Seiko is known for many things: $100 vintage Seiko 5’s with tractor-like movements, the 62MAS diver, the iconic SKX (which I wished I had bought while they were still in production), the modern SPB line, etc. Seiko is also known for their relation to Grand Seiko and, if you are really into Japanese horology, Credor. Grand Seiko is talked about as a brand that makes better watches than Rolex while Credor is talked about as one that rivals or surpasses Jaeger-LeCoultre and Patek Philippe. Seiko’s capability for making watches that range from entry level to super-luxury with state-of-the-art engineering can be explained by a little known story about the brand: the Daini and Suwa factories which both worked for the same parent company but competed with each other. Source: www.beansandbezels.com
Seiko Before and During World War II
In order to understand what we’re talking about here, we need to go back to the years leading up to World War II and the impact the conflict had on Seiko. From its inception in 1881, Seiko—at the time named 'K. Hattori & Co.' until it became 'Seiko' in 1924—fully operated in Tokyo. That is where Hattori got his beginnings repairing western pocket watches and clocks at his Hattori Tokeiten store in Ginza. A few years later, he opened his first factory, also in Tokyo, called Daini Seikosha (the latter translates to “exquisite” in English.) As Hattori and his colleagues had predicted, the inevitable impact that WWII had on the brand pushed them to move production outside of Tokyo and, in 1942, partner with a company called Daiwa Kogyo, Ltd. (founded by an ex-employee of Hattori’s) which was based in Suwa.
During the war, the Daini factory was completely destroyed which forced Seiko to operate from the Suwa factory as well as two other sites the brand had created outside of the capital. By 1949, the factory in Tokyo had been rebuilt, however, Seiko decided to keep the Suwa factory. Things were such that after World War II, the quality of Seiko watches, whether they were made at the Daini factory in Tokyo or the Suwa factory near Nagano, had declined. There was a lack of materials and equipment, not to mention the profound logistical and operational impact that this moving around had on Seiko. This is when things got interesting.
Daini vs. Suwa: What This Competition Meant for Seiko
In the introduction, I mentioned that Seiko became such a popular and capable brand because of the split between the two factories. What seems to have happened is that Seiko needed to make better watches to not only compete with western brands but also with other Japanese watchmakers. When Seiko had rebuilt its Daini factory in Tokyo in 1949, it had to compete with other brands you may have heard of: Orient (founded in 1901) and Citizen (born in the 1930s.) There was a crucial need for Seiko to up its game. This led to the creation of the first Seiko design and engineering team for the Daini factory in 1953, and three years later, the same for the Suwa factory. Both factories were owned by the Hattori family but operated independently. This is the “competition” many watch collectors and journalists refer to.
So, what happened and what was the impact? To make a very long history short, the friendly competition resulted in the design and creation of iconic Seiko models, movements, and collections. At the beginning, both Daini and Suwa factories were producing clones of ETA movements (it seems) before making their own. Having hired designers, they started creating a Seiko style and grammar of design which can be found on models made by the two factories that look very similar. Have you heard of King Seiko and Grand Seiko? Both collections were born from that internal rivalry, the former being from the Daini factory and the latter from the Suwa factory. Eventually, Grand Seiko survived the Quartz Crisis but King Seiko did not. However, King Seiko was resurrected a few years ago.
I didn’t want to get into the details of which movements and models each factory made. Both combined, they literally designed and engineered dozens upon dozens of fine mechanical and quartz calibers, and models such as the KS44 and Lord Marvel. Nowadays, most people see Seiko and Grand Seiko perhaps as separate entities, as they do make very different watches with qualities on two far sides of a spectrum. However, I found it interesting to discover how both Daini and Suwa factories got started and the reasons why they were put against each other—in other words, to elevate the quality of all Seiko watches made at the time and for them to rival the best of western brands.Featured image: www.wadokei.me