Now, although Japanese watchmaking is most associated with the quartz watches that they produced in the 70's and 80's, they actually have a very rich history of producing mechanical watches, which dates all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century. Most of this history is manifested in a little brand that you may have heard of called Seiko. Much like Switzerland and Germany, the story starts with Japanese modern watchmaking as we know it being forcably interrupted during World War II. After the war finished, Japans journey back to their watchmaking hay day was a little tougher than it had perhaps been for Germany and Switzerland. The war had resulted in damage of 60% of the watch production capacity and 30% of their clock capacity. The few machines that managed to survive the war were worn out due to the overuse during the war of making ammunitions.
If we are going to talk about Japanese watchmaking, we are talking about Seiko. Seiko are relatively young, compared to the pioneers in the German and Swiss markets; having been founded in 1881. A Japanese entrepeneur by the name of Kintaro Hattori opened a shop selling and repairing watches and clocks in central Tokyo, and subsequently Seiko was born. Having had a successful start with his shop, he opened the 'Seikosha' watch factory a mere 11 years later. In Japanese, "Seiko" means "exquisite", "minute" or "success" and "sha" means house, so it is clear that the values that Seiko still uphold to this day are founded on the same values as when they were first conceived. Now if we fast forward to 1919, this marks the first big developement for Seiko, the developement of their first wristwatch, the Seiko Laurel. Developing the first wristwatch acted as a huge stepping stone for Seiko. In 1924 they produced their first watch that had the iconic 'Seiko' on the dial.
1924 Seiko Laurel watch. Trench watch was very much the style in Europe, popularised by the return of military men sporting their "pocket watches" on their wrists.
I think that one of the best ways to describe Seiko, and Japenese Watchmaking in general, is pioneering. Not only are Seiko responsible for one of the very early wristwatches, but they also in 1956 became a very early adopter of a revolutionary piece of watchmaking technology, Diashock. Without taking too much of a tangent, Diashock is basically shock absorption which incoproprated into one the most delecate and vulnerable parts of the watch, the balance-staff pivot. It absorbs any impact that it might be subjected too, ensuring that even if a watch gets battered around, the efficient running of the movement will not be effected. This movement was launched in the Seiko Marvel.
The "Seiko Marvel" Which utalised the first ever Diashock Movement. The Marvel name went on to be given to Seiko's range of antishock high beat pieces which boasted "Lord Marvel" on the dial.
Seiko were also responsible for the first Japanese Chronograph watch and the first Japanese dive watch. The Crown Chronograph was a monopusher created to commemorate Seiko's partnership with the Olympics as official time keeper in the 1964 Tokyo's Olympic games. One year later Seiko released the diver 150m. As the name helpfully implies, it was a diving watch resistant to 150m Atmospheres. This first diver laid the foundations for the later high beat version, 300m version and 1000m version. Seiko recently also paid homage to this legendary diver (for which the originals go for handsome figure) with the SLA017 released at 2017 Basel.
The first ever Japanese made Chronograph thw "Crown Chronograph" made to commemorate Seiko's partnership with the Olympics as official timekeeper on the 1964 Tokyo Games.
Finally, Seiko were responsible for bringing the revolutionary Quartz technology to the watch industry, changing the industry forever. Seiko's 1969 Caliber 35A used a quartz crystal to regulate the oscillator. This produced an accuracy of +/- 5 seconds and a "power reserve" (Battery life) of a year. The Seiko Astron utalised this new calibre and was marketed as a luxurious, technologically advanced alternative to the traditional mechanical watch. However, the mass production of these movements in China and Japan developed the reputation, we now know of Quartz, as being a very inexpensive alternative that nearly triggered the end of traditional watch making. Seiko didn't stop here with quartz and went on to develop Kinetic, spring drive and solar movements. Kinetic is essentially a quartz movement that utalises an automatic style perpetual rotor to change the battery, in theory making the watch movement immortal if worn enough. Spring drive is a clever movement which combines quartz and automatic in a way I don't quite understand to achieve a perfectly smooth, continuously sweeping second hand opposed to the beats per minute sweep of a traditional mechanical movement. Solar is a movement similar to kinetic but instead converts solar energy into electrical potential energy to keep the battery charged up. Again in theory eradicated the "shelf life" of quartz batteries. The solar and kinetic movements are found in Seiko's lower offering pieces but the spring drive is found in their high end Grand Seiko offering.
