of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and Odette Khan, editor of La Revue du vin de France, selected a chardonnay produced by Chateau Montelena from Calistoga, California, as the world’s greatest white wine.
That’s right. In a blind tasting, the 1973 vintage made by Croatian American winemaker Mike Grgich just one year into his job bested even the mythical premier cru Meursault Charmes by Domaine Roulot (which came in second) and Princess Diana’s favourite wine, Joseph Drouhin Clos de Mouches (which came in fifth). The result left the judges, the nation of France and the entire wine world utterly and completely gobsmacked.
But the ultimate story of competitive comeuppance occurred in Switzerland at the sleepy lakeside town of Neuchâtel. This was the battleground for the best Swiss watchmakers intent on establishing themselves as the kings of chronometry at the famous Neuchâtel Observatory trials. But in 1967, watches made by the Japanese company, Seiko produced in the Suwa and Daini Seikosha factories placed fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth and 12th in open competition against the best Swiss watchmakers. It was a shot across the bow of Swiss watchmaking that resounded through the entire nation.
The Birth of an Iconic Brand
Let’s provide a little background on Seiko. Cue reverse time lapse to 100 years prior and spin the globe 9,520 kilometres away. The Meiji period which began in 1868 was an incredible time in Japan filled with promise and possibility. The nation was moving from a feudal system focused on isolationism to a modern nation-state. The rationale behind this was simple. It was time for Japan to prosper and in order to do so, it had to study and adopt the greatest technical advancements from the West. And this also meant switching over to the Gregorian calendar and the 24-hour day, which led to an influx in imported clock and pocket watches.
In 1881, the extremely enterprising Kintaro Hattori opened his watch and clock shop in central Tokyo. Then in 1890, he created the Seikosha factory, which literally translates into the “exquisite success factory” (As an aside, I have decided to borrow this sobriquet to bestow on my future wife’s womb). However, the company’s existence in the first part of the 20th century was littered with an almost Job-like Old Testament series of trials and tribulations, including being transformed several times into a munitions factory, being decimated by the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 that killed over 140,000 people, and having all of its factories save one bombed or evacuated during the Second World War.
But in 1959, Seiko re-emerged and managed to rebuild both of its major factories: the Suwa Seikosha factory in the Nagano Prefecture and the Daini (literally second) factory in Kameido, Tokyo. Seiko’s stroke of genius, henceforth, was to promote internal competition between these two factories in every dimension, but particularly in chronometric excellence and the technical innovations related to it.
Up until 1959, Seikos were considered reliable utilitarian watches, with European brands like Rolex and the mythical Patek Philippe still occupying the highest rungs in the Japanese consumers’ imagination. But Seiko had greater ambitions.
It wanted to demonstrate that it could create a watch that on every level, from design to finish, and in particular, in terms of function, could hold its own with the horological elite. In 1960, with this desire to compete with the very finest watches from Switzerland, the company launched the Grand Seiko line pioneered by the reference 3180.
This timepiece has become an icon. The reference 3180 was characterised by long lugs with a strong bevel, a round case, prominent dauphine hands and faceted markers. Cases were generally gold-plated but solid platinum examples are known to exist.
Most importantly, underneath the Seiko signature now was the word “chronometer” in deference to the calibre’s rigorous internal testing for accuracy. It was made by Suwa Seikosha, and the manual-wind calibre 3180 residing within was accurate to −3/+12 seconds a day, which meant it complied with Swiss Chronometric standards set by the Bureaux Officiels de Contrôle de la Marche des Montres. But that’s where things got combative.
The Spirit of Competition: Swiss vs. Japanese Movements
The Swiss, having caught wind of Seiko’s desire to create a line of elevated, refined and elegant timepieces with all the characteristics of the finest Swiss watches, began to balk at the idea of the Japanese company using the term “chronometer” in reference to its watches’ excellent accuracy. As such, the European Chronometer Official Association wrote a scathing letter to Seiko, insisting that it remove the word from its King Seiko watches manufactured at the Daini factory and its Grand Seiko watches made in the Suwa factory. (The output of these two factories would eventually be merged under the Grand Seiko designation in Suwa in the Nagano Prefecture).
