In-Depth: The History of Grand and King Seiko
The Tuna cans and Pogues get most of the attention from collectors, but Seiko's dress watches are worth remembering.
Seiko often gets a bad rap from less experienced watch nerds who think Seiko are cheap watches for cheap people. Seiko does make some cheap watches (and some very expensive ones) but focusing on either is a disservice to their history. Two watches that Seiko made from 1960 to 1975 are some of the most interesting: the Grand Seiko and the King Seiko.
The history of Seiko begins with its founder, Kintaro Hattori.
The Meji period of Japan, 1868-1912, was a tectonic shift in Japanese culture. Prefectures replaced feudal domains, railways cut through mountains and the traditional seasonal calendar and time system was abandoned for the Western Gregorian calendar. The traditional clocks of the last 300 years became useless, so Japan began importing Western clocks and watches. In 1881, Kintaro Hattori started K. Hattori & Co. in Toyko, repairing and selling imported clocks and watches. After 9 years, Hattori opened the Seikosha factory so he could make wall clocks (In Japanese, Seiko means exquisite/success and the suffix -sha means company/business). During the Russo-Japanese War, the Seikosha factory was required to make munitions for the war effort. This experience taught Hattori about machine assembly and mass-production which he introduced into the manufacture of timepieces after the war.
In 1923, the Great Kanto earthquake ravaged much of Toyko, killed an estimated 140,000 people and left 1,380,000 homeless. Despite the destruction of the offices and factories of Seikosha, one month later, K. Hattori & Co. was open for business and one year later, Hattori launched the Seiko brand. Over the next decade, Seiko diversified production and in 1937, the Daini Seikosha division (Daini means Second in English) was launched to focus on making timepieces. However the outbreak of several wars (the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, World War II in 1939 and the emergence of the Pacific Theater in 1941) put all of Seiko into war production. The war was not kind to Hattori as by 1949, every Seiko factory apart from one located in Suwa, Nagano Prefecture, had been destroyed or evacuated.
In 1959, the Suwa Seikosha factory and the rebuilt Daini Seikosha factory became seperate entities within Seiko. By separating the two factories, Seiko hoped to promote intra-company competition and innovation. Suwa Seikosha marked the dials of their watches with a stylized whirlpool logo and Daini Seikosha marked their watches with a double triangle/lightning bolt logo.
Oddly enough for a company of this size, Seiko did not have a dedicated design department. This meant that many Seiko watches were dull and uninspired that failed to capture the imagination, and money, of the Western market. In 1956, Suwa Seiko started a design department which was responsible for designing watch dials, the case design was still handled by the case making department. In 1958, Daini Seiko began employing design graduates from college and in 1959, Taro Tanaka was hired by K.Hattori & Co.
In the Seiko book, "A Journey in Time", Tanaka remembers his early attempts to describe his job to his co-workers. At the time, the notion of a watch designer didn't exist and Seiko watches from the period show this. The watches had dull circular cases with the amount of variation between models limited to changing the lug shape. In a matter of years, Tanaka would influence the next decade of Seiko design, especially the Grand and King Seiko lines.
The first Grand Seiko debuted in Toyko in 1960.
The Reference 3180, named after the manual-wind Caliber 3180 inside the watch, was made by Suwa Seikosha. Accurate to within -3/+12 seconds a day with a power reserve of 45 hours, the Grand Seiko became the Seiko to have. Whilst future Suwa-produced Grand Seikos would have the Suwa 'swirl' on the dial, the Ref. 3180 had a multi-pointed star with the text Diashock 25 jewels written on it. Another anomaly of this watch is the prominence of the Grand Seiko name. Whilst there are exceptions (as there always are in watchmaking), most Grand Seikos only had an abbreviated, stylized GS at 6 o'clock. It was the Seiko name that was placed at 12 o'clock. Most of the Ref. 3180s had a gold-plated case but there are some rare solid platinum cases as well. On the snap-on case back, there is a symbol of a lion that has graced the back of nearly every Grand Seiko since, with a few exceptions. Suwa chose the lion as the symbol of the Grand Seiko because they wanted the watch to be the 'King of Watches', just as the Lion is the 'King of the animal kingdom'.
