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Review: Enter the dragon: The Citizen AQ 4020-54Y. Best quartz watch in the world?

Yes, its quartz, but it is also Artisanal, High Tech, and a Classical Beauty.
by Peter Chong on May 10, 2018
Overview
Recommended Retail Price

 ¥ 330,000 excl Japanese VAT

What comes to mind when one thinks of Citizen watches? Probably inexpensive watches, robustly built. Made for the masses. While this is true as the name Citizen was actually given to the first watch they produced in 1924 for this very reason – as a watch for the citizens of the world. But we also discern a true engineering spirit from within the company. After all, this is a corporation who makes in excess of 200 million watches a year, and led not by professional managers or sale/marketing people, but by engineers. And from this rich engineering heritage, comes interesting technology. Like Super titanium. Like Eco-drive. This brings us to the subject watch. Simply labelled as The Citizen, aka The Chronomaster. A very special quartz watch with features a zaratsu polished case and a washi paper dial. Could this be the best quartz watch in the world?

 

 

Historical perspectives

The brand celebrates 100 years of its existence this year. Founded by Tokyo jeweler Kamekichi Yamazaki in 1918 as he Shokosha Watch Research Institute. The first commercial model was the caliber 16 pocket watch. It was presented to his friend and mayor of Tokyo Gotō Shinpei who named it Citizen as it was his dream that every citizen could own a high quality watch. The first customer was possibly the the Imperial family of Japan. Emperor Shōwa (post humous name for Emperor Hirohito) who was then the Prince Regent of Japan in the Taishō era, owned the Citizen Caliber 16. The watch is now in the Citizen Museum, and photographed here.

 

Emperor Taisho’s watch, as seen here handled by the author in the Citizen Museum in the Corporate Headquarters in Nishi-Tokyo recently. Pic April 2018.

 

The movement is a classical Swiss styled lepine movement.

 

The company continued through the war years, and made the first Japanese watch with a calendar in 1952. Citizen was in the forefront of the quartz revolution, though rivals Seiko was the first to announce their Astron. Citizen focused on their manufacturing capability and made huge progress in mass production and cost control. They made the first radio controlled watch in 1993, and the first light powered watch in 1996. And in 2011, the world’s first light-powered , satellite synchronised watch “Eco-Drive SATELLITE WAVE” was introduced. In 2012, they acquired Proctor Holdings, who own the brand Arnold & Son and La Joux Perret. And in 2016, acquired Frederic Constant.

We visited the production facilities in Iida, Nagano Prefecture, and will be bringing you a report of that visit soon.

 

The Citizen AQ 4020 – 54Y

For starters The Citizen is a beautiful watch. The case is in Super Titanium, a special grade of titanium made within the Citizen family and coated with their proprietary Dura-Tech coating to be 10 times more scratch resistance than regular stainless steel. The case with bracelet is very light, at only 79g.

The case features very classical lines, and measures 39mm in diameter with sensuous curves at the right places. Having said that, the design is rather sober, and proper. The alternate high polished surfaces sit next to brushed ones, and the edges are polished to achieve a sharp edge, though not quite enough to slice or dice fingers.

The dial is remarkable, in that the surface has a subtle textured appearance, and the applied text, indices and branding appears to float over the paper dial. The hands are magnificently faceted and polished and sparkles as one moves the watch.

 

The case, dial and hands

The case is a very classical tonneau like shape, with curved sides and an integrated bracelet design. The case is finished in a mix of high polish and linear brushing. This gives visual depth to the case. The entire case is initially finished in the high polish zaratsu style, and the brushed surfaces are added by hand using fine grain sand paper. A master artisan executed both the polishing and the brushed finish.

 

 

The hands and indices are also highly polished, and are designed to be multi faceted to catch and play with light as the watch is gently moved, like it would on one’s wrist.

Zaratsu polishing

The case and bracelet is polished zaratsu style, as are the indices, date frame and the hands. Linear brushing is hand applied after the entire surface has achieved the high polish mirror finish.

 

While a quick google search of the term zaratsu will likely return a first page list of perhaps only Grand Seiko mentions, the term is actually not limited to Seiko. The Japanese writing is ザラツ研磨, and is in Katakana, which is reserved for imported words. Japanese writing is in either Kanji or Hiragana for Japanese origin terms. So what is the origins. For this we go to the Swiss.

The Sallaz grinding machine from Switzerland. Current retail price is €8,455.

