Whenever someone decides to send me a message regarding getting into the watch collecting hobby, I always encounter the same questions. What’s the best watch for the money? Or, where should I start?
To answer that question, I always point toward Seiko. The Japanese brand that has shown consistency and produced fantastic timepieces for decades is perfect for someone looking to buy their first watch, quartz or mechanical. However, many people outside the enthusiast world don’t realize that while Seiko is a fantastic budget brand, there is a sub-brand (autonomous since 2017) that competes and dominates at the high-end of luxury watches.
That brand is Grand Seiko–a true example of fine Japanese craftsmanship that can make Swiss watchmakers shiver.
With Grand Seiko in the picture, the Japanese brand flexes its watchmaking muscles with technology not seen or created by Swiss competitors, leading many to purchase Grand Seiko instead.
So what is it that makes Grand Seiko so “grand” in the first place?
Having the name Seiko in their title was originally a hindrance when looking at the price tag, but over the last few years, Grand Seiko has shown why they belong as a strong competitor alongside the Swiss. There has to be a beginning with any legacy and we’re talking about that genesis today.
The origin of Grand Seiko dates back to 1960. During the 1950s, Seiko experienced a period of rapid growth in their mechanical watches. Hoping to capitalize, a team was assembled at Grand Seiko, and they had a vision–to create rugged, reliable, and durable timepieces that remained elegant and fashionable at the same time. While Seiko’s mechanical line was constantly improving, the team formed at Grand Seiko, knew they could take their mechanical pieces further using the expertise and resources developed from the increasing success of Seiko.
The first Grand Seiko developed in Suwa Seikosha (now known as Seiko Epson) featured the new 25-jewel Calibre 3180, which had an accuracy of +12 to -3 seconds per day and would feature a 45-hour power reserve.
A few years after the initial implementation of Grand Seiko, the brand would release a timepiece featuring the highest accuracy of any 5-beat, hand-wound watch in the world, the Grand Seiko 44GS. The brand didn’t just create a fantastic movement, but the release of the 44GS set a specific design language for Grand Seiko that would be carried on through future models and continue through into present-day models from the brand.
As time went on, the Grand Seiko catalogue grew quickly and consistently, featuring new watches, movements, designs, and even more proof that a Japanese luxury brand wasn’t to be taken lightly. In 1967, the brand would release the 62GS, the first automatic for Grand Seiko, and one year later, it released the 10 beat 61GS automatic and the 10 beat 41GS manual wind. Newer technology, presented regularly, lit the fire for all watch brands to create the most accurate mechanical watch possible, with Grand Seiko leading the charge.
After being nominated in 1964, Grand Seiko would spend years in chronometry competitions in Switzerland. All the major watchmaking brands competed to develop mechanical watches that were as precise as possible. It was a process in which the various divisions of Seiko were involved, including Suwa Seikosha which produced the Grand Seiko range. It could be said that it led the effort of the Seiko group in this regard, although the “King Seiko” division, created to establish a certain level of internal competition, was not far behind.
In 1968, Seiko dominated the chronometric tests at the Concours de Genève, thus positioning itself among the best manufacturers in the world. Although the first three places were won by watches equipped with the Beta 21 caliber from the Centre Electronique Horloger consortium (a pioneering quartz calibre), the next seven places in the competition went to watches from Seiko. The Calibre R45, which would be used in watches from both King Seiko and Grand Seiko, was a particular standout.
Fast forward to the late 1980s. In keeping with the new era of technology, Grand Seiko was ready to release their first quartz timepiece, the 95GS. When we think of a quartz movement, we think of a hyper-accurate watch. Still, Grand Seiko released something extraordinary and even more accurate than the quartz movements of the day with a movement that only gained +10 seconds per year. Grand Seiko created this technology from their ability to make all their movements in-house, as they did with their mechanical movements. Using quartz crystals produced in their proper facilities, Grand Seiko could do their own quality control to ensure that each movement put in their watches was the most accurate, moisture resistant, temperature resistant and shock-resistant.
During their focus on their quartz line, Grand Seiko realized it was time to update their mechanical wristwatches, as they sensed interest in mechanical movements was again on the rise. Their original thought was to introduce slight, incremental changes to their existing watches; however, that plan was quickly abandoned. In fact, the brand eventually scrapped all previous movements and dedicated its time to designing and releasing the 9S movement in 1996.
With the release of the 9S, Grand Seiko was striving for better and more accurate. However, while precision is the key to a fantastic watch, how long it can run before winding is another consideration. With most watches having a 40-hour power reserve as the standard, Grand Seiko wanted to release a movement with 50. New component materials, designs, and manufacturing techniques were essential to create a more precise watch with a longer power reserve. From these new processes and materials, the Caliber 9S51 and 9S55 were born in 1998.
In their strive to create a better and more reliable timepiece, Grand Seiko would release a concept developed by Yoshikazu Akahane, which spoke of “the everlasting watch”–a traditional watch powered by a mainspring that carried a one-second-a-day accuracy. Such a creation seemed unrealistic in the beginning. However, year by year, by new materials and components became available. And all the while Akahnae and his team were at work. After over 20 years and 600 prototypes, they created what we now know today as the Spring Drive movement, unveiled in 1999. Unfortunately, Akahane passed away in 1998, a year before he could see his creation come to fruition. Spring Drive, still, would not be available commercially until 2004.
Grand Seiko is the master of taking something they’ve created and making it better each time. They would increase the power reserve from 50-hours to 72-hours; they would then release the Spring Drive GMT and consistently evolve, again and again, even creating the Calibre 9R01–a Spring Drive movement with an 8-day power reserve. As time moves on, Grand Seiko continues to discover new ways to implement its resources and new materials to create beautiful and functional pieces of wearable art.
In fact, the brand has come so far since its creation in the 1960s that it has just entered the world of grand complications, presenting the Kodo Constant-Force Tourbillon at the most recent “Watches & Wonders”–which a proved to be a standout this year.
From a small sub-brand in the 1960s to a modern-day icon, Grand Seiko will forever be one of the greatest brands in horological history. Their movements are impressive, but their beautiful design also sets Grand Seiko apart from the rest of the watch industry. A technological marvel with such a simple, deadly, and clean aesthetic is hard to encapsulate. But Grand Seiko have done that. Perhaps better than anyone else.
Born into a family obsessed with motorsport, Tyler Frederick became enamoured with speed and beautiful cars at a young age. His love of Formula 1–and all things mechanical–eventually lead him to horology. Tyler also writes for Montres Publiques. You can follow him on Instagram.
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