miércoles, 8 de julio de 2009

Fine Watchmaking in Japan by Tomoko Kayama

Fine Watchmaking in Japan

Tomoko Kayama

Japanese quartz technology is said to have damaged the Swiss watch industry. While this may be true, it should be noted that Japanese mechanical watchmaking was also hard-hit by quartz. In the 1970s, two major Japanese watch companies, Seiko and Citizen, transferred production of mechanical watches from Japan to factories in China, where they made cheap mechanical movements and watches for export. Meanwhile, in Japan they focused on developing and manufacturing quartz watches.

A look at the history of Japanese watchmaking shows that watch manufacturers were set up to provide the average customer with reasonably-priced watches that kept precise time. Indeed, when Kintaro Hattori set up his company in 1892 he called it "Seiko" which means "precise" in Japanese. The first Seiko pocket watch appeared in 1895 and the first wristwatch was launched in 1913. Citizen made its first wristwatch shortly after, in 1930.

Genuine fine watchmaking is quite recent in Japan. As imports of Swiss mechanical watches increased in the 1990s, Seiko relaunched production of mechanical watches in a high price range to compete with Swiss watches. Citizen concentrated on developing solar-powered quartz and radio-controlled watches.

The Shizukuishi Watch Studio

I would like to talk about Seiko’s two main workshops where mechanical and spring drive watches are made. According to the Japan Clock & Watch Association, in 2006 mechanical watches accounted for just 1% of the 706 million watches made in Japan. Seiko’s main objective today is to enter the luxury segment, hence every effort is directed towards developing high-end products with the company’s own mechanical or spring drive movements.

Seiko relaunched production of mechanical movements in Japan in 1991. In 1997 it opened a mechanical watch assembly workshop - Seiko Instruments Inc. - in Morioka in Iwate prefecture in northern Japan. The company had ceased making mechanical watches almost a quarter of a century ago, which made this new venture quite a challenge. However, with the help of experienced watchmakers it gradually built up the workshop and, after some changes, the Shizukuishi Watch Studio was opened in September 2004. Today, mechanical watches account for an estimated 10% of Seiko’s production for the domestic market. Twenty watchmakers are employed at the Shizukuishi Watch Studio, assembling 21 types of mechanical movement in five series as follows:

1) 68 series (very thin manual-winding movement) Cal.6870 Cal.6898 Cal.6899
2) 9S series (manual-winding and automatic movement) Cal. 9S67 Cal.9S55 Cal.9S54 Cal.9S56 Cal.9S51 Cal.9S54 is manual-winding, the others are automatic.
3) 6S series(manual-winding and automatic chronograph movement) Cal.6S74 Cal.6S77 Cal.6S99 Cal.6S37 Cal.6S28 Cal.6S99 is manual-winding, the others are automatic.
4) 8L series(50-hour power reserve automatic movement) Cal.8L75 Cal.8L38 Cal.8L35 Cal.8L21
5) 4S series (day-date, 24-hour indicator, dual time, automatic movement) Cal.4S76 Cal.4S77 Cal.4S36 Cal.4S27

Seiko warrants the title Manufacture as every part of the movement including the balance spring can be made within the company. Around 15,000 mechanical watches are assembled at the Shizukuishi Watch Studio per year.

Seiko is proud of its highly skilled watchmakers, such as Mamoru Sakurada, 57, who was awarded the Medal of Honour with Yellow Ribbon. Master engraver Kiyoshi Terui was also awarded the Medal of Honour with Yellow Ribbon. Because there are no watchmaking schools in Japan, newcomers and young watchmakers are trained as apprentices by master watchmakers.

The Shinshu Artisan Time Studio

In 2004, Seiko opened a second fine watchmaking studio, the Shinshu Artisan Time Studio of Seiko Epson Corporation, in Nagano prefecture in central Japan. It comprises three workshops: the Artisan Studio, the Micro Artist Studio and the jewel setting workshop. The Artisan Studio manufactures and assembles spring drive and kinetic watches as well as quartz for Seiko’s high-end collections, Grand Seiko and Credor. The Artisan Studio makes around 40,000 movement parts (spring drive, kinetic and quartz) per year. The Micro Artist Studio assembles special models such as the Spring Drive Sonnerie which was presented at Baselworld in 2006.

Spring drive is a unique movement developed by Seiko. In 1977, one of the company’s engineers turned his thoughts to the idea of an everlasting watch and, after 20 years’ research and development, the first spring drive watch was presented at the 1998 Basel fair. Today, spring drive watches are assembled by 55 watchmakers, three of whom have won gold medals at the Technical Olympics. The youngest is 19 and the oldest 55, with an average age of 40. As at the Shizukuishi Watch Studio, young watchmakers are trained by master watchmakers and acquire their skills through experience.

There are now seven automatic spring drive movements and two manual-winding spring drive movements, including Sonnerie, with 37 models for the domestic market and 12 for export.

Thanks to those studios, Seiko markets watches in the high-end segment as part of the Grand Seiko, Credor, Izul and Galante collections, with prices ranging from around ¥300,000 to ¥12,000,000 (3000 USD to 122,000 USD). Of course, these products account for a very small proportion of Seiko’s products overall. Strategically though, they are the most important for Seiko when competing with Swiss luxury watches in the Japanese market. ■


See also:
The Japanese approach to Fine Watchmaking


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