And that is when, as they say, “Shit got real.” In response, Seiko sent several mechanical wristwatch movements to the 1964 Neuchâtel Observatory trials, considered at the time the most brutal and demanding chronometric competition in the world. Movements could not deviate more than +/− 0.75 seconds a day with +/− 0.20 seconds for temperature variations. Movements were submitted to relentless scrutiny for 45 days straight. Now let’s look at Seiko’s history in these Swiss chronometric trials.
It was the Suwa Seiko factory where Grand Seiko was born that was the first competitor in these trials. In 1963, they sent an experimental quartz crystal clock which placed 10th in the marine chronometer category. But the following year onwards, Seiko would only send its most elite mechanical movements destined for Grand and King Seiko watches.
In the context of today, it may seem amusing that we would accord so much value to the accuracy of a mechanical watch. But you should understand that mechanical timing devices had enabled massive advancements in human history, reaching back to John Harrison in 1761, whose marine timekeeper finally allowed mankind to calculate his longitude more accurately at sea, which gave dominion over the oceans to the British Navy.
Contribution to precision measurement was also the reason that Charles Édouard Guillaume, the first person to create a thermal compensating hairspring, won a Nobel Prize in 1920. The kings of the Neuchâtel Observatory trials were brands like Omega, Longines and Girard-Perregaux, and calibres such as the Peseux 260, the Longines 360 and the Zenith 135 were born out of this competition.
The initial results for Seiko in 1964 were disastrous with the two watch movements they entered placing 144th and 153rd, which meant that these watches didn’t qualify as chronometers. In 1965, things became marginally better with a 114th ranking. Rather than becoming discouraged, this just stoked the competitive fire in Seiko and the brand was encouraged to experiment with high-frequency movements and other innovative solutions to improve accuracy. This spirit of intense competitiveness would later give rise to its two great signature creations, the Hi-Beat and Spring Drive movements. The company returned in 1966 and managed a ninth place at the trials.
In 1967, Seiko’s fortunes changed. It placed fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth and 12th. The movement that placed fourth was the calibre 052 manufactured at the Daini factory; a high-beat movement that ran at 36,000vph.
At the 1968 trials, Seiko’s movements performed so brilliantly that the Swiss did the unthinkable and called off the competition! Seriously. No joke. It was like, “That’s it, motherfuckers, we’re going home.”
It was later revealed that Seiko had placed second and every place from fourth to eighth. It should be noted that this was at a time when the Swiss had introduced quartz technology in the form of the Beta 21 movement. Not to be discouraged, Seiko promptly gathered up its movements, decamped to Geneva and the observatory trials there, winning every place from fourth to 10th, with the major caveat being that every watch from first to third was a Beta 21 quartz watch. To place that in context, this was the equivalent of sailboats beating the most powerful and advanced motorboats on the open sea. And with that, the legend of Grand Seiko was born.
It should be noted, too, that in 1968, Seiko submitted 103 4520A calibre movements to Neuchâtel Observatory of which 73 passed as chronometers. These movements were cased in a unique cushion-shaped model called the Astronomical Observatory Chronometer, making Seiko one of a handful of watch brands to retail watches with true observatory-certified movements in series. To me, these represent the single most desirable Seiko watches in modern history.
Side note, Girard-Perregaux was one other such watch brand. What made Girard-Perregaux unique though is that it was the only watchmaker to retail series produced movements that were remarkably, certified in competition!
The Beauty of Grand Seiko
Now this is a great story. But until recently it was a purely technical story, meaning that it still didn’t completely resonate with me emotionally. I was intrigued but not quite sold. When I looked at a Grand Seiko watch, I marvelled at its technical innovation, was impressed by its clear expression of quality but emotionally, it left me somewhat cold. Especially considering my enduring and voracious love affair for Swiss horology.
Then just recently, in a strange moment of epiphany, made even stranger as it happened at the very last watch event held in the Grand Seiko boutique in London, before the COVID-19 pandemic blitzkrieged the world and forever changed the way we live, I suddenly understood what Grand Seiko was all about. Its beauty is in its otherness, in its adamant refusal to draw inspiration from anything apart from its own design language.
