Despite the overwhelming presence of Swiss brands and companies with ancient heritage, Seiko has always held a position of respect at BaselWorld. Not least because of timepieces such as the Ananta, Grand Seiko, the Spring Drive mechanism and this year’s highlight: the Seiko Credor Spring Drive Minute Repeater. The critically acclaimed minute repeater was a subtle reminder of the fact that while Seiko makes some of the most popular quartz watches in the world, it also has a heritage and history of making superb mechanical pieces as well. And this year is a special one for the Indian market as Seiko is finally releasing the Grand Seiko luxury range here in time for the festive season.
At BaselWorld 2011, Mint spoke to Shinji Hattori, president of Seiko Holdings Corp. Hattori spoke about how the company was coping with the earthquake aftermath, Seiko’s strategy for growth and the importance of the Indian market. Niladri Mazumder, head of Seiko India, joined us. Edited excerpts:
India plans: Seiko Holdings Corp. president Shinji Hattori
From a business perspective, in the short and the long term, how does the earthquake impact Seiko?
Seiko was very lucky. None of our employees were hurt in the earthquake. But some of our factories had to be stopped because of the shortage of gas and electricity. I don’t know when they will go back online. Fortunately, we have not suffered any loss in capacity for watch manufacturing. All the factories, which were affected, were involved in making other products for the corporation.
Will this have an impact on the Japanese watch market significantly?
The earthquake affected six out of the total 47 prefectures in Japan. The main markets are in places like Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, which have not been affected too much. And the closest factories we have to Fukushima nuclear power plant are hundreds of kilometres away. The watch market will perhaps slow down a little right now. But overall, we are not affected too badly.
How has this and the economic crisis affected your vision and plans as a company?
Our vision remains unchanged. It has always been “innovation and refinement”. However, after the Lehman crisis, some markets like the US have cautious consumers. They are cautious of buying expensive watches. So we’ve tried to respond to that by changing our offerings in that market.
The Seiko Credor Spring Drive Minute Repeater
Is there a demand for premium watches in Asia to make up for that shortfall?
Yes, there is. Asia is stepping up. In India, for instance, we are looking at launching Ananta and Grand Seiko in this financial year. Grand Seiko should be available during the festive season so that we have something exciting and innovative.
Will you be upgrading retail locations to prepare for top-end products such as Ananta and Grand Seiko?
Mazumder: Yes. We’ve already opened an exclusive boutique in Chennai. And it is doing very well. We have sold many limited edition pieces as well. Over the year, we plan to open boutiques in Mumbai and Delhi and other major cities as well. We need the right kind of atmosphere to sell these luxury products. So we need to choose partners and locations very carefully. Every element of the experience is very important when you sell these products. So apart from our boutiques, we will also choose select partners as points of sales.
What is the current state of watchmaking in Japan? Do you have enough makers? Do you have enough young people who want to become watchmakers?
There are four major watch companies in Japan: Seiko, Citizen, Casio and Orient. And there are so many industries. Young people have diversified interests and so, many choices. So it is not very easy to find people. But it is not a problem. In Nagano prefecture and Iwata prefecture, where we have factories, there are many good, talented youngsters entering our company. They are trained in our factories and mentored by expert craftsmen. There is a good system in place.
Are there any technical or philosophical differences in the way the Japanese and Swiss or Germans make watches?
I think the similarities are greater than the differences. We think both European and Japanese watchmakers are trying to create accurate, high-quality watches.
Our goals are the same. But our approach is more technology oriented. We think the Swiss are more traditional. For instance, in the US, we recently launched lower-priced solar watches. They were extremely successful.
But does that create a challenge in terms of communication? Seiko produces quartz watches on the one hand. And Credor minute repeaters on the other...
Sales channel or route is completely different for our products. So really there is no hindrance in that sense. We communicate, distribute and sell our different lines completely independently.
How important is the women’s watches business to Seiko?
Women’s watches have always been something of a challenge for us. But that is because we have always been a brand focused on more design than technology. Women’s watches need more fashion and design. It needs a slightly different approach.
Muzumder: Incidentally, over the last year, we have seen a significant jump in sales for women’s watches in India. The Indian women’s watches market has its own sensibilities and own tastes. Yet tastes are becoming international. So classic designs in the Seiko range are working. And we have watches for ladies in the Sportura, Velatura and Premier range that are doing very well.
And which watch are you wearing right now?
A skeletonized, ultra-thin Credor mechanical watch. The movement is just 1.92mm thin. It is white gold. I love wearing it because it is so thin and light. No weight on the wrist at all.