Underneath the brand name on the dial was the word Chronometer. Suwa Seiko had not submitted the Ref. 3180 to the Swiss trials, instead choosing to conduct their own internal chronometer testing. This self-declaration of chronometer status would irk the Swiss for several years, but more on that later.
As a response to Suwa's Grand Seiko, Daini began work on their own high end Seiko, the King Seiko.
Most sources list the release of the King Seiko as 1963/4 but a brochure that accompanied a reissued King Seiko in 2000 states that is was introduced in 1961. Either one is plausible as companies have been known to mix up dates of releases before.
This first King Seiko was also fitted with a hand-wound movement but was an unnumbered, 25 jewel caliber. Unlike the Grand Seiko, the King Seiko did not read chronometer as it was not internally tested by Daini. The King Seiko was available in steel and gold plate like the Grand Seiko, but the lack of chronometer designation laid the groundwork for it being considered a 'lesser' Grand Seiko.
It was during a visit to a Seiko stockist that Tanaka realized how far Seiko was lagging behind in design; "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 knew a holistic approach to design was needed, where all departments worked in one motion towards a single design. In 1962 he developed a series of rules he called "the Grammar of Design"
1. All Surfaces and angles from the case, dial, hands and indices had to be flat and geometrically perfect to best reflect light
2. Bezels were to be simple two-dimensional faceted curves
3. No visual distortion was to be tolerated from any angle and all cases should be mirror finished
4. All cases must be unique for each reference with no generic round case designs
The first Grand Seiko designed with these new rules was the 57GS, in 1964.
There is an immediate contrast between it and the first Grand Seiko from 1960. Long, faceted sides replace the circular case and there aren't curves, just flat, hard angles. The Seiko name now takes pride of place at 12 o'clock with the chronometer text below in a modernist sans serif type, rather than classical italics. There were two variants of the 57GS; a 'self-dater' which added a date function with an internal Seiko chronometer designation on the dial and a calendar version released in 1966 with no chronometer designation.
Also in 1964, Daini Seiko released the King Seiko 44KS. This is one of the highlights of the King Seiko range and is one of the few that collectors consider to be equal in quality to the Grand Seiko. It had a screw back case that ensured 50 meters of water resistance and it was only made in stainless steel. Like the 57GS, the 44KS was designed following the 'Grammar of design' rules. One the case back was a gold medallion that had the words King Seiko above an engraved shield.
Remember how I said that the Swiss were irked by Seiko using the chronometer designation?
The European Chronometer Official Association believed that a chronometer rated watch had to be independently tested to be awarded that designation. Seiko watches were not independently tested so therefore they could not be chronometers. The ECOA did what irritated watchmakers do, they wrote a stern letter to Seiko requesting that the designation of Chronometer on Grand and King Seiko watches stop. Seiko obliged and ceased using chronometer on their watches. In response, the Japanese Chronometer Authorization Association was started in 1968 as an independent group to test timepieces to chronometer standards. The Association was short-lived: due to the rise of quartz watches, it closed in 1983.
In 1964, Dani and Suwa Seiko took part in the Neuchatel Astronomical Observatory tests. These Observatory trials were far stricter than regular chronometer tests; the average daily deviation had to be within +/- 0.75 seconds, thermal variation within +/- 0.20 seconds per day and the duration of the test was 45 days. It was a disaster. Suwa Seiko placed 144th and Daini Seiko placed 153rd.
Seiko returned to the Neuchatel Observatory trials in 1967 and the changes made to their watches was dramatic. Daini placed 4th, 5th, 7th and 8th with Suwa placing 12th. The next year Suwa Seiko returned to Neuchatel to submit watches but found out that the competition was suspend. They later found out that their watches had placed 2nd and from 4th to 8th place. I'm sure it was just a coincidence that the trials were canceled after the Swiss found themselves beat a second time. In 1968, Seiko submitted mechanical watches to the Geneva Observatory trials and placed 4th to 10th, with the 1st to 3rd places going to quartz watches.
Seiko used their knowledge gained from the trials to create a new internal grading standard. This GS Standard had three categories for watches: standard, special and VFA (Very Fine Adjusted). Standard watches were adjusted to -3/+6 seconds a day (equal to COSC), special watches were -3/+3 seconds a day and VFA was a step above even that. These VFA watches were built by superior watchmakers who had access to the best Seiko components and were graded to -/+2 seconds a day, or a mean monthly variation over 2 year of 60 seconds.
