Grand Seiko has gained significant traction since its debut last year as the only non-European brand to participate in Watches & Wonders, the largest watchmaking event in Geneva. Plans were already underway to expand its footprint into the region way before that. This was revealed by Akio Naito, chairman of Grand Seiko Asia-Pacific and president of Seiko Watch Corporation, on his recent trip to Singapore to officiate at the opening of Grand Seiko Asia-Pacific at Marina Bay Sands last month. The opening marks a milestone for the brand as it expands its presence in the Asia Pacific region.
Speaking to Options in the VIP room at the corner of the boutique, Naito says that Grand Seiko became an independent brand in 2017, a year later Grand Seiko America was established followed by Grand Seiko Europe in 2020 and Grand Seiko Asia-Pacific last year. Grand Seiko Europe was created at the height of the pandemic, Naito says, “We made significant changes during the pandemic, and one was to open a new Grand Seiko boutique in Europe at Place Vendome, Paris. And it worked!” The opening in Europe follows closely on the heels of the US in 2018 and this year in Singapore.
Grand Seiko opened a 134 sq m (1,442 sq ft) boutique situated in The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands on Feb 22
Grand Seiko flew in the renowned taiko troupe Kodo from Japan for a performance. Hailing from Sado Island, the performers showcased their talents at the Digital Light Canvas at Marina Bay Sands
As part of the grand opening celebrations for the boutique, Grand Seiko flew in from Japan the renowned taiko troupe, Kodo, who shared the same name as the watch. Hailing from Sado Island, the troupe showcased their talents at the Digital Light Canvas at Marina Bay Sands.
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From left: Grand Seiko Asia-Pacific brand director Ida Low, Japanese ambassador Hiroshi Ishikawa, Akio Naito, Stelux Group chairman Joseph Wong, Grand Seiko Asia-Pacific managing director and Seiko Watch Corporation executive vice president Yoshikatsu Kawada and Marina Bay Sands vice president of retail Hazel Chan
Witnessing the brand’s evolution
Naito has a long career in Seiko, having held various positions and witnessed the brand's evolution over the years. He started his journey with Seiko in 1984 after obtaining a law degree in Japan. Initially, he joined the corporate legal department, where he served for 16 years. Later on, he was appointed as the managing director of Seiko Australia.
He says: “That was my very first experience for me to manage an organisation. We had roughly 120 employees locally in Australia, and I gained management experience then. I returned to Tokyo from Australia to lead the legal department as general manager. In 2013, I became CFO of the holding company.” This was followed in 2015 by a stint in the US to develop Grand Seiko and restructure Seiko's organisation. He says that it was not an easy job as, in 2016, the business in the US was tough and challenging as Grand Seiko was almost nonexistent.
“I had to assemble a new team to be in charge of a luxury segment of our business. We leveraged social networks and cult followers in the US to raise brand awareness, and it worked. Just before the pandemic hit, I returned to Tokyo in 2019, and we established Grand Seiko Europe in 2020,” says the graduate and Fulbright scholar of Columbia University Law School in New York.
Before the doors of the Grand Seiko boutique were opened for the grand opening on February 22, Options had an exclusive interview with Aiko, where he shared the significance of having a flagship boutique in Singapore and the importance of winning a prestigious award.
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Why is there a need to open a boutique in Singapore?
When we were discussing where to go after New York and Paris, the obvious target was Asia. We chose Hong Kong and Singapore because these are the two major luxury watch cities. We finally decided on Singapore because of the political uncertainty in Hong Kong.
We decided to come to Singapore since we have a third-party distributor with whom we have had a very long-standing relationship for more than 50 years. Our distributor has been handling both Grand Seiko and Seiko; for the luxury segment, we needed a boutique to get closer to our consumers.
We decided to take a more hands-on approach instead of relying solely on our distributor to handle client interactions. Following extensive discussions with our distributor, we established Grand Seiko Asia Pacific in Singapore last October as a joint venture.
Online reports indicate that Grand Seiko is the only watchmaker as vertically integrated as Rolex. Do you agree with this statement?
I don't know the details about the other European brands, but we are vertically integrated. We have in-house manufacturing and developing capabilities for materials, components, and everything else.
Some critics say that Grand Seiko is a sleeping giant that has just been woken. Do you foresee the brand going like the other luxury watch brands, where accessibility will be problematic for serious watch collectors?
I don't foresee any difficulty in the next few years. Our new operation in Singapore has become so successful, beyond my expectations. For a very long time, the brand has been confined within the Japanese domestic market. When we started developing the overseas market, the first few years proved difficult because our focus has always been our product's technical and technological superiority.
