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Interview: Watchonista Sits Down with Seiko President Shuji Takahashi

Journalists are rarely granted access behind the elusive curtain of Seiko and now independent brand, Grand Seiko. So, when Seiko offered us the chance to sit down with their global President, our reply was a resounding YES!

By Josh Shanks

Nestled deep inside Seiko’s Baselworld booth, is a myriad of presentation rooms and small break out rooms to accommodate the various meetings taking place at the show. For years, we’ve visited the show, had our product presentations, took all the photos we could during our short time together, and moved on to a bevy of other appointments. This appointment, however, was different. For today, we were about to meet with Seiko President Shuji Takahashi.

The meeting itself started outside of the booth with an exchange of bows and business cards. Presenting your business card with two hands and receiving the counterpart’s card in the same tradition is a staple of Japanese culture. Once inside the booth, to my surprise, for our interview, we were led to a grand boardroom full of Seiko executives both from Japan, US, and global markets. After circling the table, I found myself seated directly across from the man at the helm of Seiko. Mr. Shuji Takahashi, the President & COO & CMO of Seiko Watch Corporation.

Mr. Takahashi was warm and welcoming to myself and our photographer. Even taking the time to examine each of our wrists prior to the meeting. For the occasion, I was on brand by wearing my Grand Seiko 9F Quartz which I picked up during a recent trip to Tokyo.  From the very start, it was clear that Takahashi was well prepared for our interview. What followed was an in-depth discussion about the brand’s global strategy, future goals, social media, and finally Mr. Takahashi’s personal story of getting his start in the watch industry.

Josh Shanks (JS): Mr. Takahashi, thank you for taking the time to sit down with Watchonista during Baselworld. What is the big focus of Seiko / Grand Seiko in 2018?

Mr. Takahashi: First of all, Grand Seiko as you know, became an independent, full-fledged brand last spring. And so, naturally, 2018 is going to be a very important year. This year, we’re introducing two different collections. One is an Anniversary model and the other is a lady’s piece with a new caliber.

Grand Seiko has quite an extensive history since 1960 and one of the biggest products we had was the 9S caliber. As it’s going to be the 20th anniversary of the 9S, we will have an Anniversary model this year. This range will consist of two different kinds of precision models in what we call the V.F.A. (Very Fine Adjusted) collection. For the first time in 50 years, we are going to launch a female movement for Grand Seiko, the women’s automatic.

I am happy to say that these models are very true to the spirit of Grand Seiko, of course because of the high level of accuracy achieved, but also the women’s collection has to be beautiful. The ladies’ pieces have very thin movements and I’m proud we have been able to accomplish all of this. As for the Seiko brand, of course, the highlights will be Prospex divers.

As you have never seen before, this year we have a very extensive and powerful Prospex lineup. It consists of two diver’s watches. First, the 1968 – a 50th anniversary model of the high beat divers watch. The other one is the world’s first quartz divers watch for saturation diving which is another anniversary model (40th). It is always our policy whenever we go back in history to get inspiration, we also have to have a modern reference, so you will see alongside these two anniversary models some reinterpretation.

JS: In 2017, we saw Grand Seiko launch as its own brand. How has that initiative been going?

ST: I can answer this in one sentence, that is It is going very well thank you!

We are enjoying a great growth in Europe and US markets. Of course, we are seeing a great increase in the number of shops in these two markets and therefore our sales are going up. It is not only the number of sales that makes us happy, now people are starting to really embrace the Grand Seiko concept. The heritage we offer, and the brand story is well received and now consumers are actually having more and more high hopes and expectations towards the brand.

You are familiar with our Grand Seiko Boutique on Rodeo Drive and our hope is that the megacities will see more and more of these dedicated Grand Seiko boutiques.

JS: The 9F Quartz movement is starting to gain recognition because of its intricate finishing and precision. How will the high-end Quartz concept evolve? And what can Seiko do to continue to educate the end consumer about this great movement?

