Leaders / Watches

Akio Naito, CEO of Grand Seiko Manages Brand Demand With Customer Expectations

LUXUO speaks to Grand Seiko CEO Akio Naito at Ginza House, Tokyo where he reminds us that accuracy is still paramount at the Japanese brand.

Jan 29, 2024 | By Ashok Soman

There is a certain charming story about Grand Seiko that kept springing into my head on my recent whirlwind tour of the brand’s manufacturing sites across Japan. Of course, I invite you to read that story too, and perhaps in advance of this interview with Grand Seiko CEO Akio Naito. In any case, this anecdote did not make it into the watchmaking story so I will include it here. The short of it is this: Grand Seiko presentations are legendary for being packed to overflowing with information – perhaps so dense that one might fairly call the proceedings dry. No matter what though, one will never feel one’s eyelids getting heavier because the watches are so invigorating. As with all such received wisdom and jokes, there might be something to it, although Grand Seiko is hardly alone in organising rigid (dare we say mechanical even) press briefings.

So how does an interview with the top brass at Grand Seiko go? Well, this is our second full encounter with Naito, and he remains charmingly candid about his brand and his role. In a few words, it leaned heavily into information overload without ever making us feel the call of the Sandman. Of course, Naito’s office was nothing if not meticulous, having gotten our questions in advance, they got the answers typed out, and Naito handed it to us at the interview itself, which was in person, at the Seiko House in Ginza. This was a surprising move as press offices typically just look at the questions and perhaps veto some of them, which is not a big deal because we can ask whatever we want in person anyway. There was no vetoing of any questions here, and everything was answered properly and fully. You might be even more surprised, dear reader, to learn that Naito still availed himself to us for the full length of the promised in-person meeting. Happily, we did have questions that we had not submitted to the press office…

If you know anything at all about Grand Seiko, it is likely to be about the second part of its name, and the favourable comparisons the brand’s watches have earned, versus some of the most famous names in Swiss watchmaking. Having just witnessed the making of Grand Seiko watches at Suwa and Morioka, as well as right here at Ginza House, it was obvious that these little bits of information were but mere morsels. One thing that was not a morsel is Grand Seiko’s steadfaast – assiduous even – need to correct the record when the press gets a little carried away with those favourable comparisons. When, in passing, we asked about Grand Seiko’s somewhat unique position, with exceptionally finished cases that are also very robust, Naito went out of his way to set us straight there. He noted, quite rightly, that there are a number of brands doing something similar, and perhaps the deeper point here is that such comparisons are unnecessary. For more on this, and the relationship between Seiko and Grand Seiko, as well as Seiko Epson, see the aforementioned manufacture story in Time Stamps. For now, it is time to hear directly from Naito.

Grand Seiko CEO Akio Naito

Congratulations on the Tentagraph SLGC001! We wonder why Grand Seiko waited so long to create purely mechanical complications?

I am aware that fans were waiting for a Grand Seiko mechanical chronograph (for a long time) but ever since its birth, Grand Seiko has pursued creating the ultimate watch with its core values being accuracy, legibility, beauty, and ease of use.

In 2009, we introduced Caliber 9S85, which was the first (high-beat) movement in almost 40 years. Since then, there have been constant requests for a high-beat Grand Seiko mechanical chronograph, but in creating it we wanted to achieve a standard of precision required of Grand Seiko, and at the same time, (a power reserve of) three days.

In 2020, Caliber 9SA5 was successfully produced, and the performance of a (high-beat) movement with 80 hours (of) power reserve was achieved. The conditions of producing a Grand Seiko high-beat chronograph were now set. With a development period of two years, we were able to create the Tentagraph.

With the Tentagraph, we set a new Grand Seiko standard for chronographs. Like all Grand Seiko mechanical movements, the Tentagraph is assessed in six positions and three temperatures over 17 days, but with an additional three days of testing in which its accuracy is assessed in three positions while the chronograph is in operation. With this new standard, we were able to introduce the (high-beat) chronograph with the longest power reserve in the industry today, still keeping the precision that Grand Seiko is renowned for.

Following up on this, should we expect to see more complications from Grand Seiko? Since accuracy is of paramount concern for Grand Seiko, is that something you will bring to any new watch?

While it is not our intention to focus on complications in the future, we aim to create unique watches that go beyond our imagination. We will consider other complications as long as it is in line with Grand Seiko’s core values of high accuracy, beauty, durability and ease of use. For Kodo, we did not create the watch for the sake of creating a patented complication; (instead) it was a result of pursuing high-precision watchmaking.

