Within the inner circles of watch enthusiasts and collectors, where beauty is expected to go beyond just skin-deep, no brand has made a bigger splash in recent times than Grand Seiko. With the sheer number of new releases and increased mindshare they’ve commanded, the last couple of years have felt like a grand (pun not intended) declaration of intent. The intent, though, remains virtually unchanged from when the very first Grand Seiko was created in 1960 – which was to make the most beautiful, accurate and lasting wristwatch possible.
While on one hand, words like Snowflake, Spring Drive and Zaratsu have become part of the modern collectors’ lexicon, questions about whether Grand Seiko watches are any good or worth the asking price are still common from those not well-acquainted with the brand. Likewise, while one section of enthusiasts are debating how Grand Seiko may be better than Rolex in certain respects, another is still coming to terms with sticker shock about something with Seiko on the dial costing as much as it does.
Grand Seiko isn’t necessarily the most well-understood brand, and even for a self-confessed, long-time fan of the brand like myself, visiting the Grand Seiko manufactory in Japan was eye-opening in so many ways. This is why we decided to dive in to some lesser-known facets to the brand, in order to help explain what the sudden surge in popularity is all about.
1. Grand Seiko has been in the global eye since only 2010
Until 2010, Grand Seiko was basically (and literally) a non-entity outside Japan. It was reserved for only the local market and would barely be seen in magazines or the wrists of collectors or A-listers; there was obviously no Instagram then.
Like so many other things, it was simply Japan keeping the best of Japan within Japan. I don’t believe this was deliberate, as much as being a function of calculating how much can be produced, and whether that quantity requires seeking out global markets. But sometimes secrets do slip out, in a manner similar to what happened with Suntory whiskies like Yamazaki and Hibiki.
So starting in 2010, Grand Seiko started to be sold in select markets outside Japan too. While quintessential Japanese touches and the outright high quality in appearance could be felt by those handling these watches, the branding on the dial was still Seiko, as Grand Seiko was a sub-brand. This proved to be a hindrance in communicating the kind of craftsmanship practiced by Grand Seiko, and so in 2017, Grand Seiko was carved out to be an independent brand. There was no more Seiko branding on the dial.
However, by virtue of half the name still bearing the Seiko moniker, a bit of Seiko-Syndrome continues to affect recognition for Grand Seiko. If you find yourself in this boat in any way, it helps to know at the outset, that there is absolutely nothing common between Seiko and Grand Seiko – not the movements, not the place where they’re made, not the watchmakers and Definitely not the level of execution and finish.
Within this short period, Grand Seiko have made some serious waves, on the strength of nothing but the implied promise of quality, accuracy and dedication to serious craftsmanship.
2. Each Grand Seiko watch has an unbelievably high level of handmade character
Handmade and handcrafted are easily misused words in today’s day and age, where you could be made to even believe that your plastic spoon was artisanal. But when Grand Seiko says handmade craftsmanship, they mean it. This was on full display when I visited the Shinshu Watch Studio in Nagano, where Grand Seiko make their Spring Drive and 9F quartz watches.
Without going into each intricate detail, here’s a quick overview of key watchmaking processes and the handcraft involved therefor at the Grand Seiko manufactory:
- Cases: Finished by hand by individually holding them to the polishing machine (the famous Zaratsu technique; more on that below)
- Dials: Indexes applied by hand; stamping machine operated individually for each dial by hand
- Indexes: Diamond-edge cutting machine operated by hand, with each individual index inspected using a mirror
- Heat-blued hands: Heated individually by manually placing a single hand on a hot plate; removed when they attain the desired colour
- Movements: Hand-assembled by master watchmakers – some individually, some in teams; even the 9F quartz movement which has jewels as well as mechanical parts inside
It almost doesn’t feel right to state each of these intricate processes so briefly, because they’re really done so very skilfully. But the key point to take away is that the watchmaking process at Grand Seiko is VERY human.
3. A true, single-minded dedication to accuracy drives watchmaking at Grand Seiko
If one just takes a quick macro view of what Seiko tried to do with the introduction of Grand Seiko in 1960 – reflected in all the Swiss silverware it won during chronometric trials in that decade – it becomes clear that they have always inextricably tied beauty to accuracy. And that too, to an obsessive degree of zero functional compromise.
This is why they introduced the first quartz wristwatch (Quartz Astron; 1969), produce among the world’s most sophisticated quartz watches (9F calibres; 1993, with accuracy of +/-10s per year), pioneered a quartz-mechanical hybrid to get the best of both worlds (Spring Drive; 1998, with accuracy of +/-15s per month), have their mechanical movements tested to standards stricter than Swiss COSC (accuracy of +5/-3s per day) and even improve on these rates for some special edition watches. In the world of Grand Seiko, production of watches without complete dedication to the achievement of its primary timekeeping purpose is futile.
4. Grand Seiko’s Dual Impulse Escapement is the only new escapement technology to be successfully industrialised in the 21st century
The movement of a watch is often of insignificant interest compared to the other visual aspects. Anything is fine as long as its mechanical and/or in-house. Watch brands tend to play around this behavioural construct and use it to their best advantage.
