Thursday, October 14, 2021

Did you know that only 7% of Grand Seiko watches are sold outside Japan?


Japanese are orderly, polite, sophisticated and proudly nationalistic. In a way, the society is still feudal, with strict stratification, customs and regulations. With a population of 125 million, huge buying power and strong nationalistic support for "Made in Japan", Japan's domestic market is a perfect example of a rather unique phenomenon: it is a great environment for a strong, sophisticated brand to thrive. If it was much bigger and more open, there would be far more competition and less profit to be made; and on a smaller market, there will be not enough support for growth and longevity.

For the Japanese, tradition is the way of living. Once a brand or a product reaches that status of being a truly national icon, support - and longevity - is guaranteed. A perfect example is Seiko: a company which managed to establish itself first as a domestic behemoth, then as a true global brand. Again, this success story would not be possible to replicate anywhere else in the world – only in Japan.

Over the weekend, an email arrived in my inbox:

"Hello Master Watchmaker, Mr. Hacko.

I'm a fan of your YouTube video, especially restoration videos of iconic vintage watches around the world. I'm sending this email because I've come across an interesting YouTube video showing how real-life JNR drivers are using their SEIKO watches. Thought you might like it.

Unfortunately, the video doesn't have any English subtitles, so I'll explain what the video is so that you may be able to, at least, guess what's going on. It's a 2013 documentary showing what a JNR Shinkansen driver's life is like. This particular route at the time achieved the top speed of 320km/h. As a part of his driving "tools", he carries a Seiko pocket watch. His schedule is specified in up to 15 seconds increments on the chart (not 15 minutes). The Shinkansen even has a special spot on the instrument panel for the watch so that the driver can keep track of exact departure/arrival time on every station on the route. The highlight of the video, I think, is:

The train is supposed to arrive at Tokyo station at 18:08, 00 sec flat. The video shows if he was able to make it by showing another JNR pocket watch. It's quite amazing.

Hope you'll like the video.
Masayuki N"

Whether you are Seiko fan or not, you should watch this video. The core message is simple: there are still watch brands out there which put technology, product development, precision and timekeeping ahead of 'artificial branding'. Unlike Swiss megabrands, Seiko does not need to invent their history, nor to worry about the future - as long as Japanese society remains as is.

Enjoy it.
Bugs on Shinkansen bonnet, photo taken by Michael during his 2019 Japan trip.                         

Friday, October 8, 2021

NH3 Project update

A very productive week! As I type this, the seventh NH3 mechanism is just to be assembled. Eighteen to go! 
My role is assembly; as individual parts arrive from the workshop, movements are assembled and adjusted. The main problem is that I am handling components which take days to manufacture and hours to hand finish, so there is no other way but to go slowly and carefully. A slip of a screwdriver could turn a perfect part into a write-off, which does happen occasionally. Hand finished parts are quite different to handle than mass produced, mass finished parts. The other problem is deteriorating eyesight. But what really drives me crazy is that constant pursuit for perfection: under the eyeglass even the smallest imperfection is impossible to ignore. No customer would ever see such a minute imperfection, but I know it's there. Think of it as one bad pixel on a screen: invisible, until pointed out; and once seen, it becomes something that can not be unseen ever again. To be perfectly honest with you, not one evening I went home feeling completely happy and overly satisfied with my daily performance.

Yet this is precisely how every honest singer, painter and sculptor must have felt about their own work. Many artists sabotaged, ruined or destroyed their artworks as a result of displeasure. Claude Monet allegedly slashed at least 30 of his water lily canvases. 

On the other hand, if watchmaking was easy, then everyone would do it. There is a limit to scrutiny. No one in his right mind would go over a model's face with 10 times magnification. That would be inappropriate, disrespectful and intrusive. Even the most beautiful faces on the cover of Vogue magazine have tiny wrinkles, facial hair and pimples hidden by layers of makeup, photoshopped away. 

Settling for imperfection is not just s sign of maturity. In the real world, this is the only possible outcome because perfection simply doesn't exist.
Yet, we have nothing to hide. It is all here:
Under magnification, open to public scrutiny and for your enjoyment.  

Gear polishing - The final frontier, Part 1

By Josh Hacko
With the NH3 project, and all future watch developments, there are some unknowns that keep me up at night. Things that worry me and that are seemingly beyond reach. But the night is darkest before the dawn, and routinely in hindsight I can say that I worried too much.

Not the case with gear polishing.

Gear manufacture at the best of times is an extremely complex process with multiple variables and great expense associated with it. All of the complexity and cost is driven by the requirements of the "form" of the teeth. They need to be accurately machined to comply within the strict mathematical limits of the theoretical tooth engagement. Too much clearance, and the gears will have too much backlash, and will lose efficiency. Too little clearance between the gear pair, and there will be excessive wear, a loss of efficiency and in the worst case, no power transmission at all (read - it don't work)!

Watchmaking has even higher requests for this already complex procedure. The concentricity of the teeth to the centre of rotation, the form of the epicycloid profile, the taper and helix angle of the form as it progresses axially - all of these things need to measured, and kept within a very precise tolerance.

The process up until this point for these NH3 ratchet wheels has been as follows: design, material selection, material and tool procurement, fixture design and manufacture, gear blank generation, inspection, lapping, inspection, gear cutting, inspection, hardening, tempering, inspection, lapping... and now - gear polishing.
One of the most important requirements in the list of demands that watchmaking imposes on it's gears is low friction. This means in practical terms that the teeth of the gear need to polished to an incredibly high level to reduce the friction during operation. This is very much "form follows function". Recently I've been seeing many collectors commenting on how "well" gear teeth are being polished, as if it were a cosmetic affair. Sorry to say, for the discerning horologist, the most important and driving reason for gear polishing is either a quest for chronometric accuracy or smooth auxiliary operation (think winding and setting, etc)

So, why did gear polishing keep me up at night?

The technical reason: Well, polishing is a material removal process - you are removing the "high spots" of a surface in the hopes that you will even out the surface and be left with something that is much smoother. Polishing without changing the form so much that it throws you out of the tolerance zone, or being able to polish the whole profile of the tooth evenly, or polishing to a high enough grade, are all difficult challenges that need to be addressed individually, but also in the context of the previous and future operations the gear will undergo.

The personal reason: It's scary.

Our initial thought was to head over to Switzerland to talk to the experts. The people that make the machine to polish the teeth of gears, wheels, and pinions. Throughout our journey we have learned that talking to the experts, paying them top dollar and humbling yourself in their presence is actually the cheapest way to move forward. We did the same with Kern, with Citizen, Affolter and Makino, to make and refine all the other parts of the watch.

While COVID was a large contributor, it was not the biggest obstacle to the pursuit of this knowledge. The biggest obstacle was simply that this company, the keeper of the knowledge behind this tricky science of gear polishing.... didn't exist.

Elevated from a well-defined, scientific process that could be traded for some hard-earned cash - gear polishing became black magic, art, mysticism and a maybe even religion.

Our next step? We needed to become the people that built the machine.

To be continued.