The name ‘Seiko’ may not be the first to come to mind when discussing excellence in watchmaking, but frankly, it is a serious mistake. When we speak specifically of Grand Seiko, we are referring to watches whose degree of perfection reaches lofty heights, designed by the most rigorous micro-engineers and created by the most skilled craftsmen using methods perfected over centuries.
While many do not realise what talking about Grand Seiko really means, let’s delve together into its compelling history and understand why it may be one of the most important maisons ever.
A competition for excellence
The quest for perfection has always been the goal of Kintaro Hattori, who in 1881 gave his company the name ‘Seiko’, the Japanese word for ‘excellence’. Seiko’s history is full of interesting moments, details of which can be found here.
For today’s article, suffice it to say that soon the level of its watches began to be comparable to Swiss timepieces in terms of mechanical quality, aesthetics and precision. At the time, Seiko’s production was entrusted to its two production plants, Suwa and Daini, which soon began competing, encouraged by the management, for the production of the perfect watch.
This exciting internal challenge, of extremely Japanese spirit, led to the introduction of several models in the 1950s: in 1956, Seiko Suwa introduced the Marvel, Japan’s first completely in-house designed and manufactured watch. The challenge in the pursuit of perfection continued with Seiko Daini’s introduction of the Cronos, a watch slimmer than the Marvel.
Suwa responded in 1958, presenting the Lord Marvel, a version with improved readability compared to the previous model, which was in turn surpassed in 1959 by the Seiko Crown, also by Seiko Suwa, equipped with a better balance wheel, bigger barrel and a higher quality Diashock.
However, this was not enough to convince the world that Seiko was, to all intents and purposes, worthy of standing on the podium alongside the Swiss maisons. All the lessons learnt by Suwa Seiko during the 1950s allowed it to present itself on the market in 1960 with a new watch, characterised by absolute reliability, unparalleled precision and aesthetic beauty of incredible purity: Grand Seiko was born.
What does it mean
The first ‘Grand Seiko’ was powered by the 3180 calibre, which represented a historic step in the chronology of Seiko and Japan as a whole, being the first Japanese movement to meet the requirements of the Bureaux Officiels de Contrôle de la Marche des Montres (now COSC).
We do not have to wait long for the first Grand Seiko to receive special treatment, now famous and admired by collectors all over the world: the ‘Zaratsu’. In 1964, this polishing technique was first applied to the case of the Grand Seiko Self-Dater, a manual process that takes years of practice to master. The result is a perfectly polished, flat metal surface, free of distortion, with corners that boast perfect edges. Today, it is the only standard to which every Grand Seiko receives dignity.
The quest for perfection, however, knows no end. In 1967, Grand Seiko’s chief designer spent several hours observing customers buying luxury watches of different brands and came to the conclusion that if Grand Seiko’s timepieces aim to outperform any competition, they must have three characteristics: first, as many surfaces as possible must be flat. Second, the flat surfaces must be as wide as possible. Third, there must be no distortion.
Grand Seiko’s philosophy is based on these principles, and they still represent the basis on which every timepiece is created.
A complete revolution
While Grand Seiko’s production continues to refine year after year, in its workshops an ambitious engineer named Yoshikazu Akahane has been working since the 1970s on the realisation of a revolutionary concept.
Eager to combine the precision of quartz with the infinite power source and great torque of automatic movements, an entirely new mechanism was created after twenty years of experimentation.
An automatic calibre was equipped with an electromechanical brake regulated by a quartz crystal: in this way, the seconds hand sweeps perfectly smooth, philosophically symbolising the unstoppable nature of time.
After 1960, the most important date for Grand Seiko (and perhaps, one of the most important in watchmaking) is undoubtedly 2004. Already presented in 1999, the first Spring Drive Caliber 9R65 movement was made commercially available five years later in Ref. SGBA001, thus introducing a revolution in the history of time measurement.
That it was Seiko who introduced the first wristwatch with a quartz movement to the public in 1969 is, therefore, no coincidence.
Meanwhile, Grand Seiko decided that the impeccable quality of its movements must be matched by the equally perfect aesthetic beauty of its dials. For this reason, the best craftsmen in Japan are invited to dedicate to Grand Seiko the fruit of decades of honing their skills, creating the most spectacular dials in watchmaking. Grand Seiko’s perfection is unmatched, and on this, there is no argument.
Seiko revolutionised watchmaking with the introduction of the first quartz mechanism, and with the birth of Grand Seiko, it has punctually proved that it has nothing to envy from others beyond the Alps.
Grand Seiko was born out of a passionate internal competition, never to be satisfied in the pursuit of excellence, and with the introduction of Spring Drive technology, we can say that it has probably created the closest thing to perfection.
If you prefer the aesthetic side to the mechanical component of watches, Grand Seiko is simply off the scale compared to other timepieces. Perhaps the snobs will not want to recognise its historical relevance or its impeccably high level of quality, but we do not hold that against them… quite the contrary! For those who are truly capable of appreciating them, Grand Seikos represents a very interesting segment of the market, thanks to the fact that they are often undervalued.
A beautifully finished watch, with a unique mechanism, at a price far below what it deserves? If the cap fits, wear it!
written by Lorenzo Spolaor