Feature: Seiko vs Grand Seiko
Just as Rolex is the brand everyone knows as the luxury watch to have, Seiko has the same reputation as the affordable, reliable go-to for those shopping on a budget. Very few have heard of Seiko’s big brother, Grand Seiko, and when they do, the inevitable response is one of shock; after all, why would anyone pay ten times the price of a standard Seiko for the addition of the word ‘Grand’?
Even Seiko as a brand isn’t fully understood by the masses; yes, it toppled the might of the Swiss with its quartz-powered watches, and yes its offerings start in the hundreds and not the thousands, but there’s a bit more to what was once not only Japan’s largest watchmaker, but the world’s as well.
I say ‘once’, because Seiko has succumbed to the very thing that made it a success in the first place. The Apple Watch has transformed the Californian tech company into—among many other things—the largest watchmaker in much the same way Seiko beat out the Swiss—by popularising new technology. Just as Apple wasn’t the first to make a wrist-mounted computer, Seiko wasn’t the first to pursue an electronic regulator—but both companies certainly knew how to sell them.
But Seiko’s story doesn’t start in 1969 with the seminal quartz Astron. In fact, it started before Breitling, before Audemars Piguet was called Audemars Piguet and even before Rolex. Inspired by the 1872 abandonment of the old way of timekeeping in Japan, which varied the length of the day during the seasons, Seiko founder Kintaro Hattori saw an opportunity to make watches—and make them better than the Swiss.
Hattori started by importing and assembling Swiss components, continuously learning and adapting his products until the company, in 1956, announced a watch of its very own, built from the ground up. It’s a philosophy that continues to this day, and it’s quite a remarkable thing to point out that this Seiko Presage is completely in-house. The case, the dial, the movement—even things like the Hardlex crystal and the balance spring—and yet the whole watch costs just £329.
And you get all the amenities as well, things like automatic winding, hacking seconds, quick-set date, anti-reflective coating, deployant clasp, fifty metres of water-resistance; it’s a specification that makes the decimal place in the price feel rather generously misplaced.
So, the watch ticks a lot of practical boxes, but does it make you actually want it? Well, the Presage is as much about the details as it is about value, and the elongated diamond markers, polished to a mirror shine and mounted to a pale blue sunray dial, certainly make all the right noises. Even the date gets a polished metal frame; the logo too is applied in polished metal. It makes for an overall elegant and reserved look that seems, like the spec, to offer more than the price would suggest—which only goes to raise more questions as to why the Grand Seiko costs so much more.
When Seiko announced its 1956 ground-up watch, it was far from resting on its laurels. As impressive a feat building a watch from scratch was, it wasn’t the ultimate goal: that was to beat the Swiss. The approach to achieving this colossal mountain of an ambition was to set up two rival factories that competed to make a timepiece that could be entered into the Swiss chronometer trials—and win. One factory called its watches ‘King Seiko’, the other ‘Grand Seiko’.
Little by little, year by year, Seiko was able to chip away at the chronometer trial rankings, pitching accuracy and quality at an increasingly higher level. Tenth place in 1963, ninth in 1966. Then, in 1968, fourth, beaten only by a new Swiss movement called ‘Beta 21’—a quartz movement. In 1969, Seiko released a quartz movement of its own to compete with the Beta 21 and took the upper hand.
By 1974, King Seiko and Grand Seiko were no more. The two factories had done what they needed to do, forcing the hand of the Swiss into a new technology, which Seiko ultimately bettered them at. The two factories were adapted to produce the parts needed to assemble quartz movements, and Seiko was crowned the biggest watchmaker in world.
But the glory wasn’t to last. The acceleration of technology was incredible, and it was clear that the quartz watch wasn’t to enjoy the same duration of dominance as the Swiss lever escapement. Watches like the Apple Watch could have spelt the end of Seiko in much the same way that Seiko triggered the destruction of many well-established Swiss watchmakers—but only if Seiko hadn’t been paying attention.
In 1956, when Seiko released its first homegrown mechanical watch, Patek Philippe announced a creation of its own: the world’s first electronic clock. The Swiss already knew that change was coming, and much of the industry looked to the future to find relevance in the coming decades. This was a mistake; it was the watchmakers who embraced the past that survived.
So, in 1998, Seiko revived the Grand Seiko name, took the opportunity to remind the industry that it once produced exceptional watches that were the most accurate in the world. And not only did Seiko embrace the mechanical side of its heritage, but also the quartz as well, combining both into a technology that had never been seen before: spring drive.
Grand Seiko now stands as a flagship product to demonstrate the abilities Seiko had and still has as a watchmaker, both in quality and accuracy. From the smooth sweep of the mechanically powered, quartz regulated second hand that’s accurate to just one second per day, to the impossibly crisp finish of the dial, it’s clear that the ethos of Grand Seiko is exactly the same now as it was back in the 1960s. Grand Seiko is not just about beating Seiko—it’s about beating the Swiss.
As a watchmaker, Seiko has managed to cover all the bases from a few hundred pounds to tens of thousands. While the entry level demonstrates value unheard of elsewhere, the higher end offers a level of quality and finish and technology a marked step above its price point—and both are equally indicative of the importance Seiko has in the history of watchmaking. Whether you can afford one or both—you can be proud to own either.
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