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The Precise Beauty of Grand Seiko

by multimill
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Photo courtesy of Grand Seiko

There are brands that are well-loved by collectors, journalists and people generally enthusiastic about buying watches. We will all have different opinions of what those brands are, but perhaps we can agree on one name: Grand Seiko. The Japanese imprint only emerged as a fully-fledged brand from the shadow of Seiko relatively recently, in 2017. However, everyone had been aware of Seiko’s intentions to spin-off Grand Seiko as its own full brand since an announcement at BaselWorld sometime after the line became available internationally. Technically though, it helps to consider that Grand Seiko is really a deeply rooted part of Seiko’s grand history, and it earned its right to stand on its own merits. Those merits needed to be well-established for Seiko to commit to an independent future for it. One way to understand all this is to visit Grand Seiko’s production facilities in Japan, which is obviously what we did.

Uniquely amongst our manufacture tours in this Legacy annual, we have very recently published a story on Grand Seiko’s industrial and artisanal bases. Despite the excellent story that WOW Thailand shared with us, we felt there was more to add; the story in the Summer issue this year only focusses on the new Grand Seiko Studio Shizukuishi (GSSS) while also establishing the Seiko connection via Seiko House. That story will serve as the launchpad for this one, though you need not have read it to enjoy this latest chapter. This is primarily because, for this visit, we got to see and experience the Atelier Ginza in Seiko House Ginza, where the Kodo is put together, as well as the operations in Nagano, at Seiko Epson. In fact, we could have crafted this whole story on what the previous story did not cover, meaning just the new sites, but we have chosen to do things a little differently.

Just as a watch is more than the sum of its parts, Grand Seiko is far more than just an amalgamation of multiple production sites. To begin with, it is important to consider that Grand Seiko watches are made entirely in Japan and that the considerable resources of Seiko need to be taken into consideration. As matter of practical facts, it is simply impossible to avoid GSSS because it is the reason this tour took place at all. At the same time, we know that our readers and collectors in general are hungry for facts about GSSS and we must oblige. Before we move on though, we will reiterate that Grand Seiko, and Seiko for that matter, do not just have one or two or even three production sites. For example, while we saw movement assembly and casing up at GSSS, the components manufacturing facility was in another adjacent building.

Grand Seiko
Photo courtesy of Grand Seiko

Delectable Pieces

In fact, the best place to discover this fact is at Seiko House Ginza, where the Atelier Ginza opened just last year. A small workshop, there is space for fewer than half a dozen watchmakers here, and only one was present when we visited (Time + Tide reports that there is at least one other watchmaker working here). At present, we are informed that the watchmakers here only work on the 9ST1 movement, which of course belongs the magnificent Kodo SLGT003. The watchmaker we met was none other than Takuma Kawauchiya himself, the man who developed the movement and who has won over legions of watch lovers and journalists. He showed the prototype of the movement and explained that Atelier Ginza is where Grand Seiko will work on mechanical watches of the highest order.

Its location, in the heart of Ginza, is no accident with Grand Seiko CEO Akio Naito (see our interview with him in this issue) confirming that Atelier Ginza is meant to be a sort of working showcase of the brand’s capabilities. It is a subtle exercise in brand communication, and allows collectors to easily see how something like the Kodo gets lovingly assembled. While the location, on the 7th floor of the building, is only accessible by appointment, it is made for visitors. Reinforcing this fact are the large see-through panels separating the foyer from the workspace. In a way, this mirrors the set-up at GSSS, and has pretty much the same effect. Also deeply enticing here is an oversized chocolate sculpture of the Kodo, which looks every bit as delectable as the watch; we wonder how often Grand Seiko has to have it replaced.

Back For Seconds

Given that Grand Seiko has a number of disparate locations for its manufacturing activities, we will return to this subject towards the end. For now, we note for the record that we are not presenting information here in chronological order. Since Atelier Ginza is spiritually linked with GSSS, we will move straight into that location now. Technically, the Seiko facilities in Morioka (the largest city in Iwate Prefecture, where GSSS is located) includes a number of production sites, including Morioka Seiko Instruments Inc, alongside the close-to 2,000sqm Grand Seiko Studio Shizukuishi. There is a lot to say about the GSSS, which was completed in 2020 just in time for the 60th anniversary of Grand Seiko (the first watch in the family of watches, which was then under Seiko).

