Japan has a knack for taking Western ideas and inventions and raising them to new levels of perfection.
This island country—land of the rising sun—had a longstanding hot-and-cold relationship with the outside world, finally opting to close its borders entirely. But in 1854, an American delegation pushed their way in. Of all the gifts they brought, the one that most fascinated the Japanese Emperor was a model train—and just two decades later, Japan had built its first full-scale railway.
In fact, it was the introduction of steam-powered, locomotive transit that prompted the need for more accurate timekeeping, not only for punctual scheduling but also for safety. Japan would no longer be able to rely on Wadokei (traditional clocks for seasonal timekeeping), but rather on imported, European timekeeping pieces.
Though the Japanese had long observed temporal time (that is, splitting day and night each into six, equally-spaced segments) and a lunar calendar, in 1872 they switched to a solar calendar and a fixed-hour timekeeping system.
The House of Exquisite Craftsmanship
Japanese entrepreneurs rose to the challenge of creating a domestic industry for watchmaking.
One such enterprising fellow, Kintaro Hattori, opened a watch and jewelry store in the Ginza suburb of Japan, which is still regarded as one of the most upscale shopping venues in the world, right up there with Champs Elysées (Paris) and 5th Avenue (New York).
Just a little over a decade later, Hattori was manufacturing clocks under the business name of Seikosha, which means House of Exquisite Craftsmanship. The name was fitting; some critics have conjectured that the technical skill and dexterity of the Japanese workforce played a large role in Japan’s economic rise, which is especially apropos to watchmaking.
The home base of Seikosha was a Tokyo factory that had fallen into disuse and subsequently been sold off. It was here that the company manufactured wall clocks, many of which are on display at the Seiko Museum.
Eight days a week
The Eight Day Wall Clock went into production just two months after Seikosha was established. Its Roman numerals and octagonal wood case were elegant hallmarks of an era when Japan was emulating the fashions of the West—and fast catching up to European and American technical skill.
Hattori had chosen to focus on wall clocks because the demand was high, they were easier to make than pocket watches, and more cost effective to produce in Japan than paying the price for European imports.
Seikosha went against the horizontal business model adopted by the Japanese watchmaking industry, who often obtained their parts from a wide variety of suppliers. Instead, Seikosha opted for a vertical model of production—that is, they manufactured almost all of their own parts: dials, hands, and cases.
This allowed Seikosha to create a better product at a more efficient rate of production, and within a few years Seikosha was the top producer of Japanese wall clocks. But Seiko did not rest on their laurels, and instead quickly shifted into manufacturing other types of timekeeping pieces as well.
By 1895 they were making pocket watches like the Time Keeper, and by 1899 they were producing alarm clocks. The rust-proof nickel-plated cases of the Seiko alarm clocks became the consumer choice in Japanese and Chinese markets, pushing German imports out of the picture.
Entering the 20th Century
Within a decade, Seiko had become Japan’s premier manufacturer of timekeeping pieces, owning a sizeable share of the market because of their wall clocks and pocket watches.
Right before the turn of the century, Hattori journeyed overseas to visit clock making factories in the West. He purchased new steam engines and the most advanced tools he could find, positioning himself to refurbish the Seikosha factory and take operations to the next level: mass production.
Future success in this area came from a most unlikely place: the Russo-Japanese war, which started in 1904 and resulted in upstart Japan trouncing the Western behemoth. It was during this war that the Seikosha factory was put to manufacturing military items like bomb shells and fuses.
Though their watchmaking went on hiatus, Seikosha became more adept at methods of mass production, which would later translate into smoother, more efficient functionality in their watchmaking process. Shortly after the war, Seikosha had eliminated major bottlenecks in production and positioned themselves to monopolize the pocket-watch industry.
Perfect for the pocket… and the wrist
Just two decades after its inception, Seikosha had garnered a 60% market share of the watchmaking industry in Japan. Their 1909 pocket watch, the Empire, was the only serious domestic rival to Swiss-made pocket watches, and remained popular into the mid 1930’s.
By this time, Seikosha was involved in full-fledged exportation of their products to foreign markets, such as nearby China. It was into this climate of continued domestic success and foreign expansion that they introduced Japan’s first wristwatch in 1913; by contrast, wristwatches would not become popular in Europe until the First World War made pocket watches a dysfunctional style, (almost a decade later, though production had commenced in 1910).
Downsizing a watch to fit on a strap around one’s wrist required some technical innovation, but as they had in the decades before, Seiko leveraged the challenge to rise to new levels of technical competence, this time in the venue of microfabrication.
Their Laurel wristwatch was in the right place at the right time: as mentioned, the outbreak of the war to end all wars (or so it was thought) created a new market for wrist watches, and Seiko reaped the rewards of this incredible timing.
