Grand Seiko – Brand Within a Brand

Seiko is known around the world for making terrific watches, but that was not always the case.  The company has been in business since the late 1800s, but for some time, they made watches that were deemed acceptable by Japanese buyers, but were ignored by people around the world who were accustomed to buying watches made by the Swiss.

After World War II, the Japanese watch factories were in poor shape and they were not in a position to make timepieces that would get the world to take notice.  The Japanese government formed an agency that urged Japanese watch makers to compete against one another to try to improve the quality of Japanese-made watches in general.

Vintage Grand Seiko
Vintage Grand Seiko

For the most part, the results were not good, but by the mid-1950s Seiko was producing a watch called the Marvel that started to get some notice around the world.  The company decided to start a competition within the company to see if they could get good results by getting their engineers and designers to compete among themselves.

There were two factions, and each of them took a different approach.  One worked on making a watch with an improved movement that was more accurate and less troublesome.  The other worked on the design of the watch itself and particularly the “fit and finish” of the completed timepiece.

The result, which came about in the 1960s, was the Grand Seiko line. The Grand Seiko line was highly regarded, and finally let people know that the Japanese were capable of making an attractive, well-built and highly accurate mechanical watch.

Modern Grand Seiko
Modern Grand Seiko

Unfortunately, this success did not last long, as by 1969, quartz watches were introduced and by the late 1970s, many companies that made mechanical watches had gone out of business. Seiko discontinued the Grand Seiko line in 1972, as sales had dwindled while customers flocked to buy the highly accurate quartz models sold by their competitors.

Times change, however, and by the 1990s, there was once again a growing market and appreciation for high quality mechanical watches.  Seiko made the decision to relaunch the Grand Seiko brand in 1998 and built a new factory for the express purpose of making mechanical watches once again.

The company is doing well, and Seiko is reportedly spinning off Grand Seiko as a separate company.

These watches represent the best of the company’s work, and today, the Grand Seiko line is revered and regarded as perhaps the equal of the best of the Swiss made watches.  The company’s Spring Drive, which uses mechanical parts to drive a quartz timing circuit, makes for perhaps the most accurate mechanical watch in the world.

There was a time when Japanese watches, or anything made in Japan, for that matter, were regarded as cheap and inferior and priced accordingly.  That has changed, and Grand Seiko, while making a quality watch, is also priced like a quality watch.  New examples of models in the Grand Seiko line start in the low four figures, and you may well expect to pay more than U.S. $25,000 for a top of the line model.

Rest assured, however, that you are getting one of the best-made watches in the world.

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What is Miyota?

If you are interested in Japanese watches, the list of well-known manufacturers is surprisingly short.  There may be a lot of companies that manufacture stereo equipment or televisions in Japan, but for a country of more than 110 million people, the list of companies that make watches usually comes down to the Big Three:

  • Citizen
  • Seiko
  • Casio

There are smaller companies, such as Tokyoflash, but the Big Three get most of the attention and are responsible for virtually all sales of Japanese watches on the worldwide market.

miyota movementThere’s another company that has a large influence on the worldwide manufacture of watches, and they are partially responsible for millions of watches.  Despite this, very few people know the name of this company.

Who are they?  They are Miyota.

Who is Miyota?  If you do a Google search for Miyota watches, you will likely come up with very few results.  That is because Miyota does not make watches.

None.

So how are they responsible for hundreds of thousands of watches?  That is easy.  Miyota makes watch movements.  They make the part of the watch that allows it to tell the time.  They sell these movements to other companies, who put them inside their own cases.  The companies then brand the watches as their own, and people buy them without realizing that the company whose name appears on the face of the watch is not the company that made the watch actually work.

That is the work of Miyota.

I cannot find much information about the history of this company, but today, they are owned by Citizen.  All they make are internal parts for watches; they do not make any complete timepieces.

