The unexpected star
I had the pleasure to discuss with Mr Shunji Tanaka, Seiko Senior Vice President, about the wonderful
Japan-made watches, about the new Presage collection and the most beautiful tourbillon ever created.
We really like and admire your brand at Forbes and Lifetime – our magazines – and we’d like to ask you about the collection this year and which models do you think are the strength for 2016.
We are focusing on several collections this year. First of all is the Grand Seiko. Grand Seiko is successful on the global market now. Of course, Japan is number one, we have huge sales. The international market is also catching up and growing every year. And this year we’ll have the new design series. That is quite different from the current Grand Seiko model. That’s ceramic material we used on the bezel and the lugs. And inside it’s made of titanium.
Yes, this time. So the big topic is the new design series we launched in Grand Seiko. And a new calibre is also developed for Grand Seiko this year. It has an 8-day power reserve. That is the longest duration of power of any spring-wound watch in the world.
What was the reaction to this model?
Very good. We are very happy about the reaction.
So what made you change the design? What was the reason?
To cultivate a new demand for Grand Seiko. So, at this moment, we have a conservative design. But for that quality of watches there is a different demand. So we created the new design series. To capture a new demand.
So this is the trend? I mean, for the future are you going to diversify the design?
I think in a couple of years we’ll have both a basic line and this sporty line. Maybe this line we will expand year by year.
I understand. And do you have this model also with a bracelet or just with the leather strap?
This time we concentrate on the strap models. Maybe in the future…
But they are beautiful. May I ask what the price range is?
The cheapest one is €12,000, and the most expensive is €14,850.
What are the main markets that you target with this new product? Because it is a new product actually, I think.
We are targeting every market (laughs). There is no particular market that we are focusing on.
And how long have you been working on the redesign, on the relaunch?
It usually takes around 1 year and a half or two years to develop a new series.
It’s beautiful. I’ve never seen this kind of dial before. It’s really, really beautiful.
That is the motif of fir tree.
Yes, I can see it. Is it of a particular significance for Seiko? The fir tree?
Our studio is located in Shiojiri.
I think I remember it.
There is a 1200-year-old shrine, near the watch studio. Every six years they have a festival, a fir tree festival – Onbashira festival it is called.
Oh, I didn’t know.
That’s fine. We used the fir tree design as a motif. You can see it on the dial.
Yes, I saw it on the dial. If you look into the light you can see it.
There’s a story behind this design.
And the price is €12,000 I think you said… I don’t know which one is the most expensive…
It’s the green one. This is a chronograph. It’s €14,850.
I know it’s not a ladies’ watch but I would wear it. It’s incredibly beautiful. And the primary market for a €15,000 Seiko would be first the local market, right?
So far we have been quite successful in our orders. Because of the price, we need to be careful with the demand. But, unexpectedly, we got a really good feedback on it, to be honest. Our partners in the country said this version was really different. It’s a sporty line, it has lots of potential, also because of the weight, it’s very light, it’s scratch-resistant as well, and these are all attributes a sporty watch should have. It’s perfect… It’s accurate as well, so far we’re very satisfied.
How many calibres are in Grand Seiko?
We have three different calibres: a mechanical calibre, the other one is spring drive, and then quartz.
It’s obvious that it’s an important step for Seiko, considering the activity in recent years. I think it’s the most courageous step so far.
We are paying very much attention to detail. And this is, for example, the 18-carat gold emblem we put on the oscillating weight.
Oh, I didn’t notice.
This one. It’s a lion mark.
How long has Grand Seiko been available outside Japan? Several years only, right?
Five years ago we launched internationally.
I remember when I went to Japan and I saw the Grand Seiko for the first time, me and the entire group were saying: why don’t you sell it outside Japan? Because it was such a beautiful watch.
Yes, we received that comment so often that we finally decided.
And what else do we have besides Grand Seiko?
We launched a new mechanical watch collection – Presage.
It’s automatic, right?
Yes. All automatic. It’s a successful collection in Japan. We have had it for five years already. This year we decided to launch this collection on the global market. All watches are mechanical watches.
And they are all in steel or do you have other materials for them, like gold…?
