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