GRAND SEIKO Tech­ni­cal Artistry

Grand Seiko master crafts­man Hi­raga Satoshi talks about the sen­so­rial and artis­tic as­pects of watch assem­bly

Revolution (Hong Kong) - - CONTENTS - TEXT BY SU­MIT NAG

THE LAST TIME I had the good for­tune of meet­ing with Mr. Satoshi Hi­raga, we were at his work­shop at the Shizuku-ishi Watch Stu­dio, where he had just com­pleted as­sem­bling piece num­ber eight of the spec­tac­u­lar Fu­gaku Tour­bil­lon.

This time around our meet­ing was in sunny Sin­ga­pore. Hi­ra­gasan had come to demon­strate the skill that he is so cel­e­brated for: his par­tic­u­lar dex­ter­ity in move­ment and watch assem­bly.

It might sound odd on first en­counter that a ma­jor watch brand had brought an as­sem­bler on tour to speak on be­half of the com­pany. But mind you, Hi­raga-san is no av­er­age watch as­sem­bler. He’s brought his craft to such a level of so­phis­ti­ca­tion that the Ja­panese gov­ern­ment rec­og­nized the gen­tle­man as a Con­tem­po­rary Master Crafts­man in 2015.

In our con­ver­sa­tion, I asked Hi­raga-san about his take on the watch in­dus­try’s present mind­set in push­ing “in-house” and heard first­hand from him how he’s man­aged to el­e­vate the tech­ni­cal de­mands of watch assem­bly into an art form. Mr. Hi­raga-san, I’m very keen to pick your brain for a few of your fun­da­men­tal takes on horol­ogy. Could you please start by ex­plain­ing to me what it is that sets Grand Seiko’s watch­mak­ing apart from the rest of the world’s? I can­not make a com­par­i­son for you with the Swiss watch­mak­ing ap­proach, be­cause I’ve never vis­ited Switzer­land. But what I can tell you, based on my per­sonal im­pres­sions, is that com­pared to Swiss brands, we weigh a lot more fo­cus on the prin­ci­ple of “hand-crafted”.

Again, this is an im­pres­sion I have — but it does feel to me that a lot of the watch­mak­ing pro­cesses else­where have been heav­ily trans­ferred to ma­chines and au­to­ma­tion. I be­lieve, though, that good watch­mak­ing al­ways re­quires one to make watches by hand; in­spect­ing the watch with your own eyes and such when as­sem­bling — these to me are ex­tremely im­por­tant as­pects of watch­mak­ing that I don’t feel the rest of the world still holds strong to.

On the sub­ject of “hand-crafted,” can you per­haps give me three ex­am­ples of this in Grand Seiko’s watch­mak­ing phi­los­o­phy that you most ap­pre­ci­ate. Let me start with one of the most im­por­tant com­po­nents in the watch — the bal­ance wheel. At Grand Seiko, the ad­just­ment of the bal­ance wheel is com­pletely done by hand. From the setting of the spring, to the an­gling of the bal­ance wheel it­self, ev­ery­thing is done at Grand Seiko with the touch of the hand and the judge­ment of the hu­man eye. It takes about three to five years of ap­pren­tice­ship at Grand Seiko be­fore a watch­maker can be al­lowed to touch the bal­ance wheel.

Since I started with the bal­ance, I’ll tell you about the bal­ance spring next. At Grand Seiko, the watch­maker is tasked with ad­just­ing the very length of the spring on ev­ery move­ment that comes by his bench by hand, of course — this is so as to at­tain high chronom­e­try for that spe­cific move­ment.

