The Grand Tour
Brian Cheong 
The first Grand Seiko boutique in the world along glitzy Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills

Early last year, and emboldened by its positive reception internationally, Grand Seiko officially became its own brand, with the name of parent company, Seiko, absent for the first time on the dials of the new collection.

While Grand Seiko has a history beginning in 1960, it wasn’t until 2000 that it was launched on the global market. When it was first created, it was envisioned as the “ideal watch with standards of precision, durability and beauty that would lead the world”.

True enough, Grand Seiko would go own to collect many accolades. Its very first movement, the manual-winding Caliber 3180, which was conceptualised, constructed and assembled entirely in-house, received a chronometric rating of excellence from Bureaux Officiels de Controle de la Marche des Montres, an independent arm of the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute.

In fact, throughout the Sixties, its accomplishments superseded its ambition, breaking expectations with each new movement that culminated in Grand Seiko picking up seven of the top mechanical places at the prestigious Neuchatel Observatory Chronometer Competition in 1968.

Most recently, Grand Seiko Hi-Beat 36000 GMT Limited Edition walked away with the “Petite Aiguille” award for best watch under 8,000 Swiss francs (RM33,192) at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève 2014, considered the Oscars of the watch industry.

For certain, Grand Seiko has been a shining beacon for Seiko’s dedication to precision watch that is reliable and well-made, a worthy companion to the shinier Swiss names in the horological chest of a discerning gentleman.


Heart and soul

Seiko has always known that to be a true manufacture, it has to have a complete set of watchmaking skills. Two fully vertically integrated watchmaking facilities, Shinshu Watch Studio in Shiojiri and Shizuku-ishi Watch Studio in Morioka, give it that credibility.

In the case of Grand Seiko, the model has been endowed with three types of movements – mechanical, quartz and a mechanical-electronic hybrid called the Spring Drive. Essentially, the Shinshu Watch Studio manufactures its high-performance quartz and Spring Drive movements, while the Shizuku-ishi facility specialises in Grand Seiko’s mechanical movements.

At this point, it is also important to note that Seiko manufactures almost every part of a watch, from the case to the small components of the movement such as the pinions and the wheels. And because it practises such stringent standards, it has even taken on the task of making its own tools to make these parts! This complete vertical integration of its capabilities ensures that it is in full control of its production process, which then allows it to exert better quality control.

Located less than three hours away from Tokyo by train, Shiojiri is a small city in central Nagano prefecture. A short bus ride away is Shinshu, which was founded in 1942. Here, apart from movement manufacturing, it also houses the famed micro artist department of very specialised craftsmen and artisans tasked to make high-end complicated watches such as minute repeaters as well as various rare artisanal crafts. All the dials for Grand Seiko are also made here. (Incidentally, Seiko’s popular GPS watch model, Astron, is also manufactured at Shinshu.)

It is here too that Seiko has found a way to glam up the humble quartz. Maybe “humble” is not the right word considering a quartz watch is generally a more accurate timekeeping instrument compared to a mechanical watch, even if the latter is more highly prized for its prestige.

A quartz watch works by having a battery feed the quartz oscillator with energy, causing it to vibrate at a precise, fixed rate per second. These generate regular electric pulses that drive a stepping motor that moves the hands.

Seiko, which developed the first quartz watch in 1969, has certainly taken the quartz movement to greater heights with Caliber 9F, which was created specially for Grand Seiko. Hailed as the ultimate quartz movement, its design takes into account both the accuracy of time signal and the accuracy of time display.

For the former, it develops its own quartz and constructed it to the precise shape for its oscillator. It then undergoes 90 days of ageing test and compensations for temperature changes. A stable quartz oscillator is one that maintains 32,768 oscillations per second despite fluctuations in temperature. Only a quartz oscillator that passes this battery of tests are used for Calibre 9F.

As for the display, Seiko has developed what is called a backlash auto-adjust mechanism that makes use of a hairspring, an essential part of a mechanical watch, to ensure that the seconds hand advances exactly one second. The independent axes structure – each hand is attached to its own wheel or pinion – ensures that the motion of the hands is independent of one another. Another beautiful element is the instantaneous change of date – regular quartz movements feature gradual date changes.

