Exploring And Immersing In The History And Expertise Of Grand Seiko’s Different Manufacturing Locations

A mainstream contender in fine watchmaking today, Grand Seiko is a relatively recent phenomenon in global terms. Although the brand has been around since 1960, for much of its history it was largely confined to the Japanese domestic market. Even so, the quality of its movements and finishing, and innovations such as the Spring Drive movement, accorded it a dedicated worldwide following for decades.

Although managed as its own entity, Grand Seiko is, of course, underneath the massive umbrella that is Seiko. Seiko is an industrial titan, with its consumer watches and clocks a household name all around the world alongside specialty timing applications such as sports. Beyond that, the company has interests in segments as various as optics, electronics and industrial machinery.

Its origins are more humble. In 1881, an ambitious young entrepreneur and clock repairer by training by the name of Kintaro Hattori founded his own company, K Hattori & Co. Located in Tokyo’s Ginza district, it was a watch and clock store that mainly dealt in imported European timepieces. However, it was not long before Hattori set his sights on his own production; in 1892, he opened a factory that he named ‘Seikosha’. Initially producing wall clocks, it quickly moved on to pocket watches and then wristwatches—in 1913, it released the Laurel, Japan’s first locally manufactured wristwatch—to become a renowned player in the field.

The company’s early success is attributed to Hattori’s business and technical acumen, pursuit of engineering innovation, and unshakeable principles. A defining moment came about in 1923, in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake. Despite the Seikosha factory’s heavy damage due to fire and the resulting loss of some 1,500 timepieces that had been sent in for repair, the company pledged to replace each one—an act that brought them considerable consumer goodwill. In 1924, the ‘Seiko’ brand name was first used, and in 1929, the Seikosha factory had an annual production that surpassed one million units.

Today, the Hattori family still owns significant stakes in Seiko, with Kintaro’s great-grandson Shinji Hattori serving as chairman and CEO of the group. The company maintains its traditional building in Ginza, a location that it first moved to in 1895. The original building, which included a clock tower, was constructed the previous year. Both were dismantled to make way for a new building and clock tower that was completed in 1932; this building still stands today in the heart of the upscale shopping district that is the modern-day Ginza, a testament to neoclassical architecture with a touch of art deco.

The clock tower, overlooking a busy intersection, has become a landmark. The building houses the Wako department store, which evolved out of Hattori’s original retail pursuits and is still owned by Seiko, and includes a Grand Seiko flagship on the ground and first floors. Next door is Seiko House Ginza, maintained as a historical edifice, as well as meeting and event space. There is nothing in the way of watch production, except for one remarkable atelier on the top floor. Here, a small team of the company’s best watchmakers are currently charged with the final assembly of the Grand Seiko Kodo Constant Force Tourbillon, the revolutionary high complication that drew the awe of the horological community when it was first unveiled in 2022.

Grand Seiko’s watch production is found a little further afield. West of Toyko, in the Nagano prefecture, is the picturesque Lake Suwa. During World War II, due to the potential of bombings and evacuations in Tokyo, Seikosha established a secondary manufacturing facility in the area. It would persist after the war to become Suwa Seikosha and would become the centre of Seiko’s burgeoning success in the 1960s. It was here that Grand Seiko was born in 1960; from here with which Seiko achieved the top mechanical prize in the 1968 Geneva Observatory trials; and from here that the world’s first commercial quartz wristwatch, the Seiko Quartz Astron, was developed for release in 1969.

It was also from here that, during the 1960s and leveraging its engineering expertise, the company branched out into printers. In 1968, Suwa Seikosha released the world’s first miniature digital printer under the Epson brand. Epson, of course, was an incredibly successful venture on its own, and Suwa Seikosha became the Seiko Epson Corporation in 1985. Oddly enough, this means that one of Grand Seiko’s major manufacturing sites, still located near Lake Suwa in the town of Shiojiri, is in a building where ‘Epson’ branding is more visible on the outside than Seiko. Yet here is Grand Seiko’s Shinshu Watch Studio, one of the most complete watch facilities in the world, and where the brand’s quartz- and Spring Drive-equipped watches are produced.

Although Swiss watchmaking is rooted in cottage industries that would over centuries and generations grow into a collaborative network of specialist suppliers—movements, dials, hands and cases would typically be made and assembled by separate parties—Japan had no existing large-scale industry for a watch company to draw on. As a result, Seiko by necessity had to develop in-house capabilities in every aspect of watchmaking. Case and movement components are made here, and then they are finished and assembled—the movements by rows of white-smocked watchmakers working with microscopes. Dials are printed, hands are blued, and indices are cut and polished here as well. The building is an old one, as clean and orderly as one might expect but also not pristine—there is a sense of wear, and a sense of comfort in it. The famed zaratsu polishing machines, for instance, have their light green paint worn away at the most-used touchpoints to reveal bare metal. In the Micro Artist Studio, which acts as the Shinshu Watch Studio’s high complications workshop, the wooden desks have a similar lived-in feel.

The third site of interest to Grand Seiko fans is on the far north of Japan’s main island, in Iwate prefecture. In 1970, Seiko created a production base in the town of Morioka for both mechanical and quartz watches. By the 1980s, annual production would hit 10 million. The Shizukuishi Watch Studio, specialising in high-end mechanical watches, was established here in 2004, and in 2020—the 60th anniversary of the Grand Seiko brand—it inaugurated a new building.

Today, the purpose-built Grand Seiko Studio Shizukuishi is charged with the assembly of the brand’s mechanical movements—the 9S family of calibres, with balance wheels and hairsprings, as opposed to the 9R Spring Drive and 9F quartz movements that are left to the Shinshu Watch Studio in Suwa. The new Shizukuishi building was designed by renowned architect Kengo Kuma, with the intent of being in perfect sync with the environment. Wood predominates; the siding is cedar, while inside pillars and beams are constructed out of a reddish pine that is left unfinished, lending the entire venue a woody fragrance. The floor was made to be at the same level as the ground, emphasising its harmonious nature. The building is dedicated to assembly and final finishing, and is hence meditatively quiet and dominated by a single large cleanroom where the watchmakers work. Upstairs is a small lounge where visitors can relax—the general public is welcome, by appointment only—and peruse the few limited editions that can only be bought here.

They will also be welcome to the view. Studio Shizukuishi’s grounds include a biotope habitat, complete with a pond and insect hotels, to encourage biodiversity. A little further away, across fields that are green in summer and white in winter, the peak of Mount Iwate stands watch. Grand Seiko is famed for its nature-themed executions, and this mountain is just one of the many nearby pieces of nature that seem to be a deep font of inspiration.


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