But you will very likely have heard the names of some of the famous companies that use Miyota movements inside their watches.  This list is not complete, but companies using Miyota movements include:

  • Citizen
  • Camel
  • Dugena
  • Festina
  • Jacques Lemans
  • Kyboe
  • Invicta

There are others, but you get the idea.   Why do companies use movements from other companies in their watches?  Because it is time consuming and expensive to manufacture your own movement.  Unless you are designing some sort of special watch with elaborate complications, you are probably building a watch that tells the time and perhaps also offers the date or chronograph features.

miyota movementThese features are not unusual, and it is a lot less expensive to simply purchase a well-known and reliable movement that you can put in your own case and sell as your own product.  You can bring the product to market much more quickly than if you designed the movement yourself and you won’t have to go through the years of expense and trouble to get all of the problems out of the movement’s operation before bringing it to market.

Instead, you just need to select a movement from one of the hundreds that Miyota offers, design a case to fit it and you’ll have a watch that you know will work properly.

Miyota makes a wide variety of movements, including both quartz and mechanical models, and the prices are quite affordable, ranging from less than U.S. $5 each to hundreds of dollars for more complicated mechanical movements.  They have models to suit all price ranges.

Even if you have never heard of this company, it’s possible that you are wearing a watch with a Miyota movement right now.  How about that?

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Seiko Spring Drive – Time That Moves Smoothly

One thinks of Swiss watches when it comes to innovation, and with more than 200 years of watchmaking behind them, the Swiss certainly have had their share of achievements.  That doesn’t mean that they are the only watchmakers who can come up with something unique, and Japanese maker Seiko, for example, has brought a number of clever ideas to market over the past 50 years or so.

Seiko’s Kinetic Drive, for example, uses a moving mechanical rotor to charge the battery on their quartz watches, making it unnecessary to replace the battery.  This drive mechanism not only saves the wearer money from not having to replace the battery, but Seiko says that the watches have also kept millions of poisonous batteries out of landfills.

seiko spring driveWhile the Kinetic Drive is impressive, the Spring Drive may be even more so.  The Seiko Spring Drive represents nearly 30 years of work, which began with the efforts of a single engineer, Yoshikazu Akahane, 1977.  He wanted to design a movement that flowed smoothly, and mechanical watches then (and most of them now) had a second hand that jerked from one position to another every second.  He also wanted the movement to be accurate to within 1 second per day, which was then only achievable through a battery powered quartz movement.

Akahane thought it should be possible to build a movement that was quiet and which had a second hand that swept gently across the face of the watch without the jerking movement.  It turned out that it was possible to build a mechanical watch that does this, but the Spring Drive took a lot longer to develop than he’d intended, and more than 600 prototypes were built along the way.

Seiko Spring Drive Minute Repeater
Seiko Spring Drive Minute Repeater

While the Spring Drive uses the power of a self-winding mainspring to power the watch, part of the movement is actually electrical.  It’s powered by the same mainspring, and the spring powers something called Tri-Syncrho Regulator.  This has an oscillating crystal, which then uses a magnetic force to regulate the speed of a glide wheel.  Unlike other mechanical movements, the Spring Drive has no escapement.

Not only do Spring Drive powered watches run smoothly, quietly, and accurately, but they also have an unusually long power reserve, generally in the 60-72 hour range.  That means that the watch is not only accurate and quiet, but it is efficient, too.

What it is not is inexpensive.  The movement is complex, and at this time, is proprietary to Seiko.  They use the Spring Drive only in a handful of watches, and that includes their top of the line models, such as the Credor Minute Repeater, which is priced at nearly a half a million dollars (U.S.)

You should not be scared away by such a price.  That represents the extreme end of the product line, but there are actually watches available with Spring Drive which sell for much less.  While they are still expensive watches, you can buy a new Spring Drive watch for less than U.S. $3000.  True, you won’t get gold or diamonds or any fancy complications, but for $3000 or so you can get a nice watch with a date complication that runs as smoothly, or more so, than any watch you have ever seen.