Only steel, yes.
And what is the price range for this new collection?
Oh, it’s a good price.
Actually, this one and the one your colleague (Constantin Bacheș, ed. note) has are chronograph movements, and those are limited editions. And the dial of this one (Seiko Presage SRQ021, ed. note) has a very traditional Japan lacquer – urushi lacquer. The kind of lacquer the Japanese use for plates or sake cups… And we used this in the dial. That’s why it is very special. And the other one (Seiko Presage SRQ019, ed. note) is also very special. That is called enamel.
Enamel, yes. Oh, but it’s a very good price for this kind of quality.
Yes, exactly. It’s an automatic chronograph, completely hand-made. It takes three weeks to produce the dial. You have to paint it and then polish it several times until you get this dark, deep black lacquered dial, entirely hand-finished, that has almost no reflection. It is real artistry. The edition is limited to 1.000 pieces and the price is very reasonable…
But I think the demand will be bigger than 1,000 pieces. Would you consider doing more?
Actually, we have received a bigger demand. But our capabilities are limited. As we mentioned, it takes a lot of time.
But it’s a pity… It’s a pity to have just 1,000 pieces.
But we have a very, very good feedback. We have a long history of mechanical watches, since 1913. This (Seiko Laurel, ed. note) is our first mechanical watch – actually Japan’s first mechanical wristwatch. It is displayed downstairs also. What is surprising is that the dial never changed colour. Because enamel lasts long. Even now. You can see this one here. It’s still white.
Really? After 100 years it’s still…
And the two Presage limited editions are inspired by this model. They are limited editions and the price is high, but we have regular models also.
Actually, the price is not high considering it is a manufactured mechanism. Go around Basel and you’ll see… This is affordable. It’s actually a good price.
This one is €900 (Multi-hand Automatic: SPB041, ed. note), and this will be around €500 (Automatic with centre power reserve indicator: SSA303, ed. note), depending on the market.
What watch are you wearing now, if I may ask?
This is a Grand Seiko.
The classical design is also amazing.
Yes, this is a signature design.
It’s perfect! I mean, nothing to add, nothing to take away…
I’ve had this watch for five years, I think.
Really? It looks new.
We also developed a new calibre and we put it into Astron collection, World Time.
This is big.
Not so heavy though, because of the titanium. It’s Solar GPS. With this model, we have the possibility to offer a very classic, elegant watch, but with the latest technology inside, without looking too technical.
And this is mother-of-pearl?
Yes. Black mother-of-pearl.
Wow! This is very beautiful. What is the price for this one? Can you tell me?
This is €2,700. And it’s a limited edition.
Do you have anything for the ladies? I mean, I would wear all of them, but…
No, not this time.
I would wear all the Grand Seikos, all of them, every day. They are really beautiful.And now, given this strange global situation – politically, economically… – what kind of results do you expect? Better than last year, equal…?
We are implementing our strategy and brand initiatives in each market and I believe we are making the brand strong and upgrading the brand value. Which will be an effective protection during the difficult period. So that’s what we are doing now. We continue upgrading our value.
Upgrading the brand value means opening new boutiques? In Europe, maybe?
Oh, yes. We now have 64 boutiques in the world.
Really? Congratulations! That’s a lot.
Yes, last year we opened in Frankfurt, then in Ginza, Japan, in Moscow, in Budapest as well… And this year in March we opened in Sydney.
Oh, in Australia…
Yes. Maybe the next big city is London. We’ll find a good location, a good venue to open a boutique. And of course, we are going to open some additional boutiques in France, in Germany. We are going to open every year, and as soon as possible maybe we’ll have 100.
When you say “as soon as possible”, what do you mean?
In three years, actually. It’s a three-year plan. We hope to achieve this number.
Talking about these special dials, you said that the production is somehow limited. That means you will also expand the production capacity?
Yes, of course.
Will you build a new manufacture or just within the premises?
Just an additional line.
How many people are working now in Grand Seiko?
We have about 60 watchmakers…
Oh, so it’s very small.
