“Do you want another cocktail sir?” asked the woman with a tray of green libations that glowed like antifreeze in the dim light of Chumley’s, a famous Manhattan speakeasy, and the backdrop for Seiko’s roll out of its 2019 Prospex and Presage models.
Green was the theme and Seiko was seeing money, moving their product line upmarket across the board, to rewrite a brand identity that had become diluted with distribution in everything from high-end jewelry shops to sporting goods stores. As part of the process Seiko was shutting down the spigot and eliminating 1,000 distributors from their roster.
To celebrate this strategic play the company assembled a group of the Chosen: retailers, watch journalists, sales reps, assorted bloggers, Instagrammers and representatives of a watch fan club (we’re told they have enthusiasm and sometimes buy watches) on a rainy Spring night to consume cocktails and the broad range of products that collectively contributed to Seiko’s thick catalogue.
The company had several goals: generate orders, reinforce relationships between retailers and their sales reps, and stir up content. I was part of the latter group, those selected to spread the message, and to Seiko’s credit, they are successfully marrying the narrative with some smart business moves.
But what else would you expect from a company that has legitimately remained in operation since 1881 and can lay claim to everything from the Orange Monster ($147.39 at Sears – includes free shipping!) to the Credor FUGAKU limited edition tourbillon ($450,000 – and good luck finding one).
Seiko wisely primed the event with copious collections of colored alcoholic concoctions designed to emulate the appearance of its products. The watchmaker showcased their collaborations in a junket that took the Chosen to several famous Manhattan speakeasies, with the evening culminating in a three-hour tour around Manhattan on a party yacht. Each speakeasy presented a themed cocktail designed to reflect the color and impart an association with a particular watch.
We drank Old Fashioned’s at Bathtub Gin on 9th Avenue because the smoky, bronze hued cocktail reflected the gold case burgundy dials and brown leather strap of the Presage SRPD 36 models and consumed a green concoction at Chumley’s to highlight their newest green dial Presage automatic.
Open the door
The speakeasies evoked a feeling of ancient decadence, built as much on the physical appearance of the small, bricked underground rooms festooned with mirrors, artifacts, long wooden bars and padded leather chairs, as the historical knowledge that at one time, places like these meant that you were getting away with something. And possibly that’s one of the secrets of Seiko: they are watches imbued with art and science that isn’t always apparent at first glance, like the door to a speakeasy. Open it, and you’ll find another world inside, one no longer associated with hardware stores and pawnshops.
Watch companies tell stories and wrap their products around narratives ranging from activities to heritage, value, exclusivity, humor, or, in the case of Seiko, history expressed through materials and colors. Seiko is one of the few brands that has a fan and collector base so dedicated that they have built mythologies around specific models.
The names Orange Monster, Sumo, Tuna Can, Samurai, Turtle, Captain Willard and Arnie each refer to legendary Seiko models, with the names created and adopted by the public. This level of cerebral brand tattooing has always been endemic to Seiko, whose products have been popularized through channels that most brands spend billions to emulate: word of mouth and true organic adoption.
To understand this phenomenon requires going backwards in time, to an era when Seiko wasn’t shepherding busloads of people around one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Success in brand marketing and adoption comes from an instant association with a positive affect when a name is referenced. Brands work to craft this definition for decades. Think of Harley Davidson, Ferrari and Veuve Clicquot, and you’ll typically conjure a strong impression that has moved consumers to adoption.
Seiko is a brand that endeared itself to the American market through multiple touch points: visibility as the official timekeeper of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics; creating brand ambassadors out of a generation of GIs serving in the Asian theatre during Vietnam and the splashy development of an early quartz watch, the Astron 35SQ.
The brand’s pure utility as a true diver’s watch, offering high value on a style that emulated the best products in the business, helped cement one of the cornerstones of its market foothold. Look at a vintage Seiko and you’ll see traces of a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms in the curved glass crystal, or the dial markings of a Rolex Submariner.
Seiko knows the market, which it has studied for decades. In the spirit of other classic brands, Seiko has chosen evolution over revolution, and every model pays homage, in its own unique way, to its predecessor, much in the way any iteration Porsche 911 is identifiable as belonging to the same family.
If there is one idea string that sums up the essence of the Seiko brand it would be this: identify a need, develop a solution and constantly refine a successful strategy. The aftermath of these fifty-plus years of marketing is a brand with tentacles in multiple consumer sectors.
