Theory and writing by Shawn Wilson
As the first true watch article I’ve written, I wanted to dive deep into frigid water. Rolex lovers around the world shudder when they think about an “A” list company being compared to a “novelty” company like Seiko. Make no mistake however, there is a 47-53 billion dollar a year chess game between companies who are trying to dominate the watch industry.
Let’s start from the beginning in 1892 when Seiko was created under the name of Seikosha, focused on making clocks. In 1895 Seikosha created its first pocket watch and even produced Japan’s first wrist watch in 1913 under the pseudonym Larel. A little earlier in 1905, and on the other side of the world, there was a young company based in London calling themselves Rolex. Ever heard of em? Contrary to popular belief the Rolex Company weren’t watchmakers in the beginning. Instead they sourced watch movements and cases that were rugged and durable. Combining their sourced high quality movements and utilizing various forms of advertising, Rolex was cleverly marketed, making the company an instant favorite.
Fast forward a few years and Seiko was on the move creating in house wristwatches for their consumers in the East. However, disaster struck when the Seikosha building was destroyed in 1923 due to an earthquake that led to a building fire. Meanwhile Rolex was at the end of World War I and decided to move their facility in 1921 to the country where watch makers were renowned for their skills, Switzerland. *No document that I have found has outright said that Rolex moved to a country that was neutral for the purpose of stability after going through a world war. Although, one would think that they had the forethought to make that a part of their plan.
While Seiko was recreating itself in the midst of disaster, Rolex had the upper hand. The brand was leading the industry in the “adventurer market”. They started with the Oyster “waterproof” watch and then began to utilize their well known advertising, showing the world the many feats of their watches. Three years later, in 1935, Rolex announced their “Living Laboratory” in which Rolex utilized the new popularity of a revolution called television to showcase a group of bulletproof watches to the world.
Rolex just made the jump to stardom and the coming World War II only helped to solidify that. The day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, was 78 years ago on December 7th, 1941. During a war in which Japan was the enemy of the United States, bonds were made and Japan’s products were looked at as a second rate, including Seiko watches, putting the brand further and further behind.
Although Rolex was no longer in Great Britain, they still provided watches to the troops in England such as the British Royal Air Force, growing in popularity for their ruggedness and accuracy. After they had already built a base of fans in America because of their “Living Laboratory” campaign, their notoriety only grew during the war. Soon after the war ended, Rolex ensured their popularity would continue by producing some of its most iconic timepieces ever such as the Explorer, Submariner, GMT Master, Presidential Date Just, Milgauss, and ladies Date Just.
While you would assume that a company like Seiko would fade away after the bonds placed on Japanese products during the war, the Seiko Corporation soldiered on, providing fully in house watches. Seiko would come to play a decade long game of catch-up in order to compete with what Rolex had accomplished in just a few short years. It was during this time that Seiko learned to fine tune their movements and to perfect watches beyond levels that Rolex was achieving at the time. Seiko watches were proven to be just as durable and reliable under extreme conditions as their Rolex competitor. The brand even moved to a more luxurious market by creating Grand Seiko in 1960, but it wasn’t just considered luxurious because of its price. The brand was actually created to showcase it’s excellence in time keeping ability.
Then all hell broke loose! Seiko began to develop watches that were of the same durability and calibre as Rolex but at a much lower cost, creating pieces such as the Navigation Timer, World Timer, Captain Willard, Rally Driver, and the Pogue (which was even worn in space). Then the unthinkable happened…In 1969 Seiko developed the first quartz movement and introduced the Seiko Astron. Unable to keep up, the “quartz crisis” nearly bankrupted much of Switzerland, causing the Swiss to only be known for things like their cheese for a full decade! Things were so bad that the Swiss watch industry went from a booming 1600 companies to just 600 in 10 short years. But as we all know, eventually the situation turned around and Swiss watchmaking survived, including Rolex.
The real issue is that after all Seiko has fought for, they haven’t stepped out from under the shadow caused by World War II. The general public and even luxury watch collectors who are trained to love Swiss made watches see Seiko as “just” a Japanese watch. That archaic view will fade over time as people begin to learn more about the culture of the Japanese through their watches. Let’s not forget that we are talking about the same country that birthed the Samurai, and the Ninja, both cunning warriors of the 15th-17th century.
With that in mind, Seiko has used their tenacity to elevate themselves above their competition by understanding their customers needs and desires. Japan has been known for their relentless dedication to their craft and pursuit of perfection. The same values that were personified by the sword makers in ancient Japan have been passed down through their culture. Just as generations of tradition and craftsmanship have ensured that the Japanese still make the best blades in the world, there will be no stopping them in their pursuit to be the best watchmakers. In the past decade, we have watched Seiko’s watches climb to luxury quality and beyond in the Grand Seiko and Credor lineup, imagine what the next will bring.
To sum it all up in a nice big package for those who skipped to the end (cheaters), Rolex developed a tremendous lead in company growth during the time where Seiko had to grow and rebuild after disaster. Rolex had done such a good job with advertising that the capital earned from brilliant advertising catapulted them to the highest position among the royalty of watchmakers. But as history shows us, a single event can change the outcome of the future.
Can you imagine what a watch company like Seiko could have achieved if they weren’t held back in history? Even now, while the giant of the watch world has been basking in the world’s sun rays and sipping tea, the Samurai have been waiting in the tall grass building an army of collectors from every price range. At any time they could erupt from the cover of the shadows and take over the watch industry with razor sharp, precision pieces.
Here’s some free advice. Hold on to your Vintage Seiko watches, look for good deals as well as limited releases. With the values that we are seeing with new and vintage timepieces, the prices are only going to climb as the company dominates the luxury market again.Follow Us: