Lake Suwa near the Seiko Epson Shiojiri plant. The mountains, city lights and lake serve as a visual motif that inspires the watch designers.
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A master watchmaker assembles a Grand Seiko mechanical watch at the Shizuku-ishi Watch Studio in Morioka.
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Finishing the details on a Grand Seiko Spring Drive timepiece at the Shinshu Watch Studio in Shiojiri.
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The very first Grand Seiko watch, the 3180, circa 1960.
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A U.S.-exclusive Grand Seiko Spring Drive watch in steel.
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A U.S.-exclusive Grand Seiko Spring Drive watch in platinum (note the traditional kira-zuri influence on the sparkling dials).
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Takumi simply means “artisan” in Japanese, yet it encapsulates an entire philosophy and approach to making fine objects with an eye toward detail and beauty. If you’ve ever driven a Lexus, sipped a Hibiki whisky or leafed through a Gendai Shicho Sha-published photography monograph, you know Japanese industry has an uncanny knack for taking traditionally Western luxury goods and adding a unique brand of cultural refinement. Grand Seiko, the fine-timepiece arm of manufacturing giant Seiko since 1960 and, now, its own American corporate entity, continues that tradition, producing watches that stand toe-to-toe with the best in the industry.
“The pillars of Grand Seiko have always been precision, legibility and artistic beauty, but—this is very important—each of these qualities is given equal attention,” Shuji Takahashi, Seiko Watch Corporation president, chief operating officer and chief marketing officer, shared with me on a recent visit to Grand Seiko’s facilities in Japan. “Each pillar informs the others: What is the point of a visual design aspect if it’s not legible to the wearer? Why introduce a new facet of precision if it doesn’t lead to equal progress in visual beauty?” If the company’s immaculate facilities, crackerjack production standards and innovative design influences are any indication, Grand Seiko’s momentum will bring it even deeper into the realm of rarified timekeeping as it continues to grow, especially in the U.S.
Tokyo: Headquarters and Heritage
Away from the hustle of Tokyo’s core, in the sedate Higashi-Mukojima neighborhood, the Seiko Museum delivers a potent dose of history and underlines the company’s status in the watch world. Seiko was founded in 1881 by Kintaro Hattori, dubbed the father of the Asian watch industry. Hattori imported and sold Western-produced pocket watches, but soon decided to produce his own timepieces locally. The first Japanese-made wristwatch, the Laurel, was introduced in 1913, followed by the first Seiko-branded watches in 1924. The debut Grand Seiko watch, the 3180, bowed in 1960. In 1969, the company produced the inaugural quartz watch, the Astron, based on Seiko’s experience in precise quartz timing as the official timekeeper of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In 1999, the company debuted the Spring Drive. By all standards a fully mechanical movement, it delivers accuracy along the lines of a quartz movement by replacing a traditional balance wheel to brake the main spring with a “glide wheel,” which is controlled by electromagnetic energy, a quartz oscillator and an integrated circuit powered without battery. The tiny amount of electricity needed is generated by the mechanical energy of the main spring itself unwinding.
Shiojiri: Shinshu Watch Studio and the Spring Drive
Southwest of Morioka and near the city of Nagano (the host city of the 1998 Winter Olympics), the Seiko Epson Shiojiri plant is home to Grand Seiko’s 9R Spring Drive movement and the watches based on it (including a new U.S.-exclusive Grand Seiko watch line). At its heart a mechanical movement, the Spring Drive folds in modern technology to increase time-telling precision without requiring an additional power source. In Shiojiri, you will also find the innovative Micro Artist Studio, where the company’s top artisans created a special 43 mm platinum Grand Seiko Spring Drive 8-Day timepiece (from $55,000). The studio also has crafted remarkable moon phase, sonnerie and minute repeaters for Seiko’s Asia-exclusive Credor brand, all based on the 9R Spring Drive movement. A betting person would lay odds that we may begin to see similar additional mechanical complications move into the Spring Drive Grand Seiko watches as well, to join the current 9R-based chronograph.
Morioka: Shizuku-ishi Watch Studio and Mechanical Movements
A three-hour bullet train north from Tokyo brings us to the Morioka Seiko Instruments factory in the bucolic Iwate Prefecture of Japan’s main island, Honshu. Here, nearly every component of Grand Seiko’s traditional mechanical movement timepieces is fabricated and lovingly handassembled in the Shizuku-ishi Watch Studio. Award-winning watchmakers, working on ornate wooden desks, produce some of the company’s finest examples of watchmaking art using the time-tested 9S mechanical movement. Tradition abounds, but you still uncover plenty of innovative tweaks to standard watch manufacturing. Grand Seiko employs MEMS technology, a process similar to producing integrated circuits, to make some of the smaller, more exacting physical components of metal. The assembly studio employs state-of-the-art dust-free air filtering systems and “clean suits.”
As the result of this attention to detail, and as a special treat for American watch fans, Grand Seiko has unveiled its first exclusive collection for the U.S. Combining handsome, burly executions of a 40 mm case in platinum, rose gold and steel with a classic croc-leather strap or metal bracelet, the timepieces are universally appealing in form. Take a closer look and spot the artful, technical Asian influences. The dials are inspired by the traditional kira-zuri, or “sparkling painting,” technique. An extra plating process adds a unique texture and depth to each dial. At 8 o’clock, you’ll see the power indicator for the 9R Spring Drive, which uses a combination of mechanical, electric and electromagnetic energy to regulate the deployment of the watch movement’s main spring, enhancing overall precision into the quartz realm. These special-edition watches are assembled, adjusted and tested by hand, as are all 9R Spring Drive timepieces.
Platinum $53,000, limited to 20 pieces; rose gold $29,500, limited to 50 pieces; steel $6,800, limited to 558 pieces; Topper Fine Jewelers, 1315 Burlingame Ave., Burlingame
Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco