During my recent trip to Japan I was lucky enough to be able to visit the Seiko Epson Shiojiri factory. This factory is best known for the production of quartz and spring drive models of Grand Seiko and Credor models as well as the Micro Artist Studios.
To get to the factory I caught a train from Nagoya to the Nagano region where the factory is located.
The train trip travels through some fantastic looking countryside and you then head into the mountains. The mountains are heavily wooded and you are able to see the fir trees that have been the inspiration for multiple Grand Seiko dial designs.
I travelled to Matsumoto where I was staying for the evening and left my bags at the hotel. I quickly stopped by the Matsumoto Timepiece Museum and then caught a local train.
Despite the factory being known as Shiojiri it is actually a little closer to Midoriko Station. This station is very small with no staff and just a basic platform. There are no card readers at the station so you will need to purchase an actual ticket and not use a Suica or Pasmo card.
It is about a 2km pleasant walk to the factory from the station but if the weather is not good or you do not want to walk it would be much easier to catch a cab from Shiojiri station.
When walking from the station you travel along small roads beside rice paddies and some small vineyards.
These rice paddies come right up to opposite side of the road to the Seiko factory. When walking from Midoriko station you come up to the rear of the factory and the employee car park.
A short walk along the side of the factory and you arrive at the main building.
I checked in at the reception and headed inside and met my tour guide Hirokazu Imai. Imai-san is an expert from the Planning and Design Department and a senior team leader. After introductions we then headed upstairs to a meeting room for a quick presentation about the facility and the different sections that operate from there. The factory was established in 1942 and it was moved from the Tokyo region to protect operations during wartime. The factory now employs approximately 630 staff and around 70% of the watch assembly staff are female. This was a similar statistic in the Morioka factory I visited earlier in the year.
The factory is broken down into a number of different areas. They produce numerous common quartz calibres for both Seiko use and for OEM supply. These include the radio controlled movements that sync time to the transmitted signal in various parts of the world. The factory also produces all of the Astron GPS models that have been very well received in the market. The factory also contains the Shinshu Watch Studio that is broken down into three main areas. The Takumi Studio is responsible for the assembly and QC of Grand Seiko and Credor quartz and Spring Drive models. The Jewelry Studio is responsible for the production of the precious metal and jeweled pieces, while in a small section of the factory is the Micro Artist Studio where high end models such as the Credor Sonnerie, Minute Repeater and Eichi II are created. The facility also houses the research and design groups.
After the quick presentation we headed downstairs but as I was leaving the room I noticed a display case in the corner of the room that housed a special watch. This was a Spacewalk that was worn by Richard Garriott in space. One of these watches was auctioned off for charity in 2009 but as you can see from the photo Richard had multiple watches with him on his journey.
After leaving the meeting room the first stop was a small museum area showing some of the historically relevant pieces from the factory.
These included the first watch movement produced by the factory, a small ladies calibre in 1946, the type 5. This calibre was building upon and included some parts that were produced prior to the war. To meet the post war market demands production soon turned to a larger men’s 10 lignes movement. This movement helped to solidify Seiko’s position in the market as a manufacture for men.
Introduced in 1956 and the winner of the Minister for International Trade and Industry Award in 1957 the Marvell was the next major success for the factory. The movement had a diameter of 26mm, was 4.4mm thick and had a price of ¥6,280. This was followed up by the Lord Marvel in 1958 that was high accuracy and the first Seiko watch designed with the intent of being a luxury good. The Lord Marvel had a price of ¥12,800.
The automatic Gyro Marvel followed up in 1959.
Next was a small display with the models that performed at the Swiss observatory chronometer trials in the mid to late 60’s.
These were followed by some classic Seiko pieces. These included a 1963 crystal chronometer, the 1964 952 clock and released just a short time later in 1969 the original Astron.
There was also an Astron movement showing how hand made this first model was. Apparently parts of the 35SQ movement were soldered by hand making them extremely difficult and costly to produce.
The quartz revolution rapidly progresses and Seiko produced their first digital watch prototype in 1971 as LCD technology was just being developed.
The factory museum also has numerous quartz and mechanical models on display with a selection of one button Crown Chronographs, including a 5718, some excellent condition diver models and even some early Credor models.
There is also a display of various mechanical GS models and a plaque from the Japanese Society for Mechanical Engineers honouring them for their remarkable technological innovations for watches. Three Seiko-made watches were highlighted as Mechanical Engineering Heritages, these were Japan's first wristwatch, the Laurel (1913), the first model of Grand Seiko (1960) and the world's first quartz wristwatch, the Quartz Astron (1969). This recognition was presented to Seiko on the day of Mechanical Engineering (August 7th) in 2014.
In the final area of the historical section is a presentation on the history of Spring Drive development.
There is the early prototype movement that Yoshikazu Akahane working with engineer Takehide Yamada created in 1984. This prototype unit had just a four hour power reserve but proved the concept and allowed the project to be officially supported. There is also a copy of the patent application that was submitted for this.
