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The finest quartz watch in the world

The idea of a fine quartz watch, let alone the finest quartz watch in the world, needs some explaining.

First of all, what is a fine quartz watch? The tendency is to think that a quartz watch is a quartz watch is a quartz watch. In the same way that a loaf of bread is a loaf of bread is a loaf of bread. Or a ballpoint pen is a ballpoint pen is a ballpoint pen.

You could spend very little or very much money on a ballpoint pen or a loaf of bread. You could buy a bag of ballpoint pens from a supermarket for a few hundred rupees. Or you could buy a fancy Swiss or French pen for $2,000 from an airport duty-free shop.

Even as you pay premiums for whatever reason—multigrain, gold, silver, gluten-free—there is this lingering sense that your pen or loaf of bread is not that much better than most other pens or loaves of bread.

Secondly, there is the matter of measurement. How is one quartz watch better than another quartz watch? How do we measure this? (There are ways.) Can we measure this at all? (We can.) Is the finest quartz watch in the world that much better than the little plastic number you can buy from one of those vendor islands in your local shopping mall? (Depends.)

What all this means is that the finest quartz watch in the world is an object of obsession. It is a matter of obsession for the buyer and, even more so, a matter of obsession for the maker. It is a matter of obsessing over machines, materials, manpower and minute fractions of time.

Which is why it will not surprise many people to know the finest quartz watch in the world is currently made in a factory in the city of Shiojiri on the Japanese island of Honshu. (I say currently, but it is unlikely that this situation will change.)

The Seiko Epson factory in Shiojiri cannot be made to look any more boring even if the company tried. It is an utterly unremarkable building fronted by a lawn with an ornamental pool of some sort that, I was told, had been switched off for the winter. I went to Shiojiri in November to see how Seiko Epson made Seiko watches in general, and two families of watches in particular: Grand Seiko and GPS Astron.

Seiko Epson is one of a group of companies that are involved in making watches under the Seiko brand. The organizational structure comprising holding companies and factories and marketing companies is much too complicated to discuss in this piece. Also, it is very boring.

The GPS Astron is perhaps the best known of these two Seiko flagship models. This is a model that directly links up to the worldwide network of GPS satellites in the sky to first determine the watch’s position and then obtain the exact time for that location on the planet. Combined with a power system that runs off any light, the GPS Astron is arguably the most accurate watch you can ever own. An engineer in charge of the product’s development told me that the watch loses or gains no more than one second in a 100,000 years. Provided, that is, you step outdoors for a few hours once every six months or so.

Seiko markets the GPS Astron widely. When it recently decided to launch a special edition named after brand ambassador Novak Djokovic, they chose a GPS Astron watch to bear his name. While it is very successful, the Astron is not unique. The GPS-enabled analogue wristwatch is a market getting increasingly crowded. Citizen’s Wave Air family and Casio’s Oceanus range achieve the same satellite-enabled time-setting functions. Each has its own selling points and dedicated fan base.

For all its accuracy, critical acclaim and ease of use, the GPS Astron is not the finest quartz watch in the world.

That honour, arguably, goes to a member of the other Seiko flagship: the Grand Seiko. At first glance, to the untrained eye, the Grand Seiko is a handsome but unexceptional watch. To understand why the Grand Seiko 9F family of watches are so exceptional, one needs to first understand how a quartz watch works.

In its simplest form, the technology that sits at the heart of both a quartz watch and the push-button stove lighters that many people use in their kitchen are identical. Both involve a piezoelectric crystal. First demonstrated in 1880 by Pierre and Jacques Curie, a piezoelectric crystal exhibits a curious behaviour—subject it to an electric current and it vibrates. Conversely, apply pressure to it and the crystal generates a tiny current. In quartz lighters, the crystal is deformed, which generates a tiny voltage arc that in turns ignites fuel. In watches, the opposite happens.

The process there is more complicated and, depending on your bent of mind, more interesting.

Quartz, or silicon oxide, to use its chemical name, is one such piezoelectric crystal. By the early 1960s, researchers had figured out that by applying a current to a suitably shaped quartz crystal, you could get it to vibrate at an incredibly accurate frequency. Use an electronic circuit to measure these vibrations, they realized, and you could build a timekeeping device that was vastly more accurate than the most accurate mechanical watches that existed at the time.

Mechanical watches have more or less functioned in the same way for two centuries or so. The mechanism involves taking a source of energy—such as the energy in a wound-up spring—and passing it through a regulating system to activate a coiled spring. The coiled spring swings back and forth several times a second.

Two things are then done to these vibrations. First, the back and forth movement is made unidirectional. Then the unidirectional movement of gears is slowed down to the speed of your second hand. This is a massive over-simplification. But the basics should be somewhat clear here: a source of energy is used to generate a vibration that is then slowed down to create a clock that ticks once a second.