 

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Seiko Kinetic Drive Recharges as You Move

Seiko revolutionized the watch industry in 1969 when they introduced the Astron, the world’s first quartz-powered watch.  Priced at the time at about the same cost as a new Toyota automobile, the Astron showed that it was possible to create a super-accurate timepiece without any moving parts.

Moving forward some 40+ years, the quartz watch is here to stay.  They’re not nearly as expensive as they used to be, and you can often find them for sale for less than U.S. $10.  Of course, quality quartz watches still cost a bit more, and watch companies realize that there are other considerations for watch owners besides owning a watch with a battery.

seiko kinetic driveOne of the problems with quartz watches is the battery itself.  They usually work for 2-3 years before they need to be replaced, and when the new one goes in the watch, the old one goes in the trash.  That might not seem like a big deal, but when millions of people are doing that every year, that adds up to millions of batteries going in the garbage, and batteries have toxic chemicals and metals within them that can pose a health hazard.

That is where the clever Seiko Kinetic Drive watches come in.  Seiko likes to make quartz powered watches, as they give the buyer an accurate timepiece at an affordable price.  Seiko wondered how they could do this while limiting the number of batteries that need to be thrown away every year.

The Seiko Kinetic Drive is the answer.  The watch is actually sort of a hybrid between an automatic mechanical watch and a traditional quartz watch.  The watch is powered by a battery, just like any other quartz watch.

The difference is that in a Seiko Kinetic Drive watch, the battery does not need to be replaced.  Instead, the battery is rechargeable.  Fortunately, you do not have to plug your watch in to recharge it every day as you do your smart phone.  Instead, all you have to do to keep the Seiko Kinetic Drive watch running is to wear it.

seiko kinetic driveThe Seiko Kinetic Drive watches have a mechanical movement inside them, similar to that of a self-winding automatic mechanical watch.  Where the mechanical watch is wound as you move your arm through the course of the day, the Seiko Kinetic Drive watch has its battery recharged through your movement.

These watches even have a power reserve indicator on the face of the watch that shows how much time you have remaining before your watch runs out of power.  If your watch is almost run down and a bit of jogging isn’t going to be enough to wind it quickly, you will have another option – winding the watch by hand.

While you should rarely need to do this, you can add power to your Seiko Kinetic Drive by winding it at the crown, as you would a mechanical watch.  Doing this actually charges the battery, and for four seconds, the reserve power indicator will show you how much power you have added to your watch via the mechanical winding.  Then the reserve indicator will return to its normal state, which is to show you how much power you have left.

If you like the idea of an accurate quartz watch but you are environmentally conscious and do not want to throw away a lot of batteries, the Seiko Kinetic Drive may make a good choice for you.

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Orient Watches Have High Quality and Low Profile

If you have not ever heard of Orient watches, you are likely not alone.  The company is an old one, and has been making watches in Japan since 1950, although the company’s roots to back to 1901.  The company did business under several different names, and then became defunct shortly after World War II, when economic conditions in Japan became difficult.

The company resumed operations in 1950 as the Tama Keiki Co., Ltd. and changed their name to Orient Watch Company Ltd. the following year.  The company has produced some interesting and well-respected watches over the years, including the “Grand Prix 100,” the “Royal Orient,” and the “Fineness,” which was, in the mid-1960s, the world’s thinnest watch to include a day and date calendar complication.

orient automaticToday, Orient watches is still in business, though they have largely been overshadowed by the larger manufacturers in Japan – Citizen, Seiko and Casio.

A few years ago, Orient watches was acquired by Seiko and now operates as part of that company.  Their watches are different from Seiko’s, however, both in style and in movements.  Most of the company’s watches today are mechanical, though they do make a few with quartz movements.

Many of the Orient mechanical watches offer both date complications and power reserve indicators, as well as a see through case back, which allows you to see the movement.

