This article was written for Chronos Japan, the leading Japanese watch magazine as part of their special on the Grand Seiko. Chronos Japan carried the article, duly translated in issue 59 published on 7 May 2015. For Japanese readers, a short version can be accessed here, and we are reproducing our original English text with permission, with our original photographs.
The Seiko 62GS
The Seiko 62GS was first created in 1967 as the first automatic watch to be made by Seiko. It also set a record in accuracy in its day.
For BaselWorld 2015, Seiko reflects on this heritage, and introduced eight new references in the new 62GS collection. Four of these are faithful recreations of the 1967 original and four are re-imagined with a modern perspective and feature Grand Seiko’s most advanced movements.
The Caliber 9S65 drives the re-creation models, available in steel, white gold, rose gold and yellow gold. These are almost full replicas of the originals, and faithful to the dial layout, the hour markers and dial logo.
In the re-interpretation corner is a re-imagined 62GS is a high beat model in steel case, with steel bracelets, offered with two dial colours. A modern Seiko high beat movement which runs at 36,000 bph is installed.
And finally two additional models, in titanium are offered with the Seiko Spring Drive movement.
The re-creation models have a larger case (40mm), and a sapphire glass back.
I was asked to give my views as a journalist living outside of Japan on these new watches. I have always been a big fan of Grand Seiko watches. Of course, in the early days, one could only experience and purchase these watches in Japan or through intermediaries who were in Japan. As such exposure is very limited even for an enthusiast.
But this changed in 2006. Sometime earlier, in 2004 or 2005. Shu Yoshino, then head of PR at Seiko contacted me and wanted to see my views of marketing Grand Seiko worldwide. We discussed the image of Grand Seiko outside of Japan and some potential issues. Subsequently, Seiko introduced Grand Seiko pieces for worldwide sale from with a soft launch in BaselWorld 2006, and full global launch in BaselWorld 2010.
Today, the Grand Seiko branding remains somewhat a mystery. I believe within the domestic Japanese market, it enjoys a very high prestige and status, But internationally, it is not so.
The international image is one which is perhaps a bit dusty, and old fashioned. The brand is not viewed as one which is progressive nor one which is traditional.
It also suffers from not being Swiss Made. While this is not in itself an issue, Seiko has not managed to leverage on the Made in Japan imagery. In contrast, the Glashütte brands, principally A. Lange & Söhne have managed to leverage on marketing to accelerate the desirability of Made in Germany. Both Japan and Germany are seen as technology and industrial powerhouses. Yet the Germans have carved a stage for themselves in haute horlogerie, and yet the Japanese are still a bit away from the high stage.
Another example in a different industry is Japanese whisky. Traditional associations to whisky is Scotland. Even as Japanese whisky started from Scottish ideals, the industry have leverage on its uniqueness and effectively used terrior to their advantage. In recent years, Japanese whisky is taking the world by storm, and winning the hearts and minds of whisky drinkers the world over.
In terms of design, the Grand Seiko design language is well developed, and steeped in Japanese culture. While this workmanlike appearance is appealing in the domestic Japanese market, it is viewed as unexciting by potential international customers.
Perhaps the design of the watches are taking too many cues from the 1960s and 1970s era.
One would almost expect to see a Grand Seiko on the wrist of an older gentleman than being worn by a young successful professional.
A full range of complications is also important. The traditional Swiss (and German) luxury manufacturers offer not only simple 3 hand watches, but also chronographs, split seconds chronographs, perpetual calendars, tourbillons, grand complications, minute repeaters.
Grand Seiko’s only complication is the chronograph. While it is true that Credor offers a Sonnerie and a Minute Repeater, their production is too small to create any impact.
Association with lower cost, mass produced Seiko watches
The fact that Seiko also manufactures some millions of low priced watches tarnishes the brand image from achieving prestige it deserves. In contrast, the major Swiss manufactures do not share the same brand name with watches they manufacture in the lower ranges. For example, each brand within the Swatch Group stable has its own identity and its own brand image. One will not associate Flik Flak with Breguet. Nor Longines with Omega. Each of these brands are targeted at specific markets and are structured to seem to be independent of each other. This provides fortification to the image of a high end producer who only makes luxury watches and do not produce watches which are targeted for the mass market.
However, Grand Seiko carries this “stigma” of being part of the Seiko family of watches. By carrying the Seiko name, Grand Seiko becomes associated to the great bulk of the Seiko watches are below US$1000, many selling as commodities. These are great watches. Reliable, affordable. Almost all serious collectors own one of these in their youth. But these watches are seen as part of the industrialized watchmaking. Mass produced timepieces. Not not as the image of the painstakingly traditional methods used in the manufacture of Swiss watches.
The value for money trap
Despite this, many serious collectors I know would own one or two Grand Seikos. This is a rather recent phenomenon, and can be attributed to the rise of the internet, and the work of the online journalists spreading the information and mystique of the Grand Seiko.
However, most see Grand Seiko only as good value for money, and most do not place great premium on the advances in watchmaking that the Grand Seikos offer. The Hi-Beat movement of the Grand Seiko is different from the traditional high beat 36,000 bph movements offered by the Swiss. And the Spring Drive technology is unique to Seiko.
As an example, the entry level Grand Seiko SBGR 051 retails for approximately US$3600, steel case, steel bracelet. In my view, the Grand Seiko is superior in terms of design, technology, and finishing than a entry level Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date, which retails for US$5900 also steel case, steel bracelet. Quite a premium for Rolex.
The Credor story
And although Seiko have shown that they can be technically innovative, traditionally manufactured watches like the Credor series from the Shiojiri Micro Artisan Studio are too limited in their production to reach the masses of the high end collectors. Unlike the Swiss brands quoted, these Credor watches are not seen as a serious manufacture, but rather a project to explore limits. When I visited Shiojiri, I was given the impression that 11 Master Watchmakers manufacture a total of 10 watches a year. Definitely very exclusive. But not a true manufacture.
Even the Micro Artisan Studio products demonstrate a lack of management insight on what will work in the international haute horogerie market. Their insistence of the small case of the original Eichi introduced in 2008 is a case in point. At 35mm in diameter, it was considered prime for the Japanese domestic market, but much too small for the international market. Even when Dufour announced the Simplicity, eight years prior to the Eichi, it was offered in two versions: a 34mm version which became very successful in Japan, and a 37mm version which is successful elsewhere. Credor tried to remedy this in 2014 and the Eichi II came with a 39mm case, but that move was considered by many observers as being too late.
It is with great interest that we continue to watch Seiko to see how they change the brand image, the design image, the diversity in offerings and how they will rise above the challenges of the association with a low cost manufacture. We certainly love the products, from the low ranging Seiko 5 to the top of the line Credor Minute Repeater, and wish Seiko all the success to effectively tackle the image issues. Ganbatte!!