The problem with this system is that it involves too many transfers of energy. From spring to gear to spring to gear and so on. Each time this happens, minute amounts of energy are lost due to various reasons. The vibrating spring is also affected by gravity, magnetism, shocks and fluctuating temperatures. It means that even the most accurately and meticulously manufactured mechanical watches lose or gain several seconds a day.

Watches that are currently certified as highly accurate chronometers by COSC, the Swiss watch certification agency, are expected to be accurate to within 2 seconds a month.

The beauty of quartz technology was that it replicated the essential behaviour of a mechanical movement without any of the tendencies for inaccuracy. Instead of the wound-up spring, you had a battery; instead of a vibrating spring, you had a tiny tuning fork carved from a quartz crystal; and instead of a gear train, you had an electronic circuit that converted the high-frequency oscillations of this tuning fork to the ticking of a watch. It did all this without the mechanical shortcomings of a normal watch. Every aspect of a quartz watch was an improvement on its mechanical predecessor.

Some of the earliest quartz timekeeping devices were the size of giant refrigerators. But by the early 1960s, a race was afoot all over the world, especially in Switzerland and Japan, to crunch the electronics down to the size of a wrist-sized device.

There is still some debate about who won that race. Seiko, however, was the first company to launch a quartz wristwatch available on the market and to put it into production in scale. The Quartz Astron, launched in 1969, was considered a premium product and priced higher than most mechanical watches. That would not last very long.

Shortly after that launch, Seiko did something quite strange—to use a modern term, they open-sourced quartz technology for anybody to use, even competitors. Why did they do this? I raised this question during a presentation in a meeting room at the Seiko Epson plant in Shiojiri.

This resulted in what I later realized is something of a standard Japanese reaction to awkward questions in English: furtive glancing. The Swiss equivalent to this is pregnant silence followed by knowing laughter and deft deflection. Hirokazu Imai, the director of the plant, told me that this was because Seiko wanted to share this technology with the world, to make it accessible and affordable to everybody.

This generosity had two outcomes. First, it standardized quartz watch technology. Most quartz watches in the world today are still made along the same lines as Seiko’s original technology.

Secondly, it had an impact in Switzerland. If there was debate about who really won the quartz battle, there is absolutely none about who lost it. The traditional Swiss watchmaking industry was devastated. As cheap, mass-produced quartz watches flooded the market, dozens of companies shut down and as many as 40% of all jobs in the sector may have been lost forever. The Swiss call this the Quartz Crisis. The Japanese, tellingly, call it the Quartz Revolution.

The Swiss industry has since revived. Swiss brands now like to position themselves as the traditional, mechanical, artisanal, premium alternative to cheap quartz baubles. The mere mention of quartz makes many Swiss brands squirm. Either they are reminded of the crisis, or they pooh-pooh it as a trifle hardly worth of mentioning.

This is somewhat disingenuous. Millions of quartz movements are made in Switzerland each year. And according to data released by the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, last year Swiss companies exported around 5 billion Swiss francs worth of quartz watches.

“Quartz?” the Swiss will say, “Nothing good can come out of quartz!”

But the chaps at Shiojiri beg to differ.

It all begins with the crystal. Seiko manufactures synthetic quartz crystals in giant ovens. Each batch takes several months to make. Dozens of small rectangular pure seed crystals are arranged on frames, like a chandelier, and then lowered into crucibles, over a liquid chemical mixture containing pulverized naturally occurring quartz. At high temperatures and pressures, quartz begins to deposit on the seeds, creating giant, beautiful crystals the size of thermos flasks or small loaves of bread. In the hand, they felt cool and smooth and, I must admit, somewhat otherworldly. Like a prop from a science fiction film. Or The Crystal Maze.

Perfect, flawless crystals are crucial to the making of a Grand Seiko 9F series watch movement. Only then, I was told, do you get crystals that will vibrate perfectly and steadily.

Machines are then used to carefully slice these crystals down into extremely thin sheets. The sheets are then cut into rows upon rows upon rows of tiny little tuning fork shapes. The process is not unlike the way sheets of silicon are used to make hundreds of little circuits for mobile phones or pacemakers. These forks are then aged for three months. “Because sometimes crystals can deteriorate over time and we don’t want that,” I was told.

Simultaneously, Seiko Epson manufactures the integrated circuit (IC) modules that couple with the oscillating fork. Here Seiko uses a manufacturing idea known as selective assembly.

