27 April 2022

How did Grand Seiko become one of the watch community's favorite brands?

by Mike Ortolano

It feels like Grand Seiko burst onto the scene of fine watchmaking overnight. For all of us outside of Japan, it effectively did. While the Japanese powerhouse has existed since 1960, it only started exporting timepieces overseas about a decade ago in 2010. And its arrival on the global stage marked the end of an era – no more are the world’s largest luxury watchmaking brands found in a small subset of European nations, such as Switzerland, France, and Germany. 

Over a short period of time, especially by luxury watchmaking standards, Grand Seiko has become one of the watch community’s favorite brands. Usually renowned for timepieces between US$4,000-10,000, the latest Kodo Constant-Force Tourbillon shows the brand is capable of producing some of the industry’s most complicated timepieces. Overall, it’s rare to hear any dissenting voices or strong criticisms of the brand’s horological craftsmanship and performance. So what’s allowed the Grand Seiko to flourish in such a short period of time? What factors have contributed to the brand's meteoric rise since it launched internationally in 2010?

While it’s easy to attribute Grand Seiko’s success to the product (this is true, of course), it’s an overly generic answer. It says little about the company and the underlying market conditions. If the devil is in the details of great watches, the same can be said about great watchmaking businesses. That’s why we’re diving into the specifics of Grand Seiko’s success over the last decade – how the brand focuses relentlessly on what modern collectors care for most, how it alleviates very “modern” consumer criticisms, and how it delivers timepieces at scale to meet demand.

Nailing what collectors love: the dial

The SBGA011 Snowflake, perhaps Grand Seiko's most recognisable dial | Atelier de Griff

George Daniels, widely considered the greatest modern watchmaker, always focused on the design of the dial first. Of course, this sets important parameters (what complications there are, where hands have to be, etc.) to help think more concretely about the design of a new movement. It wasn’t simple mechanical pragmatism that led George Daniels to the dial first though. The dial is ultimately the aspect of a watch that its owner must love. It’s the primary interface between owner and object. To watch purists, there’s no tragedy greater than a beautiful movement in a watch with an ugly dial.

Here, Grand Seiko routinely nails the most important aspect of fine timepieces in the eyes of collectors and enthusiasts. At their price range, it’s frankly rare to see such variety and aesthetic nuances. From the light pink dial of the “Shunbun” on the SBGA413 Spring Drive to the mountainous green “Toge'' dial on the Elegance SBGM241, there are dozens of Grand Seiko timepieces with exquisite textures and color palettes. The “Snowflake,” light-blue “Kira-zuri'' dials, and the engraved, deep blue motif on the SBGH267 have become wildly popular and coveted timepieces due to their distinctive dial aesthetics.

If George Daniels’ intuition on the importance of the dial is right, then it’s without doubt that one of Grand Seiko’s largest driving factors in their meteoric rise is dial-related. It’s the aesthetically diverse and often beautiful dials that captivate collectors first and foremost, producing a “love at first sight” phenomenon. It’s not the only aesthetic aspect of Grand Seiko that has led to its meteoric rise. The watchmaking powerhouse’s finishing on the movement side has also contributed, especially in light of the demands of the modern internet communities.

Attention to detail where and when it matters most

If there ever was a period when consumers simply bought the brand with blind trust, those days are almost completely over now. Especially through online watch communities on Instagram, Reddit, and Facebook, the internet has a keen eye for the good, the bad, and the ugly. Especially with macro-photography, Instagram pages like @horomariobro cast a light on the high (and sometimes, low) standards of finishing on fine timepieces. This has led to brands being held to higher levels of accountability for the design, finishing, and quality control decisions. Considering these new market realities, Grand Seiko has met high consumer expectations head-on and thrived in this environment, arguably better than most.

How Grand Seiko has thrived during these skeptical and critical times is found in the details of their craftsmanship. The brand’s trademark “zaratsu” polish typifies Grand Seiko’s distinct visual identity. So where is it found and what does it look like?

The zaratsu finish is found on the edges of cases. That sharp contrast between sides of the case, especially the sharp edge where two contrasting surfaces meet, is the brand’s distinguishing hallmark. It’s this manually finished zaratsu technique that eliminates distortions in the polished surface, often common in different techniques, leaving a clean juxtaposition in surface finishing that screams high-quality.

The Zaratsu polishing on the SBGJ255 | HODINKEE

It’s not only what collectors can see on the case or dial that indicates Grand Seiko’s reputation as a master in finishing timepieces. @horomario, one of the watch community's biggest figures in what might be called “macro-photography criticism,” has pointed out that Grand Seiko’s attention to finishing can be found beneath the hour and minute hands of SBGY003. As it usually goes, parts hidden from sight are left unfinished. It’s simply out of sight, out of mind. But with Grand Seiko, even the underside of the hands are polished out of principle. In the field of micro-mechanics and micro-artistry, these very minor differences hold disproportionately major sway over the market’s perceptions of brands. It’s ultimately one of the core reasons the brand has flourished over the last decade and built good faith with everyone from the tourists to the purists in the watch community.

The market favours…inventory 

While collectors could still walk into any authorized dealer and immediately buy (almost) any watch imaginable in 2010, the times have since dramatically changed. Scarcity caused by massive, outpaced demand has left collectors on 10-year waiting lists or “bundle buying” undesired watches to get what they want. ​​Of course, Grand Seiko would’ve never predicted the current market conditions – very few (if anyone) did. But fifty years of gradual, compounding production growth did wonders since the brand’s international launch

Imagine a world where Grand Seiko’s production capacity isn’t its current 35,000 per annum, but rather a tenth of that? Maybe prices would be higher second-hand, but collectors would certainly be less happy than they are now, buying Grand Seiko at much friendlier prices. Therein lies the last core factor behind Grand Seiko’s rise – it was already huge so it was able to handle the pressure by the massive global market…at least so far.

In hindsight, everything is obvious. In 2010 though, it was entirely unclear whether Grand Seiko would make much of a splash globally. This was before the rise of the watch community on Instagram, the earliest days of Hodinkee, and, as mentioned, well before scarcity in the supply of Swiss brands became a struggle for collectors. A mixture of fortunate circumstances and dedication to its own ways, Grand Seiko’s ethos of expressive dials and finishing that punches above its weight class fits the needs of modern collectors exceptionally well. In the future, maybe hype for Grand Seiko will outpace supply in comparable ways to Rolex. Until then, the brand has found a way to be a breath of fresh air and a great entryway for new collectors to own top-notch timepieces at reasonable prices.

Deemed the “watch community’s favorite thinkboi” by Tony at Rescapement, Mike is a watch collector and writer behind The Open Caseback.