Carl S. Cunanan

A Deep Dive Into The World Of Grand Seiko Or rather, Worlds

We learn how oneness and commitment combine to create what the modern enthusiast is looking for

How do you explain Grand Seiko, really? It is an extremely important player in the watch enthusiast world right now. It actually has been for a while, but only to those who really saw their growth early on. So the fact that in a row of watch shops they will tend to have the youngest guests is testament to the decision a few years back to make Grand Seiko a separate entity from Seiko, to let it grow on its own. And grow it has.

But you can’t really explain Grand Seiko just using their pieces, or their aesthetics, or their technologies. Maybe that’s why it was so hard to get people past the hype or trendiness of the brand when they would first start looking at it.

To be honest, I didn’t have a full understanding of the Grand Seiko world (I am sure I still don’t) before I spent five full days with them. Which is a lot. But what I want to get across isn’t necessarily about how they have different facilities around Japan (each day had visits as well as hours of travel, some by bullet train, so that says something) or what gets done where or how it all started.

I kind of want to get across a few specific things.

One is that we couldn’t figure out why their watchmaker tales were different from everyone else’s that brought their work surfaces up to their faces. We asked several times, we only got a good answer from those that do the work. It is their microscopes. Every single table had microscopes. And dust collectors. That defines their vision of precision and detail.

This is where we started asking why watchmaking tables at Seiko were different than those we normally see.

When I asked their designer about how he combined his experiences from around the world and what makes what happens in Grand Seiko different, he talked about the geometric visions from other parts of the world and the more natural but still balanced surroundings they have in Japan. But what I saw was what images he used to explain this. He showed the symmetry and geometry of places like Versailles when seen from above, for example. But for Japan, he showed images of trees and bushes and a river but always from eye level. What I saw was that they felt part of nature, not just an observer. Not someone who changed it or shaped it.

Our five days were spent with a lot of travel, and with interesting places to stop and eat that included everything from bento boxes near the factory floor to a place where servers kept filling your bowl with noodles until you gave up. But so many places were pockets of peace and tranquility in a somewhat busy world. There was always an attempt to show beauty even in little pockets of an urban landscape, and it wasn’t just going through a door. It was a walk through a garden that led you to somewhere transporting. It was making sure there was beauty even when things had to be efficient and busy.

One more thing that grabbed me. The first ever TV commercial broadcast in Japan was by Seiko, an alarm clock that looked like a chicken. Funny yes, but what this showed me was that the company really had a history of doing what their founder said, always be one step ahead of the rest.

So to me those things gave me more insight than learning how and where they built what and why. It helped explain who Grand Seiko really was.

Look carefully when you enter the Seiko Museum Ginza. The tress are more intricate that you realize. And can you find the GS Lion?
After the Great Kanto Earthquake, the factory was devastated. Kintaro Hattori said he would replace any broken timepieces. He said don't inconvenience the customer.

The first full day started with checking out of the first hotel in Tokyo, and taking a short ride to the Ginza area. The first stop was at Seiko House Ginza, which holds among other things the Waco Department Store. We headed upstairs though, and found out that the curved windows of the upper floors we see from the street (below the famous Seiko clock) house the rooms, offices, and indeed some workshops of the watch company.

The first thing that actually happened, in traditional Japanese fashion, was that we were formally introduced to everyone in the room. Then we were introduced to… their watches. Which was fun, and unexpected. Some of them were new, like the Grand Seiko White Birch. Others were heirloom pieces. All had a story to tell in one form or the other. A wonderful way to start.

We were then given a rather in-depth explanation of the breadth and depth of the world that Kintaro Hattori began decades ago with the idea to “always stay one step ahead of the rest.” The story was told to us by his great grandson Shinji Hattori, Chairman and Group CEO of the Seiko Group Corporation, who would later bring us up to the roof to hear the clock strike 12 at noon. The story was comprehensive and much needed, as the company grew from a small watch and clock seller into a huge conglomerate over the decades.

The famous clock above Ginza is wonderful to hear up close. It is also very hot up there.

We also found out how the huge printer company EPSON was created. Many think that the printer company is involved in watches, actually it is the reverse. With Seiko being a key partner in timing for everything from scientific discovery to Olympic Games, they needed a way to better record times than just stopping hands and writing down numbers. So they created a timekeeper that Electronically Printed results. Then they realized that they were learning about printing and electronics. The name EPSON actually came from… Electronic Printer, SON of. So that is why much of the work for Grand Seiko watches is done at a factory that is called Seiko EPSON, which we would visit the next day.

