Can the Japanese Fine-Watchmaking Brand Grand Seiko Outdo Its Swiss Counterparts?

Seiko Watch Corporation president, COO, and CMO Shuji Takahashi is doubling down to bring the high-end line to the American market.

[Editor’s note: The night before this interview, Seiko Watch Corporation chairman and CEO Shinji Hattori sang three karaoke songs, including Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” in front of a small group in Tokyo with impressive aplomb.]

Shinji is an unusually talented singer. Do you sing, too?

In a very private setting, I might. [Laughs]

Do you have a go-to karaoke song?

Yes, it’s a traditional Japanese Enka song. You wouldn’t know it.

Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I don’t think most watch buyers in the United States are aware that Grand Seiko’s Japanese-made mechanical movements are as fine as any crafted in Switzerland. What are your aims and ambitions for educating the U.S. market?

We’re keenly aware that a brand cannot be built overnight. And my belief is we cannot build a brand based on advertising. The brand’s history, its values, its unique features—all of these things must be thoroughly explained and communicated. We’ve just launched a dedicated Grand Seiko marketing team in the U.S., and we have eyes on building Grand Seiko boutique stores there. We’ll be planning more and more events, and we will be increasing our social media communication as well.

It was announced at the Baselworld watch fair this year that Grand Seiko is now officially its own autonomous brand, separate from Seiko. What was the reasoning behind establishing this division?

In 1960, after the inception of the Grand Seiko brand in the Japanese market, it was already a special and distinguished brand from the other Seiko watches. If you look at the three main products we offer—the quartz, the Spring Drive, and the mechanical—they were all proprietary to Grand Seiko from the very first day. Also, the engineers, the developers, the manufacturing line, the designers—all of this was dedicated to Grand Seiko from the beginning.

In terms of the distribution of Grand Seiko, in Japan we have the Grand Seiko “master shop system.” These are shops we’ve designated throughout Japan. They could be upmarket department stores, jewelry stores, or specialty stores. There are 140 of them. They serve as the very foundation, or the core, of Grand Seiko’s distribution here. We adopt a very unique approach. These master shops might be able to offer exclusive models, for example.

Your in-house designer Nobuhiro Kosugi is practically a national treasure. Where do you see design within the matrix of things at Grand Seiko?

I think Grand Seiko’s design philosophy is in the finishes and the textures we create. It’s expressed in a minimal manner. Sometimes we hear from customers who are used to the Swiss brands that Grand Seiko might be a little too subtle for them, but that’s exactly what we’re trying to communicate. I think this is a Japanese trait—we want to have perfection in the details.

From Left: Takahashi wearing a Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph SBGC017, released at Basel in 2016. Seiko's Tokyo office entrance.

Even for a brand as large as Seiko, there seems to be a humility at the core of the company.

All Japanese, as a premise, are humble. Maybe this is our true identity in this global setting. Our humbleness, which we once took for granted, is now something of a quality.

That makes Seiko’s longtime collaboration with Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, who’s known for his radical car design, all the more surprising. How do his watches like the Seiko Giugiaro 7A28-7000 from the 1986 movie Aliens and this year’s Seiko Astron limited edition fit in?

For collaborations with external designers, it’s all about chemical reactions. For any brand, any collaboration has its pros and cons. When you’re collaborating with a designer, it has to have some sort of necessity or natural course. What I mean by this is, okay, they could be a dichotomy of total extremes, or they could be what people would say is a mismatch or strange combination, but there’s always a thread when you do a combination between those two extremes, and that usually sets the flow of how things will develop into a brilliant design.

I was mentioning to some of your colleagues—and this is on the opposite side of the Giugiaro spectrum—that Grand Seiko should do a collaboration with the architect Tadao Ando. I’d buy one.

[Laughs] Thank you for suggestion. I will share it internally and see how it goes.

Last question: I’m curious, if you had 30 seconds in an elevator to describe the Grand Seiko brand to an American buyer, what would your pitch be? Instead of a fine Swiss watch, why a Grand Seiko?

What I say to my customers is that I could tell you everything about the Astron [the first analog watch to automatically recognize all time zones on Earth] in a minute. If it’s Grand Seiko, however, I can talk about it for an hour. It’s impossible for me to boil it down to a minute. As I mentioned earlier, a brand cannot be built by advertising. Thirty-second or 60-second spots are not going to suffice to explain what Grand Seiko is all about.

What I would do is maybe press the emergency button to talk for 10 minutes. [Laughs] At least 10 minutes is what I require.

Or maybe you make them want to get off the elevator with you to hear you explain Grand Seiko for an entire hour. Give them a cliffhanger, leave them wanting more.

Yeah, that’s a good idea.

Say nothing now, so that it’s a surprise later.

[Laughs] That’s actually so true. A lot of people say that Grand Seiko seems to be a brand full of mysteries—they don’t know much about it. If I could just say, “Hey, look at my watch, this is going to do something special for you,” that could be a hook—a teaser—to discuss more about how great these watches truly are.

This interview was conducted through a translator.

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