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Feature: 3 Things Grand Seiko Beats The Swiss At

For half a century, extraordinary developments in watchmaking were taking place in Japan’s Grand Seiko factories and design studios.

Unfortunately, unless you pro-actively sought them out, you would have likely been oblivious to it all because the superb watches made by Grand Seiko were only available in Japan and a handful of neighbouring countries.

A 1960s-era Grand Seiko from a time when the world was oblivious to its excellence. Image courtesy of Bonhams

A 1960s-era Grand Seiko from a time when the world was oblivious to its excellence. Image courtesy of Bonhams

Granted, the occasional piece left the country on the wrist of a tourist or businessman, but if you had no access to the region then getting hold of the latest Grand Seiko was as tricky as finding a prime Wagyu steak in your local Burger King.

Thankfully, that started to change in 2010 when Grand Seiko finally began to export its products, setting up offices in the US and Europe and exhibiting at major watch events like Baselworld.

Some buyers were sceptical—there was confusion, for instance, about how Grand Seiko differed from regular Seiko. But Grand Seiko countered that by altering its corporate structure to become a fully independent company.

It also encouraged existing Grand Seiko collectors to evangelise via social media channels and ensured that overseas sales staff were sufficiently clued-up to inform potential customers of the brand’s history and technological achievements.

These days, Grand Seiko is beginning to get the respect it deserves and interest in the brand is growing steadily. However there are still a few head-in-the-sand types who query why a Japanese all-steel watch can cost as much as its Swiss equivalent.

For the unconvinced, then, here are three examples of how Grand Seiko not only goes toe-to-toe with Swiss watches, but delivers a swift karate kick to their nether regions…

Best Of Both Worlds

What if you love the idea of a mechanical watch being a “machine with a heartbeat”, as the saying goes, but crave the accuracy of quartz?

Well, you could buy two watches and alternate them, wearing your battery-powered Casio when time is of the essence and that vintage platinum Day-Date for those special occasions. Or you could plump for Grand Seiko’s hybrid Spring Drive technology, which combines a traditional mainspring with an electronic regulator, rather than an escapement.

A Spring Drive-powered watch from Grand Seiko's Heritage collection

A Spring Drive-powered watch from Grand Seiko's Heritage collection

The result of over 20 years research and development, it took several more years to actually make the first Spring Drive movement and it wasn’t commercially available to the wider world until 2005. It’s now used sparingly across the Grand Seiko catalogue in everything from dive watches to chronographs to GMTs—although the brand still makes purely mechanical watches too.

As for accuracy, it’s a COSC-killer, with an average deviation of +/- 1 second per day. That’s twice as precise as a Rolex Superlative Chronometer and many times more accurate than a COSC-certified Chronometer, which delivers -4/+6 seconds per day. Power reserve, depending on the exact movement, is anything between 72 hours and five days.

It even emulates a fully mechanical watch with its sweeping seconds hand. Well, actually, it goes one better by being noiseless and having an even smoother sweep motion.

The Spring Drive movement might not be for the mechanical die-hards but this is without doubt a major milestone in watch-making history. And the Swiss are probably seething with envy that the Japanese have stolen a march on them once again.

Ah well! They should at least be grateful that this time it’s not going to take away thousands of their jobs like the quartz apocalypse did.

The Zaratsu Shimmer And Shine

Watch polishing is an art in itself but Seiko ups the ante even further with its Zaratsu polishing. Given the tone of dewy-eyed reverence with which people speak of this technique, you’d think it was carried out by secretive artisans in some mountain-top temple.

Tales of wizened eunuchs polishing watch cases with sandpaper made from powdered unicorn bones have been greatly exaggerated.

It’s nothing like that, obviously. But it is, nonetheless, very impressive.

The word Zaratsu is a corruption of the German family name Sallaz, which was found on the side of a polishing machine bought by Seiko from the Swiss company Gebruder Sallaz (Sallaz Brothers) in the 1950s. Seiko watch polishers that used the machine began referring to the finishing process, as ‘zaratsu’.

It basically entails holding the watch case—or other part—to the side of the polishing wheel rather than the front using the correct amount pressure, a skill both intuitive and gleaned over many years of practice.

The aim is to get a smooth, distortion-free mirror-polish that’s consistent with other surfaces on the case, from the bezel to the lugs. Naturally, this is done one case at a time and by one person—the watch-polishing equivalent of a karate black-belt grandmaster.

Swiss companies have their own techniques to achieve that consistent, mirror-finished finesse, but somehow it isn’t regarded with the same sense of awe as zaratsu.

It’s another case of the Japanese taking existing technology and finding a way to take it to the next level.

Grand Seiko's dial finishing is exceptional, as is its zaratsu polishing technique

Grand Seiko's dial finishing is exceptional, as is its zaratsu polishing technique

In addition to well-honed polishing techniques, Grand Seiko has also come on in leaps and bounds over the past few years with its dial finishing. Case in point, the mesmerising and beautifully textured snowflake dials it uses on some of its heritage collection, or the intricate artwork found under the Credor brand, Grand Seiko’s high-end sibling. It’s comparable to Jaquet Droz and those ultra-luxury brands for whom dial artwork warrants a whole separate department of the company.

Even its quartz movements are beautifully decorated.

Grand Seiko really does put in the extra shift across the board.

The Micro Artist Studio

Perhaps there’s something about the surroundings of Switzerland that inspires its watchmakers to create mini masterpieces. All those vast lakes, snow-capped mountains and chocolate-box villages must have a positive effect on the psyche.

If so, Japan can rival, or even usurp it. Its hallowed Micro Artist Studio—home to a dozen or so of Grand Seiko’s finest finishing artisans—is based in Shiojiri near the Japanese Alps, renowned for its rugged beauty and clear, star-filled skies.

This landscape has inspired these skilled craftsmen to make watches such as last year’s reference SBGZ007 whose diamond-speckled dial is a celebration of the night sky above the town.

A product of the famed Micro Artist Studio, Grand Seiko's elite workshop

A product of the famed Micro Artist Studio, Grand Seiko's elite workshop

The Micro Artist Studio, which is also responsible for the finishing of Grand Seiko’s Credor watches, has earned the respect of some of the biggest names in the industry and its quest for improvement is insatiable.

Even the great Swiss independent watchmaker Philip Dufour, a big fan of Grand Seiko, approves of its modus operandi, visiting the studio to impart his wisdom on finishing techniques—a testament to his generosity of spirit.

No doubt the studio will absorb this knowledge and take it to the next level. And when it does, it might finally convince the remaining doubters that Japanese watchmaking has finally trumped its Swiss rivals.

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