And now, like a skillful sushi chef with a pair of yanagiba knives, Seiko is in the midst of paring down its cephalopod into a more palatable and refined network.
Listening to customers
Rob Brennan is an affable, industry savvy sales professional, and one of Seiko’s key executives as SVP of sales in the U.S. I cornered him at Chumley’s speakeasy and asked him about the aggressive go to market strategy and its reflection in product development.
“We listened to our customers and have introduced the kinds of products they’re looking for: homage watches, watches with interesting back stories, and watches that are found in higher-end establishments. The features and innovations in our upper-end models, like Grand Seiko, are now incorporated into Prospex and Presage as well, at the most competitive, value-driven price points in the market. We deliver watches between $500 and $3,000 that easily rival Swiss counterparts costing two to three times more,” he said.
Retailers are impressed
Conversations with multiple retailers throughout the colorful New York evening confirmed the move as a positive one.
“They’ve got some great products, and huge amounts of support,” said a dealer from the southern regions, whose wife took home the evening prize for most evenly tanned. “The incentives are amazing, they’re really working the market well,” echoed another dealer. “We literally can’t keep some models in stock, and the one you’re interested in was sold out last year,” a third told me on the bus between stops as I admired the Prospex reissue on his wrist. To me, as one identifiable and viable part of the buying public, Seiko has always been the value-priced diver watch.
In 1965, Seiko introduced the 150M, Japan’s first diver’s watch, which looked and arguably functioned as well as any of its Swiss counterparts. This watch helped Seiko establish its beachhead as the viable, affordable, value-driven alternative to the higher priced European offerings. Its robustness and quality made it popular with GIs, particularly the automatic 6105-811X, with an asymmetrical case, a watch affectionately known as the Captain Willard after it appeared on Martin Sheen’s wrist in the movie “Apocalypse Now.”
It wasn’t long before this watch made its way to dive shops across the U.S., which planted the seeds for what is now the Prospex line.
There was far too much heritage and admiration for the original 1960-1970’s-era watches for Seiko to let them languish in the hands of collectors, while their lume slowly died away, denying the rest of the market an opportunity to own one. To satisfy demand, Seiko introduced a limited-edition recreation model in 2017, the SLA017, whose design stayed true to the original model, with a more modern feel and enhanced features including improved automatic functionality, water resistance to 200 meters, a stainless-steel case with super-hard coating and an anti-reflective sapphire crystal, SPB051 ($1,000) and SPB053 ($800).
In 2018 the company released a stunning recreation of the Seiko Prospex 1968 Diver’s Watch, which immediately won the watch industry’s most coveted honor, the Grand Prix d'Horlogerie de Genève, as Best Sports Watch of the Year. This watch became an instant collectible and commands a premium on any watch reseller site.
And as if this massive journey in the Time Tunnel didn’t provide enough options, Seiko also retro-modded its iconic 1970 dive watch, worn by Japanese adventurer Naomi Uemura when he did a solo dog-sled run from Greenland to Alaska, in the new Prospex SLA033 ($4,250). It’s slightly larger than the original, but faithful in every other way, down to the horseshoe-shaped printing on the case back, and an upgraded 8L35 Automatic caliber (which was specially designed for use in diver’s watches).
This watch’s 200-meter water resistant case has a super-hard coating and a dual-curved anti-reflective sapphire crystal. The upper surface of the bezel rim is Zaratsu-polished to a mirror finish.
Continuing the winning formula, Seiko released multiple Prospex LX models this year, developed in collaboration with Ken Okuyama Design and updated with Seiko’s proprietary precision Spring Drive movement. Mirroring the identifiable lines of the 1968 design, the Prospex LX rides well with a case lowered from previous model years; it’s watch angles are more pronounced, allowing the Zaratsu-polished surfaces to shine. The model references are SNR025 ($5,000), SNR027 ($5,000), SNR029 ($6,000), SNR031 ($6,000), SNR033 ($5,500) and SNR035 ($5,500).
But dive watches were only part of the surf and turf story on the water that evening; the other half of Seiko’s mindshare was devoted to the Presage line, a collection of refined, high-artistry, mechanical watches for soil walkers.
The Presage line has sixty models, each rendered in variations of traditional Japanese materials, including enamels, lacquers and porcelain that impart a multi dimensionality to the dials. All the Seiko movement innovations are in play, with neat slim cases that lay smoothly on the wrist, are utterly non-obtrusive and a welcome break from the clunky sleeve shredding watches of the mid-teens.
