“Watchmaker for Every Citizen” — the Citizen Watch Company, 1894 through 2020

In the 1920s a Tokyo jeweler named Kamekichi Yamazaki presented a pocket watch manufactured in Japan as a gift to the young Emperor Hirohito. At that time Japan’s watch market was dominated by Swiss and American brands. Yamazaki-san’s first commercial pocket watch was given the brand name “Citizen,” suggested by Tokyo Mayor Shinpei Goto in the hope every citizen might benefit from watches produced by the new company – a desire proven remarkably prophetic.

By:  Scott Burton* Co edited by Mitka

Genesis of Japan’s Early Wristwatch Industry

 

Japan’s watch industry dates to the mid-1700s, when clockmaking was introduced by Christian missionaries. Swiss watches first appeared in Japan after the 1864 Friendship and Trade Treaty. But the Tokugawa Shogunate’s isolation policy preserved Japan’s traditional timekeeping system, posing challenges for Western imports. Japanese wadokei (和時計) clocks of the era used unequal temporal hours, 6 for day and 6 for night – daytime hours were longer in summer, nighttime hours were longer in winter.

In 1872 Japan adopted the solar calendar and fixed-hour timekeeping system, ushering in a new era of clock design based on technology imported from the West. US lever escapement technology was introduced in 1894 by the Osaka Tokei Manufacturing Co., in pocket watches known as “sakameri” – a hybrid of Osaka and American.

One of Japan’s earliest watchmakers was Seiko founder Kintaro Hattori, who initially imported Swiss clocks and watches. By 1892, Hattori-san established his now famous Seikosha factory in Tokyo, producing watches with assistance from engineers trained in Le Locle, Switzerland. Seiko pioneered Japan’s first wristwatch, dive watch, and chronograph.

Similarly, in 1901 Shogoro Yoshida established a watch shop in Tokyo. Within a couple years Yoshida-san began manufacturing clock cases, and in 1920 opened the Toyo Tokei Manufacturing clock factory, commencing wristwatch production in 1934. The original Hino factory was closed after World War II, but in 1959 the company resumed watch production as Tama Keiki Co. Ltd., renamed Orient Watch Company in 1951 and now owned by Seiko.

Citizen’s Early History and Mechanical Wristwatch Highlights

Citizen, by contrast, has a more complex history driven in significant part by Swiss and US partnerships. In 1894 Rodolphe Schmid, owner of the Chromis-Cassardes Watch factory in Neuchâtel, moved to Yokohoma and became one of Japan’s top watch merchants. Two decades later Kamekichi Yamasaki founded the Shokosha Watch Research Institute in Tokyo using machinery from Europe and the United States. Ultimately, the two would combine to form Citizen Watch Company.

Shortly after its establishment in 1918, Shokosha was one of just two companies invited to represent Japan in a pocket watch competition at the 1923 Tokyo Commemorative Peace Exhibition, alongside the more established Seikosha. While Swiss and US designs outperformed both Japanese companies, to the surprise of the judging panel Shokosha’s performance rivaled Seikosha; quite remarkable given Seikosha was Japan’s leading producer and had been producing watches for 27 years. The next year Yamasaki-san’s factory produced its first commercial pocket watch, Calibre 16; the same “Citizen” model praised by Emperor Hirohito.

Despite this early success Shokosha was bankrupt within just a few years. The fledgling Japanese watch industry now faced another challenge – low cost Swiss imports, undercutting high domestic production costs. Seiko’s Hattori-san took the lead in lobbying for higher customs duties; as a result, duties on gold watch imports rose from 5% in the late 1800s to 50% by 1906.

Some brokers responded by importing unassembled watch parts for assembly in Japan. Rolex and other Swiss manufactures expressed concern this practice could result in Swiss watchmakers being cut out of Japan, and that Japanese watch exports could pose a threat to Swiss watchmaking globally. The concern sounded alarmist to many at the time, but proved prescient.

Rodolphe Schmid began importing watch kits in 1908 for assembly at a factory in Yokohoma. By 1930 Schmid and a group of investors partnered with the financially distressed Shokosha, forming the Citizen Watch Company. In 1932 Citizen acquired Star Shokai, another company founded in part by Schmid to import Mido watches to Japan.

