There are several popular and excellent watchmakers that come from Japan. In other posts, I have covered some of them a little more in depth, but in this post, I want to cover the Seiko Watch Corporation, also known as just Seiko. While Seiko is also involved in the manufacturing of printers and other electronic devices, they are most well-known for their watches.
The Beginnings of Seiko
In 1881, a young, 21-year-old, Japanese entrepreneur by the name of, Kintaro Hattori, opened up a shop in Ginza, Tokyo. The shop, which was called “K. Hattori,” specialized in selling and repairing watches and clocks in the central area of Tokyo. A little over 10 years later, his success with this shop led to him opening up a factory.
In 1892, Kintaro Hattori founded the Seikosha factory in Tokyo where he began to produce his first wall clocks. The products were produced under the name Seikosha likely due to the meaning of the word, which means “exquisite or success”. In 1924, Seikosha changed its trade mark to “SEIKO”.
As the success of Seikosha continued to increase, Kintaro Hattori decided to broaden the range of the business and by 1895, he created a pocket watch called the “Timekeeper”. Had Seikosha not gone this direction and got into the pocket watch space, the Seiko we know today could have been very different. This important creation led to the creation of Japan’s first ever wristwatch.
In 1913, Kintaro created Japan’s first ever wristwatch called the Laurel. The Laurel featured a silver case that was 29.6 mm in diameter. The dial was made of porcelain enamel and it had a 12-ligne movement. This was a major milestone for Seiko because at the time wristwatches were only being imported to Japan. When the Laurel was created, this allowed the company to be one step ahead of its other homeland competitors. The company was only able to produce in between 30 to 50 units per day, but this was an excellent start.
Tragedy struck in 1923 with the Great Kanto Earthquake, destroying the Seiko Watch Corporations headquarters as well as the Seikosha factory. Despite this, the determined Kintaro Hattori wanted to rebuild as quickly as possible. A year later in 1924, overcoming the massive costs of rebuilding and the setback caused by the Great Kanto Earthquake, he was able to bring the world the first watch branded with the Seiko name. The watch featured a nickel, 24.2 mm case and a 9-ligne, 7-jewel movement.
In 1959, Seiko released the Gyro Marvel, a self-winding wristwatch. The Gyro Marvel is one of the most important watches ever created in the history of the company due to it being the first watch whose movement was designed fully in house. The watch incorporated a new shock resistance device that was created by Seiko in 1956 called the Diashock. The Diashock was a shock resistance device created to protect one of the most vulnerable parts of a mechanical watch, the balance-staff pivot.
The Gyro Marvel also featured Seiko’s “Magic Lever” system. It is a self-winding mechanism that uses the claw lever system to transmit the power of the oscillating weight in both directions. The Magic Lever was so popular that it dominated the world market and it is still used in SEIKO’s self-winding watches of today.
Seiko’s Signature and Other Firsts
In 1960, the company put together a small team of their most esteemed watchmakers tasked with making the very best watch they could come up with. This led to the creation of the Grand Seiko model. The Grand Seiko was the pinnacle of the company’s excellence in watchmaking. Designed to be more accurate, legible and more durable than any other competitors at the time.
The Grand Seiko was equipped with a mechanical movement, the Caliber 3180, and had a gold-filled case at 34.9 mm in diameter and 10 mm thick.
With the 1964 Olympic games being held in Tokyo, Seiko was chosen to be the official timekeeper. This led to the creation of Japan’s first ever wristwatch equipped with a stopwatch. The Seiko Crown Chronograph had a stainless-steel casing that was 38.2 mm in diameter and 11.2 mm thick. It also featured water resistance up to 30 meters and a 12-ligne, 21 jewel Caliber 5719 movement.
In 1965, shortly after the Olympic games, Seiko also produced the first ever Japanese-made diver’s watch. Designated for use by the 8th Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition, the watch was waterproof down to a depth of 150 meters and was designed to be able to withstand high water pressure.
The Seiko Speed Timer was introduced in 1969. It was the world’s first automatic chronograph wristwatch that was equipped with both a vertical clutch and a column wheel. It had a 30-minute counter, a tachymeter, and a date display that could be set to be read in English or Japanese. It featured a caliber 6139 movement that beat at 21,600 vph and was also water resistant up to 70 meters.
Seiko and the Quartz Revolution
During the early 1960’s, several Swiss watchmakers and Seiko were in fierce competition to develop the world’s first quartz wristwatch. On December 25th of 1969, Seiko introduced the world’s first quartz watch, the Seiko Quartz Astron. This was a game changing timepiece that delivered amazing accuracy of just +/- 5 seconds per month. This was around 100 times more accurate than any other mechanical watch on the market and it also ran on battery for a full year. The timepiece also featured a 18k gold case giving it a look of luxury.
Seiko also released two other watches during the quartz revolution that were world firsts. In 1973, Seiko released the world’s first fully-electronic watch that used a 6-digit LCD to show the time. The LCD had life span of 50,000 hours and a lamp provided enough illumination to read the display in the dark.
Two years later in 1975, Seiko launched the world’s first digital quartz watch featuring a chronograph. It featured an internal light and could record time to 1/10 of a second and had a lap time function.
Other Important Milestones
When quartz watches began to take over, Seiko was already striving to create a watch that didn’t need to have its battery changed. They introduced a solar powered watch in 1977 and, in 1968, a quartz watch with hand winding generating system.
However, it was in 1988 that Seiko saw yet another big breakthrough with the Seiko KINETIC. The watch had an oscillating weight that would convert the motion of the wearer into electricity and in turn used this to power the quartz movement.
Another important milestone for Seiko happened in 1999 when it introduced Spring Drive.
Spring Drive is a proprietary technology to Seiko that has a quartz oscillator, but is powered by a mainspring like a mechanical watch.
The technology of the Spring Drive movement had been improved over the years and in 2005, the company released the first Grand Seiko Spring Drive automatic winding movement. The watch also featured a 72-hours power reserve complication.
In 2012, Seiko was able to introduce to the world the first GPS Solar watch. Seiko used its own in house developed, low energy consumption GPS receiver to receive GPS signals and to identify time zone, time, and date data from GPS satellites around the world. The result was an analog, solar-powered watch that could recognize all 39 time zones.
With this particular watch technology being completely new to the world and potentially game changing, Seiko President Shinji Hattori (descendant of Kintaro Hattori) decided to name the watch “Astron GPS Solar”. Bringing back the Astron name was a statement that this was something new to the world, just like the first time when they brought the world the first quartz wristwatch.
The Seiko Watch Corporation has a long history of quality products and bringing a lot of watchmaking firsts into not only Japan, but the world. In present day, the company has made some changes mostly affecting the US market.
In 2017, Grand Seiko was made into an independent brand from Seiko and now competes with other Swiss luxury watchmakers. This change is mostly going to affect the US market with the core Seiko brand still competing in the mid-range market and Grand Seiko competing in the high end, luxury space.