While clichés don’t always mirror the truth, they also don’t become clichés without reason. Most people associate the Seiko brand with affordable watches from Japan. Seiko certainly does make some very affordable watches, but that’s not where their story ends. The company also offers a wide range of quality products that can compete with the very best timepieces in any price range. The Grand Seiko brand is at the very top end of the market and represents the absolute best of what Seiko has to offer. Let’s find out more about the history of Grand Seiko.
The Seiko Brand
You can’t learn about the incredible history of Grand Seiko without first taking a look at Seiko. In 1881, Kintaro Hattori founded K. Hattori & Co. in Tokyo, Japan. The company made a name for itself by repairing and selling imported clocks and watches. Nine years later, Hattori opened the Seikosha factory so he could produce his own wall clocks. Seikosha roughly translates to “house of exquisite workmanship,” which is an especially appropriate name when it comes to Grand Seiko.
The Quest for Excellence
Grand Seiko’s story doesn’t begin until 1959. That year, Seiko decided to split the Suwa Seikosha factory and the Daini Seikosha factory into two separate entities. Both factories produced Seiko watches, but now they would produce the watches as two different companies in the hope of driving innovation and competition. It forced each company to be creative in their attempts to outperform their competitor and come up with the best watches possible.
Grand Seiko vs. King Seiko
In their quest for mechanical watch excellence, the Suwa Seikosha factory presented their Grand Seiko ref. 3180 to the world. It was Seiko’s answer to high-quality Swiss timepieces. The list price was around €3,000 (approx. $3,300) in today’s money, which was very high at the time. The snap-on case back featured a picture of a lion, the king of the savanna, symbolizing Seiko’s role as the king of watches. This symbol can still be found on the case backs of Grand Seiko watches today.
In 1961, Daini Seikosha answered with the production of their first King Seiko. The watch was also fitted with a hand-wound movement featuring 25 jewels but no reference number. The biggest difference between the two watches was the lack of chronometer certification. The King Seiko was not tested internally, meaning it was perceived to be less impressive than the Grand Seiko.
The Grammar of Design
During a visit to a Seiko retailer, Taro Tanaka, the man in charge of Seiko design, noticed that Seiko watches were lacking in aesthetic appeal. In response, he came up with the “Grammar of Design” in 1962, which consisted of four important rules:
- All surfaces and angles on the case, dial, hands, and indices must be flat and geometrically perfect to best reflect light
- Bezels must feature simple two-dimensional faceted curves
- No visual distortion will be tolerated from any angle, and all cases must be mirror finished
- Each case must be unique for each reference rather than using a generic round case design
In response to these rules, both Grand Seiko and King Seiko developed a number of new watches. The first revised Grand Seiko model, the 57GS, appeared in 1964. This timepiece had a completely new case. The earlier, circular case was replaced by a flat, angular case design. That same year, King Seiko released the 44KS in line with Seiko’s new design gospel. It would later inspire a legendary Grand Seiko watch.
Grand Seiko 57GS, circa 1966
Building the Legacy
In 1967, Grand Seiko released the GS44, the most accurate hand-wound wristwatch in the world with a so-called “Hi-Beat” movement ticking at 18,000 A/h. This timepiece is a great example of what Seiko set out to do in the first place: build the best timepieces in the world featuring incredible distinctive designs and technically superb movements that are extremely accurate.
The Grand Seiko GS61 from 1968 epitomizes that philosophy. It is the most legendary Grand Seiko watch and embodies everything the brand was aiming for. The GS61 was the first Grand Seiko with an automatic Hi-Beat movement ticking at 36,000 A/h. Moreover, the case design follows Tanaka’s rules to a T.
The Quartz Revolution
In late 1969, the whole watch industry was turned upside down. That year, Seiko introduced the first quartz wristwatch – the Astron – which would start a quartz revolution. Grand Seiko began making some quartz models, but production eventually stopped. In 1975, Seiko ceased production of Hi-Beat King Seiko models.
Grand Seiko Revamped
In 1988, Seiko reintroduced the Grand Seiko sub-brand for some of its high-end quartz watches. It wasn’t until 1998, however, that the Grand Seiko name was able to reclaim some of its former glory. That year, Seiko introduced the Grand Seiko 9SGS. It marked the return to Tanaka’s “Grammar of Design.” In terms of technology, Grand Seiko was able to improve the movement with the help of computer technology – the quest for excellence was back on.
From Japan to the World
Grand Seiko did everything in its power to show the world what it was capable of, but the timepieces were initially only available in Japan. More and more people were hearing about Grand Seiko’s achievements, but few had access to their watches. One such achievement was the launch of Seiko’s Spring Drive technology, which first appeared in 1999. The Spring Drive removes the escapement in favor of an electromagnetic glide wheel that powers and regulates itself, allowing for a more accurate and efficient watch. After Seiko was able to increase the power reserve to 72 hours, Spring Drive technology was introduced to the 9R6 series of Grand Seiko watches in 2004.
It wasn’t until 2010 that Seiko decided to make Grand Seiko available outside of Japan. Finally, their watches were accessible to a worldwide audience, leading to a rapid increase in recognition of the brand’s incredible craftsmanship. Grand Seiko became synonymous with technologically superior movements, recognizable designs, and incredible attention to detail. The dials are mesmerizing, the hands and indices are meticulously produced, and the finishing is stunning.
Becoming an Independent Brand
The latest chapter in the Grand Seiko story is their transition from being a Seiko sub-brand to being their own independent brand. In 2017, Seiko announced that Grand Seiko would be splitting off to become a separate luxury brand focused on the high-end watch market. This change was visible not only in their business model but also on their watches’ dials. Previously, every dial featured the Seiko name on the upper half of the dial and the Grand Seiko name and logo on the lower part. New watches now proudly bear the GS logo and Grand Seiko name on the upper half of the dial.
The Current Catalog
The current Grand Seiko lineup features a range of incredible quartz, Spring Drive, and mechanical watches divided into three collections: the Heritage collection, the Elegance collection, and the Sport collection. Each watch is built to the highest standards. One of the most popular models is the SBGA211, which features a Spring Drive movement and the incredible “Snowflake” dial that Grand Seiko is known for.
Other highlights include the Hi-Beat GMT models (the SBGJ201 and SBGJ005 are my personal favorites) and Grand Seiko diving watches like the SBGA229 and the remarkable new SBGA403. The great thing about Grand Seiko watches is that you can enjoy the best that modern watchmaking has to offer without paying a fortune. Some models can set you back quite a bit, but that’s not always the case. Prices for Grand Seiko watches start as low as €3,000 (approx. $3,300). Now, all that’s left to do is browse their incredible selection and be amazed by all that Grand Seiko has to offer.