Reportedly, the wristwatches produced by Citizen during the 1930s copied Mido designs. In 1931 Citizen began serial production of wristwatches, starting with its F-Calibre manual-wound movements, followed by the K-Calibre in 1935. Citizen’s Tanashi factory commenced production in Tokyo the next year and soon began exporting to Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

World War II severely disrupted the global watchmaking industry, with the exception of neutral Switzerland. After the war Citizen understood its future success relied on overseas expansion. Thus, Citizen Trading Company was established in 1949, focused on global marketing.

In the 1950’s Citizen sought to narrow the technological gap with Switzerland, releasing numerous in-house movements. In 1952 Citizen introduced Japan’s first calendar watch followed in 1956 by introduction of the Para-Shock – Japan’s first shock resistant watch. After its release Citizen undertook a marketing campaign demonstrating the new design’s durability, dropping Para-Shock watches from helicopters at public venues around the country, including baseball stadiums and Kyoto train station. The Para-Shocks were claimed to survive each test.

In 1958 Citizen introduced Japan’s first alarm watch. The same year Citizen launched its own in-house automatic movement. In 1959 Citizen also launched its first water proof (water resistant) watch case, the Para-Water.

The late 1950s were productive years for Citizen. Their goal was clear; they wanted to show the world Japan could rival the Swiss in quality and design! In the 1960s this goal was realised. Whereas earlier movement calibres were largely modified Swiss designs, Citizen began developing fully in-house movement and case designs. Indeed, by the end of the decade their movements were more advanced than most Swiss counterparts. Another factor driving this surge of innovation was that Citizen’s biggest domestic rival, Seiko, also wanted to show the world what Japan was capable of.

In 1961, for example, Citizen introduced its unusual Cal. 3010 circular swinging rotor “Jet” self-winding 18,000 bph movement. In 1963 the company staged another brilliant marketing campaign, attaching 130 self-winding Para-Water Jet automatic wristwatches to buoys and releasing them from a ship into the Pacific Ocean. After floating on ocean currents the buoys were retrieved near the North American coast – all 130 watches were still working, a year later. The 39 jewel gold plated Cal. 1150 Super Jet is one of the most sought-after by collectors, particularly the “auto-dater” models in Para-Water and diver cases.

During the 1960s Citizen stepped up its efforts to compete in the premium market. In 1962 they launched a chronometer to show what they where capable of. They also had several “Super” lines. The Super Deluxe, for example, employed the beautifully finished, manual wound Cal. 9200, a very precise movement. While the standard Deluxe came with 19, 21 or 23 jewels, the Super used 25 jewels and was specially adjusted to at least 3 positions. 

In the mid-1960s Citizen introduced its 52xx (day and date) and 54xx (date only) calibre line; still running at 18,000 bps, these self-winding movements were available in a variety of models. The Super Crystal Date, for example, is a less common model employing the 33 jewel Cal. 5410 movement with hacking function. As the name suggests, this was the company’s first design to employ hardened mineral glass crystals. Like the Super Deluxe and Super Jet, the Super Crystal also was factory tuned for enhanced accuracy. By 1970 Citizen had released a dive version, the 150m Para-Water Super Crystal Date; the black dial version in particular is highly sought after by collectors.

The 52xx/54xx movements also were used in Citizen’s Chrono Master line, introduced in 1967. For example, the Chrono Master Autodate used Cal. 5440, factory adjusted for even higher accuracy than the Super line. With quickset date and hacking function, the Chrono Master equaled or bettered many top-name Swiss watches of the day, taking on Seiko’s early GS and KS lines as well.

 

Citizen also posed stiff competition in the high-beat realm. The Leopard range, for example was introduced around 1969 in several movement variations based on the 72xx and 77xx calibres. The Cal. 7200 “Super Beat” 26 jewel automatic movement ran at 28,800 bph. The self-winding Cal. 7230 by contrast used 36 jewels and was a true 36,000 bph high-beat chronometer-grade movement with central sweep seconds, hacking function and quickset date; fierce competition to its domestic and Swiss rivals!

