The Time Grand Seiko Ruled The World

If you’ve lived all your life in the Western hemisphere, your opinion of Seiko most likely is that Seiko makes “cheap” watches. That they are not very high-end.

If you haven’t lived all your life in the Western hemisphere, or you are a true watch person, then you know that is absolutely false!

In fact, the Seiko Credor Eichi II is quite possibly the most interesting and best-finished watch in the world. It goes toe-to-toe, literally, with the Laurent Ferrier Galet Micro-Rotor and the Philippe Dufour Simplicity. Furthermore, the Credor line also contains some higher-end complication watches, such as the Credor Repeater, Credor Sonerie, and the Credor Fugaku Tourbillon. These are complications that only a hand full of companies can compete with. Rolex, Omega, Longines, and many other traditional “big” brands from the 60's can not, and never have!

Yet, it’s Seiko who gets the bad rap, apparently making *only* cheap watches.

Part of the problem is Seiko’s. When they entered the market in the West, they didn’t bring any of their Haute Horologie stuff. They brought watches like the Seiko 5, and their Quartz watches instead with sub-$100 price tags. Most likely this was a business decision that worked but had the negative effect of affecting their image as a high-end brand as well.

To that end, how good were the Japanese Domestic Market (JDM), watches from Seiko (and in this case, I’m referring to watches that were not part of the Credor line)?

The answer is very very good. In fact, there was a time when Seiko ruled the world.

It all started in 1960 when Seiko’s Suwa division (Seiko set up 2 subsidiary companies: Suwa in Tokyo and Daini in Nagano, which produced parallel watches. This strategy improved technology with the friendly, but intense internal competition, but also protected Seiko against risk should one or the two run into difficulty), was tasked to produce the best watch they possibly could at the time.

By 1964, after the 1964 Japan Olympics, where Seiko was the official timekeeper, Seiko entered their brand new Grand Seiko in the Neuchatel Chronometer trials in Switzerland, which actually rated and ranked the movements it tested, thus making it possible to see which watches were the most precise and accurate relative to each other. That first year, Seiko finished a lackluster 144th. Then just 3 years later in 1967, with advancements in high-frequency calibers, Seiko finished in the top 10. And in 1968 when Seiko was certain to take 1st place, the Neuchatel Trials were abruptly abandoned!

It has been speculated that this happened in order to prevent Seiko, a Japanese brand from taking 1st place in a Swiss chronometer competition. So, Seiko went to the equivalent Geneva competition where they resumed their competition and it’s quest. This time, however, the results were crystal clear: positions 1 through 3 were taken by Quartz movements, but positions 4 through 10 were all Seiko. In other words, among mechanical watch movements, Seiko swept the top 7!

Seiko's Grand Seiko VFA achieving a -2/+2 precision rating in the 60's!

Seiko's Grand Seiko VFA achieving a -2/+2 precision rating in the 60's!

And for those keeping track, by this time brands like Rolex which like to brag and brag about their chronometer ratings had nothing on Seiko. In fact, here is an interesting detail: Chronometer standards happen to be -4 to +6 seconds per day. Not only did those original Grand Seiko surpass that standard, but the GS VFA (VFA = Very Fine Adjusted), achieved a -2/+2 rating. This is interesting because it reminds me of all the fanfare when Rolex released their 3200 series of movements in Baselworld 2015. This was the first time Rolex had a caliber that could match (almost), the level of accuracy and precision of the GS VFA, and it happened nearly 50 years *after* Seiko did it.

The Grand Seiko 4520 High-beat, which followed their famous "Grammar of Design" philosophy.

The Grand Seiko 4520 High-beat, which followed their famous "Grammar of Design" philosophy.

From there, and until 1978 when the last mechanical Grand Seiko was produced (until the 9S5 Caliber was introduced in 1998), Seiko released many many wonderful models that followed their famed “Grammar of Design” esthetics. Too many to list here, but among the most interesting were the high-beat models that ran at 36000 vph. A 36000 vph caliber makes an amazing sound and since it beats so fast, the second hand literally glides around the dial. Seiko was among the first in the world (2nd actually), as they released their first 36000 vph caliber just one year after Girard Perregaux did. Higher frequencies can increase accuracy, but due to the reliability challenges that came with the high-frequencies, it was also very difficult to get right.

Seiko always got it right.

The King Seiko 45 7000, which beats at 36000 vph

The King Seiko 45 7000, which beats at 36000 vph

The interesting thing is that it wasn’t just the Grand Seiko that had these high-beat calibers. The King Seiko model range (made in the Daini factory), and the Lord Marvel model range also came with 36000 vph calibers. In fact, it was the Lord Marvel 5740 that was first in 1967. This overlap is all part of Seiko’s strategy to have different subsidiary companies produce similar watches and movements at the same time. As such, the difference between a 1960s King Seiko and a 1960s Grand Seiko is essentially nothing quality-wise, but it just so happens that the Grand Seiko name/brand is the one that carried on.

The Lord Marvel 5740 High-beat, Seiko's first 36000 vph watch

The Lord Marvel 5740 High-beat, Seiko's first 36000 vph watch

Also interesting is that aside from the VFA models, which are the rarest, all of these watches produced through the 1970’s can be had at incredibly affordable prices. A Lord Marvel High-Beat 5740 can be found around $250. A King Seiko High-Beat can be found for around $500 (often times less), and while Grand Seikos tend to be the most expensive of the three, they can routinely be bought within a $550-$1500 range.

Only contemporary Grand Seiko watches and the VFA vintage models will surpass that price point.

Now ask yourself this: what else can you buy for under $1000, that beats at 36000 vph, but also set a new standard for accuracy, precision, design and quality that literally ruled the world in every competition it entered in the late 1960’s through early 1970's?