Being in Tokyo affords a watch lover an interesting peek into how watchmaking has evolved in Japan from a cultural standpoint. We’re all well aware that the Japanese revere crafts and craftspersons of all kinds and take great pride in all things they create locally. And this extends equally to watches.
The story of Seiko itself, actually, has roots in a deep desire to make watches in Japan – a signal of pride and self-sufficiency – at a time in the late 19th and early 20th century, when the Swiss had firmly established themselves as global leaders.
So visiting Tokyo is quite a good way to experience and contextualise this history and map Seiko’s (and Grand Seiko’s) evolution.
Of course, it doesn’t get better than actually visiting the manufacture, but hitting Seiko and Grand Seiko landmarks in the Japanese capital was quite an enriching experience. Most are actually within walking distance of each other in the popular and upscale Ginza district. The places I managed to visit were:
- WAKO: A 140 year old department store and an iconic landmark, with a Seiko clock tower (and owned by the Seiko Corporation)
- Grand Seiko boutique: Flagship boutique (opened in 2019; it was the Seiko Premium boutique prior to this)
- Seiko Dream Square: An experiential space with distinctive, ambient sections dedicated to Seiko’s core collections (opened in 2019)
- Seiko Prospex boutique: A boutique dedicated exclusively to Seiko’s range of watches for sporting and adventure professionals (opened in 2019 and the first Prospex-only boutique in the world)
- Seiko Museum: Established to commemorate Seiko’s centenary in 1981 and now home to a host of artefacts and displays that trace the brand’s storied past as well as that of timekeeping in general.
Understanding how the brand is renewing its international approach
To better appreciate why these specialised boutiques have come up recently, it helps to know that Seiko, as a group, has also moved rapidly from where it was about a decade ago. Circa 2010, Grand Seiko was not a brand known to the world outside Japan and Seiko’s most special watches too were reserved for the local market – referred to as JDM (Japan Domestic Market) models.
There remain a significant number of JDM models today as well, but overall, there is a much greater effort to showcase the group’s brands and their craftsmanship before the world. After visiting these places, I inferred that the design philosophy of new releases, ambience of the boutiques as well as efforts to display historical and vintage models all collectively reflect the group’s aspiration to be more globally visible and relevant.
One of the key steps towards this was actually taken in 2017 when Grand Seiko became an independent brand. Grand Seiko stands at the pinnacle of Japanese watchmaking (even though many remain coloured by the second part of its name) and it was a good time to give this its own spotlight. Prior to 2017, Grand Seiko was a Seiko sub-brand, with watches carrying the Seiko logo and Grand Seiko designation underneath. With the Grand Seiko range starting at around ₹1.6 lakh (~$2,400), it was sticker shock for those not in the know of how exquisitely and painstakingly these watches are crafted.
Reasons for carving-out distinct identities for the 5 Sports, Presage and Prospex (even Astron) lines are somewhat similar. The truth is that Seiko makes a LOT of watches across staggeringly wide price ranges. There is truly something for everyone and the focus on strengthening sub-brands should meaningfully reinforce this to customers.
This breadth of quality options became even more apparent to me, as I saw virtually every single watch the brand makes in the space of one day. Let’s do a quick tour, shall we?
WAKO, the upscale department store holds special value to Seiko as well as the Japanese, at large. It’s a prominent landmark in the heart of Tokyo’s Ginza district, and its neo-renaissance architecture as well as clock tower are hard to miss.
WAKO is actually where Kintaro Hattori (Seiko’s founder) set up a retail store in 1881, coinciding with the establishment of the company. This also explains its importance – it’s the place where it all began for Seiko. In its current form, the WAKO building has stood tall since 1932 and is an architectural as well as cultural icon. It even survived World War II that left most other buildings in the area damaged or demolished.
The clock tower atop WAKO is a high-accuracy timekeeper and GPS-synced, much like Seiko’s Astron watches. This is another sign of their forward-thinking ways.
While you can find gifts, chocolates and even a tea salon within the premises, you’re greeted with watches right when you enter. Seiko brands, most prominently, of course. But other international brands are displayed here as well.
The Seiko selection itself (comprising Seiko, Grand Seiko and Credor) is extremely vast and impressive. From Seiko Astron to Grand Seiko Hi-Beat and even Credor’s Eichi masterpieces, you find them all under one roof. And the ambience is distinctly old-world and traditional. Culture is something that the Japanese hold especially dear and this is palpable inside WAKO.
All watches that I asked to try were presented with a sense of charming reverence for what was being shown. Each time, I made my appreciation clear with a smile, nod or bow. Retail experiences like these can be rare, but are almost par for the course when in Japan.
Grand Seiko flagship boutique, Ginza
Possibly the most Grand Seiko watches I’ve seen in one place and it came pretty close to a candyland experience. I rattled off my favourite Grand Seiko models by reference number and they were all there to see. There were a few JDM and boutique-only editions too that I had not seen previously. The boutique manager’s knowledge of Grand Seiko watches was impeccable and at no point did he need to refer to anything to address my questions.
Now you may think that these descriptions of near-perfect in-store interactions sound like exaggerations, but you really have to be in Tokyo and experience this for yourself. It feels decidedly different.
In line with greater experiential focus, there is a watchmaker’s bench on the left as you enter, for demonstration as well as consultation. At the time I visited, a customer had dropped in to collect a watch given for service or repair. I noticed the watchmaker giving them a careful explanation of the work that had been carried out on their timepiece (though I couldn’t discern the specifics, it was in Japanese). They sure do pore over the details.
