Seiko has been a stalwart of the volume watch market for decades, producing reliable and affordable timepieces for customers of every age and any occasion. However, it has also always played at the premium end of the market, manufacturing Grand Seiko models since the 1960s. The UK has never been a strong target market for these prestige timepieces, but the opening of a boutique in Knightsbridge last year and the appointment of Swatch Group and Richard Mille veteran David Edwards this year, has signalled a growing focus on more affluent connoisseurs for the innovative Japanese watchmaker.
2018 is a big year for Seiko in the UK. The company welcomed a new managing director, David Edwards, in April; part of a wider drive to push deeper into the luxury market. Mr Edwards brings 20 years’ experience of the prestige watch business, having spent six years as a director at Swatch Group and more recently almost 10 years as the head of Richard Mille in the UK.
His appointment follows last year’s opening of a Seiko boutique in London’s Knightsbridge, which presents premium models in the Seiko families including Prospex, Presage, Premier and Astron that sell for prices nudging up to and above four figures.
Even more important for the boutique is to present Grand Seiko, arguably the world’s best vertically integrated mechanical watchmaker outside of Switzerland.
The company concedes that Grand Seiko has been one of the global watch industry’s best-kept secrets and sleeping giants that is only now gaining traction outside a small community of watch obsessives. “Grand Seiko has always enjoyed a sort of cult following among collectors and watch industry experts, but that enthusiasm and respect for the superb product it represents has now started to reach a wider audience and they are really surprised and impressed with what they are seeing,” says Mr Edwards in an interview with WatchPro.
There is a temptation for Grand Seiko to describe itself as a watchmaker in the Swiss tradition that just happens to be based in Japan. This sort of shorthand is helpful to a point, but misses the uniqueness of the company, its processes and its innovation. It also gives the impression that Seiko has merely copied the Swiss and injected Japanese efficiency and precision. This is also a mistake, because there is just as much history, heart and soul as any watchmaker in the Jura Mountains.
“In a luxury watch market that’s essentially monopolised by Swiss brands, we have a truly distinct story and positioning to talk about. So there’s a definite legitimacy here,” Mr Edwards insists. “Don’t forget, Seiko has been around since 1881, hand-making Grand Seiko since 1960 and has a long history of what I would call market-changing innovation. I’m not sure if there’s a Japanese equivalent of what the Swiss brands refer to as “Manufacture” but I can assure you it exists and we’ve been quietly operating that way since the beginning — famously even making our own springs. Maybe that goes some way to explaining why the Grand Prix de Genève ‘Petite Aiguille’ was awarded to Grand Seiko in 2014 for the hi-beat 36000 GMT,” he adds.
Grand Seiko has given greater autonomy as an organisation and watch brand since 2017 when Seiko president and CEO Shinji Hattori declared at Baselworld that it would have the freedom to go head-to-head with Switzerland’s finest manufacturers. “Grand Seiko has always been distinct in its design, character, presentation and, more recently, its calibers. In order to further reinforce its unique appeal and to reach out to a wider audience, we are today taking one step further and presenting Grand Seiko as an entirely separate brand. My intention is that, in the coming years, Grand Seiko will scale new heights of watchmaking excellence and commercial success,” he said at the time. Every watch since then has had only the Grand Seiko logo at the top of its face.
The independence of Grand Seiko has also freed the larger Seiko business to develop more expensive watches within its Prospex, Presage, Premier and Astron. At the opening of the Seiko boutique in London last year, most of the watches on show from these collections were priced upwards of £1000. Pushing into these higher price points is a timely response to the weakness of the watch market at the volume end of the market where Seiko is best known. “The collections you mention are all central to the future direction of the company. We have been successful in increasing our average selling prices, and this has been done by really focusing on these sub-brands and supporting our retail partners to take advantage of the opportunity too,” says Mr Edwards.
“I think we’re all aware of the current challenges in the sub-£500 UK watch market so these collections are really well positioned with most starting at around £300 but extending well into the £1,000+ sector too,” he adds.