The Grand Seiko 44GS was released in 1967 and at the time was the most accurate manually wound watch with an 18,000bph movement in the world. It was also the watch that solidified the style of Grand Seiko thanks to Taro Tanaka's Grammar of Design.
Over the years, the 44GS and other Tanaka inspired Grand/King Seikos have suffered when they reach a watch repair bench. Independent watchmakers who received Grand/King Seikos to repair or service could not help but start up their polishing wheel. So the facets on the edge of the lugs, the contrasting matte and polished finish on the sides of the case and other small details vanished, like the subtle meaning of a Japanese haiku: lost in translation. Those who still have these original features untouched, like any unpolished vintage watch, are incredibly desirable among collectors.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the strict designs rules weakened and Seiko released several Grand and King Seikos in oval, cushion and square cases.
The 62GS, released in 1967, was the first automatic Grand Seiko and the crown was moved to 4 o'clock to accentuate the fact that hand winding was not required. The 62GS would beat at a higher rate of 19,800bph and over the next few years, Daini and Suwa Seiko would continue developing high frequency or hi-beat movements.
What is so special about high beat, or as Seiko calls them hi-beat, movements? High beat watches are watches that have a faster-than-average oscillating wheel. Today that means 36,000 beats per hour (bph) or 10 beats a second (bps). Back in 1967 that meant anything higher than 18,000bph or 5bps. High beat technology is usually associated with chronographs as the higher frequency means smaller units of time can measured. Yet Seiko decided to make high beat movements for time only watches.
The 61GS Grand Seiko from Suwa would be the first high-end Seiko with a hi-beat movement which beat at 36,000bph . It's considered one of the most desirable Grand Seikos and it had many variants which are listed below: The 45GS Grand Seiko from Daini was also a hi-beat performer beating at 36,000bph. Why Daini made a Grand Seiko as opposed to a King Seiko is unknown, but this is regarded as one of the best Grand Seikos ever made.
Ultimately, the King and Grand Seikos were subject to an internal technological coupe, the release of the quartz movement.
Seiko were not the only brand to be working on quartz movements in the 1960s, but they were the first to release one. On Christmas Day, 1969, Seiko released the Astron and changed the world of watchmaking forever. Whilst Seiko profited greatly from the resulting quartz revolution, it meant the end for the high end, hi-beat mechanical watches from King and Grand Seiko. The decision was made in 1975 to cease production of the King Seiko range in favor of focusing on quartz Grand Seiko watches. The King Seiko production ceased entirely in 1975. The King Seiko briefly returned as part of a commemorative historical collection released in 2000 by Seiko. The King Seiko Ref. SCN001 had a designed based off the Ref. 5626-711X with a movement based of the 52 Daini movement. This was the the last mechanical King Seiko. There were several quartz King Seikos through the 1970s and 1980s but, at least in my opinion, the later models failed to capture the essence of Taro Tanaka's design ethos.
In the middle years between old Grand/King Seiko and new Grand/King Seiko, Daini and Suwa changed their names. Daini became Seiko Instruments Ltd in 1983 and Suwa became Seiko Epson Corporation in 1985.
The Grand Seiko production momentarily ceased between 1972 and 1988 until the quartz 95GS was released
There is little written about the quartz Grand Seikos released between 1988 and 1997. Watch collectors (myself included) find it hard to care all that much about quartz technology. This is not to diminish the achievements made but it's not as romantic to talk about. The evolution of mechanical movements took centuries, but the near perfection of the quartz movement took a matter of decades. Much less fun. Seiko are proud of their quartz lineage within the Grand Seiko range, unlike brands like Rolex or Patek Philippe which hide their quartz experiments away from customers. Yet as proud as they were, Seiko realized that mechanical movements were coming back as a luxury product and in 1990, began making mechanical movements again.
The new 9S Caliber would take pride of place in the 9SGS Grand Seiko, released in 1998.
The 9SGS was produced by Seiko Instruments (Formerly Daini Seikosha) and was a return to the aesthetics of Taro Tanaka. There were two versions available, the 9S51 with no date and the 9S55, with date. These models were fitted with a special mainspring that obtained a 50 hour power reserve and were only available to buy in Japan. Over the next 12 years, Seiko would manufacture a variety of modern Grand Seikos, which all took design inspiration from the original 44GS.
