At Seiko, Innovation and Tradition Synchronize

A visit to Japan pulls back the curtain on Seiko, whose single-minded pursuit of lofty goals often makes it appear unconcerned with larger trends.

In a small, sunlit room outside the wooded northern hamlet of Morioka, Japan, a dozen or so watchmakers wearing white coats and caps sit in monastic silence at custom-sized Iwayado wooden desks. Each one is studiously performing a task — assembling, adjusting, polishing — that will ultimately result in a wristwatch that has few peers in the hallowed realm of horology. This is the Shizuku-ishi workshop of Seiko Instruments, where all Grand Seiko and Prospex mechanical watches originate. A glimpse into this space is a pulling back of the curtain on one of the most respected watchmaking traditions anywhere in the world, one that is rarely seen.

Just down the hall and around a corner is another room where watches are made. But this room is considerablty larger and louder. As far back as the eye can see, an army of custom machines works at lightning speed, punching out printed circuit boards and spooling copper wire onto a coil at 10,000 revolutions per minute. It is an automated assembly line that spits out over 10 million quartz movements per day, all of which are sold to third parties. This dizzying display is no less impressive than the Shizuku-ishi, workshop but the juxtaposition is jarring. However, it is also what makes Seiko so unique. There is pride in all aspects of their work, from the hand-polished case of a Grand Seiko to the GPS receiver in the Astron.

There is a tangible sense that Seiko marches to the beat of its own drum, seemingly uncaring and oblivious to the trends in the rest of the watch world in a single-minded pursuit of its own lofty goals.

“Seiko” means “precision” in Japanese, and since the company’s founding in 1882, living up to that name has been nothing less than an obsession. That has meant disregarding stubborn notions of what watchmaking should be and creating a company that has produced some of the most revolutionary milestones in watchmaking, like the first self-winding mechanical chronograph, the Spring Drive movement which converts mechanical energy into an electrical pulse and, most famously, the quartz watch movement. But with Seiko, these innovations are done with a workmanlike humility uncommon in an era of hyperbolic press releases. There is a tangible sense that Seiko marches to the beat of its own drum, seemingly uncaring and oblivious to the trends in the rest of the watch world in a single-minded pursuit of its own lofty goals.

A Study in Minimalism


The beauty of Grand Seiko watches since their beginnings in 1960 is in their subtlety — no fancy names, few complications and almost no marketing. These watches beg you to look closer and then reward you with details. The new 62GS pays tribute to a similarly named piece from 1967 that housed Grand Seiko’s first self-winding movement. Razor-sharp faceted hands, a swordsmith’s attention to detail in the case polishing and a sunburst dial all demonstrate Seiko’s expertise in the small stuff. Around back, the in-house automatic movement is similarly pure in form and accurate in function.

To much of the world outside of Japan, Seiko is largely known for its sturdy and affordable quartz, kinetic and solar watches, which are sold in department stores everywhere. But few know about the high end lines that Seiko makes — Grand Seiko and Credor — namely because they have been scarce outside of Japan up until a few years ago. Beginning in 1960, Grand Seiko became the brand’s outlet for making high end timepieces whose hallmarks include hand-polished faceted hands and dial markers, exquisite movement finishing and blade-like case lines that are crafted in the Zaratsu style, reminiscent of a samurai sword. And they are very accurate.

Swiss chronometer certification, long held as the ultimate validation of accuracy,comes only after a watch movement is independently tested for 15 days, subjecting it to three temperatures and five physical positions. A movement must hold to a mean daily rate between -4 and +6 seconds per day in order to be called a chronometer, and this is a badge of honor worn by watches from several brands, from Breitling to Bremont to Rolex. But the chronometer standard isn’t good enough for a Grand Seiko, so the company implemented its own testing program, one that tests its 9S family of mechanical movements in six positions for two extra days and only passes them if they maintain a mean rate between -3 to +5 seconds per 24 hours. Of course, if accuracy is what you’re after, inevitably, quartz watches come into the discussion, and there is no greater authority on that subject than Seiko.