From the snow in the Nagano Prefecture, from its own history in quartz technology which eventually yielded the hybrid Spring Drive movements, from its leadership in dive watch design, which influenced ISO rules more than any other brand, from its otherworldly level of finish, its design language was quirky but ultimately immensely beautiful and perennially appealing. So much so that I felt compelled to buy one. This is how it went down.
There are many dimensions to Grand Seiko’s history that are appealing. There is the “Grammar of Design” created by designer Taro Tanaka, which resulted in the famous 57GS watch from 1964, the 44GS from 1967 and the 61GS from 1968.
What I find cool about Grand Seiko watches is that they possess a design language characterised in general by muscular and sharply faceted integrated lugs, and highly reductionist, Zen-purist dials that is unlike the horological design language of the West. It took me a while to fully appreciate the utter originality of Grand Seiko’s aesthetic language, in the same way it took a while for me to appreciate the brutalist design charm of the Nissan GT-R.
But the part of Grand Seiko’s history that I found most fascinating, the part that started to hook me and reel me in, relates to its parent companies’ work in two pioneering types of movements, the Hi-Beat, or high-frequency, movements that helped it dominate the observatory trials in 1967 and 1968, and a radical new movement that combined the best elements of quartz and mechanical watchmaking named the Spring Drive.
The Hi-Beat Calibres
Apart from being the watch that is thought to most perfectly embody Taro Tanaka’s Grammar of Design, the 61GS is also distinguished by being the very first high-end Seiko watch to feature the company’s Hi-Beat movement.
OK, what’s the theory behind a high-frequency movement? The balance and escapement form the regulating organs of a mechanical watch. Which means that the balance oscillates back and forth at precise uniform intervals and is locked, unlocked and delivers impulse to the balance thanks to the escapement.
Marine chronometers are extremely accurate even though their balances tend to oscillate relatively slowly at 18,000vph or less, because the regulating organ is isolated from the rolling and rocking of the ship deck by being mounted on a gimbal. However, a balance in a wristwatch experiences an infinite number of micro-shocks that can result from anything like clapping your hands or simply just swinging your arm back and forth. If you think about it, the fact that this tiny wheel which is vibrating anywhere from five to 10 times per second does so with such amazing accuracy, is almost an act of magic.
It was discovered that elevating the vibrational speed of the balance wheel gives it greater autonomy from shocks, gravity and any other erosive forces. Girard-Perregaux was the first manufacture to commercialise a high-frequency movement that beats at 5 Hertz or 36,000vph.
In 1967, Seiko released its first Hi-Beat calibre 5740C, also a 5Hz movement. This was, however, not placed in a Grand Seiko watch, but in a model known as the “Lord Marvel”. The first Grand Seiko with a Hi-Beat movement appeared in the 61GS, an absolute marvel of design and engineering. Amusingly, a full 36,000 watches of the 61GS model were created. If you are interested in a first Grand Seiko vintage watch, this is the perfect place to start, especially as prices tend to range around the accessible 2,500 US dollar mark.
And if the Hi-Beat movement is interesting to you, what you should know is that this year, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the first Grand Seiko, the brand has created a watch with an all-new Hi-Beat calibre, the 9S5A, which features an improved 80 hours of power reserve and a new inertia balance, a full-balance bridge anchored on both sides, a new hairspring with a special overcoil that aids in concentric breathing and an incredibly cool new escapement.
This new escapement does away with the Swiss anchor design and introduces instead the dual-impulse escapement, which features an eight-point skeletonised escape wheel, which works in conjunction with a lever-type escapement, so that sliding friction is only produced when the balance swings counter-clockwise and not clockwise. This better and more badass version of the Hi-Beat was launched earlier this year in the charming SLGH002 dress watch.
This limited-edition watch is in some ways the ultimate sleeper, as it looks like a beautifully finished and appealingly understated three-hand watch until you realise it has the single most advanced 5Hz movement on the planet beating within.
The Spring Drive Calibres
OK, now for Grand Seiko’s Spring Drive movement. Let’s jump back to the late ’60s again where sadly the watch world’s experiments with high-frequency movements disappeared, thanks to the advent and popularity of the quartz watch, which ironically began with the launch of the Seiko Astron in 1969.