In 1977, a young engineer by the name of Yoshikazu Akahane had started work on a new type of watch movement. Akahane aimed to combine the accuracy of a quartz movement with the technical charm of a mechanical caliber. It took 21 years to perfect with over 600 prototypes built but eventually this movement would become Seiko's Proprietary Spring Drive. Spring Drive technology, which removes the escapement in favor of an electromagnetic 'glide wheel that powers and regulates itself, was first used in 1999 but wasn't considered good enough for Grand Seiko. Once the power reserve was able to store 72 hours of power, then it was deemed worthy enough and in 2004 the Grand Seiko 9R6 with Spring Drive was released. It had an accuracy of +/- 1 second a day. 12 years later, Seiko would release the Grand Seiko 8 Day Power Reserve with Spring Drive and was the first Grand Seiko built at one of Seiko's Micro Artist Studios.
In 2010 when Seiko announced that they would be selling the new Grand Seiko range outside of Japan. Currently in the United States, there are 36 locations to purchase Grand Seiko. That's not that many, especially considering there are 142 locations in the United Kingdom alone. Yet scarcity of availability is one of the surest ways to drive up demand and in a world as small as the watch world, we're suckers for things we can't get yet.
In 2017, Seiko announced that Grand Seiko would become an independent brand
To mark this new venture, Grand Seiko released a two watches, a modern Grand Seiko inspired by the Ref. 3180 from 1960 and a trilogy of 're-creations' that are near identical to that original reference. These watches, as the regular production models for the new Grand Seiko, now have Grand Seiko at 12 o'clock.
So what is the future for Grand and King Seiko?
The King Seiko dynasty ended in 2000. It's understandable why a more streamlined, modern Seiko wouldn't want two competing high-end watches but it's a shame that the King Seiko had such a short life. For a modern collector, King Seikos are a more affordable way of entering into the high-end Seikos. Whilst many of the cases have been polished, it is still possible to find some in good condition for a lot less than a comparable Grand Seiko. Whilst only a few King Seikos are considered as technical equals of the Grand Seikos, they are still excellent watches that offer a huge value for money for collectors.
For Grand Seiko, the horizon is wide and far reaching though I worry what it will take for Seiko to convince the general public of the merits of Grand Seiko over more recognizable luxury watches. As Grand Seiko continues to produce watches and allow them for sale in more locations, hopefully soon the public and some watch fans won't treat them with such disdain. After all, these are watches made entirely in-house with movements finished to a quality that Philippe Dufour believes them to be on par with, or even better than, his work. (Dufour even sent samples of local wood that he uses to finish movements. Seiko were able to find that a Japanese University was growing the very same wood for a botany experiment and were able to source a foreign part domestically.)
Yet despite all of these qualities, Seiko consistently fails at marketing them to Western audiences. The Swiss have just gotten better at telling a story through marketing and branding, even if some of Seiko's achievements in pricing, finishing and design leave them in the dust.
"Seiko’s collections for its domestic market are an excellent example of this. You should see how beautifully finished the bridges are, the porcelain dials, the efforts they’ve made to increase power reserve from 42 to 60 hours…".
Philippe Dufour on Seiko.
The Seiko sub/sister brand Credor is fortunate enough to have a different name which eschews the stigma associated with Seiko (Though anyone spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a watch shouldn't be swayed by stigma). Grand Seiko is the only luxury watch collection that encompasses a full range of horological options: quartz, spring drive, manual wind and automatic. Perhaps it is this variety of options that works against Grand Seiko, as "surely a luxury watch brand doesn't make a quartz watch?". This of course ignores the quartz watches offered by Audemars Piguet, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Patek Philippe. It is only a matter of time before people start realizing that Grand Seiko is not just 'good for a Seiko', it's a true luxury watch. The quality of finishing is on pair with the biggest names that Switzerland has to offer.
For those interested in purchasing Grand or King Seikos, I recommend visiting The Spring Bar's Grand Seiko Collector's Guide and KingSeiko.com. Thank you to Gerard Nijenbrinks for permission to use photos.