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A Brief History of Grand Seiko and the Spring Drive - Part I

To understand the path that led to the creation of Seiko’s inventive Spring Drive movement, it’s important to explore the roots of Seiko’s heritage. The story is truly a marriage of past, present, and future.

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Photo courtesy of the Seiko Museum


In 1881, Kintaro Hattori opened a watch store on the Ginza (Japanese for “Silver Mint”). Today, this swanky shopping avenue is still home to Seiko, as well as Bulgari, Cartier, Burberry, and many other high-end retailers. The Ginza, like Seiko, is a paradox of ancient Japanese culture and ideals, and modern technology and luxury.

Founding a Japanese Watch Industry
In 1881, Japan had no watch industry, so all watches were imported from Switzerland, Germany, and the U.S. Following are the steps taken to found and build a Japanese watch industry:

  • In 1892, Hattori took the first step to build an industry and found a clock factory—thus, Seikosha was born. The name Seikosha is derived from the Japanese word for “Precise Factory.” By 1895, Hattori took their growing expertise in the industry and applied it to pocket watches, branding them Seikosha.
  • In 1913, as manufacturing techniques became more advanced, the company began making wrist watches, this time branded as Seiko. Today, when you wear Seiko, you are wearing over 100 years of mechanical history on your wrist.
  • In 1934, Kintaro Hattori died, leaving behind an imaginative and innovative legacy that his descendants have carried into the twenty-first century.
  • In the 1960s, the Chairman of Seiko was Shoji Hattori. He understood the importance of success in European timekeeping competitions, and led the Japanese charge in mechanical watchmaking. It was his pioneering spirit and leadership that pushed Seiko engineers to the forefront of watchmaking. While Seiko is perhaps best known for selling the world’s first quartz watch, it was in the 1960s that they also developed a technology that would change the face of the mechanical watch industry.
  • In 1969, Seiko developed the world’s first chronograph with a vertical clutch and column wheel. This important step forward was shared by Heuer, with their Calibre 11, and Zennith’s El Primero movement.

The Quartz “Crisis”
The goal of all watchmakers has always been to produce the most accurate, longest lasting method of keeping time. While many focused on new materials for mainsprings and balance springs and ways of reducing friction, Pierre Curie made a discovery that would change the world of watchmaking forever.

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Photo courtesy of www.biography.com

While working with his brother Jacques, he observed a phenomenon called piezo-electricity. They discovered that some crystals generate electricity when pressure is applied to them. They also discovered that the reverse is true: when an electric current is passed across a quartz crystal, it deforms and vibrates (predictably). This discovery became the basis of a new train of thought in the watchmaking community.

Investigating Quartz Crystals
In the early part of the twentieth century, a Bell Telephone engineer, Warren Marrison, began to investigate the properties of quartz crystals. Marrison was successful in developing a highly accurate clock that used the stable frequency of a quartz crystal when utilized in an electrical circuit. This quartz oscillatory was more accurate than the most accurate mechanical clocks, and by the 1940s laboratories all over the world used quartz clocks as their time standard.

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Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian

Solving the problem of size
The problem was, these clocks filled an entire room. Miniaturization in the 1940s and 1950s was an enormous obstacle. On top of that, there were no batteries that were small enough to fit in a wristwatch. It was only in the late 1950s that Hamilton Watch Company in the U.S. pooled its resources and produced, for the first time, a battery that would fit in a wristwatch. They sold the world’s first electric watch, the Hamilton 500, in January 1957. However, this watch still required a balance wheel and balance spring, so it did not offer improved accuracy.

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Photo courtesy of Home - Smart Watch News

Seiko set their engineers to the problem and by 1958 they had developed a practical quartz timepiece—reducing its size to that of a filing cabinet. Later the following year, Seikosha embarked on a quartz timepiece development project called the “59A Project.” A few years later, the timepiece had been so refined that it was used to time the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. However, these timekeeping devices were still too large for a wrist.

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To this point, advances in the industry had been highly mechanical. However, when approaching quartz technology, one requires not only mechanical engineers, but also electrical and chemical. Suddenly the field of watchmaking required new specialists. This required a huge investment, which caused many in the industry to question the wisdom of pursuing a quartz timepiece. However, when Tsuneya Nakamura was appointed the Managing Director of Suwa Seikosha, he courageously pressed on.

A quartz watch is made up of three parts: the quartz crystal oscillator, the integrated circuit (IC), and the stepping motor. Seiko put together a development team, and within a year they had success. First they built a smaller step motor that would require less energy by only moving the hand once every second. Then they developed a smaller IC to process the pulses generated by the quartz crystal. These innovations miniaturized the movement, and made it possible to fit inside a wristwatch case.

The Quartz Boom
Towards the end of the 1960s both the Swiss and the Japanese were very close. In 1967, CEH (a Swiss research laboratory) entered several quartz prototypes into the Neuchâtel Observatory competition, and took first, second, and third.

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Photo courtesy of Beancon Astronomical Observatory

The race was on. However, Seiko edged out the Swiss and sold the first quartz watch, a Seiko Astron, on Christmas day 1969.

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Photo courtesy of Ariel Adams and A Blog To Watch

This made history and changed watchmaking forever. Four months later at the Basel Fair, Switzerland, a number of Swiss watchmakers released quartz watches.
In the 1970s the focus of the quartz revolution turned from invention to production. Early quartz crystals were painstakingly made by hand, and it was difficult to manufacture 10 movements a month. However, in 1974 photolithographic etching was introduced which enabled mass production in tens of thousands.

Suddenly the market was flooded with a new highly accurate and inexpensive timekeeping instruments, and by 1978 quartz watches overtook mechanical watches in the marketplace.

The Mechanical Dark Ages
This massive swing in economics plunged the mechanical Swiss watch market into a dark time of little innovation.

By the late 1980s, Swiss watch employment dropped over 71%. While the industry plummeted, nations like the U.S. and Japan had a new renaissance in watchmaking as they embraced the new technology. Many advances in quartz technology were fueled by America’s military and space programs. However, by the late 1970s, many American watch companies had pulled out of the industry and sold their names to foreign competitors.

A Renaissance
1983 marked a low point for the Swiss watch industry: of the 1600 watchmakers around in 1970, only 600 remained. A research consortium was formed to save the industry, and what emerged was the Swatch Watch.

Production of the Swatch was almost entirely automated and the simple movement was housed in a plastic case. They were sold as a disposable commodity, and in less than two years over 2.5 million were sold.

This inexpensive Swiss quartz watch was instrumental in reviving the Swiss watch industry, and eventually gave rise to the Swatch Group, one of the most influential watch conglomerates in the world.

The Swiss watch industry was back.

The Spring Drive Movement - Part II

COMING SOON

 
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