Grand Seiko’s ‘Rockstar’ Master Watchmaker On How He Created Japan’s Most Beautiful Watch

Grand Seiko’s ‘Rockstar’ Master Watchmaker On How He Created Japan’s Most Beautiful Watch

Image: Jamie Weiss/DMARGE

The only thing more remarkable than the beautiful Grand Seiko Kodo Constant-Force Tourbillon is the man behind it – the rock guitarist-turned-master watchmaker Takuma Kawauchiya, who I had the privilege of having a chat with during my recent visit to Japan.

Last year, Grand Seiko made history as the first Japanese brand to exhibit at Watches & Wonders Geneva, the watch industry’s most important and prestigious trade fair… And to say they made a splash would be an understatement. Actually, they came out swinging, with a piece of haute horlogerie that surprised everyone in attendance: the Kodo Constant-Force Tourbillon (ref. SLGT003).

A feast for the eyes and ears, the Kodo was a real statement of intent from Grand Seiko. Named after the Japanese word for ‘heartbeat’ and based around the ground-breaking Calibre 9ST1, the Kodo is the first-ever watch to combine a tourbillon and a constant-force mechanism as one unit on a single axis. It also set a new standard for accuracy for the Japanese brand, which is already well-known for its strict internal accuracy testing regimes.

The Kodo is an absolute joy to behold. The integration of the two mechanisms creates a dazzling visual and auditory effect as the outer constant-force carriage appears to ‘catch up’ to the smoothly rotating inner tourbillon carriage, producing a truly satisfying click that really does bring to mind a heartbeat. It’s truly impressive; easily one of the coolest watches I’ve ever had the chance to see in the flesh.

The Grand Seiko Kodo Constant-Force Tourbillon (ref. SLGT003).

What’s also impressive is how the Kodo is more or less the brainchild of a single man: Grand Seiko R&D engineer and watchmaker Takuma Kawauchiya, whose path to becoming a watchmaker is even more unconventional than the brilliant movement and watch he’s designed.

After graduating from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Kawauchiya actually embarked on a career as a rock musician, performing for years until he turned 30 and his band broke up. He then decided to turn his dexterity with a guitar towards watchmaking, enrolling in a Rolex-run watchmaking school before being scooped up by Seiko to join their R&D department.

Over the next decade, he poured all his effort into the T0: the world’s first watch movement with a fully integrated constant-force mechanism and tourbillon on the same axis… And then, he had to shrink it down, to fit inside a watch case. The result was the Calibre 9ST1.

You’d think that shrinking down the T0 to the Calibre 9ST1 might have been the most challenging part of making the Kodo, but Kawauchiya says it was actually coming up with the T0 itself.

“Both were very difficult, but I would say the production of T0 was more challenging because it marked the creation of an unprecedented complication, and it was the first time I designed an entire movement myself. I needed to absorb as much information as I could during the learning process, and it took a long time,” Kawauchiya explains.

Grand Seiko R&D engineer and watchmaker Takuma Kawauchiya, the father of the T0 and 9ST1 movements, as well as the Kodo.

Kawauchiya overcame many hurdles on the path to making the T0. He taught himself how to use CAD software in order to visualise components, spent years pouring over old patents and navigated the often labyrinthine corporate structure of the Seiko Group to find the craftspeople capable of helping him realise this ground-breaking movement.

The other mindset shift that Kawauchiya and Grand Seiko had to make when making the Caliber 9ST1 and the Kodo was balancing both beauty and technology. When it comes to the Kodo, the movement really is the watch: it’s the focus of the piece.

“When creating new watchmaking technologies, I think achieving the technological goal comes first, and then the aesthetics [but] in the case of Caliber 9ST1, though, aesthetic considerations were made from the early stage.”

Takuma Kawauchiya

“For example, to make the twin barrels look beautiful, the symmetrical layout was considered from the beginning. As for movement size, Caliber 9ST1 is smaller than its predecessor, but we didn’t just squeeze in all the parts to fit in a smaller area. In fact, the layout of the parts reflects an important Japanese cultural and aesthetic value that respects the use of empty spaces” – known as “ma” in Japanese – “and this is why you see the use of space in the movement and in between watch parts,” Kawauchiya explains. It’s also why the Kodo’s lugs are skeletonised (although there’s also a weight-saving function there).

Takuma Kawauchiya and his colleagues at the Atelier Ginza, Grand Seiko’s exclusive high watchmaking studio housed on the top floor of the famous Wako department store.

For Kawauchiya, the relationship between Grand Seiko’s engineers and designers is paramount and truly symbiotic – something that’s not always the case when it comes to watchmaking.

“When we consult with the designers, we consider not only technological innovation but also about balance of design and wearability… For me, discussion with designers is very important because it sometimes gives me new, innovative ideas,” he says.

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The really beautiful part of the Kodo, however, is how the tourbillon rotates within the constant-force carriage and the unique ticking noise it makes. That noise, by the way, is totally deliberate – and informed by Kawauchiya’s passion for music.

“For me, Caliber 9ST1 needed to have a perfect beat. I believe this is realized only when the constant-force sounds its impulse precisely when the balance oscillates 8 times. Because I was a professional guitarist before joining Grand Seiko, I insisted on achieving a perfect 16th note feel or semiquaver for the owner to fully enjoy the timepiece.”

Takuma Kawauchiya
Takuma Kawauchiya assembles a Caliber 9ST1 at the Atelier Ginza.

On top of that, to ensure the impact sound generated by the constant-force mechanism was made exactly with the ticking sound of 8 vibrations, Kawauchiya painstakingly listened and adjusted the timing of the impact sound personally to ensure optimal sound quality, he shared.

Just as the Kodo is mesmerising to look at, it’s mesmerising to listen to. That semiquaver tick flutters away next to the bass-like hit of the constant-force every second, like a bass drum keeping the watch in time. No wonder such a watch came from the mind of a man with a musical background.

What Grand Seiko and Kawauchiya have achieved with the Kodo is hard to overstate. Grand Seiko is often considered somewhat of a conservative brand but giving one young, unconventional watchmaker go off for a decade to produce your very-first mechanical complication? That’s bold, mental stuff. But look at the result.

The Kodo is a ground-breaking watch with a ground-breaking movement that’s exceptionally technical… Yet, at the same time, even a watch dilettante can appreciate thanks to its sheer beauty and unique musicality. Forget minute repeaters or even grande sonneries: the Kodo is the world’s most musical watch, and we have Takuma Kawauchiya to thank for that.

A close-up of the Kodo’s Caliber 9ST1.

His only regret is that due to the Kodo’s immense price tag (at over $500,000 AUD, it’s the most expensive Grand Seiko ever) and rarity (they’re only going to make 20), he’ll never get to own a Kodo, “one of his children”. But just like music, fine watchmaking is something that’s best shared with the world.

Find out more about the Grand Seiko Kodo Constant-Force Tourbillon at Grand Seiko’s online boutique here.