If a watch really is eternity in a case, as LVMH’s watch guru Jean-Claude Biver claims, it would be no stretch of the imagination to say that Japanese watchmaking is for ever contained inside the Grand Seiko. “When my predecessors imagined the Grand Seiko in 1960, their idea was to produce an accurate, reliable, legible timepiece,” says Shu Yoshino, managing director of the brand’s marketing division, at Baselworld. “How the watch looked was also a matter of importance, with a wide dial opening achieved by the bezel-free construction, a facetted case and our own Zaratsu polishing, but this was not the main concern. As always at Seiko, function took precedence and we have never strayed from this principle.”
A serious rival
Exactly how important functionality was to the Grand Seiko soon became apparent. By 1967, Seiko had fitted its luxury watch with the brand’s first automatic movement, the 62GS. And to make it clear that the Grand Seiko no longer needed hand-winding, the crown was recessed and placed at 4 o’clock. A year later, in 1968, Seiko took another step forward and equipped the Grand Seiko with a high-frequency movement beating at 36,000 vibrations/hour to measure tenths of a second. Only one Swiss manufacturer, Girard-Perregaux, could match this precision, having introduced the first high-frequency calibre to its Gyromatic range in 1966 (Zenith’s El Primero, the first chronograph with a 5 Hz frequency, would make its debut in 1969). With a “machine” like this, Seiko could legitimately rival Swiss watchmaking’s finest, even challenging them on home ground in the late 1960s by entering the Grand Seiko in timing trials at the Geneva and Neuchâtel observatories.
These institutions were longstanding references in watchmaking circles, but no longer carried the same impact following the advent of quartz. Electronic precision threatened to send mechanical watchmaking into the filing cabinet of history, and the Grand Seiko with it. “Everything changed with quartz”, as Shu Yoshino recalls. “At Seiko, we carried on making mechanical watches but they no longer corresponded to the high-end positioning symbolised by the Grand Seiko, and by the 1980s we had virtually ceased production. There was no longer any demand. We did try to relaunch it with a quartz movement in 1993, but to no avail.”
Pragmatic and precise
No matter. As Japanese wisdom reminds us, patience is one of life’s treasures. From the first stirrings of a mechanical watch revival, Seiko was ready. In 1998 the company returned centre-stage with a Grand Seiko driven by a completely new, in-house movement. “At first it was a niche product,” notes Shu Yoshino. “There was a community of diehard fans who remembered what the Grand Seiko stood for and who were immediately receptive. But nothing extraordinary. We had to wait another ten years for the product to really take off, when bling-bling watches began to lose their shine and people were turning to timepieces that suggested more substantial values.”
The context was ripe for the Grand Seiko to meet its public. In little time at all, sales in Japan doubled, prompting Seiko management to increase production capacity and launch the Grand Seiko outside its home market, winning a new international audience for this most pragmatic of watches. With the anniversary models, equipped with Calibre 9S65 beating at 28,800 vibrations/hour, and the two new hi-beat versions (Calibre 9S85), Seiko delivers precision of -3 to +5 seconds/day, which is a smaller tolerance than the margin of -4 to +6 seconds imposed by the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC). As a brand that manufactures all its components, including strategic parts such as the regulating organ, Seiko is a very “Grand” watchmaker indeed.