interview:-seiko-president-akio-naito-says-quantity-shouldn’t-be-the-enemy-of-quality

Interview: Seiko President Akio Naito Says Quantity Shouldn’t Be The Enemy Of Quality

Akio Naito, the affable boss of the Seiko Watch Corporation, is sitting with me inside the Grand Seiko booth at Watches & Wonders 2022. The entire show is full of unexpected presences. In its previous incarnation as the Salon International Haute de la Haute Horlogerie, or SIHH, neither Patek, Rolex, Tudor or Grand Seiko were present and now all four are in Geneva in force, along with several other newcomers. In contrast to the brand’s relatively small, slightly cramped former booth at the back of the second floor of Hall 1 in Baselworld, the booth at Watches & Wonders 2022 is enormous – high, almost cathedral-like ceilings, a waiting area perfumed by elaborate wooden panels, and a main exhibition area big enough for a drone-racing competition.

On the low table between us is something else brand-new: The Grand Seiko Kodo Constant Force Tourbillon, which the company describes as the first complication from Grand Seiko. The pedant in me has always enjoyed sniffing that neither the constant force device known as a remontoir, nor the tourbillon itself, are complications, which by tradition are additions to a watch which display additional information (the perpetual calendar, for instance). Instead, they are regulating devices.

None of that seems to matter, though, when you look at the Kodo (Japanese for ‘heartbeat”). The watch is far removed from the Grand Seiko I knew when the brand launched in the United States in 2010. But at the same time, the Kodo somehow manages to connect the dots to the underlying core philosophy of the brand, as well as the ongoing diversification of its designs.

HODINKEE: The growth of Grand Seiko into the international market has been turbocharged in the last few years.

Akio Naito: Well, as you are aware, Grand Seiko was born in 1960, but for a period of 50 years, it was almost exclusively available in Japan, confined to the Japanese market. Then we decided to go into the global market with Grand Seiko, in 2010. But for the first few years, the brand didn’t take off, and two things were decided in Tokyo to deal with that issue. One is outside of the Japanese domestic market, there was a need to separate Grand Seiko as its own identity, separate from Seiko. The second thing is focusing on the United States market, which has always been for us the largest market outside of Japan

Hi Beat GMT

Grand Seiko Hi-Beat GMT, Hands-On 2014

When did you begin working in the US market?

I went in September 2016. We started discussing how to build the brand, and then one thing is, we changed the local management. And we shuffled the internal personnel, allowing for somebody who is really talented and enthusiastic about the brand to become a member of the headquarters. We also made it possible for us to be able to be connected with the watch aficionados, watch enthusiasts, who are interested in the brand. And the media like HODINKEE, and all these combined.

What’s your experience been like at Watches and Wonders, versus Baselworld?

I was not very happy with how our brand was treated [at Baselworld]. We were next to Japanese friends in a Japanese village, and our aspiration was always to be a part of SIHH, which didn’t really materialize. And about a year ago, I was contacted by the management of FHH, to see if we were interested in joining Watches and Wonders. I told them, “Yes, we are interested, but what interests me more is how we will be treated as a brand in terms of the location of the booth, the space we are allocated, and also we are only interested in the long-term relationship, a partnership with the organization. If we are in one year, and next year we are out, that’s not what we would like to do.”

“So unless I have a total package of how we will be treated, I won’t be able to make a decision,” is how I explained it  to them. So we started negotiating for three or four months, and then we came to an agreement.

You were able to come to an agreement pretty quickly.

Well, luckily for us, they were very much aware of Grand Seiko, and a few members from their organization actually visited Shizukuishi some years ago.

Grand Seiko Hi-Beat GMT 2018

Grand Seiko SBGH267, as seen at Baselworld 2018

Is there a Japanese equivalent to the FHH?

​​Yeah. There is a Japan Clock & Watch Association, and all the Japanese manufacturers are members of this organization of which I’m now the president.

The transition from a niche enthusiast brand, in markets outside Japan, to an international luxury brand, has happened fairly rapidly. How did you manage the transition internally, and in terms of how the brand presented itself to the public?

I think we have a fairly long history in watchmaking, both for Grand Seiko and Seiko, but in the past, we were more a technology-centric brand. Our communication, our marketing activities, selling activities, were so focused on the product itself rather than telling the brand story.

Communication is, of course, very important. Distribution partners, the network of retailers, that’s also important, and the stories behind the manufacturing, and who are manufacturing our products, and in what environment, all these stories are very important. So the moment that we realized the importance of total storytelling, I think we started changing ourselves.

The message is that Grand Seiko is a specifically Japanese brand, and that its approach to making watches reflects traditional Japanese values with respect to craftsmanship, especially manual crafts. Maintaining that while increasing volume and distribution must be a challenge.

Well, that’s very true, and today’s challenge for the brand, for us, is to keep up with the increasing demand, how we can expand the capacity. And if we continue doing what we have been doing with all things manually it’s very difficult for us to grow. But up to this point, we’ve been doing it, and we are committed to continue doing it.

Grand Seiko Spring Drive 8 Day GMT

Grand Seiko Spring Drive 8-Day, 2019

We’re hearing a lot of talk that the current high demand for watches is a bubble, it’s unsustainable. Is the bubble going to burst, or is it possible for growth to continue.

Well, I think it really depends on the brand. For us, we are still in the development stage, relatively young or seen as young, especially outside of Japan. And in fact, we have so many interesting stories yet to tell. So I think for us, there is still a lot of potential to grow.

One important event was the completion of the development of 9SA Caliber for us, a new platform for the high beat mechanical movement, and you are familiar with the [Hi Beat] 9SA5. But on the basis of that platform, we thought we were able to develop different calibers, and this is one of those options. So, even though I’m not supposed to be saying this, there are many more interesting things that will be coming.

What’s your strategy moving forward, in terms of coordinating online and brick-and-mortar retail?

Well, in the last two years during the pandemic, we had to be focused on online activities, such as digital communication events and selling, as well in the Japanese domestic market. I think we wouldn’t have started our own online boutique if there was no COVID, and we had no choice but to go into an online eComm, which became such a big success, more than we anticipated. But we think as we move into a more serious luxury world, customer experience is extremely important.

And to enhance customers’ experience, we need qualified, good strategic retail partners who can represent the brand. So right now, and this is not just the US or Japan but globally, we are reviewing our retail network and becoming more and more selective in choosing who, where we work with.

There isn’t a single type of customer, obviously – there are people who will always want to see a watch and handle it before buying it, and at the other end of the spectrum there are people who just want what they want, when they want it.

Yes, and during the pandemic, we also opened the Grand Seiko flagship boutique in Place Vendôme, and we opened Grand Seiko Studio in Shizukuishi, and those facilities. Those I think, will have to be experienced by our fans.

We have a huge potential still uncultivated and converting the local Wako building to House of Seiko, which we will create actually in Ginza is another step forward in that sense.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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