 

The Swiss make a grinding machine which use a paper surface mounted on a vertical disc. The disc spins and the artisan applies the object to be polished. The machine is called Sallaz, which in German is pronounced phonetically as zarats. This machine was in common use in the Swiss watchmaking industry and the Japanese also started to use it. The Japanese transliteration is thus zaratsu.

 

The zaratsu finish demonstrated by the reflection on the case side.

 

The case is finished by polishing with the Sallaz machine. First a rough polish is done to buff out the surface, clearing it of any distortion so that when the final polish is applied, it will be a clear, distortionless mirror surface. A second fine polish is performed to achieve this mirror like surface, similar to black polishing. While this technique is possibly Swiss in its origins as is the machine to perform it, most of the technique is lost in the Swiss industry, and we only see a handful of Swiss manufactures who hand finish their cases use it. And it has more or less become the purvue of the twin Japanese watchmaking giants – Seiko and Citizen. While Seiko’s marketing machinery makes a good effort at promoting zaratsu, Citizen, being engineers, focused on their energies on work at hand and was not able to communicate this.

 

Zaratsu finishing is performed on the watch and bracelet. After the entire surface is mirror finished, the artisan uses a sandpaper of a specific grade to make the brush markings by hand. This gives the alternating brushed polished surfaces a three dimensional appearance.

 

As this is a tool, which is rather generic, the final zaratsu polish lies in the hands of the skilled practitioner. Both Citizen and Seiko use specialists in this field, and as a result, the final finishing is nearly equal. At least to our eyes.

 

The indices on the dial are appliques and also polished zaratsu style to create sparkles of light. The texture of the washi paper dial is clearly visible here.

Washi dial

The dial is rather interesting as well. The visible surface of the dial is a textured finish of Japanese traditional handcrafted paper, called washi. This special paper is from the Kochi Prefecture, and is known as Tosa-washi.

 

Tosa-washi manufacture is a time consuming, ancient hand process. Photographs by Photo/Eisaburoh Hosogi as supplied by Citizen Co.

 

Tosa-washi is characterized prolific variation. It’s highly valued for its thin, yet durable nature, which has led to it being known as kagero-no-hane, or dragonfly wing. It is the world’s thinnest hand-made paper. These properties have been realized through the time-honed techniques of the craftspeople who so skillfully intertwine the long, thick fibers of the kozo (paper mulberry bush).

 

The dial is made from traditional Japanese paper called washi. The textured surface is unique in each dial, as it depends on how the fibers fall during the hand manufacture.

 

The Tosi-washi used for AQ 4020 is made by a traditional paper company – Osaki Paper Co. The product team at Citizen work directly with the owners. Ms. Kataoka Akari is the 4th generation owner of the company and is the artisan who makes the washi used by Citizen by hand.

The completed washi is laid out in the dial such that the slightly striped texture on the paper is vertically aligned. The irregular patterns are unique as each piece is hand made.

The use of washi on a watch dial is a World Premiere and a nod to the Edo period Japanese culture. Traditionally, washi is not only used for writing, but also where as a light diffuser. For example, washi is used in Japanese lanterns (Chochin) and Japanese wall paper (shoji). In this context its modern application in front of the solar panel is perhaps fitting.

The washi is laid over the solar cell. A thin, clear plastic cover seals it from the elements.

 

 

Citizen uses both the standard and ring solar in the Eco-Drive watches. In the A060, a standard solar cell arrangement is used.

 

We were told that the paper will not patina over time, as an UV absorption material is mixed into the cover. As with every part of The Citizen, this plastic cover is manufactured in-house by Citizen. The appliqués for the indices, the date frame and the Citizen logo are then installed on the plastic cover. And the word “Chromomaster” in script is transfer printed. This makes the appliqués and the print look like it was floating over the paper. A rather beautiful detail, we think.

 

The construction of the dial. The rehaut, the plastic cover with the appliqués, and the washi paper.

 

The plastic cover also interacts with incident light to produce a light sunray pattern. For the two tone model (not reviewed here), a slight gold colour is mixed into the plastic plate.

 

The Chronomaster text, and the appliques for the Citizen branding and hour markers are not applied directly to the paper dial. But on t a sapphire glass protection cover. This seals the washi paper dial from the elements, and will remain without patina over the years.

 

The movement Citizen Caliber A060

Within the case, is perhaps yet another star in the Citizen AQ 4020. The movement is caliber A060 and is one of two ultra high precision quartz movements that Citizen produces. The other being the A010 which has an additional hand with a power reserve indicator. The A060 has the capability to display power reserve as well, but it is a feature which requires action from the user by pushing a small pusher at 2 o’clock at the case side to activate. The seconds hand will act as a power reserve indicator with the up position at 3 and the down position at 1.

