Making the Sports Watch Work for Grand Seiko

Making the Sports Watch Work for Grand Seiko


Akio Naito, President of Seiko Watch Corporation
Akio Naito, President of Seiko Watch Corporation. Image: Seiko

The last few years have been tumultuous ones, even for the global watch trade. It is a mixed bag, but watchmaking powerhouse such as Seiko have been capitalising on a multi-year streak of collector interest. In 2017, Seiko confirmed what many already took for granted — that Grand Seiko was the master of its own destiny. No longer subsumed under the Seiko badge, the Grand Seiko that collectors knew and loved now had a slightly cleaner dial. Things have been looking up since. 

As for Seiko itself, the brand is celebrating its 140th anniversary this year, and it has shown remarkable vitality of late. Obviously, the rising tide of dive watches has benefitted Seiko too, with a Bonhams auction of Seiko dive watches last year illustrating this point vividly. It even prompted us to look into the dive watch itself last year with a massive special section. Of course, Seiko is much more than any one type of watch, and so any examination of its history must embrace this diversity. 

To provide some perspective and insight into the history of the company, we spoke with newly-minted President of the Seiko Watch Corporation Akio Naito recently. No stranger to the company, Naito brings decades of experience with him. “Prior to taking up the role of President, I was the Deputy Chief Operating Officer, and thus responsible for international markets,” said Naito. He explained that in his role as president, he is now responsible for the domestic Japanese business. “It may sound strange but I have never experienced, directly, the Japanese domestic market business. I am now in learning mode, trying to understand how the Japanese market works.” 

Given that Naito joined Seiko in 1984, this does indeed sound strange. He explains that of the many roles he has held at the Seiko Watch Corporation and the holding company, Seiko Holdings Corporation, his career until 2000 was in the legal and finance departments. This all changed when he got the chance to lead the marketing efforts for the Seiko Corporation of America that year. 

We spoke with Naito (digitally, as is normal now) about his long tenure at Seiko, and the future of Grand Seiko. Feeling brave with our camera turned off, we also took the opportunity to see if Grand Seiko would introduce any of its famed artistry in its Sports collection…

You’ve had many roles at Seiko in your long career at the company. How did you manage so many transitions there?

Well, it was not my intention. The opportunities just came my way. The big change happened when I was sounded out by management about the opportunity to take care of marketing for the USA around 2000. I had been in legal and finance my entire time at the company, and management wanted to know if I wanted to experience marketing for a change. In 2002, management asked me to take the management role in Australia, and I accepted. [Between 2006-2015] I headed the legal department in Japan, before taking on the management role in America for Seiko, and then Grand Seiko. [Since then] I’ve been in the watchmaking business. 

About that, Seiko has done a great job in raising its profile in recent years, and Grand Seiko in particular has gained a lot of traction in the US. Tell us more about this.

Grand Seiko SLGH005
Grand Seiko SLGH005. Image: Grand Seiko

I got the mission to develop our watch business in the US in 2016, and I started digging up everything I could about our watches, our history, heritage and technological strength. I found that there was so much to communicate that we were not doing yet. What I started doing when I arrived in the USA was to be connected with the core Grand Seiko fans, all over the country. These were communities, not mass groups… but there were fans who were passionate about Grand Seiko. I tried to create events and communication around these communities [and their peer networks] to develop our brand in the US. 

Speaking of heritage and tradition at Grand Seiko, what’s the position of the utilitarian sports watch for you?

Of course, we have a long history at Seiko of being associated with sports, and sporting events, as you know. At Grand Seiko, we have the brand philosophy of the nature of time, which is a bit different from the sports category. So actually, in terms of traditional techniques, all these are in the Heritage watches, like the White Birch and the Snowflake. These are our traditional models inspired by the beauty of nature. 

What do you think about maybe applying the extraordinary finishing and traditional techniques to the Grand Seiko sports watches?

