The design of the Grand Seiko watch that houses the Caliber 9SA5 newly developed in 2020 was unprecedented, and yet, at its core, it has still inherited the Grand Seiko legacy. The design elements of the Grand Seiko watch were organized into a code, which was eventually embodied in the Evolution 9 Style. What goals did Kiyotaka Sakai, the creator of the new design, seek to instill in the design?
Kiyotaka Sakai brought a new design code to Grand Seiko. Since he joined the company in 2012, Sakai has engaged in the design of models for the overseas markets and has also been involved in the design of models for the domestic market. After designing the Prospex 1968 Diver’s Modern Re-interpretation model in 2018, he has since completed the Grand Seiko Evolution 9 Style.
Launched in 1967, the 44GS was a watch that determined the design philosophy of Grand Seiko. In fact, the design elements incorporated in the 44GS were later codified as the Grand Seiko Style, providing a clear definition of Grand Seiko design. There are many watch manufacturers in this world, but Grand Seiko is probably the only one that has compiled its design code in written form.
The new design code adopted for the Grand Seiko Evolution 9 Collection is an updated version of the Grand Seiko Style. Its main theme is freedom from the constraints of the times. The task of designing the collection was entrusted to Kiyotaka Sakai.
Sakai recalls that when he first heard about a new caliber being developed for Grand Seiko in November 2018, “I felt that the new model with the ultimate movement would need a design that could embody its essence.” What design would be fitting for the watch that would house the Caliber 9SA5, the new automatic movement with outstanding performance? Sakai’s starting point was the question, “What kind of watch is the Grand Seiko in the first place?”
The result was his design for the SLGH005, also known as the “White Birch”, which incorporated nine design elements. This was an original design created specifically for the SLGH005, but Sakai’s design encompassed precisely all the elements that Grand Seiko for the future requires. As had been done with the 44GS, the SLGH005’s shapes were extracted in the form of a design code, which was later embodied in the Grand Seiko Evolution 9 Style. This new design has three major principles—the evolution of the aesthetics and legibility that the Grand Seiko has long pursued, alongside a new principle, the evolution of superior wearing comfort.
The SLGH005, which houses the Caliber 9SA5 automatic movement, can be described as the origin of the Evolution 9 Style. The wide area of the hairline surfaces enhances the mirror surfaces between them.
The SLGA009 is powered by the Grand Seiko Spring Drive 5 Days movement. The reverse bevel on the side of the case in the Grand Seiko Style is emulated on the end of the lug of the SLGA009. “I created a reverse bevel for the end of the lug to give the case a sense of lightness,” recounts Kiyotaka Sakai, who created the design.
“The character of the Grand Seiko is its seriousness, simplicity, and robustness in functional terms. Added to that, the new movement, the Caliber 9SA5, is revolutionary, so I wanted to bring a new interpretation to the design.” Kiyotaka Sakai, who had thought long and hard about what Grand Seiko means, found inspiration in Grand Seiko models of long years past.
“Past models, such as the 61GS V.F.A., had thin indexes to express the watch’s high accuracy as a timepiece. In the new model, I wanted to express that element in the design of the case.” Specifically, instead of bending the ends of the four lugs that secure the bracelet along the wrist, he tailored them to be as straight as possible. Sakai translated the thin and long indexes, the symbol of high accuracy, into the straight lines of the lugs. The lugs themselves were also intentionally cut short at the tip.
“Grand Seiko’s lug was originally elongated to the tip with a focus on high wearability and attractive appearance as a whole piece. In the initial design of the Evolution 9, we also considered bending the lug downward, but ultimately went with a sharply cut off tip.” That sharp lug gives a glimpse into the philosophy of sculpture that is one of Sakai’s influences.
“Heavy materials are often used for sculpture, but the finished work has to appear light. Instead of a limp, loose form, a shape with a sense of tension is preferred. For this new model, I wanted to create a case that feels substantial but looks light.” That sense of lightness was not the only thing that Sakai incorporated. He also designed a finish to suit the new era.
“In the design of Evolution 9, I was particularly conscious of light and shadow. Previous Grand Seiko models had a wide mirror finish that accentuated a sense of dressiness. In other words, the design and finish would go well when worn with a suit in a formal business setting. For Evolution 9, on the other hand, I assumed a more contemporary work setting, and I wanted to make a watch that would look just as good worn with more active attire as with a suit.”