Seiko's infamous Quartz-Astron that boasted the first ever quartz movement. Seiko's invention, manifested in this little watch single handedly fucked Universal, Heuer, Chronograph Suisse and many more out of existence in the 1980s.
Seiko's Spring Drive movement used in their 8 day power reserve manual wind Grand Seiko. You really haven't seen a sweep so smooth. Its almost too smooth.... Any Rick and Morty fans will be thinking about the "perfect level".....
This leads me on to the next point about how Seiko are almost entirely unique in that they offer everything from £20 quartz watches to £100,000 Grand Sonerai and Spring Drive Minute Repeater pieces, under their subsidiary Credor, and everything in the middle. Therefore, as we have already established Japanese watch making is essentiall personified by Seiko, Japanese watchmaking possesses this unique trait. Swiss and German watch making certainly doesn't posses this. One could argue Swatch do produce cheap quartz watches and cheap mechanical watches but they do not produce high end GMT and chronograph movements, like Grand Seiko, at the same time as making a flurry of simple and cheap mechanical watches like Seiko 5 and Orient, a subsidiary of Seiko. With German watch making it's more clear cut as the lowest price bracket out of Germany is Nomos, whose cheapest offering is around £1500 MRP.
The first picture is a £100 automatic Seiko 5. The bottom photo is a £100,000 Credor spring drive minute repeater. Both from the same Japanese powerhouse in watch making.
Yet again, a smooth Segway into another trait of Seiko/ Japanese watch making: The exceptional bang for buck that is on offer. In an industry that regularly feels grossly overpriced, very few brands stand out as genuine value for money. The market control movement makers ETA had on the market made most swiss brands fairly expensive for generic products. Seiko on the other hand make all their own movements and by using a small number of different models across a huge product range, were able to achieve economies of scale capable of producing a diving watch with an automatic, hacking movement with 48 hour power reserve inside a watch that retails for around £400. I am referring to pieces such as the Stargate, Sumo and samurai all which use Seiko's 7s26 movement. The closest swiss comparison would be the newer Tudor Black Bay models that utalise the new in house movement. MRP for these is lowest about £2,000 and that is really hunting around. Many nerds agree that the likes of the Seiko SKX and Sarb models are some of the best bang for buck watches on the market today: Fantastic, solid and reliable build quality, in house NH35 automatic movements and exceptionally serviceable. All for about £200. (The Sarb has since gone up after being discontinued). You can even find many Seiko 5 models for under £200 that have the same NH35 movement. Then Seiko's Grand Seiko family are seen as the best value for money in the mid range market. For example, Hodinkee recently did a segment comparing the Omega Seamaster Aqua-terra, Rolex Oyster Perpetual 36 and Grand Seiko SBGR253. The Grand Seiko is the cheapest by £1500 quid but has the highest power reserve, highest frequency and has finishing and quality to match that of the omega and Rolex. If that isn't black and white I don't know what is.
The most recent 3 on 3 comparing the Omega Seamaster Aqua-terra, Rolex oyster perpetual and Grand Seiko some-long-reference-number. Maybe they save costs on production but not using marketing team to come up with Model names.
So to conclude, what does Japanese watch making excel at? Well if Seiko is a personification of Japanese watchmaking, it excels at beating the rest of the industry to pioneering new technology for both the low end of the market and the top end. Japanese watch making also excels at producing timepieces in every segment of the market from £20 quartz digital watches, to £5k steel mechanical sports watches, to £100k complicated dress watches. Finally Japanese watch making truly owns the title of value for money/ Bang for buck with many critics comparing £600 Seiko Presage pieces to that of more expensive Swiss pieces from the likes of Bell & Ross, Hamilton, Mont Blanc, Frederique Constantin and £3k Grand Seiko pieces to that of Rolex and Omega.
I hope that you have enjoyed this series looking at the top three watchmaking countries. We would love to hear your thoughts if there are any other countries you would like us to look at? The US or even the UK perhaps?? If you would please do let us know geeks!
Editor & Co-Founder