Four hours by bullet train from Morioka is Nagano prefecture, which, if you squint and ignore the katakana road signs and Shinto temples, looks a lot like the watchmaking region of Switzerland, with sleek motorways carving through steep mountains. Here, in the town of Shiojiri, is the rather nondescript building that houses Seiko Epson. “Epson” refers to the business unit that has built printers and imaging equipment since the 1960s. But the Shiojiri factory is also the birthplace of Seiko’s most state-of-the-art and accurate watches — Grand Seiko Quartz, Spring Drive and Astron.

The Astron Reinvents Accuracy


The Astron takes its name from arguably Seiko’s greatest innovation (the first quartz watch), and it fittingly features Seiko’s latest: GPS solar timekeeping. The Astron, which is available in dual time and chronograph varieites and different metals and color schemes, receives a time signal once a day from up to four satellites, tweaking its timekeeping to be accurate to within a single second per 100,000 years. It also detects time zone automatically, making it the ideal traveler’s watch and its solar charging capability makes it entirely self-sufficient.

In Switzerland, “quartz” is a four-letter word, the scars still fresh from the dark days when the revolutionary battery-powered movement threatened to sink the entire Swiss watch industry. But at Seiko, quartz is a point of pride. After all, it was in 1969 that the Quartz Astron debuted, the first of its kind. When Seiko developed the quartz watch movement, it made a point of keeping its patents open for all to follow, in an effort to make its quartz a new industry standard. So any notion that Seiko somehow secretly pulled the rug out from under other brands is entirely false. In reality, the so-called “Quartz Crisis” in Switzerland was to a great degree self-imposed, as the Swiss brands struggled to work around the Japanese innovation instead of adopting it.

The quartz movements built in Shiojiri are a far cry from the millions spit out of the assembly line back in Morioka, and for that matter pretty much any you would find in a ticking watch anywhere else. Grand Seiko quartz movements, known as the 9F calibre family, are as well crafted and finely finished as the 9S mechanical calibres painstakingly assembled in the Shizuku-ishi studio. Outwardly, the movement’s metal bridges are beautifully striped with beveled edges and fine engraving. But it’s what’s not visible that truly sets these movements apart, both in form and function.

The beautifully decorated 9F quartz movement is fine-tuned for an accuracy rate of 10 seconds per year.

When most quartz watches tick, their sweep seconds hand has considerable backlash, causing a quivering of the hand at each second, an unacceptable trait that Grand Seiko sought to eliminate. To do this, they added additional gearing and a hairspring that keeps tension on the wheel that drives the sweep hand’s arbor. This allows the seconds hand to advance exactly one second each tick, hitting the dial markers perfectly and with zero twitching backlash. The hands on a Grand Seiko Quartz are also longer than on most quartz watches, thanks to the twin-pulse, high-torque motor which can accommodate heavier hands, lending further precision to the time display.

Observe most quartz watches as they change the date and you’ll probably fall asleep before it’s done, typically starting around 11 p.m. and finishing somewhere in the wee hours of the next morning. The Grand Seiko Quartz has an instantaneous date change, which occurs within one minute after midnight (before midnight would be unacceptable).

The precision tick, longer hands and instant date change are all well and good for giving the impression of higher quality, but where the magic lies in the calibre 9F is in the time signal itself and that starts with the quartz crystal. Quartz is a naturally occurring silica-based compound found in the earth, but in the watch industry, quartz is synthetically produced, and Seiko is the only manufacturer that “grows” its own quartz. At a plant in Suwa, 40-foot-high autoclaves serve as incubators for the pressurized, super-heated quartz, which takes several months to grow to its ideal size. Then Seiko selects the purest crystals to age for 90 days before they are cut into the tuning-fork-shaped slivers that produce the precise time pulse in a quartz movement.

Seiko tests its 9S mechanical movements in six positions for 17 days and only passes them if they maintain a mean accuracy rate between -3 to +5 seconds per 24 hours.

