Grand Seiko just celebrated its 60th anniversary. All but the most knowledgeable of watch geeks can be forgiven for wondering where the brand was for those first 50 of those years. Because, right up till its independence, the brand had been one of those “watch collector’s secrets”.
Its watches are exquisitely well made, yet affordably priced as it was once marketed exclusively to domestic customers in its native Japan. Those who knew, indulged, no, revelled in the fact that this select bunch was enjoying something others in the watch market did not understand: these were among the world’s most artisanal watches priced at a steal.
Eventually, word of mouth of this exclusive club began to build upon a groundswell of latent appeal so much so that in 2010, Grand Seiko officially started to export its timepieces. We spoke to Akio Naito, a 30-year company veteran who previously served as the watch division’s deputy chief operating officer, overseeing the Seiko and Grand Seiko watch businesses outside of Japan.
Naito has since risen to the role of Representative Director and President of Seiko Watch Corp, a business that encompasses the Seiko, Grand Seiko and Credor brands.
You leapt from law school to watchmaking, was this the career you always imagined yourself having?
I didn’t have a clue that I would pursue the watch business career, to be honest. When I joined Seiko in 1984 I joined the company as a member of the in-house legal department. I wasnʼt really particularly interested in watches, but I wanted to be involved in an international business because of my academic background.
Would you say you developed an interest in watchmaking only after you joined the company?
That is correct. I don’t want to disappoint your readers but when I started I didn’t really have much knowledge about the watches. But 30 years ago, I fell in love with a computer type of wristwatch, and Seiko was the first to launch a miniature PC watch computer wristwatch, which I purchased as a senior student in my undergraduate studies.
There seems to be an obsession with precision and sharp lines in Grand Seiko and even in the lower and medium segments like Presage and Brightz. Is this a Japanese watchmaking phenomenon, or is this unique to Seiko?
It’s in our brandʼs DNA. When our founder Kintaro Hattori established the first factory. He named the factory Seikosha, which in Japanese means exquisite manufacturing or precision manufacturing. Hattori-san also had a motto: “We should be always one step ahead of the rest.” He was already paying close attention to the pursuit of ultimate precision and innovation in those early days.
To many who are not familiar with Japanese watchmaking, Grand Seiko rather than Credor is the highest form of Japanese watchmaking crafts. Is this something you intend to address in the near future?
Credor and Grand Seiko are two different brands, each with its own history and brand identity. Grand Seiko was born in 1960 and from its inception, Grand Seiko was designed to be the very best of the watch from the functionality point of view, so it is unique in its precision and legibility and ease of use.
As a functional tool, it must be the best wristwatch it can be, that’s the characteristic of Grand Seiko. Credor, on the other hand, is more inclined towards craftsmanship, and artistic beauty. So rather than pursuing durability and ease of use, it appeals much more to the aesthetic senses of the user. In that sense, they are totally different. One is not more than the other, they are simply different.
Looking at the recent price adjustments for Grand Seiko, would you say it is a brand strategy to make a statement about perceived value versus the established Swiss brands?
I take it as a compliment. The honest truth is Grand Seiko’s pricing was too low for its quality. We really appreciate the equivalence with Swiss brands. We never intended to build the brand on the basis of cost performance. We still always try to pursue the very best in the material and mechanical craftsmanship.
As you can imagine, it’s not easy to achieve or to decorate these mechanisms to the highest levels. For that to happen, we have to invest in human resources, invest in the facility, and also the communication element for building the brand. These things combined naturally increase the cost of doing business, and therefore pricing has to go up. We never intended to price our products just for the sake of elevating brand prestige.
Many fans consider Grand Seiko to be the equivalent of Rolex. Do you feel this comparison is accurate?
Yes and no, because in some price ranges and product categories, there are some overlaps. That said, we are different from any of the Swiss brands. In some areas we compete against Omega or Rolex, or Breitling or TAG Heuer. Overall, we believe Grand Seiko is in itself a unique brand.
Grand Seiko has been independent for three years now. What benefits do you feel that the brand is enjoying as a result?
In the Japanese domestic market, Seiko is a household name, everybody knows Seiko, and everybody seems to understand the collection. There has always been a wide range of products from affordable models to Grand Seiko. We did not really have to appeal to the luxury segment of Grand Seiko for Japanese consumers.
Outside of Japan, the recognition of Seiko and in particular Grand Seiko was very different. For many decades, our focus outside of the domestic market was on the mid-price range and the lower segment, but in doing so, consumer perception was that Seiko was not a luxury brand, which we felt we should change dramatically. Hence, we decided to separate Grand Seiko from Seiko in 2017. I think we are very fortunate that we have been very successful in building Grand Seiko as a luxury brand outside of the Japanese market.
Does grand Seiko still practice the strategy of having Japan-only domestic models?
There are still very few Japan-only models, but more and more, we are introducing other models to our global market. So at least all key collections are now globally available.
Has there been consideration to just have them all as international models? I ask because the Internet has made it such that collectors here in Singapore can get their hands on the JDM model, so there’s no difference.
Ah yes, information travels online and people get access to whatever models that they want. The direction is certainly to make the brand global, but on the other hand, consumers are excited when they see exclusive regional models. So from time to time, as a matter of strategy, we will create some exclusive models.
In other fine watchmaking segments, higher level complications eventually filter down to lower segments. Will we be seeing high complications from Credor filtering into Grand Seiko?
Theoretically, complications that are currently available from Credor can be applied to Grand Seiko but we are very careful in preserving and protecting Grand Seiko’s brand identity. If we are satisfied with certain complications that can be applied to Grand Seiko without compromising brand identity to the consumers, then we will do so. However, at this moment, we don’t mix.
There’s a lot of similar and overlapping price points now between Grand Seiko and the Swiss brands. So in your perspective, what comparative advantage does Grand Seiko offer to a new consumer?
Grand Seiko is a Japanese brand. So we infuse a lot of Japanese essence into our brand identity. Our brand philosophy is what we call “the nature of time”. Many of our dial designs are executions inspired by the beautiful nature of Japan, such as snowflake dial or, more recently, the white birch dial.
These are very popular models, and the way that we handle this nature-inspired motif is quite unique to Grand Seiko. The other meaning of nature is the essence of the timekeeping. We have highly skilled craftsmen and craftswomen who create a delicate balance between the best technology and skills to create Grand Seiko. Natural beauty and craftsmanship differentiate a Grand Seiko from our Swiss competitors.
From an outsider’s perspective, we enjoy a lot of Japanese crafts. For instance, Sebiro suits to us are comparable in quality if not better than Savile Row of London. Even Japanese whiskey is very popular here in Singapore. Some would even say it is better than Scottish whisky. Do you feel Grand Seiko has achieved this level in fine watchmaking?
Totally. I think one characteristic of the Japanese way of thinking or attitude is what we call “道” (Dao) or way. The “way” is present in art like paintings or martial arts, indeed in all that do, like handcrafts. It is a total dedication of lifestyle. It is the very way of life, not just a professional attitude for craftsmen. It’s not something that you do for the sake of earning money, it’s more like a total lifestyle or philosophy. This can be observed in almost every traditional product in Japan, from suits to whiskey that were not originally from Japan. The same proud philosophy applies to Grand Seiko as well.
(Images: Grand Seiko)