Imagine a factory that makes, say, bottles and bottle caps. The machines in the factory are adjusted to make both caps and bottles within certain degrees of tolerance. However, when a bottle at one end of this spectrum is matched with a bottle cap from the other end, the fitting could be quite stiff or even unusable. So, why not just narrow the degrees of tolerance and control the machines even more tightly? Because this can often be an exponentially expensive thing to do.

This is where selective assembly comes in. The factory managers divide their output of bottles into batches based on where they fall on the spectrum, and then do the same with bottle caps. They then pair groups of both such that they always fit reasonably well. This way, they strike a balance between not checking at all, or spending the immense resources needed to check each and every pair of bottle and cap for a perfect fit.

At Shiojiri, they take this one step further. Each tuning fork assembly is paired with an IC module such that the combination tells the time as accurately as possible. It is a level of manufacturing matrimony, if you will, that perhaps no other quartz watch maker in the world indulges in.

What follows then are two sets of high-end manufacturing processes. The first is a set of obsessive engineering improvements that try to compensate for problems that have traditionally plagued quartz watches. The second has everything to do with design and finish.

First, some engineering. To start with, there is the matter of temperature. Quartz watches, like mechanical watches, ironically enough, can stray out of precision if temperatures are too cold or too hot. So, the IC that goes into a Grand Seiko quartz watch is thermo-compensated. In other words, it automatically adjusts for this fluctuation so that the time signal stays within an acceptable level of output.

Next, there is the matter of torque. Quartz watches, generally, produce less torque than mechanical ones. This means that you can rarely use big, thick hands on a quartz watch without exhausting the mechanism. And what is a premium watch if not for nice, thick, monumental hands? The 9F movement solves this problem by pulsing the hand not once but twice each second. This is not visible to the naked eye unless you slow the ticking hand down using a slow-motion video camera.

Then there is a problem that is this writer’s pet peeve: backlash. This is when the hands on a watch slip and stop aligning with the indices on the watch face. There are people who don’t care at all about this kind of thing. Animals. And then there are people like me who stay up all night because the Seiko Kinetic Diver watch they once bought in Singapore has a misaligned second hand. The 9F movement uses an extra wheel in the watch’s gear train just to make sure this doesn’t happen.

We will gloss over the fact that the date on a 9F quartz movement changes in 1/2000th of a second after midnight. Let us not linger on that.

Instead, look at the movement itself. It is a beautiful movement even by the standards of most mechanical movements. This is partly a matter of decoration and polishing but also partly a matter of engineering intent.

Quartz watches need battery changes every once in a while. “And this is usually when the watch gets compromised,” master watchmaker Ikukiyo Komatsu told me. Your friendly neighbourhood repair man can either let in some dust during the process. Or, even worse, nick the gear train or circuitry with battery-laden tweezers. Both dust and tweezer-nick can severely impair a quartz watch’s functioning.

The 9F features a movement design that isolates the battery compartment, and seals the rest of the movement away behind metal plates. The end-product is not only watch-repairer-proof, but is also vaguely retro-futuristic. Like a design out of a 1980s’ science fiction film.

The engineering substance of the movement hits you when you compare the 9F calibre next to a regular plasticky quartz movement mass-produced by one of Seiko Epson’s massive automated assembly lines. The distinction is striking.

The other manufacturing process is one of assembly and finishing. Grand Seiko quartz watches are assembled, tested, reassembled and retested all by hand. And they are enclosed within cases that are polished by human beings hunched over machines.

The attention to detail here is not unlike the work this writer has witnessed in watch workshops all over Switzerland. Artisans, for it is nothing short of an art form, run cases and buckles and lugs over turning abrasive wheels for hours each day. Inspecting them under microscopes every few minutes, trying to align each brushed steel stroke with the next.

“How many years have you been doing this,” I ask one gentleman working on a Zaratsu polishing machine. He thinks, and says, in Japanese, “I think 18 or 20 years.”

Finally, the watch is assembled and, in a final flourish of obsessive detail, the beautiful 9F movement is hidden away behind a metal case-back. Many owners of a Grand Seiko quartz watch will almost never see the most beautiful part of their watch.

So, what is the horological merit of a this? A good mass-produced, of some quality quartz watch maybe expected to lose around a second a day under normal conditions. A Grand Seiko 9F watch loses less than a second a month. It does this without any GPS modules, or any automatic or manual intervention.

“So, tell me this,” I ask aloud to the assembled group of Seiko employees as I step out of the Shiojiri factory into the cool, crisp November air, “is the 9F the finest quartz watch in the world?”

In Switzerland, this would have led to much gesticulation, and passionate rhetoric. In Japan, my question leads to furtive glancing that lasts for many seconds. Finally, Keiko Naruse, a senior manager in the PR department, responds after a quick group meeting: “Yes. This is what we think.”