Not to be outdone by the best of Seiko’s early 1970s high-beat offerings, Citizen’s Glorious or “GC” (ref. 4-770285 Y) looks the part, with styling and logo reminiscent of Seiko’s top-end GS and KS models, complete with gold GC medallion on the case back. Inside, it’s basically a souped-up “Super Leopard,” employing a beautifully finished, gold-plated, in-house 36,000 bph calibre 7750, adjusted in 5 positions to -2/+3 spd; better than COSC!

If chronographs are your thing, Citizen also delivered with their calibre 8100; a true fly-back automatic chronograph Citizen developed in 1972 to compete with Seiko’s Cal. 6139. The 8100A, for example, is a 23 jewel 28,800 bph self-winding vertical clutch column wheel chronograph movement with day, date and fly-back function.

Miyota Movements

No profile of Citizen Watch Co. would be complete without mentioning Miyota, its in-house movement company. Established in the town of Miyota, Nagano prefecture in 1959, the company originally built in-house movements for Citizen. In 1980, however, Miyota commenced external sales, building a reputation as a leading movement manufacturer. Miyota movements such as its workhorse self-winding Cal. 8215 (center seconds) and Cal. 8218 (sub-seconds) are used by numerous well-regarded watch brands, including About Vintage’s retro-stylish 1926 Automatic Limited Edition, not to mention Geckota and LIP.

Miyota’s Cal. 9015 hi-beat (28,800 bph) 24 jewel automatic movement is built off the 8215, with quickset date and calendar, and has become a favorite alternative to the ETA 2482 and Sellita SW200. Reliable and lower cost, the 9015 is favoured by many micro-brands including Halios, Obris Morgan and the Smiths Everest PRS-25.

Bulova & Quartz

Citizen’s export plans gained a boost in 1960, through its agreement to supply watches and movements to Bulova Watch Co. for affordable models distributed in the US, such as the Caravelle line. The Bulova partnership was highly profitable in the early years, but in exchange for the exclusive right to supply movements Citizen agreed to stay out of the US market. Thus, Seiko gained a strong foothold in the US by the time Citizen’s arrangement with Bulova ended in the 1970s.

1960 also brought a revolution in watchmaking – Bulova’s Accutron, the world’s first electronic watch. And also the most accurate at the time, employing an electric “tuning fork” oscillator movement developed for NASA satellites.

Sensing an opportunity to take the upper hand from the dominant Swiss watch industry, in 1964 Citizen opened the Tokorozawa Technical Laboratory devoted to electronic watch R&D. Just two years later Citizen released Japan’s first electronic watch, the X-8. Utilizing a balance wheel controlled by a battery-powered transistor circuit, Calibre 0800-25J could operate a full year before needing a battery replacement – a major technological advance.

In 1971 Citizen released the Cal. 3700 Hi-Sonic, utilizing Bulova technology; Japan’s first tuning fork wristwatch. But by then the quartz revolution already had begun with Seiko’s December 1969 release of the Astron, the world’s first quartz watch.

The oscillating quartz crystal provided unprecedented accuracy – in the range of a couple seconds per week compared with a minute per week for mechanical. In 1973 Citizen released the Quartz Crystron, its first quartz analog watch. The Quartz Crystron LC followed in 1974, the first LCD watch to display time, day and date; the ladies’ version was Japan’s first LCD watch for women.

Citizen and Miyota continue to produce some of the most reliable and advanced quartz movements. The Miyota 2035 and Super 2035 all-metal movements, for example, are widely-used workhorse quartz movements. And Citizen’s Eco-Drive revolutionized quartz by combining it with solar technology, resulting in a high-accuracy watch eliminating the need for a battery.

Today Citizen is one of Japan’s largest industrial groups, with 80 affiliated companies in a variety of industries spanning five continents – including its former partner, Bulova, which Citizen purchased in 2008. From its humble roots as a small pocket watch factory, to its 1960s and 1970s watches rivaling the best Swiss designs of the era and its current dominance in the quartz market and well-respected Miyota mechanical movements, Citizen has exerted a profound impact on the evolution of wristwatch technology and the global market, thus achieving with remarkable success its stated desire to serve as a watchmaker for “every citizen.”

© Copyright 2020, P. Scott Burton and Mitka Engebretsen; all rights reserved.

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