Seiko’s history began in 1881,[ when its founder Kintarō Hattori opened a watch and jewelry shop called “K. Hattori” (服部時計店) in Tokyo, Japan.
Kintarō Hattori had been working as clockmaker apprentice since the age of 13, with multiple stints in different watch shops, such as “Kobayashi Clock Shop”, ran by an expert technician named Seijiro Sakurai, “Kameda Clock Shop” in Nihonbashi, as well as “Sakata Clock Shop” in Ueno, where he learned how to both sell and repair timepieces.
In 1881, a new age of Japan-made clocks and watches was dawning. Pioneers in Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya were studying and producing pocket watches based on Western products. Japanese wholesalers needed to purchase all the imported timepieces from foreign trading companies established in Yokohama, Kobe, and other open port areas.
In 1885, Mr. Hattori began dealing directly with these foreign trading firms in the Yokohama settlement focused on the wholesaling and retailing of western (imported) timepieces and machinery.
Over the years, Kintarō Hattori developed a close partnership with multiple foreign trading firms, including the likes of C&J Favre-Brandt, F. Perregaux & Co., Zanuti & Cie. and Siber & Brennwald, allowing him to obtain exclusive imported timepieces and machinery which was not available to anyone else at that time.
Mr. Hattori’s shop became increasingly popular due to the rarity of the imported watches the shop was selling, items that couldn’t be found anywhere else in Japan. This growing success allowed him to relocate the company to the main street of Ginza (Tokyo), still the epicenter of commerce in Japan to this day.
The amount of support from his customers encouraged Mr Hattori to pursue the next step, which was becoming a manufacturer himself, an endeavor he would pursue shortly after by purchasing a factory in Tokyo and renaming it ‘Seikosha’ (精工舍).
In 1891, 10 years after the establishment of K. Hattori & Co., the 31-year-old Kintaro was asked to take up two important positions in industry, one as a director of the Tokyo Clockmaker and Watchmaker Association and one as a member of Tokyo Chamber of Commerce.
Eight years later, in 1895, the successful watch dealer purchased the whole corner of Ginza 4-chome (the present-day location of WAKO), constructed a building with a clock tower (16 meters from top to bottom), setting up shop at the new address.
In 1892, Mr. Hattori began to produce clocks under the name Seikosha (精工舎, Seikōsha), meaning roughly, “House of Exquisite Workmanship”. According to Seiko’s official company history, titled A Journey In Time: The Remarkable Story of Seiko (2003), Seiko is a Japanese word with the character meaning “exquisite” (精巧, Seikō); it is homophonous with the word for “success” (成功, Seikō).
In order to avoid an ill omen, believed to be associated with the word “GLORY” in Japanese, Seikosha changed its trade mark to “SEIKO” in 1924.
In 1969, Seiko introduced the Astron, the world’s first production quartz watch; when it was introduced, it cost the same as a medium-sized car. Seiko later went on to introduce the first quartz chronograph.
In the late 1980s, Seiko produced the first automatic quartz that combined the self-energizing attributes of an automatic watch with quartz accuracy. The watch is entirely powered by its movement in everyday wear. In 1991, to increase popularity, these watches were relaunched under the name Seiko Kinetic.
In 1985, Orient and Seiko established a joint factory.
The company was incorporated (K. Hattori & Co., Ltd.) in 1917 and was renamed Hattori Seiko Co., Ltd. in 1983 and Seiko Corporation in 1990. After reconstructing and creating its operating subsidiaries (such as Seiko Watch Corporation and Seiko Clock Inc.), it became a holding company in 2001 and was renamed Seiko Holdings Corporation as of July 1, 2007.
Seiko is perhaps best known for its wristwatches, all of which were at one time produced entirely in house. This includes not only major items such as microgears, motors, hands, crystal oscillators, batteries, sensors, and LCDs, but also minor items such as the oils used in lubricating the watches and the luminous compounds used on the hands and the dials. Seiko watches were originally produced by two different subsidiaries. One was Daini Seikosha Co.,(now known as Seiko Instruments Inc.), and the other was Suwa Seikosha Co.(now known as Seiko Epson Corporation). Having two companies both producing the same brand of watch enabled Seiko to improve technology through competition and hedge risk. It also reduced risk of production problems, since one company can increase production in the case of decreased production in the other parties.
Currently watch movements are made in Shizukuishi, Iwate (SII Morioka Seiko Instruments), Ninohe, Iwate (SII Ninohe Tokei Kogyo), Shiojiri, Nagano (Seiko Epson) and their subsidiaries in China, Malaysia and Singapore. The fully integrated in-house production system is still practiced for luxury watches in Japan.