On that note, there is an interesting display of history here, which is much more niche than the museum at Seiko House Ginza. Not only is the first Grand Seiko piece from 1960 included, so is the first Seiko watch, all the way back from 1913. This was the Laurel, which was also Japan’s first wristwatch; it is accompanied in a little display by the Marvel (1956) and the Crown (1959). This unassuming showcase illustrates that Grand Seiko’s legacy itself is far longer than its 60 years implies. While this note does take up a bit of space in our already constrained pages, an issue called Legacy cannot ignore something like this.

Perhaps the most obvious thing to note about GSSS is not the most important though, and that is its relatively compact size and status as a Kengo Kuma-design. If you visit, and the GSSS does accept visitors, the building itself will imprint itself onto your imagination and you will not soon forget it. As we have written in the aforementioned story in issue #69, everything in the GSSS is arranged on two levels, of which the ground level (seen here, opposite) is most prominent because this is where watchmaking work happens. Again, bear in mind that high complications such as the Kodo are not assembled here; on the other hand, the Tentagraph SLGC001 movement was assembled and finished here, as was the 9AS5 high-beat calibre. Casing up and testing also happens right here.

Springing Forward

Grand Seiko
Photo courtesy of Grand Seiko

Despite having much more to say about this, we must move on to our final stop before we run out of space and have to end abruptly. This last stop, at the Nagano facilities that produce the Spring Drive watches, turns out to be the most complicated. To begin with, the Seiko Epson production facility is not part of the Seiko Group or the Seiko Watch Corporation. As the name states, this is effectively a joint venture between Seiko and Epson. For collectors and enthusiasts, the key thing to keep in mind here is that Seiko Epson is all about Spring Drive, and quartz too. That means that it is also about another Seiko imprint, Credor, as well a brand that has nothing to do with Seiko, and everything to do with Epson: Orient.

Now, having said that, work on Grand Seiko watches happens in dedicated spaces that are not used for anything other than Grand Seiko. Helpfully, for an article like this one, there is a single name for this area: the Shinshu Watch Studio. With Credor and Grand Seiko, there are overlaps just as one might find at Ulysse Nardin and Girard- Perregaux (see elsewhere in this section). This is most evident in the Micro-Artist Studio, where special dials (the Credor Eichi II) and things such as the Credor chiming model come to life.

The Shinshu Watch Studio is the most manufacture- like set-up that we have seen on this visit, with finishing and assembly happening in separate areas. It is also the sort of space that showcases the industrial approach to making and finishing parts. Production of hands and indices are a great example here, with steel hands getting that signature blue colour through heat treatments that are standardized (an open oven, effectively, that allows many sets of hands to be blued at the same time). The polishing of indices is a revelation, for anyone who has ever ogled the little appliques on the dial and wondered if these are all individually polished. Well, they are and they are not; a batch of these, which are all equal after all, are loaded into a little housing implement that allows a machine to polish all the relevant surfaces. This means that batches must be tracked and subjected to multiple rounds of polishing, one of which you can see here (opposite page, bottom).

Grand Seiko
Photo courtesy of Grand Seiko

The above description has taken a good bit of space, and the reason for that is that it can be applied to virtually everything that happens at Seiko Epson for Grand Seiko. This includes everything from movement assembly and finishing (opposite page, top), to the making of cases and dials (including the Snowflake and of course Lake Suwa), and special touches such as Zaratsu polishing (creating the famed distortion-free reflection on the case surfaces, seen below). It is all traditional, but all done with the rigour and precision of contemporary machining techniques and technology. Movements made here include calibres 9F and 9RA5, and we think it only fitting that Spring Drive movements are still made in the facility (back when it was called Suwa Seikosha) that developed it more than 20 years ago.

If nothing else, the final section of this story simultaneously reveals how complicated Grand Seiko’s production regime is. On the other hand, this is part of a pattern, with the Kodo calibre not produced in Shizukuishi but Ginza; this has resulted in unfortunate but understandable publication errors (where images of SLGT003 have been used to illustrate stories on GSSS). Indeed, we are more wary of unforced errors in this story than anywhere else, but we are certain the more knowledgeable amongst you will not hesitate to point these out! As the closing story in this section on manufacturing sites, the narrative here ought to have convinced you that no manufacture is really the same as another because there are often strong variances even within the same brand. If you are not convinced yet, well come back next year and we will try again…

This article first appeared on WOW’s Legacy 2024 issue

For more on the latest in watch reads, click here.

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