Seiko Watch History: Japanese Tech Challenges Swiss Tradition

Seiko Watch History: Japanese Tech Challenges Swiss Tradition2018-06-12T23:42:19+00:00
Seiko 5 Sports Watch Face

Seiko 5 Sports Watch – Pictures: SeikoUSA.com

Seiko watches, produced and sold by the companies of Seiko Group, are known for their technological innovations, especially in analog quartz and digital watches, and for their high quality standards which rival top Swiss watchmakers.

This is reflected in the name “Seiko,” which can be either of two Japanese words: 精巧, meaning “exquisite,” and 成功, meaning “success.”

Seiko Group’s beginnings are in 1881, when founder Kintaro Hattori opened a watch and clock repair shop in Tokyo.

By 1892, the company started manufacturing timepieces in its Seikosha factory in what is now Sumida Ward, Tokyo, home of the present-day Seiko Museum. The name Seikosha (精工舎) means “House of Exquisite Workmanship.” At this factory, the company started manufacturing the Laurel, the first line of wristwatches ever produced in Japan, in 1913.

In this article, you will learn about the formation of the group of companies that makes Seiko watches today. We will cover the brand’s technological contributions to the watch industry, historic models, and high-profile sponsorships. Click the links below to jump ahead, or keep reading:

Early Breakthroughs & Successes

Over the first half of the 20th century, Seiko quickly gained respect and popularity as a watch brand.

What Was The First Seiko Watch?

Seiko First Watch 1924

First Seiko brand watch (1923)

In September 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake devastated Tokyo The Seikosha factory was engulfed in an ensuing fire, which destroyed all of their stock and production equipment.

Kintaro Hattori immediately set to rebuilding the factory at great cost. In an impressive feat of diligence and coordination, the company was back to selling wristwatches just four months later.

The wristwatch line sold by K. Hattori & Co. after rebuilding was none other than the very first Seiko watch. This was the birth of the “Seiko” brand.

Two companies of Seiko Group manufacture the movements of Seiko watches, which have since expanded into other tech markets. The first of these was Seiko Instruments, Inc, founded in 1937 as Daini Seikosha, a spinoff of Seikosha. The second is Seiko Epson, today primarily known as Epson, which was founded to manufacture parts for Seiko watches in 1942.

The onset of World War II held back the company’s advancements. This was because they were forced to shift focus to mass production of timepieces for the military. Because of this, they had to divert resources from research, and their factories were targeted in bombing raids.

Seiko Magic Lever AnimationAfter the end of the war, the Seiko brand quickly grew in significance as a wristwatch innovator. For instance, 1950s Seiko watches incorporated technologies such as Diashock shock-resistant jewel bearings and the “Magic Lever” system.

You can see how this mechanism works in the animation.

The “Magic Lever,” still used in Seiko watches today, is a particularly efficient and cheap-to-produce dual-axis self-winding mechanism.

Is Seiko Better Than Swiss Watches?

The Seiko brand has always maintained a high manufacturing standard for its watches, posing significant competition to the Swiss watch industry. Seiko sought to challenge the top status enjoyed by luxury Swiss watch brands with its Grand Seiko signature line. The first Grand Seiko, released in 1960, had an accuracy of -3 to +12 seconds per day.

This gave it the distinction of being the first Japanese watch to attain Chronometer status. This means that it passed the rigorous standards set by the Swiss inspectors, the Bureaux officiels (B.O.s), of the era.

The Grand Seiko line is designed with a crisp, clean, and easy to read appearance. This includes a flat dial, high polish on its bezel, rectangular markers, and a double-width 12 o’clock stick marker. These visual elements embody the Grand Seiko ideals of precision, accuracy, and refinement.

Seiko Grand Seiko Watch Lineup

Grand Seiko watch lineup

Although the Grand Seiko aesthetic emphasizes elegant simplicity, there are a few select complications available. Since 1964, most models feature a simple calendar, some feature GMT indication, and several recent models offer a triple calendar.

Other features were added over time, such as water resistance, improved temperature, shock, and humidity resistance, and anti-magnetic protection. The first self-winding Grand Seiko, the 61GS, was released in 1968, incorporating Seiko’s “Magic Lever” system.

Seiko 5 – A New Watch For A New Generation

Seiko 5 Watch OrangeThe “Magic Lever” was also used in the Seiko 5, a collection released in 1963. The Seiko 5 appealed to the active and ambitious young people of the 1960s.

These watches are built to be durable, affordable, and low-maintenance. This was achieved with technologies like “Magic Lever,” high-durability Diaflex springs, and shock-resistant Diashock bearings. Seiko 5 watches are intended to be quickly readable wherever you may be.

This means that they have high-contrast colors, clean lines, and the day and date shown in a single window. Although common now, this was uncommon then and was an innovative way to display a wristwatch calendar at the time.

Other characteristic elements of the Seiko 5 watches are their high-durability steel bracelets and crowns recessed at 4 o’clock.

Tech Innovations and Milestones

Seiko is an industry leader in watch technology innovations. Following are some of the major advancements developed by Seiko.

Who Made The World’s First Quartz Watch?

Seiko Astron Quartz Watch

The original Seiko Astron (1969)

In the 1960s, Seiko competed with the Centre Electronique Horloger, a consortium of 20 Swiss watch companies, to create the first quartz wristwatch.

This was the start of what the Swiss industry would term the “Quartz Crisis.” Quartz watches caused a “crisis” for the Swiss, because they offered higher accuracy than was possible with mechanical watch movements.

In 1969, Seiko released the world’s first quartz wristwatch, the Astron. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) hailed the Astron as a milestone in electrical engineering. This is because the watch was far more accurate than any wristwatch available at the time.