The company’s watches are rich in features but modest in price.  That means that you will see stainless steel cases, rather than the gold you might get from some high-priced Swiss companies.  On the other hand, the company’s watches are made with their own movements, which are designed in-house.

orient starSomething else that is unusual about Orient watches is that the watches themselves are made in Japan.  That might seem obvious, but many “Japanese” watches are actually made elsewhere in Asia, using Japanese-sourced parts.  This is done as a money saving move, as it is less expensive to make watches in China or Malaysia than it is to make them in Japan, where the cost of doing business is much higher.

Despite the fact that Orient watches sell for modest prices in the hundreds of dollars, rather than in the thousands, they offer good water resistance.  Many models have screw-down crowns and sapphire crystal.

The company has two Websites – one for Japan only, and one for the rest of the world.  There are two product lines that are offered by the company that are exclusive to Japan – the Orient Star and the Orient Star Royal.

While those watches are officially only available for the Japanese market, they are available online from sellers such as eBay.

Seiko does not seem to do much to promote the Orient brand, and as such, they tend to have a rather low and quiet profile.  The watches do have their fans, however, and Orient watches offer a good selection of styling and features at a very favorable price.

If you would like to own a Japanese watch but you either want to save money or you want to have something interesting that is not a common watch, Orient watches would be a good choice for you.

 

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Watches, Calculators, Musical Instruments and More

Casio Makes Watches, Too!

When one thinks of Japanese watches, Seiko and Citizen are usually the first names to come to mind.   But Casio is one of the world’s largest makers of watches, and their G-Shock brand is one of the best-selling models of all.

The company got an odd start at the end of World War II, selling odd gadgets, including a ring to which you could attach a lit cigarette.  The founder and his brothers, one of whom was proficient in electronics, decided to start making electrical and electronic calculators to replace the complex mechanical calculators that were in use in the early 1950s.

Casio Calculator Watch
Casio Calculator Watch

The company soon branched out into all kinds of electronics, and became one of the largest manufacturers of electronic consumer devices in the world.  Casio became known for calculators, but they also made cash registers, musical instruments, electronic dictionaries, portable electronic games, clocks, portable televisions, and yes, watches.

As Casio entered the watch market relatively late, they have made electronic and quartz watches exclusively.  This is not the company that you go to for an elaborate mechanical watch.  They have, on the other hand, been quite innovative in terms of their electronic watches.  They are not just content to have watches that tell the time; Casio has made many watches over the years that do other interesting things.

In the 1980s, they made watches with built-in video games to amuse the wearer.  They also made a very popular series of watches that had built-in calculators.  Calculators were still fairly expensive and large at the time and a portable calculator that was built into the watch made for a very handy tool.

Casio TM-100 Radio Watch
Casio TM-100 Radio Watch

One very unusual watch made by Casio was the TM-100, a watch that contained an FM radio transmitter.  You could extend the antenna, press a button, talk into the watch, and have your voice heard on nearby FM radios.

Casio has made many watches during the past 40 years, and some of them have become rather collectible.  Their best known, and best selling brand, however, is the G-Shock line of sports watches.  These watches are intended to be worn under difficult conditions, as they are extraordinarily resistant to shocks.  Most have water resistance to 10 bar, and they were designed to be able to withstand a fall from at least 10 meters.

These watches have other features built in that are useful to sportsmen, such as timers, stopwatches, and the ability to charge themselves by way of solar power.  Some models have other special features, such as radio time synchronization, barometer, altimeter, thermometer and compass.

Casio G-Shock
Casio G-Shock

The Baby-G line of G-Shock watches includes models designed for women.  The most amazing thing about Casio’s watches is that they are very affordable, and most are priced at levels that make them affordable for anyone.

The company continues to produce new models each year, but some of their models have remained in production for 20 years or longer, due to their reliability and popularity.

Casio may not primarily be a manufacturer of watches, but when it comes to Japanese watch brands, they are a force.

