Japan is a land of contrasts. The stunning beauty of the countryside and the urban sprawl of Tokyo and other major cities. The incredibly overcrowded subway stations and the peaceful, serene temples. Traditional Japanese cultural activities, like the tea ceremony, martial arts and mountain hot springs and the Westernized shopping district of Ginza.
One additional contrast is the success of Seiko as a quartz watch manufacturer and their incredible competence in mechanical watchmaking. This isn’t something immediately apparent, but after visiting the Seiko facilities in Japan, I came away with a new appreciation of Seiko's ability and an understanding of where the company is going in the future.
Seiko has been making mechanical timepieces since the time it was established in 1881. Even when it was developing the quartz technology that rocked the watchmaking world and almost ended Swiss mechanical watchmaking, Seiko continued to feature and concentrate on mechanical movements.
Back when Seiko was first making clocks and watches, everything was mechanical. Seiko quickly earned a reputation for reliable, precise timekeeping. Due to the fact that there is no tradition of small watchmaking ateliers in Japan, Seiko couldn't rely on a network like the Swiss have to supply specialized parts. Therefore, Seiko had to do it all themselves, in-house.
As a result, Seiko is one of the few vertically integrated companies in the worldwide watch industry. Seiko makes virtually every part that goes into its mechanical watches.
"We do everything in-house for our watches," Seiko Watch Corporation's president and CEO Shinji Hattori says. "We make our own hairsprings, our own mainsprings, all the small parts -- we even make the lubricating oil for the watches.”
The Seiko facilities are impressive, with all the latest and greatest machines to make the myriad of precision parts needed. The watchmaking workshops are equally as impressive, with row upon row of watchmakers assembling and regulating the watches.
Seiko’s luxury watch brand is Grand Seiko, now available internationally. Assembled by hand in the Grand Seiko workshop, the watches are very traditionally styled, and great attention to detail is paid to finishing and to precision.
The Grand Seiko collection of timepieces is a success in Japan, going up against the best Swiss brands. Outside of Japan, it’s a bigger challenge, but the Japanese tradition of watchmaking is taking hold.
Introduced in 1998 after an astonishing 28 years in development, what makes the Spring Drive movement unique is the complete absence of an escapement. Spring Drive combines a high quality mechanical movement with an electromagnetic regulator, called the Tri-Synchro Regulator, that controls the unwinding of the mainspring, taking the precision of quartz and marrying it to the magic of mechanical watches. As a result of the lack of an escapement, the second hand of a Spring Drive movement sweeps smoothly around the dial.
Seiko has done a variety of Spring Drive watches, including a Sonnerie in the Credor range.
Credor is the highest range of Seiko products, and so far it is chiefly available in Japan. This is where the company gets to show off its ability, making chiming watches and other high complications. I visited with one of the watchmakers about his work, and his approach was no different from any of the watchmakers at the highest level in Swiss companies. In fact, his little workshop felt it could have been in Switzerland, with handmade tools for different operations, a Swiss-style watchmaking bench and the peace and quiet necessary for total concentration.
Seiko is a phenomenally successful company that doesn't get its due on the international scene. The company has a long tradition of watchmaking and the product they produce has an incredibly high quality standard.
Seiko is doing things the right way, focusing on quality and traditional watchmaking.
Click on the large photo at the top of the page to view the photo gallery