Grand Seiko, movement
Image: Grand Seiko

That’s very interesting! I’ve never thought about really applying the nature of time or the nature-inspired approach into our sports watches. [Having said that] we are very strong in technical innovation, whether it be Spring Drive or the tourbillon constant force concept, and these technically-oriented movements would best fit into the sports watches category (Ed note — as Spring Drive already does).

Before getting into these technical details, I’d like to ask your perspective on the ideal weight for a watch. This is an area we have been exploring recently.

I think there are differences in tastes; in some countries, people appreciate lightness in watches. This is true in Japan, for example. On the other hand, in the US, people don’t like the light weight; they think the heavy weight gives them better value, for whatever reason! So it is very difficult to say that there is an ideal weight overall. Trying to understand people’s tastes, to understand where they prefer lightness [or not], is something we always do.

Because we are vertically integrated, and have been for many years, we take advantage of our in-house capabilities to offer the best possible materials for watches. For titanium, for example, the weakness is in processing and in the texture and tone; we have improved this over the years using in-house processes, and with outside research institutes. [This also applies] to stainless steel. In our collection for Grand Seiko, the Snowflake uses titanium that looks beautiful but doesn’t look like titanium. It shines like steel, but it lasts longer. That’s our goal when it comes to creating high-end materials for cases.

Moving on to innovations in the movements, from Spring Drive down to the new calibre 9SA5 introduced last year. How relevant is timekeeping precision for Seiko and Grand Seiko? We have never met anyone who bought a fine timepiece because it keeps great time, or has an amazing escapement, for example.

People have different priorities in selecting watches. Our priority is to make the ultimate watch. After all, the primary purpose of a watch is to tell time, amazingly! We don’t want to forget the nature of watchmaking, and we pursue the highest level of excellence there. It is in our DNA to pursue the highest level of excellence. As our founder Kintaro Hattori put it, always be one step ahead of the rest. For 9SA5, we did not do this for the sake of doing it. It is the result of the continuous efforts of our entire engineering team. 

I do believe that there are individuals who are passionate about this aspect of watchmaking. They may not be the majority of [watch enthusiasts] or the mass public but, in some way, their respect for the brand is able to influence the wider range of consumers. That is how I perceive the whole market for watchmaking. 

With regards to how influential collectors perceive Grand Seiko, in particular, what’s Seiko’s perspective on the pre-owned market, and on perceived value?

Thank you very much for this question. The pre-owned market is something we have not yet fully explored to the fullest extent. There is huge potential here, from making full use of our history to promoting sustainability [by embracing the circular economy]. We are, at this moment, studying how we can develop the pre-owned market.

Is there a danger of people getting mixed up between Seiko and Grand Seiko? We talked about Grand Seiko Sports watches but of course Seiko has many popular sports watches.

Yes! You know, Grand Seiko used to be just a line under Seiko. At that time, we only had the Heritage watches under Grand Seiko; Grand Seiko did not have anything in the sports or elegance areas. As the brand became independent, we enlarged the collection and I think [that because of this] there are increasingly some overlapping areas between Seiko and Grand Seiko. I understand that this is a very important issue for us, in terms of communication. [We have to be clear] about the uniqueness of Seiko, and the uniqueness of Grand Seiko. This applies even in the same category, like the sports category. If we are serious about building a separate identity for Grand Seiko, independent of Seiko, then we must communicate clearly on the differences [between our models in the same category].

Moving on to the challenges of our global situation, how has Seiko handled the COVID-19 pandemic?

Grand Seiko Manufacture
Grand Seiko Manufacture. Image: Grand Seiko

The pandemic indeed changed our working situation drastically. At the manufacture we were forced to reduce working days, and because of this last year, we had to change the launch schedules of some of our models. Now manufacturing has almost recovered to pre-COVID-19 levels. The situation also accelerated our digitalisation progress. We decided to launch Grand Seiko last year on a new digital platform, and I think that this digital shift will remain the norm [in a post Covid-19 world]. For working lifestyles, now work from home has become the norm, even in Japan, and this shift will have an impact on consumer behaviours in many aspects [including unexpected ones] that we have to be prepared to face.

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