When it comes to watches, European brands usually take the spotlight. They owe their preeminence and reputation to history in the craft—one that began in the 1500s with a mechanical clock that remains in continuous development to this day. With the eventual consolidation of watch production in Switzerland, the mechanical wristwatch became more complicated and precise—sealing the deal on Europe as the crux of watchmaking prestige. Japan, the western world believed, couldn’t possibly rise to the same esteem.
As the years went on, Europe became popular for the tourbillons of Breguet and the perpetual calendars of Patek Philippe. Japan, meanwhile, was known for Seiko, a brand mostly associated with office-grade wall clocks, quartz watches, calculators, and quartz watches with calculators on them. While these were efficient and relatively inexpensive, they were less than exciting.
Japan, however, does have a long legacy of mechanical timekeeping—one that remains largely unknown, but one that also gave birth to one of the largest producers of wristwatches in the world. During the Edo era of the 1600s, Japan shut itself off from the rest of the world. However, before trade routes were officially cut, mechanical clocks from Europe had already made their way to Japan. During the country’s period of isolation, a culture of clockwork began to develop in the town of Edo.
Japan used to measure time based on the cycles of the moon. For 300 years, the clockmakers of Edo created complex mechanical processes that accounted for the varying lengths of day and night in the lunar calendar. When Japan reopened its doors to the outside world in the late 1800s, it eventually adopted the Western method of timekeeping.
It was during this transitional period that Seiko was founded. In 1881, Kintaro Hattori, then 22, established the clock retail company. In 1892, he bought an abandoned factory in Tokyo, named it Seikosha (which meant “house of excellence”), and began to manufacture mechanical clocks as well as wristwatches.
In the 1950s, the company swept awards in Japan’s accuracy competitions. Seiko pushed itself even more, with the goal of creating handmade watches of first-rate accuracy, durability, and wearability. That idea would ultimately become Grand Seiko, the company’s high-end, top-of-theline wristwatch. The first Grand Seiko, a sleek, minimalist model with a leather strap and gold casing, rolled out in 1960.
Grand Seiko eschewed Western ideas of what a watch should look like, focusing instead on the basics. It adopted an understated design, marrying it with pure watchmaking technology that would rival and sometimes exceed its European counterparts. While the initial results in the Swiss competitions were less than promising, Grand Seiko has since won many honors, including a mechanical watch award in Geneva in 1968 and being named 2012’s watch of the year by 00/24 Watch World magazine. It has also developed a movement called the spring drive, which is powered by a mainspring (like other luxury watches), but regulated by an integrated circuit that draws electricity from the energy produced by the spring. Because of the circuit, this movement is exceedingly precise and is generally considered a feat in watchmaking
But how did all of this escape attention of serious watch aficionados? How is Grand Seiko not the absolute, top-of-mind brand in the watch world? Simple. Much like in the Edo era, Grand Seiko sold their precision instruments mostly in Japan. For 50 years, it was the luxury brand that time forgot. Everyone assumed that Seiko’s dive watches were a bargain at USD 700, not knowing that in Tokyo there was a spring drive diving model that cost ten times as much and worth every dollar. It wasn’t until 2010 that Grand Seiko launched internationally, making it something of a rare find outside of Asia. Grand Seiko, though, has always had a following in the watch community and continues to gain ground in collectors’ circles.
Known for its digital devices and advanced technology, Seiko has always impressed people as a young company although it has been around for more than a hundred years. It’s a good deal older than some European brands, but also quite young in the grand scheme of things. It has a bit of a way to go before it claims the top spot in the international market, but Grand Seiko, invested in crafting the best handmade technical watches possible, doesn’t appear to mind all that much.
This article originally appeared in Vault issue #11, 2013. Photo by eak_kkk for Pixabay.