A wrench in the plans… or not
If economics couldn’t throw Seiko off track, mother nature could. The Great Kanto Quake of 1923 resulted in a fire that burned down the offices and factories of Seikosha, effectively forcing Hattori to shut down.
But Hattori was a true entrepreneur who would not be fazed by natural disaster, and reopened the manufacturing arm of his business in March of 1924—he had already reopened other parts of the business up just a month after the quake.
Indeed, Seikosha did not let the quake bring them down. On the ashes of their previous iteration (figuratively and literally) they built new plants and updated production lines with the most recent and innovative machines in the industry, creating a new, solid foundation for continued growth into the post-war era—within just five years.
It was in this post-quake phase that Hattori launched a brand that would embody the company name: Seiko, or, precise timepieces. In 1929, Seiko’s pocket watch became the official timekeeping tool of the Japanese Railroad. Though they had been using Western watches, their choice marked Seiko as a brand of precision, reliability, and matchless quality.
Hiatus and rebirth
If the Russo-Japanese War had positioned Seiko for manufacturing success, and World War I provided an opportunity for exporting their innovative products, the Second World War was not such a boon to the company.
Seikosha was once again forced into military production, but by 1945 they had entirely stopped watch production. Japan had been defeated by the United States, and many parts of the country were in destruction or at least disarray—Seikosha factories included.
Aged machinery, sup-par material, and the stagnation that came with cessation of manufacture conspired against Seikosha, despite government efforts to rebuild the country and transform Japan into an export-oriented entity.
But watchmaking was viewed as an important industry, and the Japanese government started putting heavy weight behind getting it off the ground again, through leveraging both bureaucracy and academia to assist in reconstructing domestic manufacture of timepieces.
The United States also played a role in rebuilding Japan with special procurement orders that fueled their new role as the world’s policeman. This economic partnership facilitated the production of Japanese goods like watches.
Alongside this synergy, Seiko adopted a strategy of aggressive advertising, both on the airwaves and through a recent innovation that was transforming the domestic landscape of the 20th century: television.
Unlike previous oriental trends of emulating and improving upon Western models, Seiko launched itself along a path of more independent research dedicated to their own technological innovation, introducing a series of watches that garnered acclaim around the world—but most importantly, in the world’s premier nation of consumerist tendencies: the United States.
The Hit Parade
The 1950s and 60s were a veritable parade of successful models that were also the recipients of rave reviews from consumers and critics.
The Seiko Marvel (1956) was a mechanical men’s wristwatch that aimed to be a masterful combination of aesthetics and accuracy. It upstaged Swiss products in international competitions and dispelled the then-prevalent stereotype that Japanese-made products were inferior to their Western counterparts.
The Grand Seiko, introduced in 1960, was the culmination of Seiko’s goal to create one of the finest watches in the world. The build quality and the technical characteristics were on par with (if not better than) Swiss counterparts and significantly improved the brand’s reputation all over the world.
In my personal opinion, some of the Grand Seiko’s from the 60’s are among the best vintage dress watches one can buy today, considering their current market value. In particular, models powered by the 6145 and 6146 hi-beat movements (36,000 oscillations per hour!) are simply gorgeous.
In 1963, Seiko attempted to bring their success to a younger market with a watch that would offer bells and whistles for a more active crowd. The Seiko Sportsmatic 5 had a day and date display, waterproof and shockproof casing, and an automatic winding mechanism touted as the magic lever (allowing the automatic watch to wind when the rotor goes in both directons).
An Olympic boost to the Seiko reputation
Though the initial reception of the Sportsmatic was less than stellar, the selection of Seiko as the official timer of the Olympic Games in 1964 increased sales around the world and made their name synonymous with quality.
In fact, the 1964 Summer Olympics were really a showcase of Japan’s incredible rebound from WWII. Seiko was at the vanguard of technological exhibition, creating almost 1,300 timing pieces in its role as official timekeeper.
The public was able to double check the time with a manual one-button chronographs chronograph wrist watch powered by the 5717 movement, released around that time.
While the Olympics were (and are) the premier venue for showcasing man’s physical abilities, the observatory competition hosted by Neuchâtel Observatory in Switzerland was a proving ground for watchmakers. Seiko did not do so well in their first year participating, but by 1968 they had bumped European watchmakers off the proverbial podium of timekeeping and garnered accolades for the best accuracy adjustment in history.
Gems of automated time-keeping
By this time, Seiko’s manufacture of mechanical timepieces had reached a zenith.
The Bell-Matic, for example, exhibited jet-setting style and impeccable craftsmanship. This watch with the alarm function is very popular among vintage watch collectors.
There are also, of course, the beloved automatic chronographs 6139 and 6138 that equipped some of the most famous Seiko watches, like the Pogue, the UFO or the Panda. We have written about the 6138 line-up here.
There was also the Seiko World Timer or Navigator which granted the wearer an awareness of multiple time zones with just the turn of a dial. Over the course of the next two decades, these World Timers would become the go-to watch for wealthy globe-trotters and elite businessmen with international concerns.
