Despite the near total dominance of Swiss brands, the world of elite watchmaking does not exist solely within that country’s borders.
Globally, there are other manufacturers producing exquisite, innovative timepieces, models which possess their own distinctive identity, and which are powered by movements which can rival, or even surpass, the best produced by Switzerland’s most respected maisons.
And one of the very finest examples can be found in Japan, in the shape of Grand Seiko.
A relatively young marque overall, and one only available outside their home nation for little over a decade, Grand Seiko has completely transformed the image of Japanese watches. Once only associated with the cheapest, most disposable quartz throwaways, the company’s vision, its commitment to engineering excellence and its unrivaled inventiveness now sees them mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Rolex and Omega.
These days they are expanding far beyond their reputation of cult favorite and have captured the attention of even the most discerning collector.
Below, we explore Grand Seiko’s fascinating history and take a look at the watches that have elevated them to horology’s top table.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Grand Seiko is the offshoot company of Japanese brand, Seiko. What is more surprising is that they didn’t come into existence until as recently as 1960.
Seiko itself had been in business since 1881, known first as K. Hattori & Co. after its founder, Kintaro Hattori and rechristened in 1892. The name Seiko was derived from the first factory Hattori opened, called Seikosha, with Sei being the Japanese word for ‘exquisite’ or ‘delicate’, Ko meaning ‘manufacturing’ or ‘engineering’ and Sha meaning ‘house’. Roughly translated, this made the Seikosha factory the ‘House of Exquisite Workmanship’.
Hattori initially built his reputation making fine wall clocks before branching out in 1895 into producing pocket watches. Yet, it would take some 15 years before this side venture became profitable.
However, after WWI when China was no longer able to import watches from Germany, they turned to Seiko and business boomed. Hattori was soon known as the King of Japanese Timepieces but, with impressive forward thinking, he predicted the demise of the pocket watch. As early as 1913, Seiko produced The Laurel, the brand’s, and Japan’s, first ever wristwatch.
Unfortunately, the Seikosha factory was completely destroyed in 1923 by the Great Kanto Earthquake. It would take a further decade before the manufacturer was back to its pre-earthquake output, but the company continued to score successes during the rebuilding period. One of their pocket watches, for example, was chosen as the official timepiece for Japan’s National Railways in 1929.
In 1937 Seiko constructed Daini (the Second) Seikosha factory in Tokyo, specializing in the making of wristwatches. Daini Seikosha in turn opened an additional plant in Suwa, Nagano Prefecture in 1944 to evacuate production to during the closing years of WWII.
The business continued to thrive and in 1959 a parts manufacturer named Daiwa Kogyo, which had been working as a subcontractor to Daini Seikosha, merged with the Suwa plant to create Suwa Seikosha. This formed, in essence, two competing companies both sheltered under the Seiko umbrella.
That culture of rivalry would prove vital to the formation of Grand Seiko.
By 1960, Seiko’s reputation was flourishing in Asia, but they were still a virtual unknown further afield. The company was now headed up by Shoji Hattori, grandson to Kintaro and third generation of the family to run it, and it was he who decided to challenge the supremacy of the European manufacturers and the Swiss in particular.
Suwa Seikosha had already made steps in that direction during the 1950s, creating their first ever completely in-house wristwatch, The Marvel, in 1956.
Not to be outdone, Daini Seikosha countered with the Chronos, which had a thinner case and improved specifications, prompting Suwa to respond with the Lord Marvel, which improved legibility with larger indexes and featured a new shock absorbing system to make the watch more robust.
Once again, Daini hit back with The Crown, which benefitted from a highly advanced movement with a larger balance wheel, an increased barrel size and the Diashock system, for even better shock resistance.
The two entities continued to push each other to greater heights and it fostered the perfect breeding ground for yet more innovation. Seiko put both to work, utilizing everything they had learned so far, into creating the ‘perfect’ watch, one which would be simple to maintain, easy to wear, highly legible, keep excellent time and be beautiful to look at.
The winner of the competition would be Suwa Seikosha who, in 1960, released the Model 3180, otherwise known as the Grand Seiko ‘First’.