ST: First of all, nothing makes me happier than to hear you’re looking and focusing on the 9F Caliber. I believe this is a very special unique thing among high end watches. Because 9F is a quartz within this high-end luxury market, I believe 9F is the equivalent to mechanical, our hands are thick, heavy, and very grand, and you need high-torque to move those hands. Also, a unique protective shield construction prevents dust from entering into the gear train. so 9F is what we call ‘’the ultimate quartz’’. Bearing in mind, all of this construction is the same level or equivalent to mechanical. I think this is a fact that not many people are aware of, but the 9F is just like a Spring Drive in a mechanical piece handmade by our craftsmen. This year, we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the 9F caliber so I think we will have a lot of new ideas.

JS: Back to Seiko, whenever someone asks me what watch I would buy if I had $500 I always say Seiko. How do you continue to stay on top of the podium with new and exciting releases?

ST: First of all, thank you for your recommendation in the $500 price range! But at the same time, I tell myself that now we need to be in the $1000-2000 range. We will have to put more efforts there. Up until now, Seiko has many quartz-oriented products, naturally within the $500 range, we we’re able to offer the best balance between quality, functionality and design at a reasonable price point, so these watches are accessible to anyone.

At Seiko, we have many, many, different types of heritage products including mechanical, Spring Drive, and so on. What I would like to emphasize here is that we have a lot of cultural heritage that only we can offer, including the aesthetic beauty Japan has, the craftsmanship, and the proprietary essences as I would call them, these are going to be embedded and you will see and sense that in any kind of Seiko product we offer. And yes! We will continue to have products in the $500 range, but at the same time, you will see more and more of our diverse cultural heritage in the $1000-2000 range.

JS: Japan, Switzerland, and America each have their own unique watch sub-cultures. How do you adapt your watches for a global audience? And what do you notice most about each culture?

ST: Let me address the differences I think I notice. This is my personal view, but I believe for example, the United States market has a very good understanding and acceptance level for something novel. For example, Spring Drive is doing so well in the United States because they appreciate new and different technologies.

In Europe, it defers a little bit by country, but generally speaking, I believe they lay more importance on history, tradition, and what classical elements you can offer.

As for our home market of Japan, the market there is all about quality. They are very picky and demand quality, yet at the same time, they have a very high level of interest towards high technology.

Having said that, I believe that thanks to the globalization of our economies and maybe IT, watch culture has become more and more globalized, especially in the luxury segment. So, there is more of a common platform and common values in the segment. Because we are seeing so much of the luxury segment being globalized and becoming much more common, each country’s markets will be driven by the uniqueness that the brand can offer to all customers. What kind of new world we can portray to customers and appeal to them will become very important. In that context, I believe Seiko has so much to offer, roots in our Japanese culture, and our heritage as a company. This is going to serve as the backbone to all of our products.

JS: In 2018, digital and social media play a significant role in the purchasing decision of a watch. How do you feel about these technologies?

ST: Of course, this technology is helping us on the way we communicate and also in the way we market, and even e-commerce has become a trend now. The business model itself is now changing to cater this to this world, so I think it is a major trend that is changing every facet of the world we live in.

Especially in the communication context, we can no longer ignore, we must be in the digital realm that’s for sure! Through our own media as well as social media, we have to be working very actively to provide the necessary information our customers need and require on a timely basis. We are also trying to reinforce those capabilities. Having said that, I must say that the e-commerce route, the Amazon effect, has also affected our category in the industry. The existing distribution model has been quite impacted by this. The nature of the luxury segment has always been face-to-face, so we have to strike the right balance between the real world and the virtual one.  

JS: Lastly, if I may ask a personal question, could you share with our audience how you got your start in the watch industry? Were you a watch guy before Seiko and can you name your first watch?

ST: I was always a watch and clock lover, but also a camera lover. So, I loved everything mechanical, which is the very reason why I decided to join Seiko. Growing up as a child, of course a watch was an aspirational item that you would one day buy for yourself. When wearing a watch, you felt like a member of full-fledged high society. It made me feel very good. The first watch I bought was actually a mechanical chronograph, the Seiko 5 Sport. I remember when I bought and wore it for the first time, throughout the day I was playing with it. I will never forget that feeling.

(Photography by Liam O’Donnell)

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