In Grand Seiko’s case, however, accuracy, functionality and innovation play second fiddle to nothing. The pursuit of watchmaking to achieve each of these three goals has given us the new 9SA5 Hi-Beat movement with 80 hours of power reserve in 2020.
The big news, of course, is that the 9SA5 uses a completely new escapement technology – a once in a century kind of invention, if you look at timekeeping history. An escapement is the heart and regulating organ of a timepiece, responsible for consistent and measured delivery of power to a watch. It consists of three key parts – balance, escape wheel and pallet fork – and it is the interaction of the pallet fork with the escape wheel which gives us the characteristic ticking sound of time.
The most common type of escapement today is the Lever escapement, and has been in use for over 250 years; it’s what basically every ‘standard’ wristwatch has. In recent times, the only other new escapement technology to have made it to regular production is the co-axial escapement, developed by George Daniels and successfully adopted by Omega in 1999. So a new escapement is a really big deal, no matter which way you slice it.
It’s the kind of thing which reminds you that aside from all the hype and popularity of certain brands and watches, the pursuit of something with genuine horological interest can be both fulfilling and rewarding for an enthusiast.
To address issues like sliding friction, energy efficiency, power reserve and isochronism overall, Grand Seiko have created the dual-impulse escapement. We’ll save all the details for a later story, but to summarise, the dual-impulse escapement has a wheel and lever which deliver impulses to the balance (directly by the escape wheel and indirectly by the pallet fork) in a manner that promises more efficient use of energy than the traditional Lever escapement.
This is a new solution proposed to address some issues that watch brands have been working with for almost 300 years. Grand Seiko didn’t need to do this; their stature in the sphere of movement technology is well-established already and they had nothing to prove. But they went ahead and did it anyway in order to the push the envelope.
Through the 9SA5 movement (available in the reference SLGH003 – a limited edition of 1000 pieces), Grand Seiko is offering a piece of horological history to contemporary watch collectors.
5. Zaratsu polishing may not be what you think it is
Grand Seiko are well-known for their ‘Zaratsu polishing’, with the phrase consistently trailing the brand and its lore. Put simply, Zaratsu polishing is the use of a lapping machine to polish cases, wherein the front of the rotating wheel is used, rather than the side. This technique helps achieve a smooth, distortion-free, mirror polish on the surface. Distortion-free being the operative word and differentiator here. Normal polished cases on watches are sometimes neither perfectly even, nor free of distortion in how they reflect light. A Grand Seiko craftsperson needs Zaratsu training for about 5 years before working on cases that are to be sold to customers.
The sharp, faceted hands and indexes on Grand Seiko watches are not given the Zaratsu treatment, but are diamond-cut. Zaratsu only refers to polishing of watch cases. Further, while it is sometimes also referred to as ‘blade polishing’, it has no link to katanas or Japanese swords in terms of art form or inspiration.
What’s more commonly known now is that Zaratsu is just how the Japanese pronounce ‘Sallaz’, the Swiss-German manufacturer that supplied the original machines to Grand Seiko, as opposed to Zaratsu being something natively Japanese. These special polishing machines were needed to create highly angular, even and polished cases in the 1960s (such as the 44GS) that would go on to become a Grand Seiko visual signature.
6. The inimitable ‘look’ of a Grand Seiko is thanks to a codified Grammar of Design from the 1960s
Sometimes, you just know it’s a Grand Seiko – the hands, the angles, the indexes, the glimmer give it away. This consistency comes from the brand having developed a design code called the Grammar of Design in the 1960s, helmed by designer Taro Tanaka. It is now simply referred to as the Grand Seiko Style.
The Grammar of Design was developed with the desire to make watches that were distinctive, eye-catching and attractive in their own right, giving the Swiss a solid fight. It consists of 9 elements or principles, namely:
- Double-width index at 12;
- Multi-faceted rectangular markers;
- Highly polished bezel;
- Highly polished plane and two dimensional surfaces;
- Half-recessed crown;
- Flat dial;
- Multi-faceted hour and minute hands;
- Curved sideline; and
- Reverse slanted bezel wall and case side.
These elements were first seen together on the 44GS watch in 1967. The 44GS has since come to be associated with a sharp, angular, signature case shape, with Grand Seiko using a modern interpretation of the same today to encase many of their popular watches.
The Grammar of Design remains an important guiding principle for modern Grand Seiko design. One which ensures that achievement of a very specific visual purpose lies at the heart of everything that the brand creates.
7. Grand Seiko’s quartz technology is interesting, high-end watchmaking in its own right
Seiko were responsible for the world’s first quartz wristwatch – the Quartz Astron in 1969. It was cased in gold, and created for no reason other than to have a more accurate timekeeping device on one’s wrist. So it comes as no surprise that Grand Seiko devotes itself significantly to quartz technology even today.