 

 

The A060 movement is also light powered, and part of the Citizen Ec0-Drive family. As the movement features complicated functions, the solar panel occupies the entire dial, just below the washi paper. The power reserve is up to 7 months, or 1.5 years when the power saving feature is activated. Power saving is activated automatically by the watch when is stored in a dark environment. When activated, the hands will stop at 12, but time is kept internally. With exposure to light, the watch will move to the correct time. This is automatically done, with no user intervention.

 

The caliber A060. Note standard haute horlogerie techniques applied to the plates – Tokyo stripes, and anglage to the edges. The solar cells are visible on the lower movement.

 

The entire movement is assembled like a standard haute horlogerie movement, and can be serviced. Note the finissage applied – the faus côtes (Tokyo Stripes) and the anglage at the edges of the bridges.

The A060 is remarkable also for the fact that it is assembled by hand in the  Citizen facility in Iida, by a single watchmaker known as Super-Meister. Super-Meisters are highly experienced watchmakers in the company, and some have been working for Citizen for 40 years.

The key feature of the A060 is the high precision movement.

Very high precision movement

The raison d’être for a watch like The Citizen is in the very high precision movement. The movement is a thermo-compensated quartz movement fully manufactured by Citizen from ground up, and achieves an amazing accuracy of +/-5s variation over 1 year. This makes it the current reigning champion in the accuracy stakes with the Longines VHP Conquest. However Citizen has another card their sleeve. This Baselworld, they showed an even higher precision movement. Accurate to +/-1s a year, the Caliber 0100 prototype was shown in a pocket watch case, and Citizen says, it will be incorporated into a production watch by Baselworld 2019.

 

The prototype Caliber 0100 shown here in a pocket watch with a sapphire case. The Eco-Drive movement has a claimed accuracy variance of 1s per annum.

 

The movement has a temperature compensation algorithm in the IC (incidentally also manufactured in-house by Citizen) which monitors and checks the temperature every minute and compensates the quartz system for variations.

Perpetual Calendar

The movement keeps a perpetual calendar. But at first glance, a three hand watch with date can hardly be a perpetual calendar. But it does. It does this by using the second hand to show the month and leap year indication. Here is a chart from the manual:

 

 

This is a set and forget technique, as the power reserve is very long (7 months), this feature is not needed for daily use. To access it to either set or check requires the pusher at 2 to be held for 2 seconds when the crown is pulled out in position 1.

Here is a short video showing the changeover from April 30 to May 1. Note that the date change is executed precisely at 12 midnight.  We showed an earlier video in which the date change was effected minutes after midnight. We made the error of fast winding the hands till it was about to change,, wound it back and allowed it to change. It showed the changeover past midnight. That video is here. 

However, we tried to shoot the video again, this time allowing a good 3 to 4 hours before midnight to allow the mechanism to run in real time and to align itself. And the precision of the stroke of midnight date change is impressive. This is how a regular owner would experience the date change.

Edited June 16, 2018: Added a high speed camera video, photographed at 1000 frames per second and played back at 30 frames per second showing the precise jumping of the second hand with no rebound or vibration, and the precise flipping of the date. Please go to The Citizen Chronomaster section of this article.

 

 

 

The Competitive Landscape

The list of standout features for the AQ 4020 is rather long. From the artisanal washi paper dial, to the light powered movement to the excellent haute horologie finishing of the case, bracelet and hands, to the exceptional accuracy of +/- 5s a year. Priced at ¥ 330,000 excl Japanese VAT, it is rather conservatively targeted for the segment. If we take all these features, The Citizen stands peerless. But in the field of high accuracy quartz movements, we survey the following landscape.

Grand Seiko SBGX 069 with the caliber 9F (S$ 4,494 / ¥ 340,000) is the obvious competitor. The Grand Seiko features very similar aesthetics and finishing, also using the zaratsu technique. The 9F movement is in a sealed cabin environment, with an estimated service interval of 50 years. And built to be serviced rather than thrown away. The movement features some haute horlogerie finnisage. However the 9F lacks a perpetual calendar, and the quartz movement’s accuracy is only +/- 10s a year.

The Longines VHP is another. At S$1,570 incl GST, it is considerably less expensive than either Japanese proposals. The Longines aesthetics is also similar, but perhaps with a slightly more sporty flair. The finishing is quite engineering level and lacks the fine touches offered by both the Japanese brands. The movement’s accuracy is also only +/- 5s a year, and the most recent models do feature a perpetual calendar.

