Feature: 3 Things You Should Know Before You Buy A Grand Seiko
There’s a lot of talk about the brand Grand Seiko. Some people will tell you it’s better than Rolex, others that the quality is unmatched, and others still that the value is astonishing. There’s a lot of reasons given why we should buy a Grand Seiko—here are three things you should know before you do.
It’s Not Swiss
Think of fine watchmaking and think of Switzerland. As well as being famous for its chocolate, cheese and efficient, clean rail network, Switzerland is the global epicentre for the fine, premium watch. All of the big three, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin, hail from Switzerland. The landlocked nation has it in the bag.
Grand Seiko, however, finds its origins a lot further afield, in the far-eastern realm of Japan. This is a country known for precision, certainly, but applied in an economical, reliable, affordable way. If you buy Japanese, you’re buying sensible. Fine, but it’s no Switzerland.
Look at the car industry. You want luxurious, you go British; powerful, German; emotive, Italian. If you want a car you can run without servicing for 300,000 miles that costs less than the extended leather trim option in any of the others, you go Japanese.
This is the way of the world and has been since the dawn of time. Or has it? Go back some three, four hundred years and Swiss watchmaking is nowhere to be seen. Instead, it’s the Germans, the British and the French commanding the forefront of this mechanical technology, Peter Henlein credited with the first pocket watch in the 1500s, Thomas Tompion setting the standard for high-accuracy clockmaking in the 1600s, Jean-Antoine Lépine initiating the pursuit of miniaturisation in the 1700s.
But the industrial revolution and the advancement of technology, coupled with the stubbornness of the clockmakers who refused to embrace new ways of manufacturing, left the industry for the taking. Swiss farmers, holed away for the winter with nothing else to do, turned to making watch parts for a modest income, assembled using modern industrial techniques—and so Swiss watchmaking was born.
Sound familiar? An emerging market using cheaper labour and technological advancement to produce an affordable product to dominate a market? The same thing happened to the Swiss in the 1970s with Japanese quartz watches. What goes around comes around I suppose.
It Almost Destroyed Swiss Watchmaking
And speaking of quartz watches, it was a Christmas present to the Swiss from Seiko in 1969 that incited what would be the most devastating blow to mechanical watchmaking the industry had ever seen. A small gold watch called the Astron, powered not by a spring, but by a battery, announced the beginning of the Japanese incitement of the cheap quartz watch—and the end of Swiss dominance. Seiko nearly wiped out the whole Swiss watch industry enitrely.
Well, this is the smoke in the whole messy ordeal; the fire actually started at the beginning of the decade. Surprisingly, it wasn’t advanced technology that signalled the beginning of the end; electronic watchmaking was no new thing, the Swiss already experimenting with electron-powered timepieces way before Seiko ever did. Even Patek Philippe knew change was in the air, leading the charge by producing the first fully electronic clock as early as 1956.
No, this change of power started with the first Grand Seiko, a mechanical watch. Seiko was only known in Japan at this point, a domestic brand that kept out of Swiss business since its founding in 1881—that’s just six years after Audemars Piguet and twenty-four before Rolex—until, in 1960, the first Grand Seiko was produced. And it was produced for a very specific purpose: to beat the Swiss at their own game by winning the revered Swiss observatory trials accuracy competitions.
To accelerate the process, Seiko opened two factories with the sole purpose of pitting them against each other in an effort to build the best watch. By 1963, Seiko had achieved a tenth-place finish; by 1966, ninth. 1967, however, yielded fourth. Following this, the trials were cancelled and never repeated.
So, in 1968, Seiko attended the Concours de Genéve instead, where it earned every place from fourth to tenth. But what of the top three places? Those were won by the Beta 21, a concept quartz movement developed by the Swiss. This meant that Seiko had manufactured the most accurate mechanical watch in the world. The concours, like the trials, were never held again.
By Christmas of 1969, the Astron was an inevitability; the Swiss had shunned Seiko and were fully entrenched with quartz technology. But costs tumbled with development, and soon the Swiss were priced out of the market, with Seiko left investing further in electronics and automated production, becoming the largest watch company in the world.
It Supports Quartz Technology
Grand Seiko—and indeed Seiko—started life making watches with mechanical movements, and it still does today. Automatic, manual, hi-beat—Grand Seiko makes it all. But unlike much of Switzerland’s high-end watchmakers, Grand Seiko still dabbles in quartz. In fact, Grand Seiko doesn’t just dabble in this cheap technology—it revels in it.
For many Swiss brands looking to recover from the quartz crisis, quartz movements offered a more affordable way for people to buy into their watches, but the more the industry has recovered, and the Swiss watch regained its premium reputation, the last vestiges of quartz have begun to fall away.
Not so with Grand Seiko. In fact, the brand has doubled down, not only investing in quartz manufacture, but a quartz-mechanical hybrid called Spring Drive as well. A Spring Drive movement uses a mechanical mainspring to spin a glide wheel that generates a charge, which vibrates a crystal. An electromagnet regulated by the crystal then acts as a brake to control the velocity of that same glide wheel—the escapement, if you like—from which the power to the hands is drawn, producing a smooth sweep around the dial.
Perhaps you’d think that with this advanced hybrid technology, quartz would be obsolete within the Grand Seiko range, but that’s not the case. In fact, it’s far from it, because quartz movements don’t just fill a few of the cheaper watches—there are dozens of them. And it goes even further than that, because Grand Seiko actively celebrates its 9F quartz movement. There’s pride there … in a quartz movement.
There’s more to it than first meets the eye, however. After pursuing chronometric certification with Grand Seiko in the 1960s, the two competing Seiko factories were repurposed in line with the incoming boom in electronics. One became Seiko Instruments, a specialist in precision mechanical and electrical components, and the other became Seiko Epson, dedicated to microprocessors and imaging equipment.
This is a lot of expertise. It allows Grand Seiko to make every single part of its quartz movements, and I mean everything. The coil, the battery—even the quartz crystal itself. They make all of it. And given that kind of control, it means Grand Seiko can do some things with its 9F quartz calibre that no other watch company has the means to.
For instance, the 9F has 133 parts, all beautifully decorated to the same standard as its mechanical movements. That’s kind of a given. But how about this: the date changes happen in 1/2,000th of a second; the temperature compensated motor pulses in pairs to drive the large Grand Seiko hands without reducing battery life; the second hand is preloaded so each tick has no backlash; the internals are sealed in an airtight capsule with jewel peephole for increased long-term reliability; and, most impressively, each quartz crystal is ‘aged’ with an electric current for three months before it can be deemed ready for use. All this gives an accuracy of ten seconds per year. Perhaps there’s a reason Grand Seiko is proud after all.
It’s definitely worth considering these three things before you buy a Grand Seiko. From the lack of Swiss-ness, the devastatingly effective approach to accuracy and the insistence on pursuing all types of watchmaking, it stands to reason that Grand Seiko should be a consideration over a Swiss comparative. Question is, would you consider it?
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