A history of Grand Seiko in ten chapters. Vol.6 Spring Drive. An engineer’s dream that took 28 years to realize.

DREAM An entirely new type of watch, born of the fusion of the very best in traditional and hi-tech watchmaking.

The quartz era began on Christmas Day, 1969 when the Seiko Quartz Astron was first revealed and ushered in a wave of technological development that, in the years that followed, revolutionized watchmaking. In 1977, Seiko released the first solar analog watch and, in 1973, the first LCD digital watch. However advanced these developments undoubtedly were, they fell short of a dream long held by a young engineer at Seiko Epson called Yoshikazu Akahane. Having joined Seiko soon after Astron’s launch , he saw the advantages of both quartz and mechanical watches and dreamed that, one day, he could create a watch that delivered the precision of quartz without being dependent on batteries, light, radio waves or any other power source or signal. What he dreamed of was a watch that combined the very best of the two great timekeeping technologies, mechanical and quartz. It took nearly three decades but, in the end, his dream came true in Spring Drive, a watch in which an electronic regulator controls a mechanical movement.

Based on Akahane’s ideas, Seiko Epson filed a patent for this technology in 1978, but he and his small team encountered extreme difficulty in its practical application. The truth dawned on them that, although the idea was perfectly viable, they would have to make major advances in every aspect of the existing technologies to realize such a watch. In order to activate a quartz crystal using the power generated through a mechanical movement, the power generation efficiency had to be enhanced by a massive amount while at the same time the power consumption of the integrated circuit needed to be greatly reduced. To start with, progress was slow, but thanks to advances made in other areas, including the creation of Seiko Kinetic in 1988, the impossible started to become foreseeable. From the late 1990s, the pace of the research and development progressed more rapidly and the company put its full resources into the project. What had started as one man’s dream was now a company-wide priority.

This new type of watch needed a new name and the choice was Spring Drive. This name was selected to show that the watch was essentially the same as a mechanical watch but with a new kind of regulator. Indeed 80% of the components were exactly the same as in a high grade mechanical watch and the name very deliberately highlighted the traditional basis of the movement and the team’s respect for everything for which it stood. Only the regulator was different and the name ‘Tri-synchro regulator’ was given to it, highlighting the unique way in which three forms of energy, mechanical, electrical and electro magnetic, were harnessed to power it. This remarkable watch was unveiled in 1999. Soon after, alas, Yoshikazu Akahane passed away, but not before his genius was recognized by the overwhelmingly positive reception that Spring Drive received. Other companies had tried, but only he and his team had succeeded.

The first generation of Spring Drive used a hand winding movement which was both a technical and commercial triumph. Of course, the design team had always, however, set their sights higher and, to be worthy of the name Grand Seiko, it was felt that Spring Drive should have the capability to be wound automatically as well as manually. The team set to work to develop the caliber that would be named 9R and which powers all Grand Seiko Spring Drive watches today.

The movement of the wrist winds the spring. The energy of the spring is converted to electricity. The quartz circuit precisely controls the rotational speed of the gears, which then move the hands. This mechanism is an entirely autonomous, high precision movement that bridges the great divide in watchmaking. Until Spring Drive, the highly prized autonomy of mechanical watches came at the price of relatively low timekeeping precision while the precision of quartz was only available in a watch that required a battery. Spring Drive resolved this dilemma and, at last, delivered the best of both watchmaking worlds.

DREAM An entirely new type of watch, born of the fusion of the very best in traditional and hi-tech watchmaking.

The quartz era began on Christmas Day, 1969 when the Seiko Quartz Astron was first revealed and ushered in a wave of technological development that, in the years that followed, revolutionized watchmaking. In 1977, Seiko released the first solar analog watch and, in 1973, the first LCD digital watch. However advanced these developments undoubtedly were, they fell short of a dream long held by a young engineer at Seiko Epson called Yoshikazu Akahane. Having joined Seiko soon after Astron’s launch , he saw the advantages of both quartz and mechanical watches and dreamed that, one day, he could create a watch that delivered the precision of quartz without being dependent on batteries, light, radio waves or any other power source or signal. What he dreamed of was a watch that combined the very best of the two great timekeeping technologies, mechanical and quartz. It took nearly three decades but, in the end, his dream came true in Spring Drive, a watch in which an electronic regulator controls a mechanical movement.