 

Concluding Thoughts

The Citizen Chronomaster AQ 4020 is a beautiful watch, with in-depth beauty that reveals itself the more familiar one is with the watch. It captivated our entire staff in the Deployant office who encountered it. The design aesthetic is at once very classical and traditional, but also with elements that awaits discovery with each perusal. The washi dial has so many intricacies that one can stare at it for long periods to discover the textural details. The zaratsu polished case, indices, hands juxtaposition with the brushed surfaces heightens the sensation of depth and detail.

Currently only available in the Japanese domestic market, the Citizen Chronomaster AQ 4020-54Y is priced at ¥ 330,000 excl Japanese VAT. Especially for the features it packs. The ultra high accuracy movement, the with a perpetual calendar built in, yet not in an obvious way. And is perhaps the most advanced quartz movement in the world today. These alone are worthy of the entry price. But add the outstanding workmanship in the Dura-Tech Titanium case, the zaratsu polishing, the washi dial. We think its a remarkable value.

 

 

The Citizen AQ 4020 – 54Y Specifications

Series : The Citizen
Model : AQ4020-54Y
Release Date : May 2017 Currently availability is Japan only
Movement : Eco-Drive A060
Country of origin : Made in Japan
Case Material : Super titanium
Band Material : Super titanium
Glass material : Sapphire glass (99% Clarity Coating)
Accuracy : ±5 seconds per year
Size : H45mm x W39mm x D10.5mm
Weight : About 72g
Water Resistant : 10 water pressure
Manufacturer Warranty : 10 Years in Japan
Functions

Second hand stop function
Date early correction function
0 hour calendar update function
Time difference setting function in 1 hour intervals
Power reserve display function
Charging warning function
Overcharge prevention function
Impact detection function
Automatic needle correction function

 

Editor’s notes:

Edited on 11 May 2018 to reflect that latest Longines VHP Conquest models do incorporate a perpetual calendar.

Edited on 20 May 2018. Edit was to include a new date change video updated with one showing the precise date change at midnight. And texts to explain. 

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20 Comments
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  • Greg Phillips
    September 8, 2018 at 11:07 pm

    One other IMO major difference between thiscwatch and the Seiko GS quartz:

    Eco-drive, i’ve No desire to periodically replace a quartz battery. The Citizen is much more a “set and forget” watch than the Seiko GS, with its independent hour hand setting and its perpetual calendar accurate until 2100.

    I think the CitiEn Chronomaster has carved out its own separate identity from the Seiko GS quartz.

  • FatSam
    June 18, 2018 at 12:11 am

    Nice review – my first look at deployant

    It looks great- almost identical to Grand Seiko as has been stated above and I don’t know whether this was an idea to say “we can do what our great rivals do… but a bit better” or whether it’s an idea to build up a Japanese design standard. Either way is cool with me.

    I’m just not sure they have the huge cult following that Seiko has outside of Japan though- many of whom like me eventually become Grand Seiko customers. Men tend to be quite brand loyal and while not all men are like this I certainly feel that I have a Marinemaster and GS Springdrive plus a couple of Seiko Beaters (sna411 & ssc667)

  • Just another guy on the web
    May 17, 2018 at 10:32 am

    “This watch is peerless”…..except for the Grand Seikos which look exactly like it, are just as well made and cost about the same .
    Of course this Citizen is a truly excellent watch, from an excellent company (“for the masses” indeed. Enjoying life on your sugar plantation Peter? Do you have a selection of white suits and Panama hats?) You just can’t go wrong buying this or the GS equivalent. I do wonder why it looks so uncannily similar to a GS. Part of me thinks this is really cool; a strong, shared design from two Japanese giants. And part of me is just confused. Could you imagine the consternation if Omega and Rolex produced two watches which looked exactly the same? I wonder if there is an authorised dealer out there with both models in-stock. Would be fascinating to see them side by side.
    Deployant, you have a duty to bring about this comparative review!

  • Albert
    May 11, 2018 at 7:03 am

    Only a 1 year warranty?

    It would appear that they don’t have much confidence in this supposedly top of the line product that lots of engineering had gone into,

  • Arnaud
    May 11, 2018 at 5:31 am

    The 50 years service interval for the 9F is actually a myth, or to be precise it was a mistake from a Seiko website but they since took it off and the engineers who developed the movement confirmed it was a myth 😉
    I’m pretty confident this 9F could go 50 years without a service but at least, that’s not what GS recommends 😉

  • Tom
    May 11, 2018 at 2:40 am

    I should also point out that the Longines VHP, to which the Citizen is compared, does indeed have a perpetual calendar.

