From nature to your wrist

From nature to your wrist


Main photo Designed by Kengo Kuma, the Grand Seiko Studio Shizukuishi officially opened in July 2020. (Photo by Thana Boonlert)

In the rural Japanese town of Shizukuishi in Iwate Prefecture, a new wooden studio for Grand Seiko blends with its natural surroundings. A swooping roof and clear glass window offer a sublime view of Mount Iwate, over 2,000m in height, where rocks unfold their true colours when snow melts. Set in lush landscape, the studio bears witness to wild creatures, including antelopes and foxes. In the midst of nature, craftspeople, known as takumi, are breathing life into mechanical watches. It is a place that embodies the brand’s philosophy of the nature of time, in an environmental and technological sense.

“Japan is a country with beautiful nature. Historically, we have a sensible notion of appreciating changing seasons. Not just four seasons. We have 24 seasons. The appreciation of subtle change is how the Japanese enjoy the flow of time. Somehow, we want to have our product reflect that,” said Akio Naito, president of Seiko Watch Corporation.

“It also suggests the essence of watchmaking. Grand Seiko is meant to be an ultimate functional watch. Our takumi pursue, without making compromise, how they can create the best watch.”

Founded in 1881 by Kintaro Hattori, Seiko Group has been manufacturing and selling watches for over 140 years. In 1970, it established one of its manufacturing bases, Morioka Seiko Instruments, in Shizukuishi. Nowadays, it produces high-quality watches for Grand Seiko (Seiko’s collection that eventually became an independent brand in 2017) and other lines. The Grand Seiko Studio Shizukuishi officially opened in July 2020. Nearby, there are the Koiwai Farm, the Morioka Handcraft Village and Tsunagi Hot Spring, where inns and hotels overlook Lake Gosho.

Designed by Kengo Kuma, Japan’s prominent architect behind the Japan National Stadium and many other notable projects, the studio exudes warmth, simplicity and a relationship with nature. The roof is reflected in a platform at the entrance. Made of cedar, walls and pillars are built in the yamato-bari style to create rhythm.

On view are historic timepieces and the manufacturing process that show unrivalled craftsmanship. For example, Caliber 9SA5, a high-beat movement with long power reserve, consists of 273 parts. Its bridge has curving outlines that draw inspiration from Mount Iwate and the Shizukuishi River.

Nearby, a long walkway allows visitors to observe takumi at work in the clean room. Their desks are made in the style of iwayado-tansu, a traditional craft in Iwate, and arranged in rows. On the day of my visit, craftsmen were assembling parts, adjusting hairsprings that demand an accuracy of 0.01mm, and inspecting products. Given the brand’s emphasis on precision, it has set up a human resource development system whereby takumi are certified according to the level of their skill and train their successors.

“We have to protect high skills and pass them down to the next generation of watchmakers,” said Tomomi Ichinokura, assistant manager of the studio’s public relations. “But certification isn’t permanent. Every two years, the company checks their progress.”

Being mindful of the future translates into environmental sustainability. The studio is committed to waste reduction, water treatment and carbon emission control. Staff are looking after more than 1,000 trees, including pine, oak and chestnut, on its premises. Its green space is 38,685m², or 37% of the total area. They also provide birdhouses and insect hotels, one of which is located in front of the studio. Last year, it opened a biotope, a habitat of creatures, next to the courtyard. In collaboration with researchers, it collects and purifies rainwater and releases it into a pond.

“We have to protect the environment. This is an area where animals pass to Mount Iwate or Lake Gosho,” said staff member Wataru Inoue. “We take nature to our design and therefore have to harmonise with it.”

Meanwhile, the Seiko Museum moved from Sumida-ku to Ginza, the birthplace of Seiko, in 2020. Located in Tokyo’s premier shopping district, the museum chronicles the brand’s history of timepieces. In front of the six-floor building is Rondeau La Tour, a clock of 5.8m in height with a slowly swinging pendulum. Every hour, when a melody starts, dolls and gears move in unison amid radiating rainbow light. Nearby, a wall depicts trees made up of gear motifs. Visitors can buy souvenirs at the shop and explore each floor, where timepieces are displayed under different themes.