An article featuring iconic Seiko watches would not be complete without at least one mention of their diver watches that have a truly cult following. One of them, the 6105, is particularly famous because it was featured in the movie Apocalypse Now with Martin Sheen.
We could go on and on… Grand Quartz and King Quartz, amazing chronographs from the Daini division (7018 for instance), there are a lot of watches from this golden age that can be considered as iconic. Why don’t you share your favorite in the comments area if it hasn’t been mentioned?
The shift to electronic watches
The 1960s saw many radical shifts in world history, and even the watchmaking industry was not immune to cataclysmic upheaval. Though mechanical watchmaking had perhaps reached its peak with mass production, electronization of watches would forever change the game.
Seiko was again at the vanguard, and led the popular shift in watch manufacture from mechanical to quartz. A race to develop the best electronic watch had begun—but as they had in other areas of science and manufacturing, Japan would once again lead the way.
Seiko continued the post-war program and philosophy of relying on their own research to spur innovative leaps forward instead of foreign suppliers and imported ideas. In 1958 they had made a quartz clock about the size of a large closet for a broadcasting station.
Like the first computers becoming the handheld devices we know today, a watch of this size was far too big to even be a wall clock like those Seiko had manufactured in their earliest days. In fact, in order to shrink this timekeeping device down to a wearable size, its dimensions would have to be reduced around 300,000 times.
A Christmas present for the watch-wearing world
The R&D team at Seiko set to work. On Christmas day of 1969, they released the world’s first quartz wristwatch: Seiko Quartz Astron 35SQ. This innovative piece of bite-sized tech cost a pretty penny—roughly the price of a small car.
The Seiko Quartz Astron touted a few innovative marvels behind its simple but stately round gold face. A shockproof tuning-fork-type crystal oscillator was noteworthy for its small size and minimal power consumption. An open type step motor saved space and power. The CMOS-IC semiconductor also facilitated low power consumption.
The watch swept mechanical and engineering awards around the world and has become a permanent exhibition piece at the Smithsonian Museum.
Sharing is caring…and good business
Seiko had watched its competitors (e.g. Bulova) attempts to hang onto their own proprietary technologies and shroud them in secrecy… which ironically hindered their economic success. Seiko therefore chose to share some of its patented methodologies with other watchmakers, fueling a wave of quartz watches, and positioning them as the dominant option on the watch market.
Quartz watches, of course, offered more potential than their mechanical cousins for thinness. Seiko introduced a series of increasingly thin watches, which was in line with the formal dress style of the times—but they also released a series of larger, multifuncional watches.
Let the quartz race begin!
Seiko also made leaps and bounds in accuracy with its twin quartz technology. A crystal oscillator corrected the internal temperature of the watch and reduced annual error to less than five seconds. Seiko also made progress with increasing battery life and multifunctionality, especially with the release of the world’s first digital quartz watch in 1973.
The LCD display set the standard for the future of digital watches, but once again, Seiko was not content to merely set the tone for the present. In 1982, they introduced a TV watch, foreshadowing the world we live in today, where pocket-sized screens exhibit a multifunctionality that goes far beyond mere timekeeping.
Some very interesting quartz movements were produced in the 80’s and 90’s. 7A28 and 7A38 equipped sporty chronographs that are becoming more and more collectable.
Another movement that I appreciate is the high-precision quartz (HEQ) 8F56, featuring the GMT function.
Unfortunately the very trajectory of increasing efficiency in quartz watch production, and the subsequent egalitarian trend of more accessible consumer pricing, hurt Seiko similar to how traditional European watchmakers had been impacted by the introduction of quartz to begin with. Some of the production shifted to Hong Kong, reducing the value of quartz and making mechanical once again a potentially profitable market niche.
But if the history of the company was any indicator, Seiko was not one for giving up. Returning to the proverbial drawing board, they came up with a plan to create value by renewing mechanical watch production, while refining quartz watch production, with the goal of creating timepieces of beauty, precision, and durability.
Truly worthy of their name
In 1998, just before the turn of yet another century graced by the existence of Hattori’s brainchild, Seiko re-released the Grand Seiko, the mechanical watch that had taken the watch world by storm in the 1960s. With their current iterations of the Grand Seiko, new levels of innovation were reached, as Seiko experimented with solar power, thermal power, and improved calibers, turning the Grand Seiko’s into a veritable showcase of a unique ability to integrate old methods and new technologies.
From the inception of their nascent state in 1872 to their worldwide renown today, Seiko has been a leader in the watchmaking world because of its dedication to quality and innovation. Their story is one of perseverance and dedication, resulting in quality timepieces that are recognized around the world for their beauty and accuracy. Their watches are truly worth of the company name, which indicates quality workmanship and success. This is why Seiko watches hold a special place in the vintage watch universe.