Inside Grand Seiko: Our Unbelievable Visit To The Brand's Workshops
Traveling to Japan and visiting the manufacturing facilities that support Grand Seiko was an experience like none other. Join along as we take you inside the heart of Japanese craftsmanship!
As the allure of Grand Seiko continues to grow, Watchonista was invited inside the brand's Japanese workshops. For well over a week, we criss-crossed the island of Japan to discover what goes into a Grand Seiko timepiece. From the people to the highly advanced machinery, nothing was off limits!
Welcome to Japan!
After a 14-hour flight, you'd think jet lag would get the best of any sane traveler. Landing a full day ahead of your home country and at 2 pm no less, I was obviously wired to get this trip started. Japan is a special place and Grand Seiko is more than just a special brand, they're practically an institution in Japan. Going into the trip, I felt like I had a good handle on what makes Grand Seiko tick. However, I quickly realized the brand was more than I'd ever imagined.
Our trip officially began the next day with a visit to the headquarters of Seiko Watch Corporation in Tokyo's Ginza district. Nestled inside this glittering modern high rise building are Seiko and Grand Seiko's top executives and designers. It's here that Shinji Hattori (Seiko's Chairman & CEO) great-grandson of Seiko Founder Kintaro Hattori continues to run the company. To get a better idea of the thinking of one of Seiko's top brass, read our interview with Shuji Takahashi, President & COO & CMO, Seiko Watch Corporation (HERE).
Upon entering the lobby, you're greeted by a giant LED globe emitting various company films and displaying world map. We quickly realized that you could control the globe via a nearby table. A neat piece of technology to take for a "spin" before our tour officially began. Once inside, there was no door that wasn't open for our group. The ability to talk to designers, product developers, and top management without a filter was a much-appreciated departure from other manufacture visits we've done.
Three movements, three very different manufactures
For the uninitiated, Grand Seiko produces three different calibers, each with their own name and purpose – 9S (Mechanical), 9R (Spring Drive), and 9F (Quartz). These three movements have become the cornerstone of the brand's success. Our visit to Japan allowed us to visit the facilities which produce each of the respective calibers.
To break it down, Grand Seiko produces the bulk of their mechanical watches inside their Shizukuishi Watch Studio, which is located in Japan's Iwate prefecture. It's here, at Morioka Seiko Instruments that the brand creates 9S mechanical movement parts, including balance springs and bridges. Grand Seiko also houses the majority of their QA process at Shizukuishi. Final inspection and casing are also done on site.
As for Spring Drive (9R) and Quartz (9F), Grand Seiko has shifted these operations to their plant located in Shiojiri, Nagano prefecture. While other lower-end Seiko production happens at this plant, Grand Seiko utilizes what's called the Shinsu Watch Studio to produce dials, cases, premium Grand Seiko products, and finally, the Micro Artist studio producing ultra-premium Credor and Grand Seiko 8-Day products.
Shinshu Watch Studio
Grand Seiko's Shinshu Watch Studio is a very small part of what we discovered was a huge facility. With over 800 employee's, Seiko Epson's Shiojiri Plant houses the bulk of Seiko's watch operation. Including R&D, production of movement components, dials, assembly, cases and casing, QA, Seiko Astron, and finally almost all Seiko watches that say 'Made in Japan.' For the purposes of today's article, we are going to focus on Grand Seiko's use of the facility, which is contained to the Shinshu Watch Studio.
As an owner of a Grand Seiko 9F quartz piece, it was a special treat to discover the craftsmanship behind this very special caliber. I'll be the first to admit that Quartz timepieces don't get the credit they deserve. Of course, with the Quartz crisis, brands in Europe and the United States have gone out of their way to villainize this technology. However, at Grand Seiko, via the 9F caliber, Quartz is taken to the next level.
It's in the Shiojiri plant where Grand Seiko produces (in-house) the synthetic quartz crystals which outfit every 9F movement. The production process uses a seed crystal superheated to 360° C with up to 1,700kg/cm of pressure. The crystal is then aged for two to six months and manufactured into smaller crystals for use as oscillators in 9F movements.
It's very important to note that Grand Seiko's 9F Quartz movement is entirely different than any other quartz movement produced by parent company Seiko. One look at the finishing and attention to detail on a Grand Seiko 9F Quartz movement and you'll quickly realize the quality is on par with some of the best mechanical movements on the market. Furthermore, this ultra-precise caliber accounts for just +/- 10 seconds per year.
