Switzerland may be the de facto home of watchmaking and horology, but the Japanese watchmakers at Seiko have been going toe-to-toe with their European counterparts for over 130 years. Seiko’s wide range of wristwatches allows the brand to navigate effortlessly at both the top and bottom ends of the watch market, and their archive contains a plethora of groundbreaking timepieces that’ve helped shape the world of horology as we know it today.
History & Philosophy of Seiko
The Seiko story began in 1881, when the company’s founder, Kintarō Hattori, opened a watch and jewelry shop named ‘K. Hattori’ in Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood. After he had up the business to buy, sell, and service clocks and pocket watches, Hattori set his sights on becoming a manufacturer himself.
In 1892, Hattori opened a factory to produce luxury wall clocks under the brand name of ‘Seikosha‘—a Japanese word that roughly translates to ‘house of exquisite workmanship.’ This venture laid solid foundations on which Hattori could build his timepiece business, and by 1895, the Seikosha brand had released their first pocket watch, the Seikosha Time Keeper.
After the turn of the twentieth century, the ever-pioneering Hattori noticed a potent rise in the demand for wristwatches and Seiko took its first steps into the wristwatch market in 1913 with the Seishoka Laurel, an elegant timepiece with a 29.6mm silver case and a porcelain enamel dial.
Seiko took a huge hit when the Kanto earthquake devastated areas of Japan in 1923, and left the Seikosha factory in ruin along with all of Hattori’s backstock of timepieces. While this disaster put Hattori’s operations on hold, he was quick to rebuild and return to the game, returning with another wristwatch just one year later. This wristwatch was the first to feature the name ‘Seiko’ on the dial, marking the beginning of the Seiko brand.
Kintarō Hattori passed away in 1934, leaving his eldest son, Genzo, to inherit the Seiko company and manage its operations. After persevering through Japan’s engagement in World War II, Seiko was on its way to becoming a global brand by the mid-1950s.
The company had grown to produce three million watches per year— which were marketed as far as the United States—and the 1954 Seiko Marvel was a milestone timepiece for the brand, featuring the first movement to be designed and produced in-house by Seiko. The Seiko Automatic also debuted in 1954, as Japan’s first automatic wristwatch, and a luxury line named ‘Grand Seiko’ was created in 1960 to compete with the status of high-end Swiss watches.
After continued success and a sponsorship for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics—for which the brand supplied 1,278 stopwatches— Seiko was determined to become the first brand to produce the first consumer quartz wristwatch. The brand already had success in quartz wall clocks but they had yet to miniaturize them to be able to fit comfortably on someone’s arm.
Their efforts produced the Seiko Astron in 1969. Upon its debut, Seiko declared, ‘Someday, all watches will be made this way.’ To some extent, they were right. Their revolutionary quartz wristwatches changed the watchmaking industry and generated huge business for Seiko throughout the 1970s.
The 1980s would prove difficult for many Japanese companies and Seiko was no exception, their stock price halved. But such a setback didn’t stop their efforts to innovate and revolutionize watchmaking.
Today, Seiko is a holding company with a host of subsidiaries manufacturing anything from watches to printers to optics, but Seiko wristwatches remain the driving force of the corporation. The philosophy of innovation and high quality is as strong as ever, and Seiko watches continue to push the boundaries of horology and micro-technology. For instance, their latest innovation is the Solar GPS complication, which, using GPS technology, allows the watch to automatically change the time to correspond with 40 different time zones.
Iconic Seiko Products
Seiko 5 SNK805
Possibly the best-valued automatic watch one can find, the Seiko 5 SNK805 is a military-inspired timepiece with an automatic mechanical movement, housed within a stainless steel case. The dial features contrasting hands and a day-and-date calendar complication. Coming in a timeless military green colorway with a nylon strap, you can’t beat this watch for style, quality, and affordability.
$66 at Amazon.
Another Seiko timepiece that delivers some serious quality without the (as) serious price tag is the SKX007. This diving watch features a fully automatic Japanese-made movement within a 42mm stainless steel case, which is water resistant up to 660 feet (deep enough for any recreational diver). The SKX007 utilizes a dive-ready 22mm rubber strap, a one-direction stainless steel bezel, and a black dial with a day-and-date complication, all protected by a Hardlex crystal.
Available for $198 at Amazon.
Grand Seiko SBGR257
Grand Seiko is still in operation today, and this line produces some of the world’s finest watches which rival any Swiss watchmaker’s offerings. Every piece of a Grand Seiko watch is made in-house, including the quartz, mechanical, and spring drive movements.
This watch from the Grand Seiko line is a meticulously crafted timepiece that utilizes Seiko’s own Caliber 9S65—an automatic movement that boasts an accuracy exceeding the Swiss chronometer standard. Coming in the timeless stainless steel case with contrasting black dial-design, the SBGR257 features contrasting hands and a date complication, and the bracelet is also made of stainless steel, fastening with a three-fold, push-release clasp.
$4,100 at Hodinkee.