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Reaching the watchmaking peak

How Grand Seiko took on the Swiss at their own game

Grand Seiko Elegance collection: SBGE227G
Grand Seiko Elegance collection: SBGE227G

Grand Seiko burst onto the world stage in 1960, when it produced the first Japanese watch to receive a certificate of excellence from the prestigious collective of Swiss chronometer testing institutes: The Bureaux Officiels de Controle de la Marche des Montres. Over the next decade, Grand Seiko came from nowhere to join its Swiss cousins at the peak of watchmaking excellence, and has proved a match for Switzerland’s finest watch brands ever since.

Grand Seiko has continued to win the hearts and minds of fans across the world, especially after the Grand Seiko Hi-Beat won the Petite Aiguille prize at the 2014 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (the Oscars of the watch world) and the 2012 European Watch of the Year award for watches priced from £2,500 to £8,500.

Among discerning watch connoisseurs, Grand Seiko has something of a cult status. Until recently the brand was one of the watch industry’s best-kept secrets, but its reputation is now reaching a wider audience who appreciate the understated elegance and exquisite craftsmanship of every Grand Seiko watch.

Although the first Grand Seiko appeared in 1960, many people don’t know that Seiko has been around a lot longer. It has made mechanical timepieces since 1895 and mechanical wristwatches since 1913 – a few years earlier than many of its Swiss counterparts.

In the Swiss watch industry, manufacture, an abbreviated form of the French phrase manufacture d'horlogerie, describes those distinguished watchmakers who make their own watches almost completely, rather than assemble components made elsewhere.

Grand Seiko Elegance collection: SBGE227G
Grand Seiko Elegance collection: SBGE227G

This concept of manufacture is nothing new to Seiko Watch Corporation, as it has always made watches this way. The company has made its own balance springs and dials since 1913, and is today one of the world’s very few fully vertically integrated watchmakers, with complete control of the watchmaking process – from the development of materials and components to manufacturing, assembly, adjustment, inspection and shipment. Every single component of every Grand Seiko watch is made in-house, from balance wheels and hairsprings to the unique movement technologies of Grand Seiko timepieces.

Seiko’s quest for exacting watchmaking standards began in the 1950s. The second world war had crippled Seiko’s watch production, with its factories in Japan either devastated by bombing or simply worn out. Seiko had trouble rebounding at first, but in the mid 1950s the company embarked on a crash programme to raise its mechanical watchmaking to the world-class standards set by the Swiss.

The first milestone was the Seiko Marvel of 1956, a 17-jewel manual watch that represented a quantum leap in accuracy for Japanese watches of the time. The company assembled a special team of top craftsmen in 1960 to create the Grand Seiko calibre 3180, the first watch made in Japan to meet the accuracy standards of the Bureaux Officiels de Contrôle de la Marche des Montres.

Seiko quickly set its sights higher still. Grand Seiko watches competed in Swiss competitions with increasing success and by the late 1960s consistently ranked highly in the Neuchâtel Observatory and Concours de Genève Swiss chronometry trials, frequently finishing in the top 10.

The first Grand Seiko watches carried “Chronometer” on the dial to show that they met the highest accuracy standard of the time. Today’s Grand Seiko dials don’t carry this designation because Seiko introduced its own Grand Seiko Inspection Standard in the 1970s, which guarantees accuracy of -3 to +5 seconds per day, higher than the Chronometer standard of -4 to +6 seconds per day set by the independent Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute, the COSC (Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres).

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Grand Seiko’s inspection standards replicate real-world conditions in stringent tests. Grand Seiko doesn’t just adjust its watches in the five positions required by the COSC, but in an additional sixth – the upright 12 o’clock position – which is how many people place their watch when not wearing it. It also conducts tests at three temperatures rather than two, with the extra test closer to body temperature, and for a minimum of 17 days instead of 15.

The latest version of the Grand Seiko Inspection Standard was established in 1998, and some Grand Seiko Calibre 9S mechanical watches reach even higher. The Grand Seiko Special Standard guarantees accuracy of +4/-2 seconds per day, while the 9S Grand Seiko VFA Standard delivers +3/-1 seconds per day.

Seiko produced the iconic first generation of Grand Seiko mechanical watches from 1960 to 1975, but ironically it was the company’s own pioneering advances in quartz watch technology that killed demand for mechanical timepieces in the 1970s.

Seiko had stopped making almost all mechanical watches by the 1980s, but production was miraculously reborn a decade later, when the classic mechanical watch became a coveted luxury item. The high watermark of Seiko’s mechanical resurgence came in 1998, when it launched a second generation of Grand Seiko watches with a new mechanical calibre, the 9S, designed from scratch to deliver the high precision and excellent durability for which Grand Seiko has become renowned.

Ever since, the 9S calibre has been continuously enhanced, with new SPRON alloys for both the main and balance springs and MEMS engineering that allows key components to be manufactured to tolerances as small as one thousandth of a millimetre.

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This year, Grand Seiko has created three limited edition timepieces in different materials to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 9S. All three 10 beat Calibre 9S85 watches share the same graceful case design that is the Grand Seiko signature and are adjusted to different levels of precision. The platinum Hi-Beat 36000 VFA offers an extraordinary accuracy of +3 to -1 seconds per day, while the 18ct-gold Hi-Beat 36000 Special achieves +4 to -2 seconds and the stainless-steel Hi-Beat 36000’s accuracy is +5 to -3 seconds per day. They are available at Grand Seiko retail partners and the Seiko and Grand Seiko boutiques.

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