Next stop, Spring Drive! At the Shinshu Watch Studio, Grand Seiko produces the ever-popular 9R Spring Drive caliber. The brainchild of Yoshikazu Akahane, Spring Drive was originally invented to create "the perfect watch." As Akahane saw it, there were three elements which comprised this ambitious goal – accuracy (Quartz), perpetual motion (Mechanical / Automatic), and Beauty (Grand Seiko's motto). After 20 years of R&D and countless prototypes, Spring Drive was born.
In essence, Spring Drive is the very best of both the mechanical and quartz worlds. It's ultra-precise, requires no battery, and boats some mightily impressive technologies. At the heart of Spring Drive sits what the brand calls a tri-syncro regulator. Basically, this quartz oscillator uses the energy of the mainspring to general small bursts of energy (approx 25 nanowatts) to drive the watch. Spring Drive is mostly a mechanical technology suffice for this quartz oscillator and a small integrated circuit. For all of this miraculous technology, the trademark seamless sweeping hand is what most have come to know Spring Drive for. An entire book could be written on Spring Drive, but for now, let's skip to case and dial manufacturing.
Case, hands, and dial production
Grand Seiko is one of those rare brands which can fully back up their "in-house" claims with complete vertical integration. At the brand's Shiojiri plant everything from cases to dials are produced by a large team of metallurgists, jewelers, and master finishers. As we saw during our tour, the process of converting raw materials whether its bronze, gold, or stainless-steel is done with incredible precision.
Dial production was actually quite fascinating. From a sheet of raw brass, dial templates are stamped and then chemically treated. Afterward, there are various processes of anodization, chemical etching, and many other proprietary methods at work. Grand Seiko is capable of producing every one of their dial variations entirely in-house. It was particularly satisfying seeing the iconic 'Snowflake' dials take shape.
Perhaps most fascinating was seeing Zaratsu polishers at work! We found these master craftsman (and women!) in the case workshop. After seeing the process firsthand, I now clearly understand why the brand puts such emphasis on this technique. As we quickly learned, Zaratsu polishing is more than just one machine, or one person. It's a small team of craftspeople working in concert to produce the highly polished angles of a Grand Seiko case.
For case polishing alone, the brand requires a minimum of three years of training. Zaratsu polishing takes a bit of patience and the craftspeople at Shiojiri seemed to have that in spades. After we left the case finishers, we headed to a small lab where a technician was heat-bluing hands one by one. This painstaking task was made to look easy and the result (a wonderfully blued hand) was produced in just seconds.
Another cool aspect of our visit was seeing the various proprietary machinery created by the brand. From balance wheel poisers to a massive furnace which heat treated movement screws, the ingenuity on display was quite remarkable. Seeing the sheer amount of hand craftsmanship that goes into the production of a Grand Seiko watch made me appreciate my own watch that much more.
Shizukuishi Watch Studio
Inside the small town of Shizukuishi in Japan's Iwate prefecture, sits Morioka Seiko Instruments. Nestled beneath the Tasunagi Hot Spring, this sprawling complex exists to manufacture Grand Seiko's mechanical watches (9S caliber). Seiko also houses the bulk of their Quartz movement production here, but the focus of our visit was to meet the watchmakers of Shizukuishi Watch Studio.
Behind ornate urushi-lacquered workbenches, Grand Seiko's watchmakers were hard at work assembling movements and casing finished product. While the Shizukuishi Watch Studio wasn't as large in scope as the Shinshu Watch Studio, they're still very much responsible for producing most of the brand's mechanical output. As Grand Seiko is entirely made in Japan, the brand produces 100% of its components in-country and the Shizukuishi Watch Studio plays a huge role.
It's also here that movement parts get their finishing and final QA. Movement assembly is no small task and the team at Shizukuishi is some of the most well-trained in all of Grand Seiko. When meeting the watchmakers at Shizukuishi you could tell right away the amount of pride each person puts into their work. A large part of this work done is 'Grand Seiko Inspection.' For instance, a single Grand Seiko timepiece will be tested for nearly 400 hours before it leaves the factory! Using proprietary tools, Grand Seiko can test and adjust nearly every component of a Grand Seiko timepiece.
There are two principal components which set the Grand Seiko 9S caliber apart from other mechanical movements. First is the use of what the brand calls 'MEMS' which stands for Micro Electro Mechanical System. This process is a highly advanced electroforming process (similar to 3D printing) which can produce movement components – particularly escapement wheels and pallet forks. Instead of stamping or cutting, Grand Seiko can consistently produce parts which require nearly no adjustments. This technology was so secret we were unable to photograph it during our tour.
