From Tanaka To Today: The Evolution of Grand Seiko
Article By: Henry Kincaid
Nov 08, 2018
Grand Seiko; the undeserved black sheep of the watch world. There’s something about the name, Seiko, that causes some people to sneer, as if the presence of this watch manufacturer is a problem to be dealt with. To others, it’s a symbol of value and quality, of truly accessible watchmaking with history to boot. To say that Seiko is controversial is an understatement, so is it any wonder that a spinoff of the Japanese company, one that promises to beat the Swiss at their own game, would cause such a stir within the horological community?
The year was 1955, and Seiko was struggling to command respect and acknowledgement in the Western world on a scale comparable to their competitors. This was a golden era for watchmaking and watch-purchasing, but Seiko’s simple styling, created without the help of an in-house design team, was not capturing the West’s attention. Fortunately, Seiko had a plan.
The Two Seikos
First of all, the Suwa Seikosha factory, located in Suwa, Nagano Prefecture, started an in-factory dial design studio, responsible for all dials within this semi-autonomous manufacturing plant. Unfortunately, while new watch face designs could be readily and easily created, the case designs were still under the control of the case-making division, limiting their sizes and variety. Not long after the Suwa plant began the process of focusing on design, the second Seiko factory, Daini Seikosha, did the same, but employed different markings to distinguish themselves from the other factory.
Daini Kameido Factory
Due to a move to separate the two factories within the Seiko umbrella in 1959, the two wings of Seiko started down a road of major, and now official, competition between themselves, one that would lead to the start of one of Seiko’s most distinctive lines of watchmaking.
A year prior to the split, the Suwa factory hired Taro Tanaka as a designer, the first time they had brought on someone who specifically focused on design rather than explicit engineering; before he was hired, the 1956-’59 design team had consisted of watchmakers, not designers. A year before Tanaka was hired at Suwa, the Danai factory had begun the process of hiring various graduate designers, but none had quite as much of an effect over the company’s future direction as Tanaka.
In 1960, with Tanaka at the helm of the design in its later stages, Suwa Seikosha unveiled the Grand Seiko Ref.3180, commonly, and in marketing, just known as ‘the Grand Seiko’. The watch, with its distinctly professional design, was aimed at taking a chunk out of the Swiss luxury market; it introduced the now familiar medieval-esque typeface for the ‘Grand Seiko’ name, often shortened to just ‘GS’ on various period and contemporary watches, as well as the ingot-like faceted hour markers, and the chiselled, dauphine hands.
Not to be outdone, the Daini wing began work on their own luxury-oriented watch, the King Seiko, unveiled in the very early the 1960s. Despite similar qualities, it looked very different; it was still gold-plated or steel, still had the same hand and marker designs, and still used a rather generic spherical case, but it employed completely different proportions, with nearly every detail on the dial looking much larger than they were on the Grand Seiko, likely because of the comparatively bulky hour markers and different, rather ugly, logo.
The two sub brands/models competed against each other for several years, though Grand Seiko was the higher-regarded of the two, likely because of the self-certified ‘Chronometer’ designation on the GS. That being said, this certification was highly controversial and often considered suspect among the Swiss watchmakers, mainly because it wasn’t tested in the Swiss Chronometer trials, the third-party measurement used by all Swiss watch manufacturers intending to achieve chronometer status for their own timepieces.
Grammar of Design
Amidst the Daini v Suwa competition, Taro Tanaka began to reflect on the state of design within the company as it was at that moment, and concluded that the watches were visually falling further and further behind their competition; “As I looked in one of the showcases I saw many watches sparkling brilliantly. Then I looked on the other side and saw watches that had a rather uneven gleam; the difference was all too apparent. The brilliantly sparkling watches were Swiss and those with the duller finish were by Seiko”.
