An exclusive evening of design and watch talk at London's Design Museum...
London’s Design Museum, just off the bustling Kensington High Street. Home to the iconic objects that have shaped our world, from the Routemaster bus to the Apple Mac. So what better place to show off a few classic watches?
HODINKEE, the well-known online bible for watch enthusiasts, recently hosted an evening at the Design Museum in partnership with Grand Seiko. As well as some new and vintage Grand Seiko watches, the guest of honour was Nobuhiro Kosugi, the designer of the first 9S Grand Seiko in 1998 and the first watch designer to receive the Contemporary Master Craftsman Award from Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare in 2014.
Hearing him talk, you’re struck by what an appropriate venue the Design Museum turns out to be for this introduction to what makes Grand Seiko and its designer tick. He talks a lot about the interplay between light and shadow, curves and straight lines, simplicity and complexity, beauty and truth. Yes, the white-haired Japanese man is a designer, but he sounds more like a philosopher, or even a guru. Which for many people, he is.
The philosophy of Grand Seiko (which first appeared in 1960) can be summed up in three words: shade, shadow and strong lines. How do you achieve this? The 1967 44GS, one of the archetypal Grand Seiko watches, featured multifaceted hands and hour markers, as well as a mirror-polished bezel, which allowed light to sparkle across the watch. And that set the tone for what was to follow, the forerunner of the current design language.
It was a motif that Kosugi adopted when he designed the landmark Grand Seiko 9S, with a new mechanical movement, just over 20 years ago. He actually started his career wanting to be a car designer, and to the trained eye he still brings a flavour of the automotive aesthetic to his watch designs now. So who is the car designer that most inspires him? He thinks long and hard about the answer.
Ironically for someone whose career has revolved around time, he’s not a man to be rushed. “Giorgetto Giugiaro,” he says finally. And of course it all makes sense, because Giugiaro is an Italian designer who in turn was heavily influenced by Japanese design, culminating in the ‘folded paper’ lines of iconic models such as the BMW M1 and Lotus Esprit (famously chosen by James Bond as his submarine car in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’).
Ask Kosugi which his favourite Giugiaro-designed car was and he opts for something from an earlier and less angular era: the Alfa Romeo GTV, which is all about the interplay between curves and straight lines. There’s a common theme emerging here. Giugiaro himself actually designed a watch case in collaboration with Seiko: the 1983 Speedmaster, which is a digital watch with a tilted display, which makes it easier to read on the left arm when gripping a steering wheel. Kosugi then redesigned the Giugiaro watch when it was reissued in 1999. But that’s another story for another day.
The one thing that Kosugi admires most about any watch design is “practicality”: a word he comes back to time and time again, via his interpreter. It sounds a lot more impressive in Japanese, but that’s the essential concept that guides him. Practicality in terms of how easy it is to wear – all Grand Seiko watches are notably comfortable, perhaps influenced by the fact that they were designed to sit on generally small Japanese wrists – but also in terms of the timeless of the design. An enduring practicality, Kosugi explains, which means it will be a watch as easy to live with for your grandchildren as it is for you. As one collector neatly summed up, these are watches that are technically complex, but superficially simple. Because there’s a strong argument you can make – which won't be shared by everyone – that Grand Seiko is the ‘purest’ watchmaker of them all.
For this dedicated Japanese company, the watchword is technical excellence and understatement. Many of the early watches look like a Patek Philippe, but without of course the aristocratic lineage and monied following that these Swiss watches tend to have.
The Grand Seiko isn’t actually concerned too much with reputation or image in the wider world, as the company focuses on its cognoscenti. They just want to create the best watches they possibly can. To use another automotive parallel, which Kosugi would approve of, a Grand Seiko is a Lexus as opposed to a Mercedes or BMW. These Japanese cars are actually better in more or less every way than their established German rivals, thanks to a rigorous engineering programme that benchmarked every aspect of the competition, but they enjoy nothing like the same cachet. And probably never will.
That’s actually what Lexus owners like about their cars and looking around at the people assembled in the Design Museum for the HODINKEE event that evening, the same philosophy seems to apply to watches.
These people are all watch enthusiasts to the core: the reason why HODINKEE chose Grand Seiko to partner with on its mini UK tour (the show travelled to Glasgow as well). To say that it was a mixed crowd is an understatement: beatnik types and modern geeks mixed it with people who were obviously serious collectors, as well as neatly-trimmed Japanese businessmen. These London-based Japanese businessmen (one actually worked for Lexus) had turned out in large numbers to support the home team: a sign of the pride that exists around Grand Seiko in Japanese culture.
Most highlights of the range throughout its history were displayed at the HODINKEE evening, and it’s only natural at a gathering like this one that you make a mental shopping list – or ask yourself which watch you would choose if you could only take away one.
Everyone will have a different answer, but personally, it would be the 9S 20th-anniversary edition that emerged last year. Kosugi beams broadly at that choice: his first-born is still extremely close to his heart.
He redesigned the case and of course, the anniversary edition is even more precise than the original, but at heart it’s still the same 9S with its pioneering movement and classically Japanese design philosophy. And when you meet the person who penned it, the whole holistic concept of that watch makes even more sense. That’s why evenings like this one are always really special occasions. Design truly comes to life.