Indeed, all Grand Seiko production was halted from 1975 to 1988 because of what in Switzerland was called the Quartz Crisis, but in Japan was known as the Quartz Revolution. So, what’s a quartz watch?
It’s a watch where the balance wheel has been replaced by a quartz crystal. When you send an electrical pulse through it, it oscillates at 32,768vps meaning that it is a massive order of magnitude more accurate than a mechanical watch. Or at least it should be — let’s go back to the 1968 Geneva Observatory trials again.
Interestingly, it was the Swiss and not the Japanese that first pioneered quartz technology with the unveiling of the prototype Beta 1, the first analogue quartz watch, in 1967. However, it was the Japanese, namely Seiko, that beat the Swiss to market with the 1969 Astron. Quartz watches had one weakness in that they consumed electric energy provided by batteries, and these batteries had to be replaced at regular intervals. In addition, their seconds hands marched forward imperviously but inelegantly every second on the second, which is something that appeals to some but not to others.
Amusingly, Rolex had created a mechanical watch called the Tru-Beat in the 1950s, with a traditional Swiss complication known as the deadbeat that allows the seconds hand in a mechanical watch to advance only once per second, instead of sweep across the dial. However, only small quantities of this watch were produced and sold, and the line was discontinued after five years.
But in 1977, a complete horological badass named Yoshikazu Akahane, based out at the Nagano Prefecture in the facility now called the Shinshu Watch Studio, where Grand Seiko’s Micro Artist Studio is located, created a movement that married the best of mechanical and quartz watchmaking — the Spring Drive.
So, the Spring Drive has been described in picturesque science fiction terms as a cybernetic organism; human flesh covering a robotic skeleton and powered by a computer brain. But it’s anything but. In fact, lovers of mechanical watchmaking will be intrigued by the fact that a Grand Seiko Spring Drive movement, up until the very last wheel in the going train, is identical to a mechanical movement.
On top of that, when combined with Seiko’s ultra-efficient “Magic Lever” automatic-winding system, or executed with the most staggeringly beautiful hand bevels and internal angles — as evidenced by the calibre 9R02 found in the SBGZ001, last year’s tribute to the 20th anniversary of the Spring Drive replete with hand-engraved case and dial — it is a magnificent movement. So how exactly does it work? Power is stored in a traditional barrel and then transmitted across a traditional gear train. But where you would normally find the escapement wheel, Swiss anchor and balance wheel in 99 percent of the watches in the world, you get what Seiko calls its “Tri-Synchro” regulator.
What does this mean? Well, “Tri” refers to the three types of forces at work in the regulating system. The first is magnetic related to the glide wheel. The second is mechanical, which comes from the mainspring and down through the gear train. The third is electrical related to the quartz crystal oscillator.
OK, this is how it works: The last wheel on the train is the all-important glide wheel. This turns between two magnets that are attached to a coil. Magnetic energy is transformed into electrical energy by the coil. This energy is sent to an integrated circuit and a quartz oscillator. The integrated circuit counts the number of oscillations made by the quartz crystal and sends energy back to the electromagnets, which in turn exert a magnetic braking force on the glide wheel.
In this way time is kept, meaning that the mainspring unwinds in a steady and consistent way even as energy diminishes. You can see the advantages of the Spring Drive. It is impervious to magnetic influence, it is shock resistant to the extreme, and in its newest iteration, the calibre 9RA5, it features for the first time its own thermal compensation.
It is, in a word, infallible. And in addition to this, because the central seconds hand on the dial is being driven by a smooth consistent source of energy rather than small pulses of energy, it is able to float effortlessly and consistently gliding around the circumference of the dial with almost transcendent equanimity and poise. Think Barry White sipping on Hennessey, wearing sunglasses and silk pyjamas levels of smooth.
