History of Timepieces Zen and the Art of Japanese Watchmaking

Long regarded as the luxury watch of those “in-the-know,” Grand Seiko continues to deliver astounding quality unrivaled by many Swiss counterparts.

Grand Seiko Watchmaking Standards

Talking to anyone less well-versed in the Swiss luxury watch world, the typical response when the name Grand Seiko comes up is oft the same. “What, like those cheap watches I see at Macy’s?” is the most frequent retort. The Grand Seiko sub-brand has been in existence since 1960, and most recently Seiko made a pair of bold moves to further distinguish the line from its more affordable offerings. First, the brands have been firmly separated.

Up until 2017, Grand Seiko models would display both a Seiko and Grand Seiko logo on their dial—no more. Second, the brand re-created the first ever Grand Seiko model in two distinct versions, one being a true-to-original recreation in gold and platinum, only varying from the original by upping its case size to 38mm. The other came as a modern interpretation of the original, offered in a 40.5mm polished titanium case, and featuring a beautifully textured silver dial.

The idea behind Grand Seiko from day one has been simple—to excel in fine watchmaking at a global level. Previous Seiko watches up to 1960 had been of reasonable quality and accuracy, however “good enough” simply would not cut it. The first Grand Seiko caliber, the 3180, managed an accuracy of +12 to -3 seconds a day, and it soon became the first Japanese watch ever to receive a rating of excellence from the Bureaux Officiels de Contrôle de la Marche des Montres; one of three testing facilities that eventually became part of COSC certification process.

As the years went on, Grand Seiko has continued to forge ahead, focusing as highly on development of highly accurate calibers as they have on thoughtful design and exceptional finishing. The 1960s saw the birth of their El Primero-rivaling Hi-Beat calibers, which also ran (and still run now) at 5Hz or 36,000 vibrations per hour. Come 1988, with the quartz crisis in full swing, Grand Seiko unveiled their first quartz caliber, using quartz crystals grown in their own facilities. This was merely one of many ways Grand Seiko shirked the traditional Swiss model, choosing instead to develop their own internal manufacturing whenever possible, and enabling them to maintain strict quality control from start to finish.

Fast-forward to 2017, and Grand Seiko remains at the top of its game, and if there were such a thing as an unbranded “blind test” in watchmaking, many consumers would beyond doubt mistake Grand Seiko for many of their high-caliber favorites of the industry. Their attention to design detail is remarkable, and the finishing and quality of their cases, dials, and hands is simply unrivaled in their respective pricing category. What’s more, their range of calibers feature a significant level of innovation throughout.

A Stable of Calibers

As Grand Seiko evolved to present day, the time and energy spent to develop its range of calibers has clearly paid off. Starting with its 9S mechanical calibers, Grand Seiko’s manufacturing processes are a delicate balance of traditional craftsmanship and cutting-edge technology. On one hand, hand-polishing techniques are employed on a significant number of components to improve both mechanical efficiency as well as visual appeal. On the other, Micro-Electro- Mechanical Systems (MEMS) technology—a high-precision semiconductor manufacturing process that allows for extreme precision within one thousandth of a millimeter.

Unlike the majority of other brands on the market, Grand Seiko has also been manufacturing their own hairsprings for over 50 years, developing their own proprietary alloys that deliver stable accuracy and resistance to shock and magnetism. Most recently, the “Spron 610” hairspring from 2009 was launched in the hi-beat caliber 9S85.

As the quartz crisis passed, Grand Seiko also continued to forge ahead in developing quartz calibers at an exceptionally high level. Their latest series, the 9F was created with a specific vision in mind. Unlike other quartz calibers on the market, the 9F is in essence the ‘80s Mercedes of quartz calibers—obsessively over-engineered, and legitimately designed to last a lifetime. It also boasts several innovative features, including an instant jumping date change mechanism, a higher-than-standard torque output from its Twin Pulse Control Motor is used to drive its substantive hand-finished hands, and a low power temperature control/correction system that helps maintain accuracy without a sacrifice in battery life.

Finally, and arguably the crown jewel of Grand Seiko’s calibers is the mighty Spring Drive. Though its initial vision was conceived in 1977, when a young watch engineer named Yoshukazu Akahane dreamed of a timepiece driven by a mainspring, yet capable of delivering the remarkable accuracy of the electronic watches recently arriving on the marketplace. Incessant prototyping, innumerable setbacks, and more than two decades later, Spring Drive was born—first in the R&D labs in 1999, and then followed by the first production model in 2004 using the caliber 9R65.

Accurate to a remarkable ±1 second per day (or ±15 seconds per month), Grand Seiko’s Spring Drive Calibers are a unique breed to say the least. Depending on the variant—the automatic 3-day 9R65, automatic 3-day chronograph GMT 9R86, or manual 8-day 9R01—each caliber is powered by a manually or rotor-wound mainspring barrel the same as your favorite mechanical calibers (in the case of the 9R01, three barrels are used). From there, the power from the unwinding of its mainspring operates a small glide wheel that generates enough electrical current to power its quartz oscillator.

From there an IC controlled rotor—operating similarly to a mechanical balance wheel—translates those quartz oscillations into a smooth-gliding second hand. Though achieved through unconventional means, there’s something truly remarkable about the innovation that led to the creation of Spring Drive, as well as the fact that it remains unrivaled by any of the best and most accurate mechanical watches on the market.

About Justin Mastine-Frost
Bold, adventurous, and well-executed. This is the calling card of timepieces Justin will always covet. From the deepest depths of the independents realm, to the latest and greatest limited-release novelties from our favorite big guns, Justin has gone hands-on with them — and more than likely has an opinion.

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