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Tokyoflash Watches Offer Time With an Edge

When one thinks of Japanese design and technology, one usually thinks “conservative and reliable.”  That’s pretty much how Japanese manufacturing has been since the end of World War II.  The country produces high quality products that work well, but which usually do not inspire awe when it comes to design.

They make very good products that are often affordably priced, but when it comes to design, especially in watches, the Japanese have long been followers, rather than leaders.  That’s not criticism, but many Japanese-made watches are made from designs that were inspired by Swiss models, and perhaps improved or perfected in some way.

Tokyoflash Spider Acetate LCD
Tokyoflash Spider Acetate LCD

Tokyoflash watches may change the way the world thinks about that.  The small company makes watches and sells them directly from their Website.  In fact, that is the only way you can buy Tokyoflash watches, because they say that their designs are too complex to allow them to sell them wholesale.

They are complex.  In fact, if not for the fact that they fit around your wrist as any other wristwatch might, you would probably have difficulty identifying many Tokyoflash watches as a watch at all.

Their models are all quartz electronic, and many have LCD displays.  These are not, however, your standard LCD displays that have been around for the past few decades.

Tokyoflash watches have incredible design and appear to have been designed by people who had the intention of making it as difficult as possible to look at the watch and tell the time.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; some people like to follow the beat of a different drummer, and they want something different, even in a watch.

Not everyone has to own a Citizen watch, you know.

Tokyoflash Geomesh
Tokyoflash Geomesh

Tokyoflash watches are all designed as limited editions.  How limited?  I do not know.  When they are not available for sale any longer, they are moved from the “Watches” section of their Website to the “Museum” section of the site.  You can still look at the watches in the museum, but you can no longer buy them.

One of the more interesting models from Tokyoflash is their Liquid Metal watch, which has drops of a material that they call “Metallium” floating around the watch face.  Two of the drops always maintain their position, so you can tell the time on what might loosely be called an analog display.  The other blob of metal just floats around as you move.

The Spider Transparent LCD watch has a transparent face, so when you are wearing it, you can see your wrist underneath it.  The watch also has a rather unusual LCD display that shows the time in a rather cryptic way.  Fortunately, the watch does come with an instruction manual that allows you to learn how to read it.

The Geomesh looks more like it might be a walkie talkie or some other communications device.  Like the Spider, it tells time in an unusual way – this time, showing odd geometric patterns.  With practice, you can learn to tell the time on the Geomesh quickly.

Tokyoflash doesn’t seem to be too concerned with selling a lot of watches.  They build what they like and they appear to sell what they build.  If you are looking for something very unusual in a Japanese watch, Tokyoflash is worth a look.

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The Durable, Reliable and Affordable Seiko 5

There is a tendency in the watch industry for companies to constantly be inventing, introducing new products, and making sure that the public knows that everything they have for sale is cutting edge and new.

There’s a place for that, but sometimes, there’s also a place for the tried and true, the proven, and the reliable.  Flashy watches are nice, and new complications and features are always welcome.  At the same time, there’s always a market for something that looks good, keeps accurate time and is generally reliable.

That watch is the Seiko 5.

A vintage Seiko 5
A vintage Seiko 5

The Seiko 5 was introduced in 1963 and is still being made today.  That’s an incredible lifespan for a watch that was introduced as an everyday timepiece that was intended to meet 5 criteria:

  • Self-winding automatic movement
  • Water resistance
  • Day/Date
  • Durable case
  • Recessed crown

That was it; the watch was intended to meet those five objectives and was named for the number of them.  The movement is the 7S26 that was developed in-house by Seiko.  Originally, the movement and the watches were made in Japan.  Today, the Japanese-designed watch is made in Malaysia.

It’s pretty incredible that the Seiko 5 has endured for as long as it has.  It’s a workhorse, to be sure, but there’s nothing glamorous about it.  The watch does have its detractors, particularly in that a lot of people do not like the straps that come with the versions that don’t include a stainless steel bracelet.  That’s a minor quibble, I think; if you don’t like the strap, you can easily add another one in its place.

