Horology has seen countless innovations but none as distinct as Seiko’s. The revered Japanese brand is arguably the most popular in the industry. From developing the first consumer quartz watch to revolutionizing all things time-telling, Seiko has come a long way for its humble beginnings.
A Simple Man with Big Dreams
Kintarō Hattori was born in Tokyo in 1860. He was only 11 years old when he became an apprentice to a sundries wholesaler. At the age of 13, he conceived the idea of having not only a watch retail shop but also a watch repair shop. He sought his dream through by working a clock shop for the next eight years. In the year 1881, the budding businessman opened a jewelry store called K. Hattori & Co., Ltd in Tokyo’s Ginza district.
Kintarō flourished as a seller of imported foreign clocks he got from a trading house in Yokohama. He managed to gain exclusive access to the newest and most exciting products thanks to his impeccable business ethics. It didn’t take long for his business to flourish — and for the first ever Seiko watch to be conceived.
Seikosha Wall Clocks
Kintarō has now set his eyes on watch manufacturing. He set up the Seikosha Factory in 1892 to begin producing high priced wall clocks. It took eight weeks for the brand to sell its first wall clocks in the local market. However, it was the year 1895 that brought Seiko its national fame when it released its first pocket watch, the Seikosha Timekeeper.
Kintarō had an incredible knack for predicting future trends in the market. One that he had foreseen was the overtaking of wristwatches. He realized early that pocket watches would soon become a thing of the past. He wasted no time and debuted Seiko’s first ever wristwatch, the Laurel in 1913.
The Laurel boasted of a silver case, measuring 29.6m in diameter and houses a porcelain enamel dial. Production was slow at the time but that didn’t hinder Kintarō. Seiko has managed to produce its own balance springs by 1910 and its own enamel springs by 1913.
The Great Kanto Earthquake
The earthquake that hit Japan in 1923 was a blessing in disguise for Kintarō and the rest of Seikosha. If it wasn’t for the disaster, the world couldn’t have experienced the birth of the brand’s most iconic wristwatches.
The Seikosha factory was burned to the ground during the earthquake. However, the ever-determined businessman wasn’t ready to give it all up. He rebuilt the company from scratch and managed to produce their first watch with “Seiko” on the dial just a year after the earthquake.
Production carried on throughout the years, introducing myriads of watches to the Japanese market. These watches include the Seiko Marvel, Grand Seiko, the Seiko Crown Cronograph, and many more.
Expanding to the International Market
It wasn’t only horology that Seikosha took interest in. The company also dipped its toes into the world of micro-mechanics. It has also diversified into other branches such as optics, electronics and even printers.
It was the death of Kintarō in 1934 that the international market began to take notice of the prestigious Japanese brand. Kintarō’s son, Genzo Hattori inherited the company and allowed private plants to develop and manufacture the watches. By 1936, Seiko has sold over two million clocks and watches.
It the late 50’s, Seiko watches gained more international attention. It started selling watches and clocks to the United States. Thanks to the booming sales, the company was churning out over three million watches each year.
Genzo passed away in 1964 and Shoji Hattori took over as the company’s president. Shoji had shared the dream of expanding Seiko to a much bigger, international market. He particularly recognized this after a trip to Europe in 1962 after being asked if there was a watch industry in Japan.
Fortunately, Seiko continued to be on top and was given the chance to become the official timekeepers for the 1964 Olympics. It supplied over 1,278 stopwatches and the world’s first portable quartz chronometers. The brand served as official timekeepers once again during the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo. Both these opportunities have paved the way for the brand to finally expand worldwide. It gained subsidiaries in the USA in 1970, the UK in 1971 as well as in Brazil in 1974 and in Australia in 1977.
Seiko sought out celebrity endorsements to gain more attention in the international market. The likes of actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, elite athlete Novak Djokovic, NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson and ballet dancer Misty Copeland all jointed in the pool. Once again, Seiko successfully found its way to more exposure across the globe.
Exporting Through Other Brands
Shoji Hattori passed away in 1974 and it was during this time that Shoji’s nephew and Genzo’s oldest son took the company under their wing. They found yet another way to innovate and stay relevant in the market by developing products under various brand names such as Lorus, Alba and Pulsar.
It was then again an example of innovative mastery of Seiko. Despite the difficulty and competition, the renowned label found ways to remain significant.
The 80’s were particularly challenging to Seiko. More fashion brands are taking over and the brand struggled to find means of staying on top. Fortunately, the brand conceived the idea of a TV watch that also found its way to James Bond’s movie ‘Octopussy’.
Innovation & Profitability
Their Seiko TV watch gained worldwide popularity and continued to inspire Seiko to get back on its feet during the 90’s and the years to come. It developed its own line of dive watches, complete with dive computers. Moreover, it released the infamous Kinetic Series, Seiko MessageWatch as well as the Spring Dive Watch. Its recent developments were also centered on producing GPS solar watches.
Seiko has proven time and again that it is a resilient, evolving and forward-thinking brand. Thanks to its innovative and determined ways to improve, Seiko always finds it way to people’s arms, walls and pockets. It has mastered quality, craftsmanship and affordability for the last 136 years. When they will stop, only time will tell.