“Seiko has a unique ability to seamlessly combine art and utility, and has done so from our first products, released in the early 20th century,” said Teruyo Ishimaru, Seiko’s Director and Senior Vice President as we watched the Statue of Liberty off the starboard bow of the party yacht.
“Our embrace of Japanese craftsmanship, aesthetics and spirituality can be seen in all of our products and is revealed as you look at them and use them. Their longevity and widespread adoption speaks to their form as well as their function. Our other lines are driven by an equal commitment to a balance of art and science.
“Look at the porcelain craftsmanship in the dial of the Presage Arita, representing a 400-year -old Japanese tradition or the techniques of enamel and Urushi lacquer, painstakingly applied to the dials of some of our limited edition models,” Ishimaru continued. “Its lineage dates back to ornamentation on the armor of Samurai warriors. Seiko is constantly refining our past to shape our future.”
While the Prospex line is carried on its heritage as an adopted American icon, the Presage line leverages Japanese heritage through education. Presage is a product that begs an explanation to fully understand what’s been involved in bringing each model to life.
In terms of a halo effect, there’s a direct line between the sensibilities of the Grand Seiko line and Presage, with features, such as the lauded spring drive, shared between the two brands. If anything, Presage is Seiko’s attempt to tell the story of Japanese artistry, specifically through its dial treatments, and tout Japanese technology with the movements behind them.
Each Presage model has its own story to tell. Seiko chose Shippo, a type of enamel developed in Japan in the 17th century, for its SPB073 ($1,600) and SPB075 ($1,400) models. Applying this enamel is a multi-step process conducted by Ando Cloisonné, a specialist manufacturer in Nagoya with over a century of history. Craftsman Wataru Totani paints the glaze by hand onto the surface of the dial, which is then fired at 800 degrees Celsius. The painting and firing processes are repeated several times to ensure the evenness of the enamel and smoothness of the surface. The deep blue of the long-lasting enamel evokes the blue color of the seas around Japan, while the dial pattern echoes the continuous motion of the waves that break on its shores. Knowledge of this process turns a casual buyer into a legacy consumer.
On display in the center of the boat’s party room were a bevy of Presage watches, each a nod to the past. Seiko’s Presage Arita features porcelain dials, ala pocket watches of a hundred years ago, shining with a deep brilliance under the exhibition lights like miniature plates in a dollhouse.
The Presage dials are made at a workshop renowned for its skills since 1830; master craftsman Hiroyuki Hashiguchi worked with Seiko to adapt this material to these watches. Rather than apply the porcelain onto a metallic base as with other techniques, the porcelain material itself forms the base of the dial and a special mold is used to create its unique shape. A host of technical advancements has allowed Arita porcelain to form high-strength, three-dimensional dials, hand glazed and crafted in a multi-stage process combining watchmaking innovation with a legacy technique. These models include SPB093 ($1,900) and SPB095 ($1,700).
The Presage Urushi Byakuden-nuri limited edition was another outstanding watch on display, exemplifying the Seiko philosophy. At first glance it appears to be a black-dialed gentlemen’s watch with neat inset power reserve and day date display. But a closer look reveals the depth in the dial, because it is coated with Urushi lacquer, processed from the sap of the Japanese lacquer tree.
With a history dating back to Japan’s Jomon period (13,100 BCE-400 BCE) each Urushi lacquer dial is the product of a multi-step process produced in the studio of Urushi master Isshu Tamura in the Hokuriku region of Honshu, Japan’s main island. Byakudan-nuri, a technique once used to decorate Samurai armor and specially selected for the limited-edition model, produces almost translucent reds and blacks and is found in model SPB085, a limited edition of 2,000 pieces ($2,500).
For a brand like Seiko to be fully appreciated it has to be understood, and this requires the same kind of high-touch approach that the company is conducting with its retailers. Each line, each dial, each movement has a story worth telling, and helps create evangelists out of customers.
Seiko has taken an incredible amount of effort for the company to evolve from the PX’s the world to a brand worn on the wrists of the world’s most well-heeled collectors. And Seiko has successfully completed the journey. The next phase of this program lies in the hands of the remaining U.S. retailers, which now have the products, knowledge and tools to enable the brand to fully realize its potential in this market.