The point of the Spring Drive is that it takes all the best features of the mechanical movement, the fact that the only energy it consumes is what it gets from you wearing it or winding it, and all the best features of the quartz movement, the ultra-precise quartz oscillator which vibrates 32,768 times per second, and combines them into one totally unique and beautifully executed package. And just how accurate is a Grand Seiko Spring Drive? Think ±1 second a day or less, which is twice as accurate as the next most accurate mechanical watch. As soon as I completely understood the Spring Drive, I started to become obsessed with it. And eventually, I became determined to own a Grand Seiko Spring Drive watch. But at this point, I had missed out on one critical dimension to Grand Seiko watches, and that relates to their slavish devotion to perfecting finish.
The Spring Drive 20th Anniversary Limited Edition SBGZ001
OK, this is embarrassing to admit, but for the better half of the last decade, I’ve badly needed multi-focal or bifocal glasses. Yes, the ones that the old guys need to wear. Because I am an old guy. I always joke that the day you can afford a Patek perpetual calendar is the day you will struggle to read it. But it’s true. My already myopic eyesight had gone straight to hell. So much so that I was eventually compelled to swallow my pride, sublimate my vanity and go get a pair of “old man glasses”. Once I got used to the at-first eerie floating sensation they caused, it suddenly gave me a new lease on life. I could enjoy reading again.
Pleased with myself, I rocked up to the Basel fair last year to my appointment at the Grand Seiko booth with the wonderful David Edwards, the brand’s head honcho in the UK. And he placed a watch in front of me that absolutely blew my mind. That was the aforementioned Micro Artist Studio-engraved, platinum, manual-wind, 20th anniversary Spring Drive 30-piece limited-edition watch: the SBGZ001.
Peering at it through my new and improved, ultra-sharp-focus old man glasses, I almost fell out of my chair. It was the single most beautiful, modern time-only watch I had ever seen in my life. I’m not being hyperbolic, it was that ravishing. What I was particularly blown away by was the almost hallucinatory perfection of the finish, not just in the magnificent movement replete with its handmade bevels, but even the hands and indexes were at a level of finish most brands reserve only for tourbillon bridges.
As David explained the ethos of Grand Seiko’s Zaratsu finishing, the mirror polishing that creates beyond perfect reflection of light, I exclaimed, “OK, but this is a 73,000 US dollar watch! Surely this doesn’t apply to the more accessibly priced watches?”
David promptly took off his own watch and I saw all of this perfection, on the polishing of the bezels, on the lugs, even on the frame for the date and details in the bracelet, staring back at me, expressed with such immaculate quality that I almost could not breathe.
I started grabbing watch after watch, examining them under a loupe and each watch would literally resonate with this feverish devotion to quality. Add this to the awe I already possessed for the Spring Drive and I found myself automatically reaching into my wallet and committing to the platinum SBGZ001 until it dawned on me… I didn’t have even one-tenth of the asking price to spare.
The Spring Drive ‘Snowflake’ SBGA211
At that point, I began to despondently curse my ultra-sharp new spectacles that revealed to me a watch of such beauty and perfection, only to have me realise that it was beyond the fragile limits of my bank account. What I found so appealing was the calm, mesmerising, mediational effect of the engraved surface and dial that was meant to replicate the surface of the snow reflected in the moonlight in Nagano. I commiserated with David and he replied, “Have you thought about a ‘Snowflake’?”
To which I idiotically replied, “What’s a ‘Snowflake’?” He pointed to his watch which I had now placed on my wrist in the hopes I could stealthily make away with it without him noticing. I joke. But only just. The SBGA211, or the Grand Seiko “Snowflake”, is a modern icon.
In 1988, Grand Seiko was revived initially with just quartz movements, and then in 1998, with the mechanical calibre 9S, which was launched in the model 9SGS. This design, which has remained unchanged a full 22 years after it was launched, and is the design of the Grand Seiko “Snowflake” that sits on my wrist as I write this, was something I didn’t completely comprehend when it was first launched.
It was neither a sports watch — after all, there was no lume on the dial or the hands — nor a dress watch. It was too big and thick but had an integrated bracelet, and was a sports-chic model with subdued and slightly quirky aesthetics. In order to understand any Grand Seiko, and perhaps most of all the SBGA211, you need to try it on. The first thing you will notice is that it is light, crazily light for what looks like a pretty robust watch.