Following this is another movement prototype that was the next major improvement in the Spring Drive development. This prototype was created in 1993 and the power reserve was able to be increased to 10 hours.
In 1997 a third major generation of prototype movements was created utilizing the low energy consumption circuits developed for the Kinetic range of watches. This design watch was able to reach the target of 42 hours power reserve and the decision to commercialize the product was made. Seiko submitted their work and development to the Swiss Society of Chronometry in 1997 where they discussed a new movement and the Kinetic technology.
The first model Spring Drive was introduced to the public at BaselWorld in 1998 and utilized the hand wound 7R68A movement.
On the wall of the small museum area is a life size print of the first quartz timing system developed by Seiko in 1958 for use by television broadcasters. This is two racks wide and each about 42RU high.
After seeing these models we left the museum area and headed to the main factory areas.
Just before you enter the factory areas there is a poster on the wall showing the awards that Seiko staff have received in international and domestic competitions between 1971 and 2000. Seiko staff continue to enter these competitions and win numerous medals.
A few of the medals received by staff members are on display just near the poster.
We arrived at the Takumi, which means mastery, Studio that is responsible for the assembly of the Grand Seiko and Credor models. This includes the complete assembly of movements as well as the fitting of the dials, hands, bracelets etc. Before entering the area we donned pants, coats and hats and entered the clean room environment.
As you would expect the clean room is positively pressurized and the floor provides ventilation as well. In addition to this each of the workers have their own desk and a large air filtration unit is positioned at the back of the workspace.
In this area they were assembling Spring Drive movements. The workers are responsible for the complete assembly of each movement from start to finish. As each worker builds the complete movement they are able to have a real connection with the products construction.
The next area had workers assembling the quartz movements.
As clearly visible in these photos the workers were using Seiko quartz tester models like the QT2300 shown here.
After seeing this are we headed into the next room where the movements are fitted with dials, hands and placed into cases. The watches also undergo a number of QC checks at this point. A Seiko QT-99 quartz tester can be seen on the bench here.
The next part of the room is for additional testing procedures. There are pressure testing machines, a submersible waterproof tester, different heating and cooling machines for temperature testing.
All watches are given waterproof testing for at least 30 minutes irrespective of the type. Diver watches all undergo waterproof testing for three hours. All watches are also environmentally tested between -10 and +60 degrees for 24 hours.
Next we headed out of the Takumi Studio and headed downstairs. Literally below the stairs we descended was the Micro Artist Studio. In this area I saw craftsmen painting a dial for a Eichi II, checking the bluing of hand sets and also the assembly of an Eichi II by Yoshifusa Nakazawa.
During the visit to the Micro Artist Studio I was wearing my SBWA001 (7R68-0A10). This was the first Spring Drive model that was released in 1999 as a Limited Edition of 500 pieces. In the Micro Artist Studio I met many of the team who were responsible for the development of the Spring Drive movement. These included the manger of the Micro Artist Studio, Takahashi Osamu, and Matasohi Moteki one of the movement's key designers. Both of these gentlemen were also wearing their first generation Spring Drive models so we had the opportunity to take a rare group shot.
Outside of the Micro Artist Studio there is a small display of some of the early models that the studio has been responsible for.
Next on the tour was the Jewellery Studio that is responsible for the handling of precious metals and the setting of diamonds and other jewels. In this area the craftsmen skillfully attach bracelets to gold and platinum cases and ensure that precious jewels are securely set in the arrangements.
Continuing on we stopped by the case finishing studio. This part of the factory has staff who are finishing the cases for Grand Seiko and Credor models. There are numerous machines that the operators finish the cases with polished and brushed surfaces.
The operators have specific jigs that fit each case and make it easier to ensure uniform and consistent finishing on the cases.
After seeing the case finishing area we saw the case production area. The cases for Grand Seiko and Credor models are produced on site. There are two different methods that are used for the case production. The cases are made either via a cold forging process or via CNC machining. When using CNC machining there are obviously just data files that are used for the specific case design. When using cold forging the cases are pressed using numerous physical dies produced that help to shape the case. Some of the dies for the different case designs were able to be seen located in the hall just outside of the case production area.
There has been some discussion regarding the production of Seiko cases so I specifically asked about this. The cases for the watches made at Shiojiri are made in-house. They also produce cases for some other models. There is another company that also makes cases for some mechanical Grand Seiko models. These cases are produced by Hayashi Seiki Seizo Co., Ltd and utilize the same techniques and stringent quality levels. Seiko Holdings is majority owner of this company and they have worked closely together for many years. Hayashi Seiki Seizo also make cases for other high-end made in Japan Seiko models such as Brightz, as well as for other Japanese watch companies.
After seeing the case production are we then visited the Astron assembly lines and the fully automated movement production lines. This section was also very interesting but there were not photos able to be taken in these areas.
Finally we headed back to the meeting room and it was soon time to say goodbye and leave the facility.
I would like to thank the staff for all of their assistance and especially Imai-san who took the whole afternoon off to show me around the facility and answer my many questions.
This was a fantastic experience and one I will always remember, it was one of the highlights of my trip.