“Merchants must stay a step ahead of the rest, but just one step. If they stay too many steps ahead they will be seen as prophets, too far removed from reality. Merchants shouldn’t be prophets,” founder Hattori once said.

On the 2nd floor, Hattori’s room demonstrates his vision that is “always one step ahead of the rest”. During the Edo Period (1603-1867), Japan used the seasonal time system where the traditional clock would be adjusted according to the changing length of daylight. It was eventually replaced by the fixed time system. Hattori thought it would make for a good business because people would have to buy new clocks. At 21, he opened his store (now on the site of Wako) selling imported timepieces. A decade later, he began manufacturing clocks at the Seikosha Factory, where Japan’s first wristwatch, the Laurel, came in 1913.

At their special desks, staff assemble parts, make adjustments and inspect products in the clean room. (Photo by Thana Boonlert)

“However, there was a huge earthquake in Tokyo in 1923. He decided to give customers new watches for free even if they didn’t have receipts anymore. It was a big disaster. He almost gave up. His house, factory and store were burnt down. But he moved forward,” a curator said.

Despite the chaotic postwar period, Seiko continued to break new ground. On the 4th floor, an exhibition shows the technological development of timepieces, including the world’s highest-quality wristwatch, the Grand Seiko (1960), and the world’s first quartz wristwatch, the Quartz Astron 35SQ (1969). The Japan Society of Mechanical Engineers designated the historic trio — the Laurel, the Grand Seiko and the Quartz Astron — as mechanical engineering heritages in 2014.

Nearby, Wako, a luxurious department store, reopened under a new name, Seiko House Ginza, in June. It is said to be the “embodiment of Hattori’s soul”. On the rooftop are its iconic clock tower and a new garden that offers a panoramic view of the district. But the highlight is the new Atelier Ginza. Located on the 7th floor, the studio will provide room for artisans to produce high-end mechanical watches for Grand Seiko. I got an opportunity to listen to the heartbeat of its Kodo Constant-force Tourbillon, which won the chronometry prize from the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève in November.

“Because I brought takumi with me to Geneva, the production is now being delayed. There are only few watchmakers who are capable of assembling this very difficult piece,” said Naito. “We thought we were able to complete [the production of a limited edition of] 20 pieces in two years, but once they started, they uncovered technical problems and had to go back and redo it, which took much longer than anticipated. So far, by the end of November, only four pieces have been assembled.”

Inspired by nature, the Grand Seiko Studio Shizukuishi is committed to environmental protection. It set up birdhouses in trees, which titmouses inhabit. (Photo by Thana Boonlert)

Like other industries, watchmaking has seen the advent of smart gadgets, for example, Fitbit and Apple Watch, which can broadly meet our demands. Is it possible that mechanical timepieces will vanish? Naito said “they will stay” because they have special values, especially inheritability.

“Timekeeping is not the only value of [mechanical] wristwatches. There is something that you can appreciate — either companionship in your life or some memorabilia which can be passed on for generations — other than function. From that point of view, mechanical watches can survive, regardless of whatever revolution will take place.”

The Seiko Museum Ginza chronicles the history of the brand’s timepieces. (Photo by Thana Boonlert)

The Seiko Museum Ginza chronicles the history of the brand’s timepieces. (Photo by Thana Boonlert)

The wall on the right is in the yamato-bari style to create rhythm. (Photo by Thana Boonlert)

Takumi work together in the clean room. (Photo by Thana Boonlert)

The Grand Seiko Studio Shizukuishi offers staff and visitors a view of the 2,000m-tall Mount Iwate. (Photo by Thana Boonlert)

Visitors can buy souvenirs at the museum shop. (Photo by Thana Boonlert)