Based on Akahane’s ideas, Seiko Epson filed a patent for this technology in 1978, but he and his small team encountered extreme difficulty in its practical application. The truth dawned on them that, although the idea was perfectly viable, they would have to make major advances in every aspect of the existing technologies to realize such a watch. In order to activate a quartz crystal using the power generated through a mechanical movement, the power generation efficiency had to be enhanced by a massive amount while at the same time the power consumption of the integrated circuit needed to be greatly reduced. To start with, progress was slow, but thanks to advances made in other areas, including the creation of Seiko Kinetic in 1988, the impossible started to become foreseeable. From the late 1990s, the pace of the research and development progressed more rapidly and the company put its full resources into the project. What had started as one man’s dream was now a company-wide priority.

This new type of watch needed a new name and the choice was Spring Drive. This name was selected to show that the watch was essentially the same as a mechanical watch but with a new kind of regulator. Indeed 80% of the components were exactly the same as in a high grade mechanical watch and the name very deliberately highlighted the traditional basis of the movement and the team’s respect for everything for which it stood. Only the regulator was different and the name ‘Tri-synchro regulator’ was given to it, highlighting the unique way in which three forms of energy, mechanical, electrical and electro magnetic, were harnessed to power it. This remarkable watch was unveiled in 1999. Soon after, alas, Yoshikazu Akahane passed away, but not before his genius was recognized by the overwhelmingly positive reception that Spring Drive received. Other companies had tried, but only he and his team had succeeded.

The first generation of Spring Drive used a hand winding movement which was both a technical and commercial triumph. Of course, the design team had always, however, set their sights higher and, to be worthy of the name Grand Seiko, it was felt that Spring Drive should have the capability to be wound automatically as well as manually. The team set to work to develop the caliber that would be named 9R and which powers all Grand Seiko Spring Drive watches today.

The movement of the wrist winds the spring. The energy of the spring is converted to electricity. The quartz circuit precisely controls the rotational speed of the gears, which then move the hands. This mechanism is an entirely autonomous, high precision movement that bridges the great divide in watchmaking. Until Spring Drive, the highly prized autonomy of mechanical watches came at the price of relatively low timekeeping precision while the precision of quartz was only available in a watch that required a battery. Spring Drive resolved this dilemma and, at last, delivered the best of both watchmaking worlds.

Read More

On the left is the world's first Spring Drive watch, born in 1999, which carries the manual winding Caliber 7R68. It had a power reserve indicator at the 10 o'clock position. On the right is the first Grand Seiko Spring Drive creation, launched in 2004. It uses the automatic winding Caliber 9R65, with a power reserve of a remarkable 72 hours.

1982
Manual Winding Spring Drive
First sample

Electronic parts were fitted around the escapement of a mechanical movement to control the rotation of the gears. The prototype consumed a great deal of power and also had poor power generation efficiency, and was only able to run for about three hours but, crucially, it proved that the concept was viable.

1993
Manual Winding Spring Drive
Second sample

The mechanical movement was improved, but the energy management issues remained, as evidenced by the huge coil. As there was a need to reduce the size of the electronic circuit, and power reserve was only about 10 hours, this development path was not selected.

1999
Manual Winding Spring Drive

Caliber 7R68, completed in 1999. The case and dial were exquisitely finished in this watch, the first that demonstrated that Spring Drive was a prestige watch with a movement of lasting value and high craftsmanship values. The exhibition case back allowed a clear view of the movement whose uniqueness was clear from the glide wheel that turns exactly eight times a second.

1982
Manual Winding Spring Drive
First sample

Electronic parts were fitted around the escapement of a mechanical movement to control the rotation of the gears. The prototype consumed a great deal of power and also had poor power generation efficiency, and was only able to run for about three hours but, crucially, it proved that the concept was viable.

1993
Manual Winding Spring Drive
Second sample

The mechanical movement was improved, but the energy management issues remained, as evidenced by the huge coil. As there was a need to reduce the size of the electronic circuit, and power reserve was only about 10 hours, this development path was not selected.

1999
Manual Winding Spring Drive

Caliber 7R68, completed in 1999. The case and dial were exquisitely finished in this watch, the first that demonstrated that Spring Drive was a prestige watch with a movement of lasting value and high craftsmanship values. The exhibition case back allowed a clear view of the movement whose uniqueness was clear from the glide wheel that turns exactly eight times a second.

COLUMN

The automatic winding Spring Drive, 2004.

The development of an automatic winding Spring Drive started in 1998 and took a further six years. In 2002, it was decided to use this movement in Grand Seiko and the required levels of precision, power reserve and finish were raised in line with the technical standards that had to be met. The final version was completed in 2003 and in September 2004, was launched in Grand Seiko.

*Some of the watches shown on this page have different specifications than at the time of release.