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Japanese craftsmanship

From 10th-century samurai swords to 21st-century timepieces: tracing Grand Seiko’s unbroken line of Japanese craftsmanship

Grand Seiko Heritage collection: SBGJ203G
Grand Seiko Heritage collection: SBGJ203G

Japan’s ancient traditions of craftsmanship have always sought to find the perfect harmony of form and function. From the 10th century to the present day, this timeless pursuit of aesthetic beauty and engineering precision can be traced in Grand Seiko’s quest for watchmaking perfection.

The belief that true mastery of a craft takes patience and time, and that only mastery produces true beauty, is an attitude born in Japan centuries ago and still embodied today in ancient Japanese crafts like pottery, lacquerware, metalworking and papermaking.

Craftsmanship itself is deeply embedded in Japan’s culture, where the mastery of traditional crafts is prized like nowhere else. The nation formally recognises its leading master craftsmen as Living National Treasures who have raised their skills to the level of sacred art. After dedicating their lives to the pursuit of excellence, many aspire to this honour but only a select few are chosen each year.

The exceptional metalwork produced for centuries by Japanese master craftsmen is renowned for its artistry, meticulous detail and innovative use of precious metals and unique alloys. Originating in the 10th century, no object embodies this sacred tradition better than the samurai sword, or katana.

From forging to polishing, a katana takes at least a month to produce, and a high-quality sword can take 15 master craftsmen six months to perfect. The blade is polished by a master specialist called a togishi, who typically spends several weeks giving the tamahagane steel a flawless, mirror-like surface, using special grinding and polishing stones passed down through families for generations.

Grand Seiko Heritage collection: SBGJ203G
Grand Seiko Heritage collection: SBGJ203G

Grand Seiko’s zaratsu polishing technique is derived from the same swordmaking tradition. Zaratsu polishing is used by Grand Seiko craftsmen and women to produce the sharply defined edges and distortion-free mirror finishing that are the signature of every watch. It takes three years of training before a craftsman is skilled enough to polish every surface of each case and bracelet.

Functional simplicity is treasured in Japan, and this extends to purity and simplicity in design. The Japanese aesthetic is heavily influenced by terms like iki, an expression of simplicity, sophistication and originality, and shibui, which means subtle, unobtrusive beauty.

It was legendary designer Taro Tanaka who defined the Grand Seiko Style when he designed the Grand Seiko 44GS in 1967. This remarkable timepiece captured a uniquely Japanese idea of beauty, with form and function in perfect harmony. It established the principles of legibility, beauty and accuracy that Grand Seiko has followed ever since.

Tanaka’s great inspiration was light. He wanted Grand Seiko timepieces to “sparkle with quality” and designed watches with sharper angles and distortion-free surfaces so that every surface of every visible component, from the case to the hands and markers, would reflect even the smallest ray of light, creating a sparklingly crisp, clear aesthetic.

In his seminal Grammar of Design guide created in 1967, Tanaka set out exacting standards for every visible component. The same zaratsu polishing of the cases and indexes is applied to the hands of every Grand Seiko watch. Each hour and minute hand is polished on six sides to make sure they reflect light from every possible angle. The sixth side is the back, which is polished to the same mirror-like finish as the front. This detail can only be seen when the hands cross and the back of one hand is visible in the other’s reflection – a testament to Grand Seiko’s never-ending quest for perfection.

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At Grand Seiko’s Shinshu Watch Studio in Shiojiri, Nagano Prefecture and Shizuku-Ishi Watch Studio in Iwate Prefecture, every watch is assembled from start to finish by a single master craftsman or woman, with each one featuring unique dials and exclusive materials. Few other luxury watch brands so seamlessly weave together traditional craftsmanship and next-generation technology like the famous Spring Drive.

The relentless pursuit of watchmaking excellence is embodied in every Grand Seiko component. One of a handful of watchmakers to make every single part of its watches in-house, if the company is unsatisfied with off-the-shelf materials and technologies, it simply creates its own. The unique SPRON 530 and SPRON 610 alloys, for example, were developed specifically to make mainsprings and hairsprings that deliver the exacting performance required by Grand Seiko.

No watch better embodies Grand Seiko’s ideals than the Grand Seiko Spring Drive SBGA011, a firm favourite among the brand’s aficionados, who christened it the Snowflake and one of the most iconic Grand Seiko watches of all. The Snowflake gets its nickname from its delicately decorated dial. Resembling freshly fallen snow, each dial is entirely handmade by a master craftsman at the Shinshu Watch Studio.

First introduced in 2010, the Snowflake perfectly emulates the samurai sword’s combination of aesthetic beauty and precision engineering. It’s an incredibly precise timepiece because of its smooth, sweeping Spring Drive movement, which pairs the soul of a mechanical watch with the relentless accuracy of quartz.

Each dial is stamped with a unique textured pattern before it is coated with multiple layers of lacquer. A craftsman then tempers each second hand individually using an anodic oxidation process that creates a rich and vivid blue, before hand-cutting and polishing the hour markers for the dials.

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Before 2010, Grand Seiko was a well-kept secret with a cult following among watch connoisseurs. Buyers had to travel to Japan or a handful of other Asian countries to buy a Grand Seiko, but since 2010 the timepieces have been available in 20 markets worldwide, including the UK.

Last year, Grand Seiko became an independent brand from Seiko for the first time. Always distinct in its design, character, presentation and calibres, it may not remain a secret for much longer, but in a changing world one thing remains certain. Grand Seiko will continue to stay true to its traditional three pillars of legibility, beauty and accuracy.

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