Most quartz watches have very fine hands because it requires a lot of energy to move bigger hands but thanks to the twin pulse control motor, Caliber 9F possesses twice the torque to move the typical bold, long hands of Grand Seiko. A cabin that is sealed super tight also guarantees minimal loss of energy

Where most quartz movements are put together in an automated assembly line, Caliber 9F is assembled by hand, superlatively finished with a wavy stripe pattern found on its mechanical cousin. Most notably, such attention to even the most minute detail has resulted in the Caliber 9F boasting a very impressive accuracy rate of +/- 10 seconds per year.

The Shinshu Watch Studio at Shiojiri specialises in making premium quartz and Spring Drive movements for Grand Seiko

Spring time

One of Shinshu Watch Studio’s most remarkable accomplishments is the invention of the revolutionary Spring Drive, Seiko’s answer to a mechanical watch with electronic precision. Possessing both mechanical and quartz-like make-up, it is powered by a mainspring made with the proprietary Spron 510, a highly elastic alloy.

Energy is transferred from the mainspring to the tri-synchro regulator, an innovative mechanism that converts energy from the mainspring into electrical and electro-magnetic forces. The electrical pulses power the Spring Drive oscillating quartz that relays accurate time signals to regulate the braking force. And exerting this force is the electro-magnetic field, which controls the speed of the glide wheel and, hence, the hands. As a result, the Spring Drive movement is accurate to +/- one second per day!

The electro-magnetic force also allows the hands to move in one silky smooth movement, possibly the only watch in the world to be able to express a continuous flow of time. This glide motion works very favourably when measuring elapse time as the chronograph seconds hand stops precisely when the button is pressed, not to the nearest second or 1/10th of a second as is common.

Unlike Caliber 9F, the Spring Drive was not developed specifically for Grand Seiko. This ground-breaking innovation has been used as the heartbeat for a number of high-end pieces from the micro artist studio, such as the extraordinary Eichi model. Nevertheless, in 2016, the elite studio developed its first Grand Seiko with an 8-day power reserve courtesy of three barrels.

Naturally, it is powered by a Spring Drive movement except that its power reserve has been enhanced by an additional five days; Spring Drive commonly has 72-hour power reserve. Being a timepiece from the micro artist studio, the movement finishing is a level above the rest, the most striking of which is the single bridge designed to resemble the silhouette of Mount Fuji while the highly polished ruby embellishments symbolise the lights near Lake Suwa in Nagano.


Attention to detail

Located near the northern tip of Honshu, Shizuku-ishi Watch Studio in Morioka is said to be the only fully vertically integrated manufacture in Japan for mechanical watchmaking. From research-and-development and the production of movement parts to watch assembly and inspection of the final products, every skill and expertise required to complete a watch is right here at this massive facility.

The facility’s idyllic surrounding – about a half hour’s drive from Morioka city centre – is famous for its hot springs and the Gosho Dam with the majestic Mount Iwate keeping watch in the horizon like a protective guardian, the perfect setting for maintaining pin-sharp focus on eye-watering micro-mechanical work.

While the Morioka facility was established in 1970 under the official name of Morioka Seiko Instruments Inc., the Shizuku-ishi Watch Studio was only set up in 2004 to concentrate on exclusive movements for Grand Seiko; in this case, Caliber 9S6 series and Caliber 9S8 series. Caliber 9S6 is available as an automatic with date and GMT hand, or a three-hand manual winding. Caliber 9S8, with its far more superior precision rate, comes only as an automatic with date and GMT.

Using the in-house Micro Electro Mechanical System (MEMS), Seiko has developed a number of innovations that rightly earn it bragging rights, chief among them the ability to produce a series-made hi-beat movement, Caliber 9S8. Without getting too technical, the higher the velocity, the higher the accuracy, and Caliber 9S8’s 36,000bph (beats per hour) is uncommon for a commercial piece. Factor in the robust 55-hour power reserve, and Caliber 9S8 is one impressive piece of mechanical heartbeat. After all, it did win the “Petit Aguille” award.