Tanaka began to work on a means to fix the design problems he was becoming increasingly aware of within the company, leading him to create his 1962 ‘The Grammar of Design’ rule book, which would ultimately be more or less the exact same set of rules that Seiko would employ for many decades onwards. The four major aspects that Tanaka identified were as follows; a flat, angled, geometric design ethos would be employed throughout all aspects of all watches in order to best reflect light, bezels would become more simplistic in nature, using nothing more than flat, faceted curves similar to a knife’s edge, all surface distortion would be removed through the use of perfect finishing, either via mirror finishing or brushed finishing later on, and an increased focus on case designs would allow for a far greater variety of cases to be used throughout the Seiko lineup, with unique cases used for each reference in production.
The application of this design philosophy had a decidedly massive impact across Seiko; production quality and finishing standards had to be improved to match the specific requirements of Tanaka’s rule book, advertising had to be re-imagined in order to reintroduce Seiko to the mass international market with its new-found verve, and the public perception of Seiko changed, not necessarily overnight, but certainly over time.
57 Grand Seiko
Both the King Seiko and Grand Seiko ranges applied the ‘Grammar of Design’ philosophy, but it was in the Grand Seiko series that the rule book had the greatest and most long-lasting effect. Arguably the first Grand Seiko to use the approach was the 57GS, which was unveiled in 1964; rather than possessing a round case design, the 57 employed a hard, angled, hexagonal case with slight curvature to extenuate the round dial. It was, and still is to this day, distinctly Seiko; slightly weird, not quite compositionally perfect, and yet still very enjoyable to look at. The second prominent use of the philosophy was the 4420-9000, which was unveiled in 1967. There has been some debate regarding which Grand Seiko was technically the first to truly use the ‘Grammar of Design’ styling, but the 57GS seemingly appears to be the first, especially given its iconic case shape, the first of its kind seen within the range.
Despite Grand Seiko’s application of this design being more commercially successful, the most expensive and famous example of this rule book is actually a King Seiko, the KS 5621-7030. The KS is much more rounded than the two previously mentioned GS models, but it still maintains a sharp, flat, knife-like aesthetic that appears throughout the most distinctly ‘Grammar-esque’ models.
A common theme introduced throughout ‘Grammar’ model Seikos is the use of integrated lugs, a styling characteristic that has remained a staple of the Japanese watch manufacturer’s portfolio ever since its introduction in the ‘60s. While writing this, I’m wearing my Seiko SKX007, and looking at it I can see all kinds of ideas that have stayed consistent ever since Tanaka introduced his design ethos. That being said, the SKX can trace its lineage back to the early Seiko divers quite directly, so it’s not so much that the ‘Grammar’ styling has been reinterpreted for the late 20th/early 21st century, but rather that the styling never went anywhere; while technology and uses changed, the same rule book remained.
As the decades passed, more and more Grand Seiko models were unveiled, and one could argue that they became increasingly diluted in regards to styling, and especially in terms of movements.
In 1972, the final mechanical Grand Seiko was made, leaving GS a quartz-only brand. While we can look back and think of this as a bad move in regards to the image of the company, it was certainly the correct decision in terms of economics. This was the middle of the quartz crisis, a crisis of Seiko’s making; if their luxury wing was to make the most of the current market, they had to go quartz.
Except, they actually didn’t release the first Grand Seiko quartz until 1988, 16 years after production of the entire brand ended in 1972, and well after the peak of the quartz crisis had long since passed, making the entire event seem all the stranger. Perhaps Seiko believed that, with the advent of the quartz movement, there was simply no place for a luxury watch anymore, meaning that they had to wait several years until the culture surrounding watches developed once again to open up this premium market. However, by the time they had reintroduced the brand in the late 80s, mechanical movements were firmly back in the market, especially on the higher-end of the industry, so the use of quartz movements still didn’t make sense within the premium brand’s portfolio. Grand Seiko claims that their use of quartz (which still continues to this day) is due to their pursuit of accuracy, meaning that their use of quartz, despite the negative image, does make sense from a technological perspective.
Late 80s era Grand Seiko still maintained the integrated lugs, but the overall designs softened, likely in response to a market that was beginning to enter the ‘round era’ of design; we’d done angular cars, we’d done angular watches; now it was the time for the circle to make a return.