Elsewhere in the building was more to explore. We found the special atelier in which watchmakers create and produce the GPHG Chronometry Prize-winning Grand Seiko Kodo Constant-Force Tourbillon. We had hands-on time with and explanations of the movement and the various stages of development and prototyping by movement designer Takumi Kawauchiya. We also went to the second floor of the Waco Department Store. The first floor sells the watches, and not just Seikos and Grand Seikos. The second floor has an amazing collection of vintage pieces, a display of relatively unknown special and limited editions, and some documentation that showed all the challenges faced by the Japanese watch company as it looked to step up in the watchmaking world. Other nearby stops included the Seiko Museum Ginza, which it a must-see multi-story walk-through watchmaking history. Then it was off, by private coach, to our second hotel of the visit, near the Matsumoto Castle in Marunouchi.

The EPSON comes from Electronic Printer, SON. Because the company started when Seiko learned how to make printers because they needed to print times for things like the Olympic Games.
The Micro Artistry Studio is where the intricate craftsmanship and work for most watches is done.

Full Day 2 began with a ride to the aforementioned Seiko Epson Shoijiri Plant nearby. This is where they basically create all Grand Seiko watches except for the full mechanicals. We were brought through all the processes in two stages, breaking for a very nice bento-box lunch just off the factory floor. We were first given a presentation of the layout of the day and the factory, and some hands-on time with some of the pieces and parts produced there. This includes seeing the raw chunks of sapphire crystal, looking into the level of finishing and indeed mechanical development that goes into the quartz and Spring Drive calibres used here. We learned that they do indeed need to create physical mechanical solutions to certain things even though the movement may be powered by electrical impulses, so when the watch hands move, they do so more gently in a controlled way.

Speaking of finely tuned, this factory houses the Micro Artist Studio, where they also work on pieces from Credor, minute repeaters and more. Their mission, as they state it (translated), is the “refining, study and succession of the art technique on producing the superior watch,” and  “creating the Japan Made superior watch appreciated all over the world.” And it also needs to be “reliable to wear until Grandchildren.”

This factory is also where we started noticing the difference in the watchmaking tables. Unlike those we were used to, the ones used here were lower. We would get our best answer for this the next day. After two bullet train rides from the nearby station of Nagano to Omiya, and then by the wonderfully-named Hayabusa39 from Omiya to Morioka for our third hotel stay in three nights.

Takuma Kawauchiya, Grand Seiko Kodo Constant-force Tourbillon Movement Designer, Watchmaker

Full Day 3 began with excitement, but unfortunately not a lot of time. We were apparently in an area well known for its coffee culture, but had no chance to explore. We were off to the latest jewel in the crown, the Grand Seiko Shizukuishi Studio whose beautiful building we had only seen in photos so far. Much has been said of their use of local resources and materials, of their view of Mt. Iwate nearby, of their oneness with the local environment. The private coach brought us to the grounds on which the building sits, then it took a while because we all began looking around at the view and everything around us. The Studio sits within an environment that blends with the surroundings while also housing a state of the art facility. Eventually getting inside brought for us the wonderful smell of the wood used in the construction of the building.

We were give a short presentation on the history of the site itself, which included photos of the wildlife that wandered around from time to time and samples of the local arts and crafts that played a part in the design of the structure and of the watches themselves. The main area of the lobby has displays set up, so we walked through those before we took the slow journey along the watchmaking room. The watchmaking room is set back and fully clean, with large windows that allow guests to see the watchmakers at work and also that allow the watchmakers to see outside and get that view of the pocket forests and yes, Mt. Iwate. Their clean room is seriously clean, with huge air filters, area filters, and even desktop ones all trying to rid the room of any contaminants. Everyone in the room was of course suited up. As you walk along the hall, displays show you what is happening in front of you, with certain areas set up so you can speak directly with the watchmaker and translator and see what they are working on with a projecting microscope.

And there it was, the microscopes. Every single table had one, usually on the left with an open space in the middle and the more traditional (western?) raised surfaces on the right. The watchmaking tables, by the way, were all made by local woodworkers and ironsmiths. So everyone used a microscope for their work, though we could sometimes see some of them take what they were working on out so they could see the piece in entirety before putting it back. This is really not something you will see everyday in most if any large watchmaking studios, and indeed when I mentioned it to some European watchmakers they just replied with “but why?” This is testament to the level of detail and the hunt for improvement that Grand Seiko is looking for.

