The opportunity to visit the Grand Seiko manufacture in Japan will always remain an unforgettable part of my journey in watches. Not least because they happen to be one of the brands I respect most. There’s an exceptional kind of craft and quality to their watches, at large, and getting a chance to see that magic happen in front of my eyes was like a dream come true.
My destination was the Shinshu Watch Studio in Japan’s Nagano prefecture – nestled between the Japanese Alps. This is where Grand Seiko make their iconic Spring Drive watches as well as their high-accuracy quartz watches, collectively called the 9F – taking on the name of the outstanding movement that powers them. This is also the place that houses the much-fabled Micro Artist Studio – a dream-team of the very finest watchmaking veterans in Japan. More on that in a bit.
Without further ado, let’s get into what I saw and came away with.
Getting to Nagano
I was staying in Tokyo, and taking a train ride to another part of the country was understandably a key part of the Japanese experience. On a cold, winter morning, accompanied by Aya san from the brand, I boarded the train for Nagano from the perpetually-busy Shinjuku station.
The journey was mostly spent attempting to contain excitement and chatting with Aya san about things like the impossibility of sourcing a bottle of Yamazaki 12 and facets to Grand Seiko that aren’t fully understood by the watch community for a number of reasons. I was also doing a mental refresher of all things about the brand that I’d read and seen, but would now physically witness them. I’m talking ‘Zaratsu’-polished cases, ‘Snowflake’ dials, katana-sharp hands, unhindered glide of the Spring Drive and, arguably, one of the nicest looking quartz movements (blasphemy!) in the world.
On my wrist was a reminder of how and why I got into Grand Seiko – the Seiko SARB033 – rightly known as the ‘Baby Grand Seiko’. Through this symbolism, one part of my own tryst with the brand had come full circle too.
I was told we were lucky to not be going to Nagano on its coldest days, but when we reached, and in the time we waited for a taxi, I noticed that there was just a tiny bit of falling snow. It was barely enough to catch on camera, but we were off to a rather poetic start. Next stop – home of the Snowflake – the Shinshu Watch Studio.
Greeting and a little briefing…
As we arrived, I paused briefly to take a picture of my Baby Grand Seiko with the building in the background (had to be done) and went inside. We were given footwear that we needed to have on while within the premises and then guided to a conference room.
Imai san and Ito san were awaiting our arrival. They made a presentation about movements made at the Shinshu Watch Studio (Spring Drive and 9F quartz) and all the things that go into making them robust, reliable and accurate. I knew about the workings to a fair degree, but this interaction was filled with so many little details which would perhaps never make a press release that my admiration kept mounting.
We were also shown demo movements as well as a device through which we could physically apply the brakes on a Spring Drive and thus, closely appreciate how the glide wheel functions. Now, I said earlier that the 9F movement is stunning as far as quartz mechanisms go, and here, I was able to really go full-nerd on it under a loupe.
Grand Seiko also grow their own quartz crystals and I was able to see the final outcome of that process that goes into the regulating organ. That was certainly an interesting sight. All this just in the conference room so far.
I’d made a request to meet Nishinaka san, a Master Watchmaker at Grand Seiko, as I’d met him in India during a brand event which included a movement assembly masterclass by him. Since that interaction was instrumental in me being able to visit the manufacture, it was my heartfelt desire to see him once again. Once my chat with Nishinaka san concluded, we took a quick tour of the mini-museum on the ground floor, which houses some historical creations and artefacts pertaining to the factory where we stood.
Ito san then gave us an overview of the sections into which the facility is divided along with all that we were going to see through the day, and it was time.
… And then off we go!
First stop: case making. Yes, Zaratsu. That mythical word. You may or may not know, but the word itself is derived from the name of Swiss-German machines that are used to polish cases, and has no link with Japan, per se, or even Katanas (Japanese swords). ‘Sallaz’ is the name of the company that supplied these machines to Japan and the phonetics of that word change to ‘Zaratsu’ when spoken in the Japanese tongue.
This little tidbit, however, takes nothing away from how Grand Seiko have made this technique uniquely their own; turning it into a visual spectacle and firm signature.
The Zaratsu technique essentially imparts all case surfaces a smooth mirror-polish, such that reflections are completely free of distortion. So ‘mirror’ here is quite literal.
Expert craftspersons were busy giving cases an almost-devotional polish. Each of them has to train no less than 5 years to be able to make it here. And given the nature of Zaratsu polish, tolerances are basically nil. At different stations, I could see iconic case-shapes like the 44GS and 62GS being worked on and brought up to reflective perfection. Whether I asked Ito san some questions or zoomed in for photographs, the craftspersons remained unfazed and unmoved!