Very small, yes. We have one watchmaker for one movement, from the very beginning until the very end. This, of course, requires a very skilled person, real craftsmanship and mastery and it takes a long time to do it… It takes a long time to obtain a high-quality product that you can leave to the next generations. That’s the reason why the expansion of Grand Seiko is… challenging for us, to be honest. We are educating the young people to be skilled craftsmen.
Do the Japanese young people want to be watchmakers? Because here, in Switzerland, it’s quite a problem to find young people who want to do this trade…
It’s similar in Japan. It’s difficult to find people with good skills and to develop these skills also. We don’t hire any people from outside. We can say that even the watchmakers in Seiko are manufactured.
That’s a good way of putting it. I like it. I will quote you on that. And what are your main markets outside Japan? Where do you sell most of the watches?
Outside Japan, from the size point of view, the USA is the second market.
Good. Because it’s a very tough market. Anyway, I’m sure that Europe will be also growing because it’s a really valuable understated watch, which means a lot.
In Europe, Germany is a growing market, and maybe in UK we will have… And Spain is doing well… It depends on the market. At the same time, we have some difficulty on the Middle East market. Every market is important for us. Of course, the Asian market is equally important for us. Romania is doing very well… We’d like to be a market leader on every market.
Which are the complications that we will find? Until now, I see a chronograph. Everything is happening little by little… Which are other complications that you find interesting? Will we find them in the future?
There is a tourbillon that we developed for this year.
It’s very slim, I think it’s the thinnest tourbillon watch. (Credor Fugaki Tourbillon Limited Edition, whose design is inspired by a famous painting of the 19th century, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which brought the artist worldwide fame – ed. note) That’s art. Hokusai is a famous Japanese painter of the Edo era.
Is it a unique piece?
We have 8 pieces this year.
It is obvious that at this level of manufacturing you can develop also a perpetual calendar or whatever… I mean, somehow, the tourbillon is the statement, but I was considering a complication that you can actually use, like you use the chronograph. Sorry, what is the price for this one?
What made you manufacture a tourbillon, because this is something unprecedented for you?
Yes… Three persons were involved in this. Three most-skilled craftsmen. Only they could have made it. One of them is the designer, one is the engraver and the other one is the assembler. These three worked together and made it. That’s Mr Kiyoshi Terui, that’s our engraver, he is the master. There’s also the assembler, Mr Satoshi Hiraga, and Mr Nobuhiro Kosugi, this is the designer. And Mr Isshu Tamura – he’s the lacquer artist.
Do you know how long it takes to make one of the tourbillons? The whole team effort?
I think for the lacquer it takes six months…
Only for the lacquer…
We started this project three years ago, I think.
In total, yes.
It’s beautiful, really… In your opinion, which are the main strengths of the Seiko brand?
I think we have two important factors: one is this sort of craftsmanship, we are a real manufacture, producing everything – from the parts to the complete watch. That is one thing. And the other is that we also have a high technology…
So you have both craftsmanship and very ancient techniques and you also have very high technology. Which is a great combination. One last question: do you think it is a bit more difficult to be acknowledged and respected in this world where it’s important if it says “Swiss-made”? And do you have to work more than the Swiss brands to get the recognition you deserve?
We get much more respect especially from the end-consumers. It is the reason why we launched Presage, for example, because there was a high demand for fine mechanical watchmaking, especially from Seiko, and that’s the reason why we also launched internationally all the mechanical collection with all these fine movements inside. People are realizing that we are 100% a true manufacturer and we offer a fantastic quality at a very reasonable price and Seiko is becoming much more in many-many markets. It becomes more respected and acknowledged as a brand, a watch to wear, not only because of its heritage, but also because of its power of innovation, for example. And they are realizing that what Seiko did in the past set a milestone for watchmaking in general. And we believe that much more end-consumers really appreciate the quality which is behind this manufacturer. And that we don’t need the “Swiss-made” label. We are “Japan-made”, with Japan pride.
Which is at least as good as Swiss-made. At least. But we respect the Swiss as well, and we are unique. Most people know that if they buy a Seiko, they buy a watch.
Exactly. Not a brand, an image, or a trend.
No, they buy a watch.
Thank you. Congratulations on your collection! It is amazing.