Grand Seiko; the Japanese brand determined to take on the heights of Swiss watchmaking

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Grand Seiko

A new recreation of the first Grand Seiko watch, in yellow gold

Not so long ago a handful of canny operators did good business importing the odd Grand Seiko watch from Japan to the US or Europe, for cognoscenti clients who knew how phenomenal Seiko’s top-tier watchmaking could be, but had no other way of accessing it.

Today, things are different. Walk into Seiko’s new Brompton Road boutique and you’ll be surrounded predominantly by mechanical watches under the “Grand Seiko” banner. Marvel at the smoothness of the winding, the exquisite finish, and wonder at the gliding progression of the seconds hand on the Spring Drive models (these use a special technology pairing a mechanical movement with a quartz oscillator).


Seiko’s newly-opened London boutique, on Brompton Road in Knightsbridge CREDIT:  PHILIP LYONS

The designs are austere, but for finish and performance, Grand Seiko beats many Swiss companies’ offerings, with price tags three times as high.

Indeed, it was a determination to out-smart the Swiss at their own game, and a consequent fierce rivalry between two competing Seiko businesses, that pushed Japanese watchmaking to the highest levels in the mid-20th century. It’s a story whose legacy is still borne out in the Grand Seiko watches of today.

A view of Lake Suwa, the region in which Grand Seiko watchmaking was established, as depicted by the artist CREDIT: HOKUSAI/GETTY

At the end of the Second World War, Seiko’s factories were either devastated by bombing or just worn out. The post-war Japanese government saw watches as an ideal object for export, pouring money into the regeneration of the industry, and forming the “Council for Quality Inspection of the Japan-Made Watch and Clock” – a body that made manufacturers compete against each other in chronometry competitions, to drive up quality. Seiko entered its very first competition in 1948.

The initial results were dreadful. But having made progress by 1956 with its celebrated Marvel watch, Seiko applied the competition template internally. At this time it had two factories, Suwa and Daini, both in the town of Suwa where there was a history of precision engineering. They were told to treat each other as rivals and not to share parts, designs or suppliers; each was tasked to make Japan’s finest watch.

A Grand Seiko Spring Drive movement

In 1959 Suwa produced a watch based on the Marvel but superior, which it named the Grand Seiko; it became the first Japanese watch to receive a certificate of excellence from Switzerland’s Bureaux Officiels de Contrôle de la Marche des Montres. Daini, abandoning the Marvel design, launched its new watch in 1963, called the King Seiko.

Grand and King Seiko took different paths; Suwa’s Grand Seiko focused on refining the finishing and developing their existing movement, while Daini overhauled the technology.

With increasing success, they competed in Swiss competitions, designing their own shipping containers to protect the movements, and insisting they were shipped around the equator rather than over the pole to avoid magnetic influences. By 1967, the top three were Omega, then Daini Seikosha and Suwa Seikosha.

The new limited edition High Beat 36,000 in steel with green pattern dial

By the late 1960s the two factories had effectively merged under the Grand Seiko umbrella, but it was Daini’s movement technology that won out. However, the advent of quartz watches spelled the end for both the competitions and high-end mechanical Seiko – in 1972, the last mechanical Grand Seiko was made.

That is until 1998, when the brand relaunched. A new factory was built, and technologies used in microchips made their debut for watchmaking. Fast forward 20 years and Grand Seiko is finally now being spun out as a separate entity. Ironically, two individual companies are still involved: Seiko Instruments in Suwa makes Spring Drive and quartz watches, while Seiko Epson in Morikomo makes mechanical watches. The work of both can be found on the Brompton Road.

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