Independent jewellers and the major multiples all recognise that the days of flogging hundreds of £150 watches from brick and mortar stores are waning. That business is moving online, where it is increasingly dominated by a handful of large ecommerce experts. The mission now is to sell fewer watches at far higher prices, and working with Seiko and Grand Seiko provides a helpful ladder to the upper end of the market.
Seiko’s latest families range from £300 to over £1000, then above this Grand Seiko kicks in with entry level models at £2,350 and a sweet spot in the £5000 to £10,000 range. Seiko and Grand Seiko are not necessarily sold side-by-side in individual stores, and there are different requirements from retailers to sell the premium brands, but success with top end Seiko collections is certainly a springboard to Grand Seiko.
The opening of a Seiko boutique in London last year allows retail partners to see how the plan fits together in terms of products, furniture and elevated customer service. It also raises the profile of the brand to watch lovers in the UK and those visiting London from overseas. “As a showcase of what Seiko has to offer, our boutique provides us with a perfect opportunity to engage directly with end clients. Seiko fans love the fact they can access the full collection but we also find that the wider public who may think they know the brand already are genuinely amazed by what they see and the actual depth and breadth of the full Seiko offer,” Mr Edwards describes.
Retail partners are spending time at the showroom, often at events organised by Seiko to discuss the potential of working with the business at all levels. The reaction to this year’s watches, both at Baselworld and at the Knightsbridge store, has been encouraging, according to Mr Edwards. “We’ve had an excellent response to all our novelties but I’m particularly pleased to see our Presage collection will be available in more retailers than ever before. The quality offered for the price is unrivalled and the workmanship in the Shippo enamel dial series is simply breath-taking. For me, this goes to the heart of what makes Seiko unique and is a real point of difference,” he suggests.
Retailers aren’t just impressed, they are investing in the new strategy. “With the new product presented in Basel and a bit more focus from us around Grand Seiko, I can tell you there has already been an impressive amount of interest from retailers wanting to discuss becoming Grand Seiko stockists. In the last few months, three new stockists have been agreed and we anticipate a further three to follow shortly. We are also in the final stages of discussion with another well-known retailer synonymous with luxury to create a long-term Grand Seiko pop-up. If we are able to finalise what we have been discussing, this will represent a major step-up in brand visibility – and will probably also raise a few eyebrows,” Mr Edwards teases.
PREMIUM STYLES FROM SEIKO AND GRAND SEIKO
The 2018 Hi-Beat collection is based on a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the 9s calibre – the platform upon which all Grand Seikos are now built. This new Ceramic Hi-Beat limited edition’s inner case and outer bracelet links are crafted from very light high intensity titanium. The outer case and bracelet centre links are made of new Grand Seiko blue zirconia ceramic, seven times harder than stainless steel making the watch virtually impervious to scratches. Behind the sapphire case back, titanium and tungsten combine in the oscillating weight to resist distortion. In these advanced materials, this remarkable watch echoes and celebrates the advanced craftsmanship that made possible the first 9S calibre twenty years ago.
SEIKO PRESAGE SHIPPO ENAMEL — £1,450
Since 2016, the Presage collection has showcased two central aspects of the character of Seiko, the company’s respect for traditional Japanese craftsmanship and its long-established skill in mechanical watchmaking. Shippo is a particular type of enamel that was developed in Japan in the 17th century. The limited edition Presage Shippo enamel dial is made by Ando Cloisonné, a specialist manufacturer in Nagoya with over 100 years of history. Craftsman Wataru Totani paints the glaze by hand onto the surface of the dial to reflect the everlasting blue of the seas around Japan.
Seiko is proud of its new ambassador for Prospex, Fabien Cousteau, whose oceanographic heritage underlines the expertise behind our diving watches. The SPB077J1 is a re-interpretation of the 1968 Seiko original diver’s watch, paying faithful homage to the original through Zaratsu polishing for sharp definition of the case and lugs but with a re-designed dial layout for enhanced legibility. The graduated blue textured dials of each watch in the Prospex ‘Save The Ocean’ collection are inspired by the Blue Whale. Sales contribute towards the Cousteau foundation.