We are proud of our more than 100 years of watchmaking history, and Grand Seiko was always positioned as the pinnacle of all Seiko watches. When we launched Grand Seiko in the global market, we talked about the technological advancement of the timepiece, movement, accuracy, and legibility. After several years, we realised consumers in the luxury segment are interested in the brand's technical, functional, and emotional value.
This was when we started talking about the heritage of watchmakers dedicated to pursuing fine watchmaking and the nature surrounding our studio. And all these combined, we have come to communicate, little by little, the uniqueness of brand meanings of the Japanese brand.
What makes Grand Seiko stand out against your competitors?
As a Japanese brand, we try to communicate the uniqueness of the Japanese brand. For example, the brand philosophy of Grand Seiko is the nature of time. And nature connotes two different meanings. One is the essence of the origin of our watchmaking. We have several watchmakers who are dedicated and trained in-house and have been working on pursuing excellent timepieces for many, many years. And the craftsmanship in Japan is called takumi.
That is an example of one characteristic of the brand, nature; the other nature is, of course, the beautiful, natural environment. Japan is rich in the natural environment, we have four distinct seasons, and each season has a different landscape or colour, which inspires our designs.
Grand Seiko’s brand philosophy is “The Nature of Time”, which is behind the boutique's new design aesthetics. Will there be more boutique openings in the region using the same philosophy?
Well, this design concept adopted for this boutique in Singapore is the very first. Previously, all our boutiques looked and felt the same, which is more dignified but slightly dark and luxurious, but it doesn’t appeal to the younger generation. Here we try to be more casual yet maintain the luxury aspect. This concept will be rolled out in our future boutiques.
The Grand Seiko Kodo Constant-force Tourbillon was awarded the Chronometry Prize at the 2022 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. What does this mean for you?
For over 10 years, engineers worked very hard on developing Kodo. It is the very first mechanical complication model for Grand Seiko, and Grand Seiko’s DNA lies in the pursuit of accuracy. It was meant to compete against the top Swiss brands. Our engineers created a new movement design, not because they wanted a complicated model added to the collection but a model to be born out of Grand Seiko.
It has to be consistent with the DNA of the brand and the pursuit of accuracy. Finally, our designers successfully integrated constant force and tourbillon on the same axis, which ensures the stability of the accuracy, and the jury of GPHG appreciated it.
How far do you want to take Grand Seiko? What are some strategies you'd like to implement?
Seiko has always been a mid to lower-price segment outside of Japan, while Grand Seiko is positioned in the luxury segment. From a luxury standpoint, we must get closer to our customers; customer relationship [CRM] is extremely important.
Having a boutique lets us control the customer experience at each shop front. It is very important in how we project our image and communicate the brand story. We formed the GS9 Club, a membership organisation for watch enthusiasts who purchased a Grand Seiko timepiece to do this. In Singapore, we have 500 members, and in Japan, we have 40,000 members.
Grand Seiko Kodo Constant-force Tourbillon
Grand Seiko has secured its position in the world of horology with a prestigious award, the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, the industry’s equivalent of the Oscars. The Japanese brand competed with 15 other timepieces and was awarded the winner by a jury of 30 who selected the Grand Seiko Kodo Constant-force Tourbillon as the watch for the Chronometry Prize.
In 2020, it was only a timepiece with a concept movement with a constant-force mechanism and a tourbillon as one unit on a single axis. From here, a dedicated team diligently worked on the concept to bring it to reality. Designers, engineers, craftsmen, and craftswomen worked on the 340 components of the calibre, and the result is Caliber 9ST1, which was reduced in size from the original. Smaller does not mean accuracy is sacrificed. On the contrary, it remains stable for longer thanks to the constant-force mechanism.
In addition, the Caliber 9ST1 sets a new standard of accuracy, verified in a testing procedure during which each movement is tested for a full 48 hours in six positions and at three temperatures, twice as long as the Grand Seiko standard. Each movement is assessed over 34 days to verify its accuracy, and when the tests are completed, and this new standard has been met or exceeded, the performance characteristics of each movement are defined in the individual certificate provided with every watch.
The watch is named Kodo (or “heartbeat” in Japanese), after the unique motion of the two mechanisms and the sound of the rhythm it makes. The inner tourbillon carriage rotates smoothly as the balance steadily vibrates at eight beats per second, and the outer constant-force carriage follows its rotation at one-second intervals to create a 16th-note rhythmic feel.
The components are finished by hand using various techniques to give the movement its shine, a hallmark of Grand Seiko. The case is constructed of both Platinum 950 and Grand Seiko’s Brilliant Hard Titanium to achieve long-lasting beauty.