Next, the pal­let stones. Once these are placed into the pal­let fork, they are com­pletely ad­justed by hand to achieve the great­est of ac­cu­racy. This, again, re­quires ex­treme sen­si­tiv­ity from the watch­maker. There is a cer­tain ba­sic for­mula to these but at the end of the day, what is re­ally re­quired is sen­si­tiv­ity from all five senses of the watch­maker. These sen­si­tiv­i­ties you speak of — how do you as­sess your ap­pren­tices for these? I have a cer­tain set of tasks that I use to as­sess the readi­ness of my ap­pren­tices. But the re­al­ity is that you can be good at as­sem­bling watches, but have no sense for reg­u­lat­ing it with your hands for ac­cu­racy. It’s one of those things in life that you ei­ther have — or you don’t.

Thus far in your time with Grand Seiko, you’ve had ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing with the 4S, 6S, 68 and then the 9S move­ment fam­i­lies. Of these, which would you say is the hard­est to as­sem­ble and which is — I sup­pose — less hard? (Laughs) You are right, they are all hard ac­tu­ally. But the tough­est assem­bly has to be the 6S me­chan­i­cal chrono­graph move­ment. And this is pri­mar­ily be­cause of the sheer num­ber of parts that go into making the move­ment.

In ev­ery step of the assem­bly process, I make ad­just­ments, cal­i­brate and reg­u­late the com­po­nents so that the ac­cu­racy of the watch builds from point zero of the assem­bly. I can­not, and will not, al­low my­self a fail rate with the watches that come by my bench. This has been Grand Seiko’s strength all along — that the brand is able to con­trol how its move­ments are made on both a macro and mi­cro level. The word “in-house” is not mar­ket­ing speak for Grand Seiko. Rather, it’s a part of the very make-up of the brand. How­ever, in re­cent times, many brands that may not have had their own in-house move­ment ex­per­tise are com­ing out to cre­ate their own cal­ibers, and to that end slap­ping on mas­sive price hikes on their watches. What are your sen­ti­ments to­wards this phe­nom­e­non? To me, it’s very sim­ple. The cus­tomer is the one who spends hard-earned sav­ings on this ob­ject of emo­tion that we cre­ate. It is the cus­tomer who has to walk away happy and sat­is­fied. In or­der to achieve this for the cus­tomer, if an­other brand feels that it needs to be more in con­trol of their move­ment pro­duc­tion — then do it.

But speak­ing strictly for Grand Seiko — I spoke to you ear­lier about our bal­ance spring pro­duc­tion — this is the level of con­trol we re­quire in or­der to cre­ate a watch that we are ab­so­lutely con­fi­dent to have the cus­tomer walk away with with­out the slight­est rea­son to com­plain, if the ques­tion of its qual­ity and in­tegrity were to be brought up. This is al­ways how it’s been for us at Grand Seiko and we’re not will­ing to com­pro­mise this in any way.

There’s a qual­ity about as­sem­bling your own move­ments from the ground up that can­not re­ally be quan­ti­fied. It is the nuances that we end up trans­fer­ring into the move­ment as we as­sem­ble it that, on a very spir­i­tual level, make it our own move­ment. I like to be­lieve that, at Grand Seiko, ev­ery watch­maker — be­cause the watch­maker has his own set of char­ac­ter­is­tics — ends up trans­fer­ring a lit­tle bit of him­self into the move­ment as he as­sem­bles it. Re­mem­ber, I did ex­plain to you ear­lier, that at Grand Seiko, ef­fec­tive move­ment assem­bly isn’t so much a mat­ter of a tech­ni­cal skill as it is a mat­ter of en­gag­ing all of your five senses to cre­ate some­thing mov­ing.

Ac­tu­ally, I would say that at this level of un­der­stand­ing of watch­mak­ing and assem­bly, which is unique to Grand Seiko, I can no longer call it a tech­ni­cal skill. At this level, I think it tran­scends to be­come an art form.

Hi­raga Satoshi, Master Crafts­man of Grand Seiko

FROM LEFT: Grand Seiko Hi-Beat 36000 GMT Lim­ited Edi­tion; Grand Seiko Spring Drive 8 Day Power Re­serve (a rare edi­tion with only eight pieces made); Grand Seiko Black Ce­ramic Spring Drive GMT Lim­ited Edi­tion

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