Seiko has always been a disruptive brand that is rooted in tradition but unafraid of challenges.
The company’s innovations include the world’s first quartz watch and countless other defining watches and components. These creations are as consequential as the efforts of any watch manufacturer of the past century. Seiko’s catalog includes everything from affordable quartz to a $500,000+ Credor tourbillon (the FUGAKU Limited Edition Tourbillon).
While Credor continues to redefine the dress watch category, Grand Seiko embodies Seiko’s relentless pursuit of the ideal watch. Originally designed to compete directly with prestige Swiss brands, Grand Seiko watches combines luxury finishing with Seiko’s best technology to create some of the world’s best and most practical timepieces. Across their complete range, Seiko watches express Japanese style on a platform that consistently pushes the boundaries of horological technology.
The Early Years of Seiko
Kintarō Hattori founded the company that would become Seiko in 1892. He spent the previous 11 years running K. Hattori, a shop that sold and repaired timepieces, before acquiring a factory in Tokyo to build wall clocks. Hattori named the company “Seikosha,” which translates roughly to “House of exquisite workmanship.” Production ramped up quickly and in a move that foreshadowed Seiko’s bent toward vertical integration, a second K. Hattori shop location opened in Tokyo’s Ginza district to sell Seikosha clocks. Seikosha added pocket watches to its offerings in 1895 but 1913 ushered in a new direction for the company when it introduced the Laurel, Japan’s first wristwatch.
Over the next decade, Seikosha grew as it continued producing timepieces and working toward manufacturing its own components. Despite a massive earthquake in 1923 that destroyed the factory and interrupted production for a full year, Hattori managed to introduce the first Seiko-branded watch in 1924. The 24mm manual watch had a small seconds register at 6 o’clock, a design element carried through on Seiko watches over the next 25 years.
When Hattori died in 1934, his son Genzō Hattori took over leadership of the company until his death in 1964. Under his direction, Seiko expanded its export business and scaled production to more than 3 million watches per year by the late 1950s. Genzō Hattori also cultivated the company’s culture of innovation, which led to several developments that elevated the company’s reputation and altered the landscape of the industry.
Seiko’s Rampant Innovation
Seiko initially imported components to build its watches but recognized that controlling manufacturing would allow full control over output and quality. In 1956, Seiko introduced the Marvel, a three-hand dress watch powered by an accurate and durable in-house movement with Seiko’s Diashock shock absorption system. Shortly after, its movements were equipped with an efficient dual-axis self-winding system called Magic Lever that is still used today.
A flurry of milestone watches ensued beginning with the first Grand Seiko wristwatch in 1960 as the company focused on producing watches with unparalleled accuracy, style and durability. Its first chronograph launched in 1964, then the Diver 150 a year later. Seiko Prospex Divers would emerge as some of the world’s best tool watches. They explored depths as great as 1,000 meters, introduced new materials and employed precision automatic and quartz movements to power the range of analog and digital watches.
Seiko’s defining moment came in 1969 with the introduction of the Seiko Astron. This was the world’s first quartz wristwatch with accuracy 100 times greater than the best mechanical watches of the era. Seiko and other watchmakers quickly scaled quartz watch production in the early and mid-1970s, leaving Swiss manufacturers decimated as demand for mechanical watches evaporated. Seiko experimented with futuristic digital watches, chronographs and sci-fi inspired watches that offered TV, voice recording, and data input and storage. During that time, more than 1,000 of the 1,600 mechanical watch companies operating in 1969 shuttered their doors by the early 1980s.
Many of Seiko’s most important innovations since the advent of quartz focus on improving watch efficiency, durability and accuracy. Key developments include:
- Commercialization of solar technology to recharge quartz watch batteries
- The Seiko Automatic Generating System (AGS), which was rebranded Seiko Kinetic and employed an oscillating rotor to recharge watch batteries and provide power indefinitely
- Radio and GPS watches that sync to local time and provide accuracy of up to +/- 1 seconds per 100,000 years
- Spring drive movements that combine a quartz oscillator with a mechanical mainspring
Modern Seiko Watches and the Brand‘s Evolution
More than 120 years after its founding, leadership of the massive public company rests in the hands of Shinji Hattori, the fourth generation of the Hattori family to run Seiko. The company’s collection of watches for men and women is among the widest assortment produced by any manufacturer. Most manufacturing and assembly still occurs in Japan. Seiko continues to support the Prospex line of divers as well as Presage and Premier dress watches, the Seiko 5 Sports collection of automatic watches and the GPS Solar Astron. Grand Seiko is now a separate company. Along with other Seiko-owned brands including Credor, Pulsar, Lorus and Orient, it allows the company to compete in all facets of the watch industry from low-cost quartz and automatics to the most expensive luxury timepieces.
A key ingredient to Seiko’s ongoing appeal is the company’s style and personality. Since its origin, Seiko watches have expressed a Japanese design aesthetic that combines minimalism and modernism. Hallmarks of the brand include thin cases, interesting shapes, a range of materials and extreme attention to details, especially on dial designs and bezels. For decades, collectors and enthusiasts have demonstrated their love of the brand by giving Seiko watches quirky or funny nicknames. Some like Sumo and Samurai draw on iconic Japanese imagery, while others like Tuna, Turtle, Monster and Starfish describe the watch’s look.
Many of Seiko’s vintage watches are prized by collectors. An original 62MAS, a 1969 Astron or the automatic 5 Sports Speedtimer chronograph are extremely rare and valuable watches that appear for sale occasionally. The Alpinist, Flightmaster and several skeleton watches are also extremely collectible. One of the most appealing characteristics of Seiko, however, is affordability. Enthusiasts can easily build a collection of new and used Seiko watches for as little as a few hundred dollars. The watches will last for years, require little maintenance besides an occasional battery change, and provide unparalleled style, accuracy and tool watch functionality.