The Beckertime Brand Series: Grand Seiko
It is fair to say that Grand Seiko is responsible for completely transforming the image of Japanese watches.
Before the manufacture was established in 1960, the country had produced little else other than cheap, relatively primitive models. It didn’t help that parent company, Seiko was also the driving force behind quartz movements, a technology which, to traditionalists, completely ignored the artistry inherent in mechanical watchmaking.
The reputation of Japanese timepieces was so low, in fact, that Grand Seiko, a bona fide luxurious and pioneering offshoot of Seiko itself, was not even available internationally until as late as 2010. Before that, they had survived as something of a cult brand, never threatening the dominance of Switzerland’s finest.
Now however, things have changed in a big way. An independent business since 2017 and no longer controlled by Seiko, the company is becoming a genuine rival to the likes of Rolex and Omega. While they are still someway short of that type of brand recognition, their output is seen by collectors as at least on a par, and in some aspects, even superior.
Below, we take a look at the history of this fascinating manufacturer and some of their biggest achievements.
Grand Seiko: History
The brand was actually set up in a way which exemplifies the Japanese way of doing things.
Seiko’s watches at the time (that time being the 1950s) were produced by two different sub divisions of the main umbrella corporation; Daini Seikosha Co, Ltd and Suwa Seikosha Co, Ltd.
Although they were both subsidiaries of Seiko, the two branches were ostensibly independent competing companies serving the one brand. It was thought this arrangement, one of internal rivalry, was the most effective way of breeding innovation while hedging financial risk. If one establishment fell short for any reason, the other could pick up the slack.
Suwa Seikosha, located in Suwa, Nagano Prefecture, had been Seiko’s only surviving factory following WWII, while Daini Seikosha (‘Daini’ meaning ‘second’) was their first attempt at rebuilding after the end of hostilities.
When the decision was made to create a watch that could compete with the best coming out of Switzerland, the task was assigned to both entities.
The ‘winner’ turned out to be Suwa who, in 1960, released the Grand Seiko Model 3180, otherwise known as the Grand Seiko ‘First’.
Grand Seiko: First
A modest, elegant 35mm dress watch, the Grand Seiko 3180 was in production for just three years with only an estimated 36,000 made. However, it represents the first watch from not just Japan but the whole of Asia to win a chronometer grade certificate for its timekeeping precision. The new, manually-wound movement inside (also called the Caliber 3180) was rated as accurate to within +12/-3 seconds a day by Seiko’s own internally developed certification, and also won the esteemed ‘excellence’ rating from the Bureaux Officiels de Controle de la Marche des Montres. The 25-jewel engine had a frequency of 18,000vph and also a hacking function, something not found on any other Seiko for many years.
Of the 36,000 pieces made, a tiny handful were cast in platinum, with the vast majority of cases 14k yellow ‘gold filled’. This process involved a stainless steel base given a gold covering some 80 microns thick, as opposed to the more traditional gold plating, where the precious metal layer might be as low as 10 microns or even less.
Although the production run was small, there was plenty of variation to elements such as the color schemes, markers, crowns and the engraving on the case back. The earliest examples had the Grand Seiko logo hand-carved into the dial, a labor-intensive and short-lived process which was replaced with a printed design soon after, and then an applied emblem. Those carved debut pieces are now the most expensive and sought after on the vintage market.
On the back, Suwa used Seiko’s lion insignia to denote the watch’s chronometer status, but subsequent references switched to the Grand Seiko medallion post-1966 or so.
Meanwhile, Daini Seikosha had been busy building a model of their own. In 1961, they came out with the first of the King Seiko line, starting with the J14102(E). Another 35mm dress watch, it was available as either a steel or gold filled watch and it too was powered by a 25-jewel manually-wound caliber—a modified Daini 54A movement which, curiously, was not given a number of its own. It was also not subjected to the same stringent accuracy tests as the 3180, which has led to the King Seiko’s being considered lesser watches than the Grands. In practice though, there is little to choose between them.
That lack of a chronometer rating meant it was cheaper to buy as well, which was a good thing; the first of the Grand Seikos commanded prices equivalent to $3,500 today, astonishingly high for a Japanese watch at the time.
There was a second version of the King Seiko released a little while later. The 15034 measured 36mm and had sharper lugs than the J14102(E) with a faceted top surface, a small styling flourish which would be copied by Suwa for their Crown Special.
The Grammar Of Design
Following on from the ‘First’, Grand Seiko launched their next generation in 1963, in the shape of the 57GS, otherwise known as the ‘Self-Dater’ due to the addition of a date function at the three o’clock.
