Mamoru Sakurada is hunched over his workbench, eyeing the Caliber 68 movement through a loupe attached to his eyeglasses. The engraved ultra-slim movement is a tricky one to assemble and adjust given the delicate size, but Sakurada-san is no ordinary watchmaker. He’s been doing this for 55 years now. 

One of two ‘meisters’ – Seiko’s classification of its watchmakers is a story in itself – that have the expertise to assemble and adjust the Caliber 68, Sakurada is a recipient of the Yellow Ribbon Medal, an award bestowed by the Emperor of Japan in recognition of his services to the craft. 

There’s a word in Japanese that explains this philosophy of continually improving personal efficiency – Kaizen – and some of the employees I met during my tour of Seiko’s manufacturing facilities in Japan more than embody this view point. Like Jiro, the sushi-chef in Tokyo from the famous documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, these craftsmen take a tremendous amount of pride in their work and are constantly looking at doing better than they did the previous day. 

A wall at the Morioka plant that showcases the skill levels of the staff.

Whether it was a master technician in Shizuku-ishi who has been casing Grand Seiko watches for 35 years or the 23-year-old National Skills Competition gold medalist who assembles the Spring Drive movements at Takumi Studio, I noticed a single-minded dedication and individual brilliance that is central to the Grand Seiko story.

Pay attention now if your view of Seiko is largely informed by the $150 Seiko 5 you bought from Duty Free or the GPS Astron watch that Novak Djokovic hawks from billboards. To understand Seiko, you’ll need to first get to grips with its rather complex organizational structure. The watch business is just a part of the bigger Seiko Holdings Corporation, which has an operating income of ¥13.3 billion (approximately $120 million).

The timekeeping business comprises the output of two factories, Morioka Seiko Instruments in Shizuku-ishi, which manufactures Grand Seiko mechanical watches and the quartz variety that made Seiko such a household name; and Seiko Epson Co in Shiojiri, which produces watches powered by Spring Drive movements, Astron (GPS), Kinetic and quartz watches.

Grand Seiko was born out of Seiko’s pursuit of creating “the ideal watch” – a beautifully handcrafted timepiece that would be durable, legible and with higher chronometric standards than Swiss watches. 

The first Grand Seiko (Ref. 3180) from 1960 The first Grand Seiko model was unveiled in 1960 with a handcranked movement, Caliber 3180. The watch sold for ¥25,000m, which back then was equivalent to two months’ salary of a college-educated professional. Though the first model had “chronometer” on the dial, Seiko removed this designation from the dial since these watches were tested at a standard greater than those followed by the Swiss industry.

In a strange case of irony, Seiko had to pull the plug on Grand Seiko production in 1975 as  demand for mechanical watches dipped during the Quartz Crisis, the result of a technology that was pioneered by Seiko in the first place. Production only resumed in 1991, and in 1998 the second generation of Grand Seiko watches was launched with the new 9S5 series of hand-wound and automatic calibers.

What is it about Grand Seiko that gave it such cult status among seasoned collectors around the world? Apart from the fact that it was rare (it was only made available in the international market in 2010), watch aficionados loved the fact that Seiko’s focus was on the product and not marketing campaigns. This was watch exotica – handmade in a little studio in faraway Japan by expert craftsmen using components that were all made in-house. Its legend grew mostly through the tales told by owners, via word-of-mouth and on internet forums. 

Given an absence of brand ambassadors and its association with Seiko, a brand best known for making affordable quartz watches, there would have been a certain reticence on the part of customers to pay $5,000 for a timepiece that has “Seiko” on the dial. It would take a discerning customer, a real connoisseur of fine watchmaking to stand up for Grand Seiko. All these factors certainly helped build its status among collectors.

To understand the allure of Grand Seiko we head to Morioka, a city in the Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan, about 550 km from Tokyo. A short drive from Morioka leads us to Shizuku-ishi, a picturesque little hamlet with great views of Mt Iwate. This rural setting is the site of Morioka Seiko Instruments, one of the two watch making companies in the Seiko Group.

The Shizuku-ishi studio produces 20 calibers in the 9S series.

Established in 1970, this facility is central to Seiko’s mechanical watchmaking production. All of Seiko’s quartz movements are made here, but there is more to this place than just quartz watches. Within this facility is the famous Shizuku-ishi Watch Studio where 70 skilled technicians assemble Grand Seiko mechanical watches. The team develops, designs, manufactures parts and components, and assembles the watch here.

The work benches use craft furniture unique to the Iwate region.

The studio produces 20 different mechanical calibers in the 9S series and the ultra-slim Caliber 68, a 1.98 mm thin movement used in watches made under the Credor label for the domestic market. Each watchmaker in this studio has a customized desk made from wood sourced locally. The desks are coated with a protective Urushi lacquer and each desk has a plaque with the name of the watchmaker in Japanese and English. This furniture is known as Iwayado Tansu, traditional craft furniture unique to the Iwate region. 

During our walkabout we see familiar sights – huge CNC machines churning out movement plates from brass plates, automatic lathes churn out the screws and pinions, and other tiny components that will be used in the assembly of the movement. Technicians polish the wheels and pinions used in the gear train to reduce friction. Decorative flourishes like perlage are added to the movement, the mainplate bridges are chamfered and polished, and Tokyo stripes are added to the movement along with rhodium plating.

Around 10 technicians work in the assembly room. We meet a technician adjusting the balance wheel of a movement. Machines do the initial setting but skilled hands manage the final adjustment. In another room we meet the head of the assembly unit Masanobu Horoiwa, a master technician who has been assembling cases for 35 years now.