The Grand Seiko First represented a major technical breakthrough, especially for Japanese timepieces. The manually-wound mechanism inside, also called the Caliber 3180, built on the groundwork of the movement in the Crown model. The Diashock system, a hacking seconds feature and a fine adjustment regulator were all present and it became the first watch made in Japan to win an ‘excellence’ rating from Geneva’s Bureaux Officiels de Contrôle de la Marche des Montres, the leading testing body at the time.
The simple styling on the 35mm model included the double width baton markers and sharply pointed handset which became a mainstay of the Grand Seiko name.
It would go on to be a great success and, although made for only three years and around 36,000 units, was well received enough to be issued in a limited-edition platinum version alongside the standard gold-filled examples.
Not to be outdone, Daini Seikosha was busy on a luxury model of their own and in 1961 unveiled the first of their King Seiko line.
The J14102(E) was another 35mm dress watch and very similar to the 3180. But it was made mostly in steel with a few gold-filled pieces, and its movement, a modified Daini 54A, never received a chronometer grading, unlike Suwa’s model. As such, it was considered a lesser watch than the 3180 but was also significantly cheaper, which was a welcome attribute for buyers as The Grand Seiko First had gone on sale costing the equivalent of $3,500 in today’s money—and extraordinary sum for a Japanese watch.
The next step in Grand Seiko’s journey came in 1964 with the release of the Self-Dater. A new case design, cast in steel and with thicker lugs, it was equipped with a quick-set function which allowed wearers to set the date without adjusting the hands. It was also water resistant to 50m, increasing its practicality as a daily wear. The hands and indexes also grew in size to make readability even easier.
But perhaps more importantly, the Self-Dater was the first watch from Grand Seiko to be given Zaratsu polishing. An arduous, time-consuming process, Zaratsu polishing involves buffing the watch case against an emery cloth fixed to a rotating wheel to leave a completely distortion-free surface and razor-sharp edges where the two sides meet. It is a skill which takes years to master and today, every Grand Seiko is Zaratsu polished, giving them a look unique in the industry.
In 1967, the brand launched their first self-winding watch. The 62GS came in two variants, a date version and a day-date. The cases on both were significantly thicker than on previous releases, to accommodate the oscillating weights in their respective movements. To compensate, the designers did away with the watch’s bezels and attached the box-shaped crystals directly to the mid-case to avoid the models looking overly large. They also slanted the sides of the case down to make a slimmer profile.
Overall, it gave the two automatics a new look and served to highlight a problem Grand Seiko had been having with their creations up to now. As advanced and impressive as their movements had become, their watches were not dramatically styled enough to appeal to a European audience. The visuals needed a shakeup.
In 1967, Daini Seikosha produced their debut Grand Seiko watch. It had been penned by the first designer Seiko ever employed, a young graduate named Taro Tanaka, at the start of a stellar career which would go on to see him mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Gerald Genta.
Tanaka had spent many hours observing the buying habits of customers shopping for watches in Japanese stores and had concluded that if Grand Seiko was going to compete with the top Swiss brands, their timepieces were going to have to literally ‘sparkle with quality’ in order to stand out.
To that end, he drew up his Grammar of Design, three rules which were to become the guiding principle behind everything the company would put out into the world from then on.
Broadly speaking, these rules were:
Those rules gave rise to a number of design elements considered critical to every Grand Seiko watch. Among them were double width hour markers and faceted hands, flat dials so the time was easily readable from any angle, a semi-recessed crown for comfort on the wrist, and inward slanted bezel and case sides.
All these fundamentals came together in Tanaka’s first design for the brand, the 44GS. A big departure from anything the brand had previously issued, its ultra clean lines and sharp geometry lived up to its young creator’s vision for a ‘brilliant sparkle’.
Grand Seiko continued to modernize their watches and calibers and scored a number of breakthroughs over the years.
In 1968 they released the 61GS, housing Japan’s first 10-beat movement. The Caliber 6145 also featured the brand’s ‘Magic Lever’ mechanism, allowing for the rotor to wind the mainspring in both directions. That was followed up by the Caliber 6185, the first of the V.F.A (Very Fine Adjusted) movements, graded to an accuracy of between -2/+2 seconds a day.