From growing their own quartz crystals, to hand-assembling the quartz movements which have jewels and mechanical parts (much like traditional mechanical movements), Grand Seiko take these watches very seriously. This has resulted in one of the finest quartz movements in the world, with genuine aesthetic appeal and real sophistication in terms of the technology it holds within.
Grand Seiko’s high-accuracy 9F quartz movements are rated to +/-10s per year, which is mighty impressive when you consider that the average quartz movements could have a deviation of about +/-15s each month.
The watches these movements are put into are created and hand-finished with the same quality and dedication as any other Grand Seiko. In fact, master watchmakers assembling Spring Drive and 9F movements sit together in the same room (called the Takumi Studio).
Far removed from the general reputation that quartz watches tend to garner, timepieces with the 9F movement are truly durable, strikingly attractive, high-end and handmade.
8. Grand Seiko have a dream-team, boutique unit called the Micro Artist Studio dedicated to the very highest level of handcraft in watchmaking
In case you thought Grand Seiko isn’t grand enough in its ambitions, quality and finish, there’s something quietly enchanting to be discovered in the Micro Artist Studio – a collective of Grand Seiko’s most celebrated, experienced and expert horological craftsmen.
Through the Micro Artist Studio, Grand Seiko try to push the boundaries of what can be achieved if the goal is set to the greatest level of watchmaking excellence human hands can possibly aspire to.
If you have come across the Credor Eichi, it is one the purest and best expressions of Japanese handcraft and watchmaking. With a hand-painted porcelain dial and a movement decorated to a phenomenally high standard, its apparent simplicity belies the sheer mastery exercised in each step of bringing it to life. The Eichi and other such masterpieces are crafted at the Micro Artist Studio. None other than living legend Philippe Dufour shared his finishing techniques with the watchmakers here, which were then reinterpreted to create an aesthetic which is very much their own.
That Grand Seiko chooses to have a dream-team like the Micro Artist Studio in the first place, should tell us something about how they revere craft and tradition.
9. The Spring Drive is another prime example of peerless timekeeping technology pioneered by Grand Seiko
The Spring Drive was in the making (perhaps somewhat intermittently) for over 20 years, before being seen in a wristwatch in 1999. It is a hybrid movement, in that a mechanical movement, which doesn’t require a battery or other external source of power, is regulated by quartz technology for more accurate timekeeping.
Most people know it as the watch with a visually arresting seconds hand that seems to glide with an unhindered sweep over the dial, fluid and zen in its motion.
Beyond that charming, aesthetic signature, it is another example of watchmaking technology and innovation pioneered by Grand Seiko. They seem to not be willing to stop at anything in pushing the horological envelope.
Grand Seiko’s Spring Drive is virtually peerless in the development of the technology itself, as well as the extent to which it has been scaled to appear in thousands of watches. While Piaget introduced a similar hybrid in 2015 in its Emperador Coussin XL 700P – a $70k, 118 piece limited edition – the impression one got from that release was that while it was a bold experiment for the Swiss brand, they perhaps weren’t as committed to the technology over the long term.
With Seiko producing the world’s first quartz wristwatch (Astron) as well as the first hybrid wristwatch (Spring Drive), it goes to show a (pleasant) absence of pretence or arrogance about the ‘purity’ of mechanical timekeeping. The mantra of improving something if it can be, demonstrates a kind of honest, forward-thinking dedication that the world of watches can benefit from. Grand Seiko are not forgoing tradition, rather they’re working hard at innovating alongside it.
10. It is nearly impossible to recreate the effect of a Grand Seiko in pictures
Okay, this one sounds a bit lovestruck and cheesy, but if you’ve been around a Grand Seiko watch in any meaningful way, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
Whether you’re looking at the artful dials, sword hands or three dimensional markers, Grand Seiko watches are virtually flawless even when subjected to an especially high level of magnification, with no detail spared. It’s truly rare for watches to get better under a loupe, and for that, the fanfare and applause is well-deserved.
So many things that we discussed here (such as the Zaratsu polish, elements of the Grammar of Design and sharply-faceted hands and indexes) come together to create an effect that communicates such an obvious sense of outright quality and level of craftsmanship.
Especially because of how so many elements in a Grand Seiko watch are designed to interact with light in a certain way, photographs barely start to tell the story, no matter how hard one tries. At a general level, this could apply to most watches – the effect is invariably more compelling in person, compared to pictures – but the extent to which it applies to Grand Seiko is definitely a few notches higher, if one surveys the realm of mainstream, high-end watch brands.
There’s something quite earnest about the nature of watchmaking that Grand Seiko practice. But by virtue of having been out in the world for only about a decade (and more meaningfully so since just 2017), there are, understandably, sides to the brand that are not so well understood.
What I can say though, from experience (and while fully admitting that Grand Seiko isn’t inexpensive in any way), is that there’s arguably no easier or value-driven way to buy a truly high-end, hand-finished watch with genuine horological merit, if one objectively measures quality in any way. Their meticulousness is phenomenal.
Grand Seiko have recently launched their official online boutique in India, with a wide selection of classics, new releases and exclusive limited editions. You can visit GrandSeikoBoutique.in to explore the full collection.