But the higher the number of beats, the more strain it puts on the internal mechanisms. The parts have to be more durable and more stable, as well as requiring better lubrication, in order to perform at its optimum for a long period of time.

And here is where Seiko’s MEMS steps in. The technology delivers super-fine precision in manufacturing, about 10 times better than the regular machining process. For instance, the escapement wheel and pallet fork manufactured by MEMS has a perfectly smooth surface and is light, increasing efficiency and reducing physical friction that enhances its durability. The ability to create precise design also enables it to carve out an L-shaped tip at the cogs of the gear for longer lubricant reserve.

Working hand-in-hand with Tohoku University, Seiko has also developed an original alloy material called Spron for its hairspring and mainspring that is efficient, resistant and anti-magnetic. The mainspring for the hi-beat movement is made from Spron 530 that is largely responsible for the 55-hour power reserve.

In order to extend the power reserve to 72 hours for Caliber 9S6 with 28,800bph, the mainspring has to be redesigned to make it longer and wider but thinner; the result is Spron 510, which is a highly elastic and durable alloy.

The watch studio in Morioka

Hands up

There are about 60 master craftsmen at Shizuku-ishi. One of them is Ito Tsutomu who has been with the company for over 20 years. Starting out as an operator at the quartz assembly line, Ito-san now oversees mechanical watchmaking.

Manual labour clearly plays a very big role here. Assembly is done entirely by hand; for instance, the adjustment for the balance spring that determines the accuracy of the watch is so fine that it cannot be done by machine. Ito-san is one of the few who has the skill to make the necessary adjustment with utmost precision.

Patience is also key; a watch is tested again and again to ensure its final integrity. After the movement is assembled, it undergoes a computer precision check – not even the tiniest deviation is acceptable.

For airtightness, the watch is placed in a vacuum at 5 bar of air pressure, and then put underwater at 10 bar of pressure. Testing is also done in six different positions to replicate real-life conditions. In total, a single watch can easily endure up to 400 hours of testing.

As a luxury watch with serious cred, Grand Seiko certainly ticks all the right boxes. But what is more enlightening is just how committed Seiko is in its mission to remain a true watch manufacture. It is no mean feat and one that certainly puts it at the same level as some of the best in the business.

Man of the Hour

Shuji Takahashi, president of Seiko, believes Grand Seiko is on track to be a formidable global brand

Why did you decide to make Grand Seiko its own brand?
Grand Seiko is one of the top five luxury brands in Japan. As such, there has always been a differentiation with Grand Seiko – it has its dedicated calibers, case finishing (Zaratsu or blade polishing), as well as its own manufacture. There has always been a distinction; among the Japanese consumers, Grand Seiko has always been its own brand.

We decided to launch Grand Seiko globally to test its potential in the international luxury market. It proved to be a success in that it was well-received at 80 of our directly owned boutiques overseas, accounting for more than half of our sales. But I think the biggest validation was when we received the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Geneve award. That boosted our confidence that it was the right time to launch Grand Seiko independently on the global market. We have enjoyed steady and robust growth since the announcement in Basel last year.

Moving forward, what are your plans for Grand Seiko?
 I would like to expand the product offerings, especially in the elegant and sports categories. We also want to expand on the masterpiece series focusing on high complications. There will be a broader range of designs and prices as well.

Any plans to open a Grand Seiko boutique?
Yes, but we can’t reveal much at the moment. I’m sure you’ll hear the news soon (Editor’s note: This interview happened about a month before Grand Seiko unveiled its first boutique in Beverly Hills in November last year.)

Why is it important for Grand Seiko to have its own fully vertically integrated manufacture?
Simply because it enhances the brand’s capability. We want to be able to enjoy a lot of the talent and experience of the master craftsmen as well as foster the next generations of masters. It also gives us the opportunity to tap into traditional Japanese art and craftsmanship such as Japanese lacquer. It’s necessary to invest in the know-how that is unique to us.

Who is the Grand Seiko customer?
Someone who is enthusiastic about watches, who understands the difference between the brands, and who appreciates quality finishing. He or she is a true watch connoisseur. 

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 266.