But in the 1970s, Grand Seiko decided to scale back their traditional arm and concentrate heavily on the development of quartz models.
In 1988 they launched the 95GS, a highly advanced quartz watch that outperformed nearly every other piece of the type and maintained an accuracy of +/-10 seconds a year. As with all the elements which went into the model, Grand Seiko also made its own quartz crystals, growing them in their facilities and selecting only those with superior performance.
But the best was yet to come. In 1999, following some 30-years of development, the brand released the 9R, their original Spring Drive.
Essentially, the Spring Drive is a mechanical caliber powered by an electromagnetic regulator, one with the accuracy of a quartz movement but which didn’t require batteries.
However, it would take a further five years before the brand found a suitable vehicle for their breakthrough, in the shape of the SBGA001. Here, at long last, was the model which brought Grand Seiko to the attention of a global audience.
The Spring Drive would go on to power a wide collection of exceptional watches and deliver breathtaking accuracy.
2007’s 9R8 series of the movement was used in the first Spring Drive Chronograph, touted at the time to be the world’s most precise chrono. The stopwatch function could time for up to 12-hours, with a variance of just one second a day.
Since then, it has been fitted inside GMT models, 8-day power reserve watches and, more recently, pieces which have rightfully earned themselves the epithet iconic.
Perhaps the biggest standout model from Grand Seiko in the modern age is the SBGA011, better known as the Snowflake. The 41mm titanium watch perfectly epitomizes Tanaka’s vision, with a blending of beautifully sweeping lines in the case, surfaces polished to an impossible gleam and wickedly sharp hands and hour markers. But it was the dial which brought all the headlines. Built up of layers using a special silver-plating process, the end result is one of a delicate texture meant to emulate the windblown frozen tundra surrounding the Shinshu Watch Studio in Nagano Prefecture which acts as the manufacturing base for the Spring Drive. The brand launched the Snowflake in 2005 and it became an instant classic.
Since then, GS has released scores of models with stunning dials, often with intricate patterns and textures, all handcrafted by skilled artisans.
We could legitimately describe this as Grand Seiko’s golden age. Available to an international clientele since 2010 and an independent business, free of Seiko’s control, since 2017 their name is now mentioned favorably alongside many of the leading Swiss houses. Each new release is seized upon by loyal collectors and their portfolio contains some stunning expressions of the best of Japanese culture, while their technological expertise continues to impress.
A true horological heavyweight.
The Grand Seiko lineup is now broken down into five separate collections, covering a diverse range of styles and mechanisms:
The Masterpiece Collection: The Masterpiece Collection is produced by an elite team of watchmakers based in their own studio in the Shiojiri facility in the Japanese Alps. The top-of-the-range offering from the brand, all are powered by the Spring Drive and cast from precious metals
The Evolution 9 Collection: A relatively new collection featuring contemporary, remodeled cases, this is Grand Seiko looking to the future. The lineup includes both Spring Drive movements, as well as GS’s incredible Hi-Beat mechanical calibers, ticking away at 36,000vph.
The Heritage Collection: The classic Grand Seiko designs, harking back to the 1960s but with the very latest in internal movements and manufacturing techniques. This is where you will find the latest version of the Snowflake (the SBGA211) and its offshoots
The Sport Collection: Grand Seiko’s overriding doctrines of legibility, robustness and wearability lend themselves perfectly to the genre of the sports watch. In this collection, they offer superb dive models, chronographs, and GMTs, powered by either the Spring Drive or Hi-Beat movements
The Elegance Collection: A collection of exquisite dress watches, for those very special occasions
Grand Seiko’s pricing policy has been founded on keeping them on a par with other top luxury brands. So the majority of the portfolio hovers around the $4,000 to $10,000 mark.
At the very top end, the limited edition SBGD207 from the Masterpiece Collection retails for just shy of $250,000, while the least expensive model, the SBGX259, a 37mm quartz piece in the Heritage Collection, goes for just $2,500.
As for the preowned market, while Grand Seiko is an increasingly popular marque, you can still save money buying through an unauthorized dealer. For a ‘like new’ model, you can expect to pay around 10% less than the full MSRP.