The modern era of Grand Seiko began 1998 with the introduction of the 9S65 mechanical calibers family. The 9S65 was a modern selfwinding movement with a power reserve of 50 hours thanks to the use of the brand’s proprietary mainspring Spron. Seiko is among the few manufacture brands that makes its own mainsprings and balance springs. 

In 2009, a new high-beat automatic movement series, the 9S85 Caliber family was unveiled. Seiko produced its first high-beat (36,000 vph) automatic wristwatch in 1968 and today is among the few watchmakers capable of serial production of high-beat calibers. A high-beat movement is more precise but there are few challenges associated with its development. For example, it consumes a lot more energy and the escapement wears out quickly due to increased friction. 

To solve this problem Seiko turned to a technology hitherto used in the semiconductor fabrication called Micro Electrical Mechanical System (MEMS). Seiko now uses MEMS technology to manufacture the movement’s escape wheel and pallet fork. This process produces components that are lighter and more durable with a smoother surface. The parts are more precisely cut (the pallet fork and escape wheel are skeletonized).

The high-beat mechanical Caliber 9S85The escape wheel is also designed to hold more lubricant reserve thanks to the L-shaped tips. The result is less friction and more precision. The mainspring is made from proprietary Seiko alloy Spron 530 that allows a power reserve of 55 hours, significant for a 10-beat movement. Grand Seiko engineers also modified the gear train for better energy transmission.

Grand Seiko has rolled out these innovations in the 9S86 family as well. In 2014 the Hi-Beat 36000 GMT Limited Edition (SBGJ005), which runs the Caliber 9S86, won the Petite Aiguille award at the 2014 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG). Grand Seiko was the first Japanese watch to win this award.

However, the Grand Seiko line is not restricted to mechanical watches alone. It also uses movements that are powered by two technologies pioneered by Seiko – Quartz and Spring Drive. And to learn more about these movements, we make the trek to Shiojiri, a city in the Nagano prefecture about 200 km west of Tokyo. 

This is the home of Seiko Epson, established in 1942 as the Suwa Seikosha factory. Seiko Epson is a massive enterprise and is responsible for the production of Grand Seiko watches running the 9F Quartz calibers, the 9R Spring Drive calibers, the Seiko GPS Astron range and the famed Prospex divers’ watches. It also houses the Shinsu Watch Studio that works on Credor jewelery watches, the Takumi Studio that assembles and cases Grand Seiko Spring Drive watches and the
famed Micro Artists Studio.

The Morioka unit and the Seiko Epson facility in Shiojiri have a history of competing against each other. While Seiko Epson, the birthplace of the quartz watch in 1969, manufacturers its own dials and cases; the Morioka unit sources them from Seiko-affiliated companies. However, there is a transfer of knowledge and technology between these two units. For example, the Magic Lever automatic winding system used in mechanical watches was developed by Seiko Epson while the Spron mainsprings used in Spring Drive and Prospex watches were developed at  Morioka.

The quartz movements used in the Grand Seiko are not the garden variety. The Caliber 9F movements are designed ground up to be a luxury movement, worthy of a Grand Seiko. It has an accuracy of ±10 seconds/year and is thermocompensated. Each quartz oscillator for Grand Seiko is chosen and tested individually. Only after a three-month aging process does a crystal achieve the Grand Seiko standard. 

No ordinary quartz, the Quartz Caliber 9F62The quality of Caliber 9F is visible in little details like the movement of the seconds hand as it makes it way around the dial. The addition of a braking wheel in the gear train ensures that the needle doesn’t twitch when it jumps to mark each passing second like in regular quartz watches. The date change is instantaneous, so the date disc only moves at 12 midnight. Caliber 9F is also lovingly finished, decorative Tokyo stripes and all. It is a pity the movement is not visible through an exhibition caseback; a Seiko executive says this is to protect the movement from direct sunlight. 

Seiko produced the first prototype of the Spring Drive-powered watch in 1982. It was developed by Yoshikazu Akahane, an engineer who wanted to create the perfect watch, a timepiece that had to tick three boxes – it had to have the accuracy of a quartz movement, the perpetual power supply of an automatic caliber and possess refined good looks. It took almost 17 years for Seiko to go from prototype to the first production model in 1999, but tragically Akahane passed away a few years before the release of the first watch. 

Today, Spring Drive is a technology that is exclusive to Seiko and is used only in the Grand Seiko and Credor lines. The Shiojiri facility is also home to the Micro Artists Studio where a team of highly skilled watchmakers work on Credor showstoppers like the Spring Drive Minute Repeater (2011) and the Fugaku Tourbillon, which was unveiled at Baselworld this year. 

The Credor Spring Drive Grand Sonnerie is produced at the Micro Artists Studio.

During our visit, we see a craftsman hairline-polishing the one-piece bridge of Caliber 9R01 used in the Grand Seiko Spring Drive 8 Day Power Reserve also unveiled at Basel this year. The mirror finish on the Platinum case side surface has no distortion. The process is known as Zaratsu or blade polishing, and is made by carefully applying a rotating tin plate against the case at a precise angle. 

Featuring a diamond dust dial that is designed to evoke the sight of freshly fallen snow, this watch retails at $55,000. Seiko realizes that it is going to take some doing to convince people to pay in excess of $5,000 for a Grand Seiko watch, especially in markets that are used to entry-level Seiko 5 automatics. 

This year the brand launched its mid-range Presage collection of mechanical watches in international markets, a move that the brand hopes will help boost its image as a maker of fine mechanical watches and lure a new generation of watch enthusiasts into the world of Grand Seiko.  

(This article was originally published in our Winter 2016 print edition)