Seiko Dream Square, Ginza
Dream square is another concept-showcase for the brand, where consumers can interact more intimately with Seiko’s different collections. It is spread over four floors and includes a mini-museum as you enter, as well as an atelier. At the atelier, watchmaking demonstrations such as engraving and movement assembly are shown, allowing a closer look at what goes on inside Seiko’s watches.
Continuing the theme from the Grand Seiko boutique, there is an evident desire to show the human element in watchmaking to people who may not have otherwise looked beyond to understand the complexity and nuance of a timepiece’s workings.
Further, given that Dream Square is pretty much next door to WAKO (the mothership, in a certain sense), tribute to the WAKO clock tower is also paid here in the form of moving visuals depicting how the eyes of the clock see the streets of Ginza down below.
As you move up the stairs, you start to see dedicated spaces for each core collection or sub-brand. While the first floor has Prospex, the second is split between the ladies Lukia collection and the Japanese-craft oriented Presage. The top floor is reserved for the most technologically advanced and modern collection – Astron.
The area earmarked for each collection or sub-brand has further been endowed with an ambience which reflects the character of the respective watches. So while the Astron area is dark and futuristic, the Presage area is bright and decorated with wood panels for a more traditional Japanese feel.
All of this makes for very carefully thought out experiential retail, as well as the opportunity to see different facets to the brand at once.
Seiko Prospex boutique, Ginza
As I mentioned before, the Prospex boutique in Ginza opened its doors in 2019 and is the first of its kind in the world. After making the Grand Seiko brand completely independent, the kind of prominence given to the Prospex range feels somewhat similar.
Prospex stands for Professional Specifications, with the collection comprising purpose-built watches for sports, adventure and other professional applications. Within the enthusiast community at least, Seiko have arguably cemented their reputation on the back of their diver’s watches. Their history with this genre goes back over 50 years and boasts of a number of iconic models, the popularity of which has resulted in unofficial nicknames like the Tuna, Turtle, Monster, Sumo and Samurai among others.
In something not seen all that often at watch boutiques, there are historically important Seiko sports watches on display here (true vintages), which gives customers an interesting opportunity to physically look at the origins of some of the contemporary watches displayed.
Overall, the boutique has been designed with the spirit of adventure in mind. You can see expedition-related artefacts, photographs and written information about places these watches have been. It sets quite a mood.
Quite honestly, to some degree, I couldn’t believe this was a Seiko boutique. I mean this positively, of course – it was a pleasant surprise. It’s quite different from the style we’ve seen until now (as was Dream Square). But if they weren’t reinventing themselves in such a substantial manner, we probably wouldn’t be writing this story in the first place.
Seiko Museum, Sumida-ku
While the Ginza locations were more about retail, the museum was the real pilgrimage. 140 years of Seiko history in the same building. It was really something to look forward to.
The museum essentially has every single piece of historical relevance from the brand that you could possibly imagine. From their earliest Seikosha wall clocks to the first wristwatch they made called the Laurel, each piece has been lovingly preserved and documented. This spans pocket watches, railroad watches, deck watches, clocks, marine chronometers, observatory trial movements, quartz watches, automatic watches – you name it. The sheer detail with which each significant occurrence has been matched to a watch is a total treat.
The most striking part, however, is the extent to which the museum holds timekeeping devices that don’t have any connection with Seiko. They are there because they matter in the global context of how horology and timekeeping evolved. This, perhaps, is most telling about their dedication to timekeeping as an art, taking it meaningfully beyond the realm of just marketing.
For instance, there are water clocks, incense clocks and traditional Japanese clocks that tell time based on dividing the day and night hours into equal sections (a system that Japan moved on from in 1872; adopting the Western calendar thereon). And there are even ornately decorated pocket watches from Europe and notable marine chronometers from watchmakers like Ulysse Nardin. Together, all these artefacts really put the history of horology into perspective.
Of course, as a watch enthusiast the most exciting part was seeing historic watches I knew of previously. This included a number of their chronographs, first Grand Seiko, 44GS, 62GS, first Spring Drive, Marvel, King Seikos, Goldfeather and of course, legendary diver’s watches such as the 62MAS and 6105. I went into a complete photo-taking frenzy and had no idea where to stop.
The vastness of the display perhaps precludes me from giving a meaningful snapshot of it all in such limited space, but suffice to say it’s an absolute joy for someone with even a passing interest in watches. It’s a truly rich showcase. And for a Seiko fan, it’s criminal to be missing out on this experience. The Seiko Museum deserves to be on your list of must-do things in Tokyo.
The museum at its current location has now been closed and I was told that a move to some part of Ginza is being planned for 2020. You can instead do a virtual tour here.
Hitting up key Seiko locations in Tokyo was a great way to contextualise and appreciate many things about the brand that are almost impossible to glean from just the watches themselves.
The day turned out to be an insightful and in-depth look at the past, present and future of the Seiko group of brands. Most interesting of it all was the feeling of standing at the cusp of the present and future. Primarily because Seiko and Grand Seiko have quite clearly charted out how they intend to develop their brands and the stories they are looking to tell through their watches.
Hearteningly, from what I gathered, this changes nothing about the philosophy of how they make their watches, though. They’re simply telling their story a lot more openly and vocally now. The reticence of the past is making way for offering a bolder taste of Japanese watchmaking globally.
You can also read an in-depth account of our visit to the Grand Seiko manufacture here.