Upstairs, past a display of textured paper tapestries was a salon where you could sit and admire the view of Mt. Iwate in the distance, of the trees and gardens nearby. And of the watches up close. Because this was actually where you could buy something. Several models were available that had a special Shizukuishi rotor for those that wanted what is called a “Raw Buy,” something closest to the source. Basically the watches were assembled just down the stairs.

In this place where all fully-mechanical Grand Seikos are made, notice the windows allowing light and the view outside.
Studio Shizukuishi blends quite nicely into the surroundings.

But wait, there’s more! We went downstairs again and were met with watch parts arrayed in front of us, and yes, each table had a microscope even though they were just for us and not in a clean room. The tables here were also made by the local craftsmen, by the way. Here we went over a few parts and types of finishes used in the making of Grand Seikos. In this case the calibre was the new 9SA5 automatic with manual winding used in the new GS SLGH005 “White Birch.” This is their new movement and it has already become the base for future development. It is the base calibre, for example, for the new Tentagraph, which is yet another first for Grand Seiko. They used this calibre because they wanted to highlight details such as the special overcoil they used and the new “Shizukuishi river finish” they have on some of the component parts.

The final show for the day can only now be shown, and it is actually a wonderful piece and story. Grand Seiko has taken firm hold of the GMT market, and this latest piece is an excellent example of their inspiration. The SBGJ273 mechanical Hi-beat 3600 GMT takes the inspiration of its dial from what can be seen from somewhere we would later visit, but it isn’t the bark of a tree or the frost on a frozen lake. The watch dial is meant to depict the color of autumn leaves, but as it might be experienced on the deeply lacquered floor of an old Japanese home after decades of natural use. A very deep red stripe pattern of a floor with different shades. We went on to see this flooring in Nanshoso, the residence built by Morioka-born industrialist Yasugoro Segawa in 1885. This is one of the few remaining Meiji-era residences and gardens in the area, and was saved from destruction by a community conservation cooperative. An amazing example of the way that the surroundings inspire the creation of watches in ways you don’t always imagine.

While the watch on the floor is the White Birch, below is the the SBGJ273 GMT that has the dial inspired by the color and texture of this flooring.

We then checked into the next hotel for the next evening, a modern luxury Onsen with spring water pools both public and in-room. Across the lake we could see Mt. Iwate, and between the lake and the hotel was the Studio Shizukuishi facility, which reminded us of how important it was in the ecosystem of the region.

The last full day began with a bullet train ride back to Tokyo, and wrap-up meetings with the brains and bosses of Grand Seiko. It was in discussions here with Grand Seiko President Akio Naito and Design Manager Juninho Kamata that we saw one of the things I mentioned early on about design influences. And it wasn’t what they said so much as how they said it. In discussing what inspired them, it came across in such a way that they clearly felt they lived within nature, within their surroundings, within their community. The images and experiences mentioned were close-up and immersive, and were also echoed in the places we went and the experiences we had. Whether it was dinner in a garden house beside the Tokyo Tower or lunch in a somewhat high-speed noodle place that was featured in manga and anime, the influences where everywhere but they were not constructed. This was just part of their world. For the watches, they can create precision and accuracy and high levels of finish but they truly try to honor what they hold most dear.

“A popular dial I like is the ‘Lake Suwa’ dial, from our two models SLGA019 and SLGA021,” said Mr. Akio Naito when asked about specific watches with specific influences. “To the southeast of the Shinshu Watch Studio one will find the gently lapping waters of Lake Suwa. Many of the watchmakers and craftspeople go past that lake every day. I was surprised by how our craftspeople captured the gentle waves of the lake, and how important the landscape is for our craftspeople and watchmakers.”

“It has been the source of inspiration for all Grand Seiko watches,” said Mr. Akio Naito when we asked about their daily connection with nature. “It is common in Japanese culture to draw inspiration from nature and to reflect it in arts, designs or products. Even the studio represents the oneness with nature that lies at the heart of every Grand Seiko Watch.”

“To all watch enthusiasts in the Philippines, on behalf of Grand Seiko, I extend a warm invitation to experience the world of timeless elegance and the pinnacle of craftsmanship,” said Mr. Naito. “Whether you’re a seasoned collector or new to the world of luxury watches, we welcome you to explore the unrivaled beauty and artistry that is Grand Seiko.”

Mr. Akio Naito, President of Seiko Watch Corporation, discusses the influences and demands he sees as he guides Grand Seiko further out into the world.


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