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