The Astron was accurate to ±5 seconds per month, far exceeding the standard applied to mechanical chronometers by the Swiss B.O.s, which was −1/+10 seconds per day. This made the Astron 100 times more accurate than any other wristwatch, electronic or mechanical, available at the time.

What Is The Seiko Gold Watch?

In 1974, Seiko made its mark on the high-end luxury watch market with its signature Credor collection. The name “Credor,” symbolizing the line’s elegance and sophistication, is an abbreviation of “Crête D’Or,” meaning “Gold Crest” in French. Credor watches are built with precious metals and artisan workmanship, and embody the ideal Japanese aesthetic of delicate beauty.

For example, the Credor Eichi II features a finely hand-finished platinum case and a meticulously hand-painted porcelain face. Therefore, these watches are produced in very small numbers; only one Eichi II is produced per day. Some Credor models, such as the GBBY989, have meticulously decorated, hand-engraved movements on the backs of their cases.

Seiko Engraved Credor GBBY989

Seiko Engraved Credor GBBY989

Seiko’s Digital Revolution

In 1975, Seiko released the world’s first multi-function digital watch, the Seiko 0634. They continued to innovate in the digital watch market, especially into the 1980s. Many of these watches were extremely ahead of their time, offering features that sound more suited to the 21st century.

For example, in 1982, Seiko released the TV Watch, which allows the wearer to watch TV anywhere and anytime.

Seiko 1980s Digital Watches

Clockwise from top left: Seiko TV Watch, Seiko Voice Note, Seiko UC-2000

Seiko continued to develop forward-thinking digital watch technologies, such as 1983’s voice recording “Voice Note” watch. The next year saw the release of the UC-2000, a watch with a computer built in. This allowed the wearer to store contact information and log diary entries. Although quite large with its keyboard attached, and limited in capabilities, no other watch had achieved similar functionality.

Seiko Quartz Watches Go Self-Generating

Seiko AGS Watches 1988

The first Seiko watches using AGS

In 1988, Seiko introduced the Automatic Generating System. This is a kinetic-based mechanism generating enough electricity from user movements to power a quartz watch. Unlike mechanical / automatic watches, which only need to be wound / moved, quartz watches need regular battery replacements.

The A.G.S made it possible to produce quartz watches that did not need to have their batteries replaced. This system, now called “Kinetic,” has been continually updated and improved since it was first implemented.

This technology was a game-changer in the watch industry. No other company had developed a quartz watch equivalent to a self-winding mechanism.

Partners And Sponsorships

Seiko maintains a number of sponsorships, especially in the international sports arena.

Seiko Partners With The IAAF

Throughout Seiko’s history, the company has supported international sports, starting with the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games (Omega is the standard timing sponsor). Seiko sends equipment and timing engineers to championships and class events in many sports to deliver their signature timing precision.

In 1985, Seiko partnered with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), serving as the organization’s official timing partner. Since then, they’ve provided all of the athletic timing for more than 170 IAAF events worldwide.

Seiko Partners With Tennis Star Novak Djokovic

Seiko has worked with individual athletes to create special watch lines. In 2017, they collaborated with Serbian international tennis champion Novak Djokovic, who uses his Astron GPS while traveling the world. The result of this collaboration was the development of limited edition models in two of Seiko’s watch lines: Astron GPS and Premier.

The Novak Djokovic Astron GPS, produced in an edition of 5000, features Novak’s signature and extreme durability and accuracy. Like all Astron GPS models, this uses satellite synchronization to achieve an astronomical precision of ±1 second every hundred thousand years.

The Novak Djokovic Premier watch also features innovative Seiko technology: the “Kinetic Perpetual” system. This is a recent iteration of the “A.G.S.” and later “Kinetic” system, allowing the watch to “sleep” to conserve energy. This means that the watch saves its date and time, turns off, and restore the correct time when re-activated.

How Deep Can A Seiko Diver’s Watch Dive?

Blue Dial Seiko Dive watch

Seiko SKX009 diver’s watch

Seiko continues to push the boundaries of watch accuracy, but they also pride themselves on impressive durability. Since 1965, Seiko has continually developed diver’s watches with outstanding resistance to high water pressures.

Our own review of the SKX007 and SKX009 watches attests their extraordinary durability. The first major model of Seiko dive watch was the 62MAS, recently reissued as the SBDX019. This watch was water-resistant to a depth of 150m, and Seiko diver’s watches have been improving ever since.

Until recently, a watch impermeable to helium, which causes watches to fail at great depths, was essentially unheard of. This changed when Seiko released the Professional Diver’s 1000m series. This line features a case that was vastly more impervious to helium than any other dive watch available at the time.

Seiko put their Prospex Marinemaster 1000m to the test in 2014, subjecting four watches to a depth of 3000 meters. You can see the historic test for yourself in the official Seiko video below:

As an industry leader in dive watches, Seiko supports the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. Seiko has supported them as a sponsor since 2016, contributing to their Project AWARE™ program to clean the world’s oceans. To celebrate this partnership, Seiko has released a line of PADI watches.

Seiko PADI Dive Watches

Seiko PADI dive watch line

Where Can I Find More About Seiko?

To continue reading about Seiko history, please visit the Seiko Museum website.

For extensive information on Seiko’s current watch collections, visit Seiko USA’s website.

If you enjoyed this article, you’ll also like Bespoke Unit’s other brand histories, watch guides, and model reviews. To find those, visit our main watch page.

Seiko 5 Sports Orange
Reviewed by Paul Anthony, on .
"Seiko never fails to impress. They consistently create forward-thinking designs in every watch category. They offer high quality watches in a wide range of price points."
Rating: 5.0 ★★★★★