Takumi studio and a feeling of zen
Takumi roughly translates to artisan or master-craftsperson in Japanese. And the Takumi studio is the area of the manufacture where watchmakers assemble movements. This sense of reverence for the arts and artists is felt all around, no matter which part of the Shinshu Watch Studio you find yourself in.
Some of the watchmakers here have been with the brand for over 30 years and are decorated with various national honours. While the veterans assemble Spring Drive movements start-to-finish, those newer at Grand Seiko hone their craft by focusing on putting together specific parts of a calibre. The period of training here, too, is 5 years before moving up to independence. A single Master Watchmaker sees 10 Spring Drives move through his hands in one day.
If you’re not too familiar with the Spring Drive technology, here’s a simplified breakdown. The Spring Drive is a unique type of watch mechanism developed by the Seiko group which seeks to merge the desirable qualities of both mechanical and quartz watches into one. It achieves this by having a mechanical power source and gear-train (i.e. no battery), while being regulated by a quartz oscillator and integrated circuit (i.e. better accuracy than a typical mechanical watch). The most striking and popular aspect of watches with Spring Drive is how the second hand glides with perfect, unhindered smoothness. It’s truly an awe-inspiring sight.
At the Takumi Studio, I was also told that most watchmakers here belong to the Nagano region and there is a conscious focus to employ as much local talent as they can.
Walking through these corridors was a study in Japanese efficiency and precision at work; craftspersons at their bench steadfastly giving watch calibres life, aided by miniscule parts and careful human affection.
Moving along, we saw movements being cased and then a final quality check done. As fate would have it, the iconic Snowflake was being tested at the time of our witnessing.
An unbelievable amount of hand-work at each step
We then went to see how the visible components of Grand Seiko watches are made – dials, hands and indexes. Naturally, since these together form basically the entire visual effect of a watch, no effort is spared. And come on, if you’ve been anywhere close to a Grand Seiko watch, you know the glimmer they radiate is something special.
Finish and depth are some things Grand Seiko has come to be known for, and what we saw at Shinshu Watch Studio really took us to the core of how this complexity comes about. But in a nutshell, it is virtually all done by hand – not a loose and oft-abused version of the word ‘handcrafted’; by hand means By Hand.
Let’s take the example of the much-adored Snowflake itself.
The dial takes no less than 9 processes to arrive at its ultimate glory. This involves 3 different coatings that bring about its signature texture. It’s then pad printed, though a craftsperson manually applies ink for each print and places the dial perfectly under the pad by hand. After this is done, the indexes are applied by hand as well. For a task that requires extreme precision, a craftsperson takes just 2 seconds to apply each index!
The indexes themselves are cut using a machine with a diamond edge. This machine is operated by hand too, with the craftsperson even holding a mirror to see if they are reflecting light in the desired fashion, while running the rotary cutter. Sides of the razor-sharp hands receive similar treatment to attain their shine.
The central seconds hand is heat-blued. And this is where I was truly awestruck. Each hand is blued individually. The artisan picks up a single hand at a time, places it on a hot plate and carefully observes it changing to blue. Once it has reached the right shade of blue, it is removed from the hot plate. What was most interesting here was the fact that there are no timers or robotic arms to decide when the hand is ‘ready’. It is left to the experience and discretion of the artisan to know exactly when the hue of Grand-Seiko-blue has been achieved.
After seeing this entire process at one go, I can’t possibly overstate how strong the human element in Grand Seiko’s watches really is.
Rethinking quartz and what makes watches human
While we discussed the steps above with the Snowflake in mind, that was merely to illustrate the process in context of a single watch. Each watch that bears the Grand Seiko logo comes with an implicit (and very evidently visual) assurance of having gone through each of these complex, hand-processes.
This extends equally to the 9F high-accuracy quartz watches, that sit at the point of entry into the Grand Seiko range. Which makes the concept and import of the term ‘entry-level’ very interesting in terms of the brand. Here’s why I feel so.
Quartz movements and quartz watches, in general, are considered step-brethren when purists (narrowly) define horology. Horology often ends up sounding like a heavy word, with no room for watches without ‘mechanical’ components. But here’s the thing – there are cheap quartz watches and cheap mechanical watches. There are prestigious, robust quartz watches and prestigious mechanical watches. There are machine-made watches and handmade watches. Now, the entire romance of a timepiece is largely built around its longevity and (often fabled) handcrafted origins.
So when a robust quartz watch is handmade, warrants decades of solidity and accurate timekeeping, actually has mechanical components in it and looks superior to many mechanical movements out there, one needs a slightly more compelling reason to dismiss it outright.