It was produced until 1969 and went through three different calibers in that time: the 430 and the 5722A (both beating at 18,000vph), and finally the 5722B which worked away at 19,800vph.
It was also the first Grand Seiko to be waterproof, thanks to its screw down back and crown.
However, as accomplished and progressive as the watches made so far were, for Seiko and Japan in general, there was a fairly glaring problem.
They were boring.
There were no great visual codes, no ‘brilliant sparkle’, to quote Taro Tanaka, Seiko’s celebrated first designer, a man often mentioned in the same breath as Gerald Genta.
If the brand wanted to compete with the best coming out of Switzerland, Tanaka realized, the watches were going to need their own discernible identity, something which would underpin the entire range.
To that end, he sat down and compiled his ‘Grammar of Design’, a styling language to be implemented by all Grand Seiko watches from then on.
Among the criteria, which still influence the brand’s output today, are unique case shapes in place of the usual tired round forms, flat surfaces and angles to better reflect the light, refined bezels which were flat and faceted, and case and dial components which were mirror finished, using a process called Zaratsu polishing.
The Grammar of Design’s purpose was to give the watches ultra-clean lines, with a crisp geometry and cases so reflective you could see yourself in them.
And it worked. Once effected, the brand began to flourish and, in 1966, released their first automatic watch, the 62GS.
Available as either a date or a day-date model (the ref. 6245 and ref. 6246 respectively) the 62GS had everything Tanaka had proposed, even down to what has been called ‘Tanaka’s take on lyre lugs’. Different to the softly twisting features found on the likes of the Omega Speedmaster, the lugs on the 62GS are far more utilitarian but attractive nonetheless. To underline its self-winding capabilities, the model’s tiny flat winding crown is tucked away at the four o’clock—seeming to say, ‘you won’t be needing this!’
The 62GS, along with several other vintage Grand Seikos (the 57GS and 44GS) were reissued in recent years as part of their Heritage Collection.
Modern Grand Seiko
Strangely, it would take until 1988 for Grand Seiko to release its first quartz model. The 95GS was, like its mechanical forerunners, no ordinary watch but housed a caliber some 10-times more accurate than those of most quartz timepieces of the era. Crystals were specially selected for their superior temperature and humidity resistance, and the movement included regulators to control oscillation and pulsing speeds. All told, it meant that the 95GS was rated to an incredible +/- 10-seconds a year.
The best, however, was still to come. The 9F quartz movement arrived in 1993, debuting features such as the Twin Pulse Control Motor to allow for the use of the brand’s long, heavy hands, as well as a backlash Auto-Adjust Mechanism to remove any trace of shudder on the seconds hand. A caliber which out-quartzed quartz, it is still in use in the range today.
But perhaps Grand Seiko’s biggest contribution to horology so far came along in 1999 with the launch of the 9R, the original Spring Drive. The end result of nearly 30-years of development, the Spring Drive is essentially a mechanical movement powered by an electromagnetic regulator; or to put it another way, something with the precision of a quartz caliber, but that isn’t reliant on batteries.
Yet it would take a further five years before the first Grand Seiko with a Spring Drive caliber would emerge (by that time, the 9R65), with the SBGA001. A huge success, it finally, and at long last, got the manufacture noticed by a wider international audience.
We are currently living through one of Grand Seiko’s most successful periods. And while it was kicked off by the Spring Drive, it has been sustained, and bolstered, by the SBGA011, otherwise known as the Snowflake.
Unveiled in 2005, here was the epitome of Tanaka’s vision; a sophisticated, tasteful watch, a perfect blending of softly curving case lines with razor sharp hands and hour markers, all Zaratsu polished within an inch of their lives, topped off with possibly the most talked-about dial of its generation.
The SBGA011’s face was patterned after the windblown frozen tundra around the Shinshu Watch Studio in Nagano prefecture, the manufacturing base nestled in the Japanese Alps where the Spring Drive and the 9F family of quartz movements are made.
Built up of several layers, the surface is subtly textured to mimic the look of a snowbound landscape, veering ever so slightly from pure white towards blue in color. The viciously pointed hour and minute hands shine like mirrors, and the long blued steel seconds hand offers the perfect contrast as it glides round the dial.
A relatively large 41mm, and cast from titanium, the Snowflake became an instant classic from the off—so much so that we’ll be publishing a dedicated article to this beautiful model in the weeks to come.
Today, Grand Seiko is often and favorably compared to some of the most accomplished Swiss houses currently operating. A long-fought and hard-won legacy of single-minded innovation means they have more than earned their right to dine at watchmaking’s top table, and they now sit comfortably alongside many of horology’s household names.
Their popularity among collectors grows with each new release, and their catalog is a wonderful expression of refined Japanese culture.