Last year, we established the Atelier Ginza (located at Ginza House). The new studio aims to create truly unique and innovative timepieces of the highest order. At Atelier Ginza, some of the finest designers, craftsmen, and watchmakers work together to create, assemble, and adjust timepieces that highlight their creativity and expertise, all of which is underpinned by traditional Japanese aesthetics.

We will carefully consider future developments based on our core values. Please look forward to it.

While editors and journalists may obsess about complications, what do you find your customers asking for in a watch, that you have not yet made?

All of our watches are designed and produced carefully through the collaborative efforts of our very best designers, planners, watchmakers and manufacturers in pursuit of higher levels of accuracy, legibility, beauty, durability and ease of use. At the same time, our customers’ voices are also very important to Grand Seiko. (For example) I hear more demands for slimmer watches. We do have slim watches in our line-up that achieve the durability and reliability that are required for Grand Seiko, such as the manual-winding Spring Drive creations.

We have also introduced Grand Seiko creations that do not (adhere) to the traditional “men’s” or “lady’s” watch sizes. For example, we released several creations from Grand Seiko with a 34mm case size, including a watch with the celebrated snowflake pattern in blue.

We offer a wide collection from our Masterpiece, Evolution 9, Elegance, Heritage, and Sport collection. Each watch has a unique story, and if we communicate them effectively, I am confident that watch fans from around the world will find a watch that resonates with them.

Moving on to brand positioning and aesthetics, we are often confronted by collectors on the question of exceptional dials at Grand Seiko and at Seiko, in the Presage collection. Please explain how Grand Seiko dials are different?

Grand Seiko dials are different in two ways. First, the dials are designed and based on Grand Seiko Style. Grand Seiko established its grammar of design, the Grand Seiko Style in 1967 with the 44GS. Since then, this design principle has guided the design of every Grand Seiko creation, not only in case design but dial design as well. Grand Seiko’s dials catch even the slightest light from every angle to enhance legibility and create the sparkle of quality that Grand Seiko is renowned for.

Second, Grand Seiko dials are inspired by (the natural surroundings of) Grand Seiko studios. The dial patterns and colours embody the brand philosophy: “The Nature of Time.”

For something exceptional such as the SBGZ009, it is easy to see and feel the Grand Seiko difference. How important is this textural approach, where the dial decoration is matched by something the wearer can feel?

The watch is unique in that it fully expresses the brand philosophy in every detail, not only on the dial but also on the case engraving. This special creation is inspired by the white birch forest in (the deepest) winter, and expresses delicate Japanese sensibility and craftsmanship through engraving by a master craftsman. We will continue to take a similar approach to capture our brand philosophy through special creations like SBGZ009.

Moving to Watches and Wonders Geneva, how did you find the experience this year, now that more people can visit? Has your perception of the fair evolved or changed at all?

I was happy to meet many journalists and fans from Asia. Especially this year, we felt people are coming back to join real events, which is a great sign, as I feel strongly about the importance of holding real events and meeting people face- to-face.

With the newly established Public days (the Geneva fair has several days that are open to the general public – Ed), more people have been able to visit. We had the opportunity to communicate directly with consumers and fans, and have them understand our brand more. We felt the need to appeal to a wider audience and the fair encouraged us to do so.

While the fair continues to evolve, my view of the fair continues to be a positive one. (It is the) ideal showcase to introduce our novelties together with many of the prestigious brands from the industry. (It is a) distinguished platform where members of the industry can get together. By participating in the fair, our recognition has further increased as a true luxury watch brand with unique qualities, which I believe benefits the luxury watch industry.

We spoke previously about the incredible level of popularity of Grand Seiko outside Japan. How is the brand now coping with this demand, and how do you manage expectations in terms of collectors who may not be able to get the watch they want?

Grand Seiko is experiencing significant growth in demand worldwide. The balance of responding to high demand while consistently offering high-quality products is a challenge for any watchmaker, but we will never make any compromise in the quality of our watches and do our best to answer to the demands.

In 2020, we inaugurated the Grand Seiko Studio Shizukuishi (GSSS) in Iwate Prefecture which you just visited, dedicated to creating Grand Seiko’s mechanical watches. It is where we also train and develop the next generation watchmakers. We have also installed new (components) manufacturing equipment to increase production.

This article first appeared on WOW’s Legacy 2024 issue. 

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