Seiko Spring Drive
Celebrating 10 years of the most successful and unique blend of mechanical and quartz watchmaking
What do you prefer between a mechanical watch and a quartz one? For those who love watches, the first option seems to be the most logic answer, also because not everybody is familiar with quartz watches, given the fact that they only really reached us in the 70s, when Japanese manufacturers literally flooded the market with their new high-precision and high-reliability technology at an affordable price. But what about if there were a third option, something in between? Despite quartz technology being very versatile and offering us different options when it comes to movements (Seiko's 9F calibers are the best example of high quality quartz calibers) Seiko's Spring Drive technology is definitely the best mixture of the two options above, since it manages to combine two parallel worlds by simply applying the best features of quartz technology to mechanical technology, thus overcoming its weaknesses.
Not only does the Spring Drive technology stimulate my passion for watches but it also fits perfectly well with my background, the pioneering spirit guiding engineer Yoshikazu Akahane in his research and his perserverance (28 years of tests and over 600 prototypes built) is part of every true engineer's DNA and the results of his hard work really need to be praised, because they represent a milestone in the history of watchmaking.
Seiko didn't change completely the mechanism of mechanical watches but it rather perfectioned it by making it into something which could fill the void of what mechanical movements couldn't achieve. If you take a good look at any mechanical watch featuring a central seconds hand, you will immediately notice that its movement is not continuous but it is actually a sequence of almost invisible and imperceptible twitches.This effect is due to the special architecture of the mechanical watch that features a powertrain made up of a spring, a balance wheel and an anchor escapement. This type of architecture is not the best solution, at least on paper, when it comes to a precision rate, because one of its weaknesses is that the energy released by the spring of the barrel decreases simultaneously with the decrease of the power reserve, thus changing the precision of the rate itself. On the other hand, on the architecture of the Spring Drive technology, escapement, balance wheel and spring balance are replaced by a wheel that has been designed to complete 8 leaps per second, thanks to a rotor-stator system and an integrated circuit ensuring that its speed is kept constant by regulating the energy released by the barrel.
If I were asked to find a term to compare this type of technology with other similar applications, I would use the concept of hybrid engine and its maximization in efficency. Although the two phenomena have completely different behaviours and aims, the concept of two different types of energy helping each other is virtually the same: when it comes to watches featuring a Spring Drive architecture, this behaviour translates into a precision rate of around +/- 1 second per day, an otherwise exceptional and unachievable result for any type of mechanical caliber currently available on the market.
If you test a Seiko featuring a Spring Drive caliber, you will immediately notice two things: the classical ticking of a mechanical watch has disappeared and the central seconds hand has a fluid and continuous movement without any perceivable twitch (this is technically called “glide motion”), moreover this type of technology gives a watch an otherwise unachievable completeness and level of quality. Some videos, like this one from Youtube, clearly show how the central seconds hand of a Spring Drive equipped watch moves.
Since its initial release in 2005, this type of technology has constantly developed and spread globally, it is constantly used by premium brands belonging to the Seiko group, like Grand Seiko, Credor and Galante (the first brand eventually landed in Europe a few years ago, while you have to book a trip to Japan if you want to experience the other two) and it has been used for very special watches like the Seiko Spacewalk, the Ananta and the famous Prospex.
The range this technology is mainly used for is the Grand Seiko and it completes the brand's offer of mechanical watches and high-end quartz caliber ones. When I initially started analyzing the Spring Drive technology I asked myself how much of it, in percentage, was mechanical and how much of it was actually electronic.
If you take a look at the case back of a Grand Seiko its finishings and aesthetics can easily be described as mechanical, the Try-Sinchro engine is virtually invisible despite being what makes this timepiece so precise and what makes the Spring Drive technology so successful: the movement of the seconds hand.
How would I personally rate the choice to purchase a Spring Drive equipped timepiece? It is definitely an exclusive choice, mainly because this type of technology has been developed and is fully owned by Seiko. By definition this is a reliable type of technology, as Japanese people never release anything on the market unless they are 100% sure that it will last long enough. European manufacturers, conversely, are mainly focussing on the development of mechanical watches through the use of its most classic architecture and the investment in new materials (like for instance silicon balance springs and anti-magnetic materials).
The Spring Drive technology in its basic form is today available at accessible prices if compared to what it can offer and to its level of quality (the retail price is around 4,000€) but its positioning on the market is bound to grow in the future, thanks to Seiko's expansion goals which are based on a strong segmentation of the brands belonging to its group that resulted in Grand Seiko recently increasing its prices to equalize them with those of other European manufacturers. Purchasing a timepiece featuring a Spring Drive technology is a good opportunity given the real value of this type of technology- I wouldn't consider it as an investement, if it is that what you are looking for, you should probably opt for limited editions equipped with a Hi-Beat caliber or a manual one. Only time will tell if I am right or wrong.
(Photo credit: courtesy of Seiko watches, Google)
Gaetano C. @Horbiter®