The water resistance on the Seiko 5 is OK.  It’s rated at 30 meters, and that means you can go showering with it and perhaps swim a bit, but that’s all.

seiko 5 automatic
The Seiko 5 automatic

You also cannot wind the Seiko 5 manually.  It’s automatic watch, and you’ll be expected to wear it often.  If not, it will run down, as the term “power reserve” wasn’t really given much thought in 1963 when the watch was designed.  If you wear it daily, it will run consistently.  But don’t think that you can take it off for three days and come back to find it still running.

On the other hand, the Seiko 5 has a history of running reliably, and there are people who have been wearing them for decades without having them serviced or replaced.  They just run and run and run.

Not only that, but the price is pretty amazing for an automatic watch.  There are a number of different models of the Seiko 5 with varying prices, but the high end is about U.S. $150 and the low end is about U.S. $60.  That’s remarkable.  You can find other automatic watches in that price range, but most of them are Chinese-made models that are not particularly reliable.

If you are looking for a watch that will be suitable for every day use, that has a self-winding movement, that has timeless (if unremarkable) looks, and is likely to just keep running pretty much forever without any maintenance, then the Seiko 5 is a good bet.

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Japanese Watches Have Long Been Competitive

When most people think about wristwatches, brands from Switzerland come to mind quickly.  The Swiss have been making watches for a long time, and they have many brands that are of very high quality.  Swiss watchmakers have also taken great pains to make sure that the quality remains.  For instance, they insist that most of the parts in the watches that they make must also come from Switzerland.

They sell a lot of watches, and some of them are very expensive.  They are nice.

 

The Grand Seiko
The Grand Seiko

There are other places in the world where watches are made.  The Japanese, for instance, have been making watches for more than 100 years.  Some of them are also very good, and some of them are as good as any watches from Switzerland.

Seiko, for instance, has been in business since 1881.  That is when Kintarō Hattori started a watch shop under his own name.  A few years later, he began to make clocks under the name “Seikosha,” and that name was later shortened to simply “Seiko.”  The company has been making watches under that name since 1924.

It is true that until the 1960s, many products made in Japan were seen as inferior in the West, and that is when Seiko introduced their Grand Seiko watches.  These were created for the express purpose of showing the world that Japan was capable of producing a watch that was as good, or better, than those made in Switzerland.

The Grand Seiko was highly regarded when it was new, and collectors still eagerly look for them today.  The first models of Grand Seiko had mechanical, hand-wound movements and 25 jewels.  Only 36,000 were made, so they are rare today.  They are also expensive.  I have seen them for sale for U.S. $25,000 on eBay.

seiko astron
The Astron – the first quartz watch

Seiko sold many watches in the Grand Seiko line in the 1960s, but they were not finished making interesting watches.  In 1969, they produced the Astron, which was the world’s first commercially available quartz watch.  Several Swiss companies had been trying to make a quartz watch throughout the 1960s, but the Astron was the first one to come to market.

The Astron sold for U.S. $1250 in 1969.  For the same amount of money, you could have bought a small car at that time.

The watch was successful, but it also scared many of the older watch companies, as they were worried that the quartz watches would put them out of business.

That did not happen, and today, Seiko still makes quartz watches, but they also make some very nice and expensive mechanical watches.  The most expensive is the “FUGAKU” GBCC 999, which sells for more than U.S. $500,000.    The watch has a hand painted lacquer face and a movement with a tourbillon that is only 4mm thick.  Unlike most Seiko watches, which are sold with stainless steel cases, this one is sold with a case of white gold, yellow gold, or platinum.

See the Fugaku GBCC 999 –

Seiko has a long history of making fine watches, but they are not the only company in Japan or Asia that does so.  There are many other companies today making high quality wristwatches that are both functional and beautiful.  Many of them are also affordable, and are more cost effective than their European counterparts.

I will write about some of these other companies soon.

 

 

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