The 9F movement is a sum of its parts — from the homegrown crystals to Seiko’s lead-free long-life batteries, to the sealed motor encased in beautifully decorated steel and resulting in the precise tick of those long hands. The final movements are fine-tuned before they’re cased in a watch, adjusted for wide temperature swings that are typically the Achilles heel of quartz watches. The result of this obsessive quest for accuracy is a monthly rate that keeps time within 10 seconds per year. Let that sink in before you read on.

The result of this obsessive quest for accuracy is a monthly rate that keeps time within 10 seconds per year.

Quartz is well and good for those who favor accuracy above the smooth sweep of a mechanical watch and the sight of gears whirring through a caseback. But rather than compromise, Seiko married the two in its Spring Drive, producing the holy grail of mechanical charm and electronic accuracy. The first Spring Drive appeared in 1999, after two decades of research and trial and error. The brainchild of engineer Yoshikazu Akahane, the concept is simple – the conventional drivetrain of a mechanical watch generates electricity to power an ultra-precise magnetic regulator. The result is a watch whose sweep hand is perfectly smooth and completely silent. Flip it over and the 9R movement looks for all intents and purposes like a conventional mechanical watch with an oscillating winding rotor, mainspring barrel and decorated bridges, but in place of the escapement is the spinning magnetic tri-synchro regulator. A Grand Seiko Spring Drive won’t leave Shiojiri unless it’s accurate to within less than a second per day.

It has been said that Seiko is the most vertically integrated watch company in the entire world. That means that it not only designs and builds all of its own watches, but it also produces every last component, from cases to dials to hands to hairsprings. In a separate wing of the Seiko Epson building in Shiojiri, three-axis cutting machines spin out everything from cases to movement bridges with micron precision. Despite the scale of automation, there is still plenty of hand crafting. Down the hall from case manufacturing is a room where dials are pad printed, each examined by careful eyes while downstairs, a man is applying the brushwork and polish to the flanks of a Grand Seiko case by hand on a spinning wheel. One slip and too much steel will be removed, resulted in a wasted case. But he’s been doing it for over 20 years with a silent — yes, Zen-like — patience and attention to detail.

The 9R Spring Drive movement looks like a conventional mechanical watch with an oscillating winding rotor, mainspring barrel and decorated bridges but in place of the escapement is the spinning magnetic tri-synchro regulator. A Grand Seiko Spring Drive won’t leave Japan until it’s accurate to within one second per day.

To the rest of the world, Japan presents a dichotomous image. On the one hand it is renowned for its efficient, reliable cars, electronic gadgets, cutting-edge cameras and heated toilet seats. It is a thoroughly modern engineering powerhouse. On the other hand, we also think of its age-old knife-making skills, its tea ceremony and its meticulously raked rock gardens—an ancient tradition-bound country that values handcraft and taking one’s time. Seiko embraces both sides of this paradox equally — technology in pursuit of precision with a handcrafted respect for tradition. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Micro Artist Studio.

On the ground floor of Seiko Epson, in a small, disheveled back office, a small team of craftsmen are left alone to create some of the most exquisite watches in the world. Credor is at the highest end of Seiko’s offerings, with few made available outside of Japan and many costing well into six figures. In one corner of the Micro Artist Studio, an artist hand paints the markers and Credor logo on a white porcelain dial that will be fitted on the Eichii 2, a watch so sublimely simple that it is the horological embodiment of a Zen koan. But from another desk comes a ringing so pure that is cuts the air like a katana blade. It is the Credor Minute Repeater, whose gong hammers are made by the 52nd generation of the Myochin family, which is renowned for its wind chimes. To hear the watch chime the quarter hour is to be transported to a temple on a windy hillside. But what drives the watch is a Spring Drive movement, whose silent, accurate operation provides the perfect backdrop for such an aural complication. Listening to the Credor Spring Drive Minute Repeater, one begins to understand Seiko and by extension, to understand Japan itself.

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