The underrated mechanical wonders of Japan’s watchmakers
Before producing its first wristwatch in 1913, Seiko made pocket
Seiko was the official timekeeper for the 1992 and 1964 Summer Olympics
became known for their
affordable models like the Seiko Radio Wave Solar The Campanola line is Citizen’s best-known range of high-end watches Seiko’s mechanical movements are considered to be among the industry’s most robust Seiko is the sponsor of the solar-powered Icare 2, one of the world’s most advanced gliders
THEY MAY BE FAMED FOR THEIR QUARTZ CREATIONS, BUT JAPAN’S FABLED WATCHMAKERS ARE ALSO STEEPED IN THE TRADITION OF PRODUCING HIGH-QUALITY MECHANICAL TIMEPIECES, WHICH CARRIES ON TO THIS DAY.
In the sometimes snobbish world of high-end horology, some biases are harder to shake off than others. One of the stickiest relates to the quality of Japanese watches.
Ever since brands like Seiko and Citizen threatened to upend the Swiss watchmaking industry in the 1970s and 1980s with a flood of low-cost, high-accuracy quartz models, “cheap” and “mass” have been the tags associated with Japanese watchmakers.
From 1970 to the late 1980s, employment in the Swiss watch industry dropped by three quarters. And hallowed names like Omega, Vacheron Constantin, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Breitling and Heuer went bust or had to be rescued.
While the impact of Japan’s watchmakers on the global industry is not in dispute, the debate becomes a little greyer when it comes to the issue of quality. The bulk of watches made by Seiko and Citizen are indeed very affordable. But that is far from the complete picture.
Before the advent of the quartz watch, the very best mechanical timekeepers were observatory-certified. Astronomical observatories like the ones at Neuchatel in Geneva, Besancon in France and Kew outside London, ran rigorous timing tests lasting for weeks, with a certificate issued to watches that made the grade.
Some observatories even ran annual competitions to find out which were the best timepieces.
Seiko began taking part in these contests in the early 1960s. By the end of the decade it dominated the field, triumphing over the traditional Swiss champions like Longines and Omega.
More importantly, today both Seiko and Citizen continue their tradition of mechanical watchmaking, boasting a respectable line-up of top-end timepieces. While Seiko places greater emphasis on mechanical and hybrid watches, Citizen is making its mark with solarpowered complications.
Seiko has two lines that demonstrate its mastery of fine watchmaking: The Grand Seiko and Credor. The former is a direct descendant of the observatory prizewinners of the 1960s, comprising mainly simple and formal timepieces. The Credor line is more contemporary in style and, more importantly, where Seiko’s horological masterpieces can be found.
Three such pieces are the Eichi, Sonnerie and Minute Repeater, all made by the Micro Artist Studio, a small workshop of a dozen engineers and craftsmen who make only a handful of watches each year.
Citizen, on the other hand, is relatively new to finer mechanical watches. It does make a line of mechanical chronometers similar to Grand Seiko called The Citizen, but the Campanola line of solar and electronic complications is the brand’s best-known range of highend watches.
Despite the undeniable quality of Japanese timepieces, their reputation still lags far behind that of their luxury Swiss counterparts. The key reason is a lack of marketing: Most high-end Japanese watches are only sold in Japan. Seiko, for example, only started selling the Grand Seiko outside of Japan in 2010 – and even then, extremely cautiously. As a consequence, high-end Japanese watchmaking is essentially unknown outside of Japan and watch-collecting circles. That is changing, albeit at a glacial pace.
Perhaps the best testament to the quality of Japanese watchmaking comes from the Swiss themselves. In 2009 the Swiss chronometer contest was revived in the form of the Concours International de Chronometrie, or the International Chronometry Competition. Despite its name, one of the rules of the contest reads: “All parts used to build the movement must be made within Europe.”