You could call it an obsession with perfection, but Seiko Watch Corporation is one of the very few fully vertically integrated watchmakers in the world. Seiko has complete control over the Grand Seiko watchmaking process, from research and development of tools, materials and components to manufacturing, assembly, adjustment, inspection and shipment. This level of control helps Grand Seiko reach standards of excellence that few other watchmakers can match.
Every single component of every Grand Seiko watch is made in-house, from balance wheels and hairsprings to the cutting-edge movement technologies of Grand Seiko timepieces. Seiko’s relentless 28-year quest to perfect its unique Spring Drive movement certainly bears all the hallmarks of obsession. Spring Drive powers a unique automatic watch that uses a quartz crystal to deliver unrivalled accuracy, yet with no battery and no storage of electricity.
The Spring Drive story began in 1977, when a young Seiko engineer called Yoshikazu Akahane had a vision of a unique “everlasting watch” that would combine the craftsmanship of mechanical movements with the unrivalled accuracy of quartz, without needing batteries, light, radio waves or any other power source or signal.
Akahane and his small team would have to make breakthroughs in almost every watch technology to realise their dream, and it took 600 prototypes, 230 patents and 28 years of development to get there. Seiko launched the revolutionary movement at Baselworld 1998 and introduced its first Spring Drive watch in 1999, but Akahane’s complete vision was finally unveiled in 2005 as the self-winding Spring Drive 5R calibre.
Other watchmakers may have balked at this epic undertaking, but Seiko’s attitude is simple: when an existing component or technology doesn’t meet its requirements, it invents one that does. A perfect example is the Tri-synchro regulator. When the Spring Drive needed a new kind of speed control mechanism, the unique Tri-synchro was born. It uses three types of energy – mechanical, electrical and electromagnetic – working in harmony to control the mechanical energy of the mainspring, generate electricity for the low-consumption quartz-crystal oscillator and generate a magnetic force to regulate the glide wheel.
By replacing the traditional escapement with a magnetic brake, Grand Seiko Spring Drive watch hands were given their uniquely elegant character. Famously, they do not tick or stutter. Like the perpetual motion of time, they glide.
Seiko is one of very few manufacturers with equal mastery of both electronic and mechanical watchmaking. Since unveiling the world’s first quartz watch in 1969, Seiko has continued to innovate and drive forward the technology in craftsmanship, materials and accuracy.
The first Grand Seiko quartz watch was born in 1988 and far exceeded the performance of all quartz watches of the time, with an accuracy of +/- 10 seconds per year. As ever, the secret of this success was Seiko’s vertical integration. All Grand Seiko’s quartz crystals are grown in-house and only the best-performing oscillators in temperature resistance, humidity resistance and shock resistance are selected to produce movements with the highest possible accuracy.
Not content with this achievement, Seiko set the bar higher still to create the 9F quartz calibre in 1993. This incorporated groundbreaking features like the Backlash Auto-Adjust Mechanism, the Twin Pulse Control Motor and the Instant Date Change Mechanism. Today, many Grand Seiko quartz watches have an extraordinary accuracy of +/- 5 seconds per year, delivering lifetime precision to their owners.
Thanks to vertical integration, Seiko has developed world-leading expertise in materials. The company began its materials research and in-house manufacture of springs in the 1940s and ’50s. This visionary commitment has made many of its subsequent advances possible.
No innovation demonstrates Seiko’s materials mastery better than the Grand Seiko Hi-Beat movement, released in 2014. Beating at an elevated rate of 36,000vph, a 10-beat movement needs greater torque than an 8-beat, so Seiko developed a unique new alloy, SPRON530, to produce a stronger mainspring with 6 per cent more torque. After five more years of development, Seiko unveiled SPRON610, with twice the shock resistance of conventional materials and three times more magnetic resistance, to create a new hairspring that was less susceptible to temperature changes, magnetic forces, shock and other factors affecting precision.
Most other watchmakers outsource their springs, so developing materials to such a high specification would have been very difficult for them to achieve.
Next to the first Grand Seiko watch of 1960, the launch of the 9S mechanical movement in 1998 was perhaps the most important moment in Grand Seiko’s history. The 9S calibre was designed from scratch to deliver the high precision and excellent durability for which Grand Seiko has become renowned. Ever since, the 9S 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.
Grand Seiko’s peerless mastery of materials comes together beautifully in the Grand Seiko Blue Ceramic Hi-Beat GMT 36000 Limited Edition, released this year as part of Grand Seiko’s 20th anniversary celebrations of the 9S Calibre.
Zirconia ceramic is a unique material that is seven times harder than stainless steel, and the stunning blue of the Grand Seiko Blue Ceramic Hi-Beat is vividly vibrant. The remarkable scratch resistance and durability of zirconia ceramic means that this watch will retain its pristine beauty for many, many years to come.
Grand Seiko has also created three other limited edition timepieces in different materials for the 20th anniversary of the 9S – the platinum Hi-Beat 36000 VFA, the 18ct-gold Hi-Beat 36000 Special and the stainless-steel Hi-Beat 36000. All three watches share the 10-beat Calibre 9S85 and the same graceful case design that is the signature of the Grand Seiko style. They are available at selected Grand Seiko retail partners and the Grand Seiko boutique.