A look inside the first official collection from newly independent Grand Seiko.
By Jonathan Bues
Photos by Josh Dickinson
Seiko’s rebranding of the Grand Seiko line was among the most talked-about events at Baselworld 2017. This renewed focus on the upscale manufacture came with an emphasis on one of Seiko’s most revolutionary technologies, Spring Drive.
The horological cognoscenti have known about Grand Seiko for decades. The high-end line from Japan’s largest watchmaker is as thoroughly in-house as any Swiss marque, boasting meticulous hand-finishing, beautifully crafted movements, and in-house production of oft-outsourced components including hands, indexes, and even sapphire crystals. Seiko’s comprehensive approach to making every single part of its watches is a result of necessity. Without the cottage industry of suppliers and subsidiaries enjoyed by their Swiss counterparts, the nascent Japanese watch industry had to learn how to do it all under one roof. Seiko is special. It is a manufacture in the strictest and most demanding sense of that term’s definition. Not even Rolex performs more operations in-house.
The sheer physical distance from Switzerland has resulted in interesting technological developments and out-of-the-box thinking. Spring Drive, for example, is a Seiko-developed technology that marries the accuracy and precision of quartz with the sweeping hand and power autonomy of traditional watchmaking. Seiko reserves its Spring Drive movements for its most prestigious lines, Credor, Grand Seiko, Prospex, and Galante.
At an event attended by many of the world’s premier watch retailers and journalists in Basel, Seiko CEO Shinji Hattori made the official announcement of Grand Seiko’s new independence. The decision was reached because Seiko management concluded that while all Seiko’s products share a reputation for Japanese quality in manufacturing, there is something particularly special about Grand Seiko and the handcraft that goes into producing the line.
I first became acquainted with Grand Seiko and Spring Drive technology about 10 years ago, during a press trip to Japan in which I visited Seiko’s elite Shiojiri manufacturing center, situated in the rolling mountains of Nagano Prefecture. I was immediately struck by how similar the factory was to those that dot the verdant hills of Switzerland. Technicians, gem-setters, watchmakers, and various support staff were arranged in designated studios where they quietly went about their respective work.
The room in which Grand Seiko Spring Drive models are assembled is filled with filtered air as pristine as that over the Central Pacific Ocean. And in one very special room, two gentlemen worked on Seiko’s most complicated handmade models, including a Sonnerie whose pitch-perfect tones match or exceed anything from a Swiss manufacture. (In fact, the inspiration for the chiming mechanism in Seiko’s Credor Sonneries is a bell used by monks during Buddhist ceremonies.) The fact that this watch uses silent Spring Drive technology also means that the striking mechanism doesn’t compete with background sound from a traditional mechanical escapement. It was a revealing visit for a young watch journalist who at the time thought, perhaps out of sheer ignorance, that all fine watchmaking happened within Switzerland.
Basel 2017 Highlights
In addition to presenting a number of high-profile Spring Drive timepieces in Basel, Grand Seiko also released a trilogy of vintage-inspired mechanical timepieces celebrating Grand Seiko’s new autonomy as a watch brand. These references, SBGW251, SBGW252, and SBGW253 are highly limited timepieces crafted in platinum, 18-karat gold, and steel.
SBGW251, which is limited to 136 pieces, is in fact the first Grand Seiko ever crafted in 999 platinum (which means that 999/1000 parts of the case are platinum, making it a purer version of the metal than is more commonly seen in the watch and jewelry business). The platinum SBGW is limited to 136 pieces and comes with the Grand Seiko Caliber 9S64 that boasts an accuracy of -1/+5 seconds per day. This movement also powers the SBGW252 (made in 18-karat gold, limited to 353 pieces), and the SBGW253 (made in stainless steel and limited to 1,960 pieces). All three of these watches are modeled after early 1960s Grand Seikos, which came in at an era-appropriate 35.8 mm in diameter. The new watches are bumped up to a more contemporary 38 mm from side to side, dimensions that still nod emphatically toward their vintage inspiration.
On the Spring Drive front, Grand Seiko has been equally active, starting with the recently re-released Snowflake-dialed Spring Drive model on this magazine’s cover. With a dial crafted from brass and taking on the appearance of freshly driven snow, this watch is, at least aesthetically speaking, inspired by the alpine environment that surrounds the studio where it is made. Under the hood is one of the most complex timekeeping mechanisms ever designed.
What is Spring Drive?
As its name implies, the Spring Drive movement within harnesses a traditional watchmaking mainspring and gear train as its power source. But from there, its technology begins to diverge from any other mechanical watch ever made. (It should be noted, however, that the main plates, bridges and exposed movement surfaces are finished with the meticulous care that has become a byword for Seiko’s elite spring drive range.)
Seiko’s Spring Drive technology is without any real peer in the watch industry. To this day, Seiko considers it the most important movement technology that it has invented since it became the first watchmaker to harness quartz timekeeping in a wristwatch with 1969’s Astron.
Just as in a mechanical movement, Spring Drive is wound by rotor or by hand, but from there the technologies diverge. The heart of any mechanical watch is its escapement, which regulates the winding down of the mainspring in a manner that has gone more or less unchanged for hundreds of years. Some are complex, like tourbillons, some use new materials like silicium, and some feature radically modified mechanics so as to reduce friction, like the co-axial. But at their heart, they are all very similar. The mechanical escapement is a watch’s most intricate part—the mechanism most susceptible to shocks—and the one most in need of precision regulation by a skilled human watchmaker. The Spring Drive replaces the mechanical escapement altogether with a mechanism it calls a Tri-synchro Regulator. It’s a complex piece of machinery that its inventor, Yoshikazu Akahane, explained to his bosses in Seiko management through the metaphor of a bicyclist going down a hill while applying the brakes to maintain a constant speed.
The Tri-synchro Regulator gets its name from the fact that it uses three different types of energy to regulate the watch’s glide wheel, which always moves forward in the same direction, but at a very carefully measured rate.
The three types of energy are as follows: the first is the most obvious, the mechanical power of the mainspring itself. The second is electrical energy that is generated within the movement from the mainspring using a generator, and the third is electromagnetic energy that controls the speed at which the glide wheel spins. While there are electrical elements found throughout this mechanism, what makes Spring Drive revolutionary is that there is no battery whatsoever. All of the energy in the watch comes from hand-winding the crown or the rotation of the watch’s oscillating mass.
Because all the energy in a Seiko Spring Drive movement travels in one direction—forward—watches using this technology had the first ever true gliding seconds hand in a wristborne timekeeper. (A mechanical watch’s stuttered motion comes from the fact that the escapement itself is moving backward and forward all the time. The escapement is also the source of the watch’s ticking sound.) A chronograph using Spring Drive can also be said to be the most precise in the world—without an escapement limiting its real accuracy to 1/6th, 1/8th or 1/10th of a second, the chronograph hand can be stopped anywhere on the continuum of the chronograph scale.