This summer the world of vintage watch auctions witnessed a true first. Normally focused on ever more specifically caveated sales records, auction-house chest-beating is a largely predictable matter. But in late August I think it is safe to say that Bonhams’ watch department made history when it held what it proudly announced to be the first auction dedicated to Seiko watches. The Making Waves sale comprised more than 200 Seiko timepieces amassed by a single collector.
The pre-sale announcement bruited about the encyclopaedic nature of the collection and allowed itself to indulge in some pardonable hyperbole, talking of “iconic, if not legendary, models, such as the ultra-rare Ref 5718-8000, which was tailored for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and widely considered as the ‘holy grail’ of Seiko watches”. To my shame, I tend to associate the term “grail watch” with such timepieces as Cartier’s London Crash, Patek Philippe’s 2499 or 5970, and of course the Paul Newman dial Rolex 6239… But come to think of it, why shouldn’t there be a Seiko grail watch? After all, as Sharon Chan, Bonhams’ Asian director of watches, who put the sale together, says: “Over recent years Japanese brands, such as Seiko, already a favourite with many Asian collectors, began to attract a huge – and loyal – international fanbase.”
I am of a generation of watch enthusiasts who grew up in the prejudiced belief that Seiko, if not exactly the work of the devil himself, had certainly involved input from such deputies as Beelzebub. On Christmas day 1969 Seiko introduced the Astron, the world’s first commercial quartz watch, and the first toll of what for many years sounded like the death knell of mechanical watchmaking.
Forty-five years later, I found myself a member of the Jury of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève 2014, voting enthusiastically for the Grand Seiko Hi-Beat mechanical watch to receive the Petite Aiguille prize ahead of well-known Swiss brands. My 25-year-old self would not have believed it. For Grand Seiko CEO Shinji Hattori, the 2014 prize is “the highlight” of Seiko’s participation in what he calls the “Academy Awards of the watch industry” because it was rewarding not an innovative electronic timepiece but a traditional watch of the sort that Seiko had nearly rendered extinct.
Since then, Grand Seiko has been gaining credibility among European collectors to the extent that in this, the watchmaker’s 60th anniversary year, the Seiko boutique in Knightsbridge was rebranded Grand Seiko, focusing attention on the detail- and finish-obsessed watchmaking that Hattori feels has much in common with fine Swiss horology. “We both pay respect to traditional craftsmanship, aim for innovation, and want the watch to remain a valued object to which consumers aspire,” he says.
But while Grand Seiko speaks the language of haute horlogerie, it is saying something slightly different. Hattori believes the message concerns the Japanese concept of michi, the ceaseless pursuit of perfection evinced “in arenas as diverse as martial arts, the tea ceremony, flower arrangement and calligraphy”.
Whether that is found in the special polishing technique known as zaratsu, or the creation of dials with a “diamond dust” finish mimicking the fine snow that dusts the slopes around Grand Seiko’s Micro Artist Studio, Japanese watchmaking at this level has codes and values – not to mention a vocabulary of quality – that are different to, but as venerated as the values of its Geneva counterpart.
Or, as one collector who preferred to remain anonymous tells me: “People are bored with the same-old same-old, and they’re wanting something high quality that defines them, and Grand Seiko does that.”
“What distinguishes Grand Seiko from others is its Japanese uniqueness, as expressed in its philosophy ‘The Nature of Time’,” says Hattori. “In our watchmaking, we celebrate a Japanese spirituality of time that is deeply inspired by nature and brought to life by takumi, or Japanese craftsmanship.”
His words are echoed by one of Japan’s leading independent watchmakers, Hajime Asaoka, who is descended from a line of swordsmiths on his father’s side and painstakingly makes his own components, prints his own dials and polishes his own cases. “For me haute horlogerie is the only measure by which to express myself. I express myself by observing the principles of nature with my five senses, and I realise what I have observed by designing and manufacturing in watchmaking.”
It was once explained to me by someone clever that Japan has a highly developed sense of beauty, but no sense of ugliness. Perhaps another way of putting it is that the Japanese eye detects aesthetic interest in the trivial and the gaudy as much as the sublime and spiritual. Thus alongside the meditative beauty of this year’s Grand Seiko Shizukuishi collection, the same house can bring out a watch dedicated to Porco Rosso, a manga classic about a first-world-war fighter ace who is turned into a pig and becomes an airborne bounty hunter bringing air pirates to justice that was later made into a feature-length cartoon. When I first saw this watch, it was presented among Grand Seikos costing 20 times as much and was proffered with the same amount of respect and restraint.
I was anything but restrained. I went nuts: a moustachioed pig piloting an open-cockpit seaplane, white silk scarf fluttering like a pennant… what’s not to like? It struck me as a spontaneous and joyful, if unusual, subject to dedicate an otherwise very serious column-wheel chronograph to.
Seiko also works with Bathing Ape, the streetwear brand inspired both by the 1960s film Planet of the Apes and a somewhat abstruse metaphor that draws on the ritualised culture of Japanese bathing. It is hard to imagine Bathing Ape coming from any other country than Japan, but its appeal is international and, as well as partnering with Seiko, Bape is sought after as a collaboration partner by Swiss watch brands including Bell & Ross and Swatch, which announced a new series of Bape Swatch Big Bolds last summer.
Meanwhile, TAG Heuer has partnered with streetwear legend, DJ and designer Hiroshi Fujiwara. It is not the first time that the LVMH watch division has worked with Fujiwara – in 2018 LVMH’s official custom partner Bamford Watch Department created a minimalist Zenith with the Tokyo designer. “It was our fastest-selling limited edition,” recalls George Bamford. “Hiroshi is someone who inspires me and has taught me a hell of a lot about design, particularly in regard to paring back design.”
Bamford was recently approached by Casio to collaborate on a Casio G-Shock, which launched in September in black and Bamford blue. “It is a bit left-field for Bamford Watch department, but I’m so pleased to work with them on something like this,” says Bamford. His affection for the G-Shock can be accounted for by the fact that he grew up with them, as did many of his generation. “Quite a few collectors will have had a G-Shock in their life,” he says.
Who knows? Give it a few years and perhaps the Bamford G-Shock will become a grail watch, too.
The rising of the fun: from Olympic flames to flying pigs – 140 years of Japanese fine watchmaking
Seiko’s founder Kintaro Hattori
opens his first watch shop in Tokyo
Citizen watches founded
Orient Watch founded
Launch of Grand Seiko and the first mechanically wound Japanese watch to comply with the standard of excellence of Bureaux Officiels de Contrôle de la Marche des Montres
To tie in with the Olympics in Tokyo, Seiko releases Ref 5718-8000, the “holy grail” of Seiko watches
Seiko creates the 35 SQ Astron, the world’s first commercial quartz watch
Seiko showcases the first ever hour, minute, second digital watch
Casio launches its first digital watch, the Casiotron
Seiko makes its James Bond debut in The Spy Who Loved Me with the 0674 LC, which functions as a pager
Casio calculator watch
Casio releases gravity shock-resistant watch the G-Shock DW5000C
Grand Seiko Hi-Beat wins Petite Aiguille at Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève 2014
The first Bonhams sale dedicated to Seiko vintage watches and the launch of Seiko’s Porco Rosso collection
Get alerts on Watches when a new story is published