That’s because it’s crafted from Grand Seiko’s high-intensity titanium, which has a much higher surface hardness than traditional grade 5 titanium, and also has a kind of Wolverine-like mutant “self-healing” power, in that a sort of oxide forms over small scratches, causing them to fade over time. The other thing about the Grand Seiko is that it just feels expensive. Close your eyes and put it in your hand.
This is a trick that I do with Pateks all the time. It just feels wonderful on your skin. Same thing with the Grand Seiko where every surface has been so thoroughly polished and slaved over for ergonomics that you forget it’s there. Case in point is that I normally take my watch off to write, but I’ve had my “Snowflake” on for all 5,000 words of this article.
Flip the watch over and you’ll see that amazing Spring Drive movement that dates back to 1977 but that has received a new thermo compensator as of this year, for the special anniversary models. It is only by gazing into the lovely finish, complemented by what I would normally call Geneva stripes, that you see how purely mechanical the movement is, with just the jewel-mounted drive and glide wheels differing from a traditional movement. The SBGA211 is powered by an automatic movement and benefits from Seiko’s ultra-efficient Magic Lever automatic-winding system.
In terms of dial layout, it is no different from the 2004 9R6 model, the very first Grand Seiko Spring Drive model, which means it has large beautifully finished sword hands, a flame-blued seconds hand, a power-reserve indicator at 8:30 and a date window at three o’clock. It is perfect harmonious Zen-reductionist calm, a watch that when you look at it, places you in a tranquil mental state, aided by the smoothness of the seconds hand that militates against the idea of time’s imperious march toward finality.
But it is the dial’s surface that gives it the nickname “Snowflake”, as it bears a wonderfully elegant, subtle and uneven pattern that is inspired by the snowfields in Nagano Prefecture where the Spring Drive was born. It is not a tapisserie, or a sunray, or a guilloché, or a frosted dial. It borrows no reference to any Western culture dial. It is completely and wonderfully born through the imagination of the Japanese mind. While it is not hand-engraved like the magnificent SBGZ001, the dial is incredibly complex to create.
The snow pattern is stamped onto the dial, then layer after layer of translucent opalescent colour is added. The Russian Suprematist artist Kazimir Malevich, who created the seminal painting White on White, once proclaimed, “White is the colour of infinity.” And this is exactly what you feel when gazing into the dial of the Grand Seiko “Snowflake”. As the dial draws you in, and as the smooth seconds hand glides around you, you feel connected to infinity.
A year later, I couldn’t stop thinking about the “Snowflake” and eventually at a Grand Seiko event held with David Edwards — yes, I eventually gave him back his watch — I said to him, “David, I can’t host this event with you without being your customer.”
I had already earmarked and reserved the SBGA211 “Snowflake” sitting in the window and bought it on the spot. Amusingly, just moments later, my friend and fellow watch collector Johnny Allen, who runs Huntsman tailors’ front of house, walked in and exclaimed, “I’m here to buy a ‘Snowflake’!”
Now a full two months later, as I write this story, I am pleased to announce that amid the madness of the COVID-19 pandemic and my quarantine and self-isolation, the Grand Seiko “Snowflake” is the watch that saved my sanity. First of all, it is utterly indestructible. I wear it on my spin bike, it’s on my wrist as I clumsily attempt to emulate the HIIT workouts of much younger, fitter and infinitely bendier people on Instagram, and even when I’m doing shadow boxing, something I would never normally wear a mechanical watch to do. The point is, I can’t get the Spring Drive movement to lose even a fraction of a second. And then there is the pure sensual and visual pleasure of a watch that is executed with such mesmerising perfection.
Sure, it took me a long time to get into Grand Seiko. It was more of a slow burn than a lightning strike, but when it hit, it hit with immeasurable power. The pathway into Grand Seiko may have been the incredible chronometric feats and technical innovation of its parent company, but in the end, the tipping point had to do with the perfection of execution and quality. Also considering that I only bought my first Grand Seiko at the age of 50, I am looking forward to an all-new adventure in watch collecting. The brand and I clearly have a Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera relationship going on. Now, if I can just get someone to lend me 73,000 US dollars for that Micro Artist Studio watch.