In 1998, they reintroduced mechanical movements; in this case, it was the in-house 9S Caliber, which appeared throughout various GS watches. It arguably set the tone for what was to come over the next couple of decades of Grand Seiko, especially in regards to their quality control and finishing. The variety of designs also improved, as the new caliber introduced the possibility for a mechanical GMT; this led to the introduction of more aggressive bezel designs with a technical aesthetic, part of the watch that had previously always been left plain. Of course, plain designs remained, as their dress watches still made up the majority of their sales, but the introduction of this movement gave them an opportunity to diversify their collection dramatically.
The next major step forward was the Spring Drive movement (which you can read a review of here), though the specifics of which really deserve an in-depth article of its own. To put it shortly, the Spring Drive movement delivers incredibly accurate timekeeping as well as a perfectly linear sweep thanks to an incredibly complex hybrid of mechanical, quartz, and brand-new components, many of which were Seiko’s own unique proprietary designs, all the way from inception to execution. It’s unclear whether or not the creation of the Spring Drive was enough to influence GS’s approach towards visual aesthetic and design, but it certainly feels like it from the perspective of the consumer.
The best example of the Spring Drive playing into the identity of a watch can be found in the GS SBGA211, otherwise known as the ‘Snowflake’. While fairly simple on first inspection, the Snowflake is actually a beautifully executed piece of horological design, featuring a textured face that’s very reminiscent of fresh fallen snow. The Spring Drive’s smooth, careful sweep plays perfectly into the delicate nature of the watch’s design, and truly creates an effect that is as pretty as it is poetic. In addition, the finishing of the indices is sharp to the extreme, and its level of polishing is often enough to go completely black in contrast against the white dial.
While it’s not as if a German of Swiss watchmaker couldn’t have created something similar to the Snowflake before Seiko, it seems fitting that a watch of this style, one that beautifully combines aspects of nature at its purest with the extremes of man-made timekeeping technology, would be Japanese.
The design language has stayed fairly consistent since the introduction of the Spring Drive movement; mirror polishing has taken a priority over brushed surfaces, though it hasn’t been abandoned entirely, harmless yet knife-sharp curves have taken a priority over bevelling, and refined, subtle layouts have taken a centre stage in contrast to some of standard Seiko’s more expensive offerings.
Despite Grand Seiko not necessarily having the history and inherent prestige of other brands, they have certainly developed their own distinctive style and trodden their own path. From a financial perspective, their connection to Seiko may hurt them in terms of sales, but their access to resources and general working environments has led them to become the company that creates what are quite possibly the best finished wristwatches on the planet, and none of this would have been possible if not for the continued support from their parent company.
In 2017, Grand Seiko became its own brand; previously they had just been a line of watches under the Seiko umbrella, but the recent, mainly symbolic, gesture has given them an opportunity to head in a direction that is increasingly their own, rather than that of the company at large. With this move came the decision to drop all conventional Seiko branding from GS models, meaning that the famous typeface of the luxury watchmaker now sits front and centre on all of their timepieces.
Grand Seiko’s relatively fragmented and short history is one of gradual change and evolution; while not inherently all that different from the journeys undertaken by other watchmakers, especially luxury Swiss houses, Grand Seiko went through theirs without the need for sportsmen and actors to change the company’s direction, causing GS’s story to come across as much more personal and focused than that of other brands. In various ways, this seems fitting for Japan’s most significant watch manufacturer; this is a country that, while having undertaken revolutionary steps in the past century, has generally been a nation of gradual evolution and development, one that has prioritized learning from the past and the world around them, rather than tearing up the rule book or playing into contemporary trends.
The company may never reach the heights of Rolex or Omega, or even IWC or Panerai, but they will always have their own niche within the world of horology, one that they will likely explore to all of its variants and extremes in their quest to reach their desired state of physical perfection.
So, what do you think of Grand Seiko, and what do you think of their design language? Be sure to let us know in the comments. In the meantime, be sure to keep it classy!
My name’s Henry Kincaid. I write about watches, take photos of just about anything, and I’m being trained to design (bits of) buildings as an interior architecture student. I’ve grown up surrounded by great design and people who appreciate it, and I like to think that some of this passion has rubbed off on myself.
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