The Seiko Spring Drive:  Innovation and Refinement

by Edward Hahn

27 July 2005


It’s not often that you get an email note out of the blue inviting you to Tokyo.  But then again, it’s not often that a watch company releases a fundamentally different kind of watch to the worldwide market.  Lucky me, I got to be in on both in early July 2005.

As announced at the Basel Fair in March, Seiko is introducing Spring Drive technology to the world this September, and is linking it with a new long (72 hour) power reserve model with automatic winding.  With this watch, Seiko is taking an unprecedented step outside its home market, as they intend to sell the watch at a price that most people don’t associate with the 124 year old company from Japan.

The Spring Drive is more than simply a new movement for Seiko – it’s the culmination of a strategy that has already been underway for several years already.  Our visit to Seiko was in-part to hear both of the technical innovation as well as to hear Seiko’s plans for entering the upper echelons of horology worldwide. Also accompanying me on this trip were Joe Thompson of Watchtime Magazine, Jordan Rothacker of International Wristwatch, and Bill Shuster of JCK (a jewelry trade magazine).

A Visit to Seiko Headquarters, Shibaura, Tokyo

Seiko HQ Group Photo
Your humble reporter with Seiko Watch Corporation executives - (l to r) - Kenji Hagiwara, Ed Hahn (TZ), Shinji Hattori (President/CEO),Takashi Wakuyama, Shu Yoshino, Yosh Kawada

We arrived at Seiko Watch Corporation Headquarters around 9 a.m. on 13 July, and received a warm welcome from Mr. Shinji Hattori, the President and CEO of Seiko Watch Corporation.  In his introduction, Hattori-san provided three reasons why Spring Drive is so important to Seiko:

  • First, the Spring Drive forms the basis for what should be a whole series of high-end movements from Seiko, including complications and other features required to produce a family of high-end products.

  • Second, the technology behind the Spring Drive provides a unique advantage to Seiko, one which he confidently believes that other companies will be unable to duplicate.

  • Third, it provides a means for Seiko to enter the high-end around the world.  While Seiko, through their Credor and Grand Seiko brands, have been filling the Japanese demand for high-end watches, the Spring Drive gives Seiko the perfect product to enter the U.S. and European markets.

Shinji Hattori, President/CEO
Shinji Hattori, President & CEO
Seiko Watch Corporation
(Photo provided by Seiko)

After the introduction, Mr. Shu Yoshino, General Manager of International Advertising, provided an overview of Seiko.   Currently, the Seiko Epson and Seiko Instrument sister divisions provide manufacturing muscle to the Seiko Watch Corporation, which in turn is responsible for overall design, marketing, and sales of the watch products.  All three companies are in turn subsidiaries of the Seiko Corporation, the top-level holding company.

Shu Yoshino, GM International Advertising
Shu Yoshino

In his presentation, Yoshino-san made it very clear that Seiko was in the midst of a major shift in their product focus.  In the past, Seiko focused on matters such as achieving low price, building products based on what they knew how to make, marketing based on individual products, and the quantity of sales.  In the future, Seiko wants to be known for design, ability to make what consumers want, and above all, to put an emphasis on quality and customer satisfaction.

Seiko executives were proud to point out that interest in the Spring Drive automatic has been heavy since the Basel introduction, and that far more retailers are interested in selling the watch than Seiko is able to supply.  For the first year of sales, Seiko expects to have about 100 dealers selected worldwide to sell the watch (about 30% of those in the U.S.), and has a sales target of 1,000 watches.  Seiko is concentrating on high-end retailers that carry both luxury and some of the more unique brands, as well as high-end watch specialty retailers that cater to clientele that are interested in the unusual and unique over brand status.  With only about 30 dealers in the U.S., it is certain that these won’t be seen at every jewelry store at the local mall.

The watches will retail at $3295 for the strap/small seconds model, and $3495 for the bracelet/center seconds model.

Seiko Spring Drive Models
Launch Models for the Seiko Spring Drive Automatic
(Click here for larger photo (296kB))
(Photo provided by Seiko)

My personal impressions of the watches are very favorable.  These are substantial watches with cases, dials, materials, and construction that are well-suited to the high-end market. 

Center Second Models
Center Second Models with cal. 5R65
(Click here for larger photo (444kB))
(Photo provided by Seiko)

The bracelet models with center seconds are 42mm diameter, 12.3mm thick, and come in 3 dial colors – white, black, and slate blue - the last finished with a subtle sunburst pattern. They use solid link bracelets finished impeccably with polished and brushed surfaces.

Small Second Models
Small Second Models with cal. 5R64
(Click here for larger photo (452kB))
(Photo provided by Seiko)

The strap models with small seconds are 40.8mm diameter, 11.9mm thick, and also provide a choice of 3 dials – ivory, copper, and black, each color finished with a unique texture. The quality of the alligator straps are on par with European watches of comparable price.

Spring Drive Automatic:  Case Profile
(Photo provided by Seiko)

All cases are solid stainless steel, with clean styling and a unique profile, and include sapphire crystals on both sides.

Caliber 5R64
Spring Drive Automatic Movement Caliber 5R64
(Photo by Kohei Saito)

The movements visible through the caseback were equally impressive visually, with strong “côtes circulares” on the rotor and bridges.  Parts are very well polished (through use of traditional wood tools) and the overall presence of the watch is in-line with the price.

The most eye-catching feature of the operating watch is the truly smooth sweep of the second hand.  Unlike quartz (advancing once/second), mechanicals (advancing between five and ten times a second), or even the Accutron tuning-fork movement (advancing several hundred times per second), the Spring Drive provides true continuous motion.  The wheel train never stops moving - and the smallest wheel in the train (the Glide Wheel) spins at 8 revolutions per second, or at 480 revolutions per minute.

The only comparable experience is the old synchronous AC motor clock, driven by wall current line frequency - and there will never be a portable version of that!  This feature needs to be seen in person for best effect.  One warning- don't be surprised to feel a visceral connection with the motion upon viewing...

As for that thousand watch sales target for the first year: I asked Mr. Kenji Hagiwara the next evening about the number of units sold for Grand Seiko and Credor the previous year.  I was astounded to hear that they had sold 110,000 pieces.  These pieces are of similar quality to the Spring Drive models, and include solid gold and pave diamond models.  Prices reach far in excess of what Seiko plans to sell the initial Spring Drive automatic.  In comparison, 1,000 watches world-wide seems like a very conservative, and very achievable target.

Click here for Part 2