24-7 (Singapore) - - Contents - By Su Jia Xian

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

Ja­panese watch­mak­ers

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


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.”

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