Another very important component of a Grand Seiko 9S caliber is 'Spron.' What's Spron you asked? Well, you've come to the right place. Spron is an alloy created by Dr. H. Hasumoto of Tohoku University. This Cobalt-Nickel alloy is used for the balance and main springs in all Grand Seiko timepieces. It's anti-magnetic, shock resistance, and allows for steady energy consumption in the case of high oscillation (i.e. the Hi-Beat 36000 model). Both Spron and MEMS are two in-house feats of Grand Seiko technology that you can't find anywhere else.
Before we leave Shizukuishi, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the natural beauty of the region. Grand Seiko talks a lot about quality and craftsmanship, but the everpresent third quadrant of Grand Seiko's culture is the philosophy of beauty. Being in the mountainous region of Shizukuishi helped to restore our spirits. After all, it was this very region and its snow-capped mountains which inspired Grand Seiko's 'Mt. Iwate' dial.
Micro Artist Studio
Last, but absolutely not least is a trip back to Seiko Epson's Shiojiri Plant, where Grand Seiko houses the crown jewel of Japanese watchmaking, the Micro Artist Studio. This elite team of watchmakers produce highly complicated and sought after Spring Drive masterpieces. Established in 2000, the Micro Artist Studio has produced seven incredible references most notably the Eichi, Eichi II, and some incredible Credor references including a Grand Sonnerie. Today, the Micro Artist Studio is hard at work producing the new Spring Drive 8-Day Power Reserve.
You're probably wondering, why is there a picture of Philippe Dufour on the mantle at the Micro Artists Studio? It's quite simple, Mr. Dufour played a large part in the inspiration of the Micro Artist Studio! Rumor has it, a few decades back, Dufour himself trained a few of Grand Seiko's watchmakers in finishing. Specifically, Dufour helped to show how to bevel the edges of a bridge with his famous Gentian wood.
So as you can see in the Eichi I and Eichi II, the vibes of Philippe Dufour's Simplicity shine an omnipresent light. A fitting tribute to an absolute legend of watchmaking. Grand Seiko's micro artist studio has all the trappings of an independent watchmaker's workshop yet continues to consistently produce some of the most sought after timepieces in the brand's collection.
Today, the Micro Artist Studio is hard at work producing the Grand Seiko Spring Drive 8-Day Power Reserve. This extraordinary halo piece is entirely handcrafted at the Micro Artist Studio. Originally introduced in 2016, the Spring Drive 8-Day highlights nearly every aspect of what makes Grand Seiko great. While the piece isn't limited, the current demand for this $59,000 masterpiece means that Grand Seiko's watchmakers are nearly entirely committed to producing the Spring Drive 8-Day.
There are two major feats in the Spring Drive 8-Day, the first is the power reserve itself. Three barrels provide 192 hours of unadulterated joy. A unique one-piece bridge helps to stabilize the various wheels in the gear train to adequately transmit power from the mainsprings and keep the power reserve in check. Secondly, like all Grand Seikos, it's all about the finishing. This one piece bridge is also incredibly well finished with hairline and mirror polishing. The beveled edges are hand polished allowing light to flow in from any angle. Note the area above the Grand Seiko logo, it's in the shape of Mt. Fuji.
Out of all the studios at Grand Seiko, the Micro Artist Studio was probably the hardest to leave. Mainly on account of the craftsmen being so accommodating. No question was too small or too complex. Want to give the Sonnerie another spin? Sure go ahead! The Grand Seiko Micro Artist studio is an absolute gem and stands as an inspiration to watchmakers and collectors young or old.
Seiko is Japan
On the terrace of a trendy Jazz restaurant in the Ginza district, our group peered out at the grand expanse of this huge metropolis. The centerpiece? Seiko's Wako clock tower. Wako was built in 1895 by none other than Kintaro Hattori, Seiko's Founder. To this day, an impressive Seiko clock (in place since 1932) displays the time to those below and above.
Mr. Hattori's grandson, Shinji Hattori accompanied us that day onto the balcony and you could tell he was still in awe of what Seiko and Grand Seiko meant for the people of Japan and the greater world. The human side of Grand Seiko is what makes the company what it is today, and this philosophy goes all the way to the top. Thank you to Seiko and Grand Seiko for providing Watchonista with this incredible experience which I will treasure for some time to come.