Watchmaking in Japan

Japan transitioning from technology to luxury


February 2018

Japan transitioning from technology to luxury

All have developed a continuum of unparalleled technological innovations, from the use of quartz to solar energy. All have continued to produce large volumes at very affordable prices. All without exception are now trying to present a more ‘premium’ face, each in their own way. A visit to Casio, Seiko and Citizen, the three giants of the Japanese watch industry.


n a 1938 issue of the Buyers’ Guide (the ancestor of today’s Europa Star), the reader is reminded how closely Japan guarded the secrets of its watchmaking industry back then. “We are not permitted to allow persons unknown to us to visit our factories, and especially not visitors from a watchmaking country,” was the response received by a reporter there.

Things have changed a lot since then and this autumn Europa Star had the opportunity of visiting the factories of the major Japanese watchmakers, as we already have done on numerous occasions! But it is still true that Japanese watchmaking has developed in an insular way, with its own particularities and well-guarded secrets, and worlds away from the Swiss industry. While taking inspiration from it as far as method is concerned, it has put much greater emphasis on technology.

And has developed first and foremost around the three ‘topdown’ giants Seiko, Citizen and Casio, without the teeming ‘bottom-up’ ecosystem based on subcontracting that characterises the Swiss market. Today, each and every one of these watchmaking giants – all of which have developed extraordinarily sophisticated technological innovation during the course of their history, from GPS to solar energy and smart watches – are trying their hand at a more ‘premium’ strategy. And each in their own way: Seiko with the independence of Grand Seiko announced at Baselworld; Casio with the G-Shock in steel, celebrating the 35th anniversary of this icon of the younger generation, who have since grown up (read more in our cover story in the Time. Keeper folio); and lastly, Citizen via strategic takeovers, including the cluster made up of Frederique Constant, Alpina and Ateliers de Monaco, to cite the most recent example.

While not neglecting mass production of movements for third parties (as is the case of Seiko and Citizen), nor that of very affordable models, in this article we take a look at how each of them intends to go about positioning themselves more firmly in the premium or ‘affordable luxury’ segment – at the global level. In short, transitioning from a culture of technology to one of luxury.

Why? On the one hand, what is perceived as watchmaking ‘technology’ for the masses – the multiplication of functionalities – seems to be shifting increasingly to Silicon Valley. Inversely, the perception of Japanese culture in the rest of the world has undergone a profound transformation: today the country is seen as much as a symbol of refined lifestyle as of technical know-how, a society of ultra-refined art and culture. Is that not the very definition of luxury?