This is kind of the chain of thought I had when I saw the 9F movements being hand-assembled with jewels, mechanical parts and quartz crystals that Grand Seiko grew themselves. Layer this with the kind of case and dials they’re housed inside and you’ve got a timepiece which expresses everything we treasure in such objects.
With the same Zaratsu-polished cases, diamond-cut indexes and complex dials as their Spring Drive and mechanical cousins, and an unbelievable degree of hand-work, Grand Seiko’s 9F watches are, arguably, among the finest quartz timepieces in the world.
Also, I haven’t yet said a thing about what makes the 9F movement itself so meritorious. Because it perhaps deserves a story of its own.
Micro Artist Studio: A pilgrimage
At the Shinshu Watch Studio, one very interesting aspect is that, for a watchmaking facility that creates no purely mechanical watches, it houses the fabled Micro Artist Studio (MAS). The MAS is a dream-team of the best horological meisters in Japan that have come together to create timepieces at the very highest-end of fine watchmaking, bar none. Of course, their form of artistic expression too, is extremely and quintessentially Japanese. Yet as far as finishing techniques go, they have been mentored by no less than the legendary one-man-show himself – Philippe Dufour.
Given this background and the kind of watches they have created in the past (looking at you, Credor Eichi), this part of the visit is what I was perhaps most excited about.
For a quick heads-up, the Credor Eichi is a time-only watch with a hand-painted porcelain dial and a movement finished to an astonishingly high standard. It is made in extremely limited numbers for no reason other than the sheer human skill required to create it. How discreetly it hides it all is just joyful for those who know the value in hours and craft the timepiece actually holds.
Every timepiece created by the MAS follows this philosophy of making something which is truly as good as it can possibly be. So while we walked the hallowed halls that led us to the MAS, I braced myself for being blown away and I believe I had set my expectations well.
Knowing Japanese-efficiency and the culture of respect, we weren’t permitted to interact with all the watchmakers of the MAS, but instead one of them came to greet us and said he would explain how the studio works and answer all our questions. This gentleman was Mr. Masatoshi Moteki. Moteki san is a legend in his own right. He was instrumental in bringing the Spring Drive movement technology to life from prototype stages to a full-production marvel, which involved years of research, iteration and testing. Given the uniqueness and ingenuity of the Spring Drive, this is no mean feat. So to say that he is one of the real creators of this movement system is only fair.
Moteki san walked out with a tray. On it were the Credor Eichi II, Sonnerie as well as the Grand Seiko Spring Drive 8 days watches – all painstakingly crafted by the MAS. He brought them out as if they were his own children. It was poetic in how they indeed were like his children, even for the Spring Drives he may not have physically assembled himself; since he did help bring the concept to life. On his own wrist – the first Spring Drive wristwatch from 1999, of course.
This was a deeply powerful sight and it reinforced the emotions that timepieces carry for the creators themselves. Moteki san answered all my questions, from basic to technical. Whether it was explaining the tone of the chimes or how they worked on an effective energy solution for the Sonnerie. He also pointed towards the craftsmen inside the studio and told us what components they were working on creating and finishing, as well as the watches they would go into.
Here I stood, trying to take it all in. Take in and appreciate how the MAS is an embodiment of upholding tradition, art and, well, the entire idea of craft in timekeeping all at once.
Superlatives shouldn’t be used lightly, but it was clear to me that each master-crafter at the MAS lives for perfection with no room for compromise.
Even before visiting Grand Seiko in Japan, I had spent sufficient time with their watches over the years and read all about them. So while there weren’t as many surprises, per se, I was still quite heavily overwhelmed by everything I saw. To read is one thing, to experience is completely another.
How the ideas of quality, precision and identity translate at Grand Seiko made a very strong impression about the seriousness and dedication of the brand.
While the watches are undoubtedly exceptional, after this visit I found that there are a few aspects of the brand that remain, in my opinion, fairly underrated. One, their absolute focus on accuracy – irrespective of the mechanism powering them, accuracy is always first priority as well as the starting point for anything that Grand Seiko does. Two, the reverence for craft and tradition – as the watchmaker training process, philosophy of the Micro Artist Studio and finishing techniques go to show. And lastly, how genuinely handmade the watches are – the care with which each of them are put together, and the extent to which this is a human process, is truly remarkable.
For these reasons, I feel they ought to be more carefully understood. At the same time, the repute and respect Grand Seiko have garnered in a relatively short span of time (their watches were only sold in Japan till 2010) is essentially all thanks to how visually arresting their creations are.
Ultimately, for me, the most enriching part of this visit lay in seeing first-hand how beautifully Japanese culture is manifested in Grand Seiko’s watches. And this is when I started to see the hidden soul and emotion in their faultlessly exact exterior.