It’s well established in watch lore that in the early ’80s, after accidentally destroying his mechanical watch, Casio’s head of watch design Kiku Ibe challenged himself and his team to build an indestructible watch that could, notably, withstand a 10-meter fall. Ibe’s team built some 200 prototypes and, literally, threw them out the window. What seems like a high-school physics project eventually birthed the original G-Shock, a plastic-cased digital watch that spawned one of the most iconic watch lines in timekeeping history.
Before the dawn of G-Shock, watches were a very small part of Casio’s electronic empire, but today, G-Shock is “the largest asset of Casio,” according to Senior Executive Managing Officer Yuichi Masuda. According to Casio, sales of G-Shock watches are at their highest, thanks to a shift in strategy. The brand no longer sells just humble, tough digital watches — rather, Casio has shifted to offering the classic G-Shock formula with higher-end materials and upgraded functions.
There’s a good reason for this: by Casio’s estimate, the wristwatch market comprises about 1 billion timepieces annually, and increasingly sports and smart wearables are cutting into that, by about 130 million units (again, according to Casio’s own research). Casio naturally wants a piece of this action, but acknowledges exactly where its strengths are; though the brand has created some full-on smartwatches (i.e., those that can run third-party apps), it intends to stick to sports and fitness-oriented wearables, rather than compete with the likes of Samsung and Apple.
What this means is that G-Shock is focusing on so-called “hybrid smartwatches,” traditional quartz watches imbued with smart technologies like Bluetooth connectivity, atomic timekeeping and activity tracking. Potentially, more features will come in the future like the re-addition of an improved heart rate monitoring system (Casio once featured heart rate monitoring on some watches back in the 1990s) and ways to extend battery life (Masuda mentioned a system that could use body heat to re-juice a watch battery).
Factor in G-Shock’s increasing use of finished metals for its high-end products, and you have a version of G-Shock that looks much different than that of the ’80s and ’90s (hell, they didn’t even have a high-end line back then), even if the overall aesthetic and mission has remained the same. Similarly, G-Shock’s testing and production facilities have come a long way since the early days of tossing watches out an open window. In Japan, the G-Shock line has both a dedicated R&D facility in Hamura — a suburb about an hour west of Tokyo — and a movement production line in Yamagata Prefecture.
The former, on the surface, still retains some of that high-school-science-lab charm; it’s a relatively small, fluorescently-lit room filled with an amalgam of different machines used to push various G-Shock models to their limits. According to Casio, on any given day, there will be anywhere from 10 to 20 individuals attempting to destroy G-Shock watches — both prototypes of each new model and randomly selected production models — with the power of gravity, water, pressure, electricity and even hammers.
Yes, hammers. One of Casio’s most delightfully straightforward tests involves a sizeable rotating mallet spinning around to knock a G-Shock into a net to see if it can, well, survive a hammer blow. Next to this contraption is an almost ray gun-looking device that zaps the watch with electrostatic energy. There are also less cartoonish appearing devices in the R&D lab: one device submerges a G-Shock in a reddish solution meant to mimic mud while four prongs rhythmically depress each button hundreds of times to see how the watch can hold up to the potential ingress of dirt and mud. Next to this is a device that tests for resistance to water-pressure while also activating each pusher — Casio says this is the only machine in the world that can test both simultaneously.
Then there’s the famous drop test. Rather than tossing watches out the window as in the old days, G-Shock has two mechanical devices for simulating falls. One, quite simply, drops a watch from ten feet onto a concrete slab. The other, however, is meant to replicate a much higher fall and is, as such, surrounded by a cage and actuated with a pneumatic pump. When asked, a G-Shock representative said he couldn’t disclose what that exact height is, but if you keep in mind Ibe’s original 10-meter stipulation, you can draw some of your own conclusions.
Casio’s Yamagata facility is an entirely different beast; it opened in 1980 and has been home to the production of a number of Casio products (including watches), but as of this year, the brand has updated its watch production facilities. It’s here where production of G-Shock’s high-end lines (like MR-G and MT-G lines) and production of all Casio movements take place. As you’d expect this is a crucial operation and, as such, the facility was recently outfitted with a seismic isolation floor that rests under the entire production line, saving the watchmaker’s machinery in case of seismic activity. If this Yamagata line were to shut down, it could halt production of other Casio facilities.
Whereas many mechanical watchmakers like to tout a continuing tradition of hand-assembled pieces, the Yamagata line is impressive for the opposite reason: it’s almost entirely autonomous. Machines produce plastic parts (like dials and tiny internal gears), and each movement makes its way down a conveyor-like system with its many components mounted in a buzzing, mechanical ballet. Humans still play a crucial role in the manufacture of watches here, however — along the line, workers inspect each movement to make sure they were assembled correctly. Similarly, the final assembly and inspection of high-end watches at Yamagata is done by workers with years of experience and training.
Often watch enthusiasts are quick to praise the tradition of producing mechanical watches and ignore the effort it takes to build something electronic or quartz-regulated. But a look at G-Shock shows just how much planning, infrastructure and skill it takes to make something on the cusp of both the technological and the traditional. It’s an eye-opening process but one that will naturally change and adapt in the future, just as their timepieces do.
Note: Casio hosted us in Japan to see its production and testing facilities. Casio is also a current advertiser at Gear Patrol.