  • Brian
    May 11, 2018 at 1:26 am

    Absolutely phenomenal piece.

    My only question, as it’s hard to tell from the videos – does this super-quartz tick 100% on the second markers like the GS quartz, or is it not calibrated for that?

    For the price (as a quartz watch), and given the obvious competition, you’d expect Citizen to ensure that level of detail is considered and delivered.

    • Tom
      May 11, 2018 at 2:33 am

      It is said to have a device that helps to ensure that the second hands always hits the markers, but in practice I found that the hand on mine got jolted out if position by about a fifth of a second when I rode my bike down some steps. The Citizen service centre inspected it and said they wouldn’t fix it as it was within tolerance.

    • May 11, 2018 at 7:31 am

      Yes the movement is equipped with a device which ensures that the ticks are spot on. A zero reset system to ensure alignment of the hour and minute hands is also provided. This ensures that as the second hand hits the marker spot in, so does the minute and hour hand at the top of each minute and hour respectively.

    • Rob
      May 17, 2018 at 1:06 pm

      I recently bought the Seiko GS SBGT241 9F Anniversary, and I just read on this site about the 9F movement, here is a quote:

      “Another interesting aspect is the lengths Grand Seiko takes to ensure that each step of the seconds hand aligns itself to the seconds marker exactly. To ensure this, GS uses a special hairspring to tension to prevent backlash or vibration. The result is the 9F has a more assertive “jump” in the seconds hand.”

      I do not find this statement accurate, let me explain. When I ordered the 241, I was under the impression that it was a super-tuned version of the 9F, so when the watch arrived I looked at the second hand carefully, it’s the first quartz watch I’ve bought in many years. The second hand did not line up with the markers at all, in fact it varied from 1/5s to 1/2s off as the hand moved around the dial! It was consistent though, with the same zones being off the same amounts.

      At first we suspected the dial markings off, but that seemed so unlikely because they are static markers, it seemed more likely it was the moving piece. We had another sample, which was much better, perhaps 1/10s off perfect. We checked a Longines VHP, it was absolutely perfect. I checked some older quartz watches when I got home, a ’70s Seiko was very good, but inconsistently varied hitting the marker, suggesting the stepper motor was not precise. An ’80s eta quartz was also off, but consistently. It seemed that the Holy Grail of perfect distance between steps AND those steps falling precisely on the dial marker was the purview of only the Longines.

      I realized that my assumption about the Seiko SBGT241 was probably not correct. The 9F had not been “super-tuned” for accuracy, but more likely cherry-picked. Iow perhaps the movements are the cream of the crop wrt overall accuracy, but they are no more accurate with stepper motor control than any other.

      I’m going to look into this Citizen now that the 241 has opened the quartz door, it seems a combination of a 9F quartz and a Snowflake.

  • Tom
    May 10, 2018 at 10:36 pm

    I just couldn’t grow to love the dial on mine. It is so deep-set and the hands are so high that the dial looks small and the hands cast long shadows. And the date looks like it is lost down a well!

    The movement is technically better than on my Grand Seiko but at least my GS has a rate trimmer. My Citizen spent six months being serviced in Japan because it was off-spec, only for it to finally come back STILL OFF-SPEC!

    I am still quite interested in the new 0100 calibre, though.

    • Just another guy on the web
      May 17, 2018 at 10:42 am

      Sorry to hear about your Customer Service woes Tom. I cannot understand why companies don’t realise that one example of bad service can lead to many potential customers purchasing elsewhere. If one pays a substantial sum for an item which is marketted as “The Best We Can Produce” and then it turns out “We Can’t Be Bothered Once We Have Your Money”, it not only sours something that should be special, it is bad business.

  • Alex San
    May 10, 2018 at 9:57 pm

    I am sorry but Sallaz would surely NOT be pronounced zarats in German. If anything, it would pronounced talkative or sallas . Furthermore, it appears that Sallaz is actually French and therefore the pronunciation would be salla. Could it be that the R r slipped in there because the Japanese have difficulties pronouncing the letter L which typically sounds a bit like the letter R when they try to pronounce it?

  • Colin
    May 10, 2018 at 9:51 pm

    Lovely, but why make it look like a Grand Seiko?

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