To that end, Sakai reduced the use of mirror finish, which could be described as a unique feature of Grand Seiko, as represented by 44GS, and increased the hairline finish instead. His aim was not the hairline finish itself, but to emphasize the contrast between light and shadow. “In cutting back on the area of the mirror finish and increasing the hairline finish area, my aim was to make the mirror finish on the exterior stand out even more. Having a finer mirror finish actually accentuates it, don’t you think?” In other words, the sharp balance that is a feature of recent Grand Seiko models has been further emphasized.
“Initially, I considered giving the upper surface of the bezel a mirror finish as well. However, because a mirror surface would collect light and blend in with the surroundings, I decided on a hairline finish, delineating the shape of the hairlines to give the watch a grander impression. I intentionally deepened the hairlines because shallow grooves would have made the entire watch appear a murky white.” In addition, by cutting off the lug tips, he cleverly retained the three-dimensional feel that has become even more pronounced in recent Grand Seiko watches.
For the Evolution 9 Style, work was also done on legibility, a key feature of Grand Seiko. The first thing that draws the eye on this watch is the sharp balance of the indexes and the hour and minute hands.
“I wanted to demonstrate the value in housing such a high-ranking Grand Seiko caliber,” noted Sakai in reference to his plans to make the 12 o’clock index wider than the first design. “By making the index wider, I wanted to make it obvious at a glance that this was a new Grand Seiko. I wanted to emphasize that, not only was it a new icon, but it also embodied the essence of Grand Seiko, namely its functionality.”
The high legibility of the watch is accentuated by the large indexes and the different widths of the hour and minute hands. “In the course of delving into the functions demanded of Grand Seiko, I thought about what constituted truly excellent legibility. That is when I realized that it would be better to vary the widths of the hour and minute hands. In the first design, both the hour and minute hands had pointed tips, but that wasn’t what I had in mind, so I decided to cut off the tip of the hour hand so that it would overlap the tips of the indexes.” The wider hour hand makes it easy to see the approximate time at a glance, and, thanks to the slim minute hand, a closer look will allow a more accurate reading of the time. This is the kind of deep thought that goes into functional design.
The hands and the dial have also been brought closer together. Grand Seiko watches have previously featured generous clearances between hands and dial, but that clearance has been reduced for Evolution 9. Further, to make the watch easier to read from a diagonal direction, the minute and seconds hands have been bent significantly toward the dial, and the “ring-shaped part” that slopes down inward from the dial’s outer circumference has been slotted in and the minute track printed on the slope, to bring the hands as close as possible to the track.
Aesthetics and legibility are elements that have been pursued in previous Grand Seiko watches. The novelty of Evolution 9 Style lies in the addition of the principle of wearing comfort.
“The 44GS, which established the Grand Seiko Style in 1967, housed a thin manual-winding movement. For this reason, there was no need to think about wearing comfort in the design process. However, once movements became automatic and needed to be sturdy, they became thicker. This is why we now have to think about wearing comfort.”
The first aspect that Sakai addressed was a low center of gravity. Just like a car, the lower the center of gravity, the less the watch is likely to shake. Positioning the movement as close as possible to the case back brought the weight of the main watch part of the Evolution 9 closer to the arm. Also, in previous Grand Seiko watches, right back to the 44GS, the design of the case’s side was narrower toward the case back, but this time, the designer has intentionally retained a little more thickness. “Not shaving off too much from the case back edge ensured that the center of gravity would stay low,” Sakai explains. The three-dimensional crystal is also an attempt to lower the center of gravity. The actual difference is only slight, but by using box-shaped sapphire crystal or dual-curved sapphire crystal, the height of the bezel can be significantly contained, and it also looks thinner.
“If we were to adopt box-shaped three-dimensional crystal, it would give the watch an antique appearance. However, that was not what I wanted for the Evolution 9 design. Grand Seiko has been using box-shaped sapphire crystals for more than 20 years, so we know what to do to give it a cleaner appearance.”
The bracelet also underwent a comprehensive re-design. In previous models, the bracelet width had been 20 mm against a case diameter of 40 mm. In contrast, for Evolution 9, the bracelet width has been increased to 22 mm. Widening the bracelet disperses the weight of the watch, improving wearing comfort.
“As well as widening the bracelet, we also changed the attachment position. The links have each been shortened by 1 mm compared with previous models for a better fit. We also increased the thickness to make it appear as though the lugs and bracelet are connected.” The thicker bracelet allowed for a better balance between the weight of the watch itself and that of the bracelet. Although it has been re-designed from scratch with the new design code, Sakai has still preserved the Grand Seiko sensibility in the bracelet. “We have given the bracelet a hairline finish, while keeping the fine mirror-finish links that have been used on past bracelets. In doing so, we have inherited the Grand Seiko design of the past.”