For some, it’s strictly a Swiss thing – or maybe Swiss/German due to the latter’s efforts to regain the status of Teutonic watchmakers before the Cold War decimated them. Quietly, however, one of the world’s few, true manufactures, many thousands of miles away from Europe, has been carving out its own niche in high-end watchmaking. Considering that Grand Seiko have been making clocks since 1892, and watches under the Seiko name for almost a century, respect is long overdue.
It’s now official that Seiko has separated from the umbrella Seiko brand, its haute horlogerie efforts under the free-standing Grand Seiko and Credor banners. Grand Seiko models have, in actuality, been in production since 1960. The Japanese market has known about them since the beginning. The rest of us? Only since 2010.
There may be deep cultural or even political reasons why Seiko kept Grand Seiko back from widespread distribution. One can point to the way the Swiss ‘moved the goal posts’ when Seiko beat them to market by creating the world’s first automatic chronograph in 1969, or when they won timing competitions in the 1960s – much like the Americans did the French with wine in 1976. That said, regard for regular Seikos, especially the amazing Prospex diving watches, has always been high.
Grand Seiko’s roots lie in the Marvel brand, launched by Seiko in 1956. Immediately recognised as the finest watches ever produced in Japan, Marvel was but a stepping stone. Thanks to the vision of Tsuneya Nakamura, he and his team took on the challenge of producing “the ideal watch” that would “not only exceed the performance of the Marvel, but rival that of any watch in the world.”
To accomplish this lofty goal, the company created the Grand Seiko Standard. Seiko would subject its watches to testing even more stringent than that required by any chronometer testing agency in the world. Its regime included testing in six different positions rather than five (the sixth position was upright), Seiko acknowledging that many watches are left with the 12 o’clock position on top when not worn.
For the first Grand Seiko of 1960, the company produced a model to meet their ideal of “a watch that was as accurate, reliable, legible and easy to wear as possible.” They deliberately eschewed unusual functions or complications, opting instead for the elegance that continues to suffuse the entire range.
Make no mistake: Grand Seiko is ‘manufacture’ in the truest sense: they make every component of the range’s movements and exterior casing parts in-house, unlike many so-called ‘manufacture’ brands that actually use outside suppliers. The ‘Japaneseness’ of all Grand Seiko watches is evident in the smallest details, using skill possessed by their very own watchmakers.
Grand Seiko cases are polished by the Zaratsu method to create the flattest and smoothest mirror-finish surfaces. Each timepiece is fitted with hands and hour-markers boasting razor edges, which enhance the readability of the watch, a tenet that dates back to the first models. Demonstrating its absolute prowess in manufacturing, Seiko has equipped every Grand Seiko mechanical and Spring Drive watch with a mainspring made of the company’s proprietary alloy, SPRON, for both maximum power reserve and durability.
From its roots as a time-only watch of classic simplicity, Grand Seiko has grown to encompass mechanical, quartz and Spring Drive watches, with movements including the celebrated 9S85 HI-BEAT 36000, the 9F quartz calibre with yearly accuracy of +/- 10 seconds and the Spring Drive chronograph with vertical clutch and column wheel systems. This year, the range was expanded to include the magnificent Hi-Beat 36000 GMT, while Seiko’s concern for aesthetic appeal reached a highpoint with the remarkable ‘snowflake’ dial, its surface seeming to be a miniature of the powdery snow found on ski slopes and mountain tops.
On view at Seiko boutiques around the world, including its London flagship, the Grand Seiko luxury watch collection is no longer the preserve of foreign collectors who managed to visit Japan, or who acquired the few that escaped from the Japanese market. Even with its concerted efforts to increase Grand Seiko’s presence in the high-end sector, Seiko remains the only watch brand in the world that puts its name on watch dials ranging from affordable quartz timepieces to complications worthy of the usual Swiss suspects. For them to do so isn’t merely respect: it’s self-respect. For more visit Seiko’s website.