San: An Exclusive Look into the Citizen Watch Company Factory
Our final part of this trilogy will start with something special. Before our trip, Gracious Watch reached out to various Japanese watchmakers to see if we can do something special together. One Japanese watchmaker answered our call and that is Citizen Watch Company. A big player in the Japanese watchmaking market, we here at Gracious Watch are honored and delighted to have been chosen to visit the facilities of this billion-yen company.
After various communications, we at GW were blessed with an in-depth factory tour with Citizen and to have an exclusive view on what makes this Japanese company tick.
There’s a Citizen in All of Us
Created in 1918, Citizen Watch Company has always strived on being better than the rest and to provide the best watches for their customers. With the recent acquisition of American watch brand Bulova, Citizen Watch Company is focused on being a serious contender in the watch market which has other brands under their umbrella:
- Miyota movements
- Frédérique Constant
- La Joux-Perret
- Arnold & Son
Citizen Watch Company’s philosophy is to be a “true excellent company that makes dreams come true with employees”.
Citizen proactively improves both product technology and employee careers by offering a transparent approach to process improvement and educational incentives for employees to move up the ranks and become watch meister or a master craftsman. The company is constantly focused on studying quality control and to maintain a high level of standard when it comes to production and finished product of watches.
With advanced technology to accompany their stellar watch collections, Citizen Watch Company is definitely a contender in the watchmaking industry.
Heading to Watch Nirvana
Starting in Shinjuku, Gracious Watch met up with Corey, who was our company representative and guide for this trip. He was very kind, approachable, and we quickly bonded during this trip. Beyond watches, we were both car enthusiasts and were appreciative of North American culture: he studied in Oregon, where he educated me on the Oregon University Ducks and how car culture in Japan is very different compared to North America. He mentioned how owning a motorcycle makes more sense than owning a car in Japan and that he enjoys his weekend trips around the wangan-sen or the twisting roads that Japan is known for. As a fellow car enthusiast, I am envious of him experiencing these twisting roads whenever he can, and we both respected what we were able to accomplish.
We heavily discussed the watch market in North America and why the importance of a middle-range watch is important for the growth of becoming a watch enthusiast: to have a natural transition from entry-level quartz watches to a hand-crafted mechanical timepiece is vital as the price bracket from one to the other is drastic. Citizen offers many timepieces that help ease the transition a bit and provide the budding enthusiast with more selection at more attainable prices. We also talked about Baselworld and how it’s a reflection of the world economy based on attendance. It was a very interesting and educating conversation.
Escaping the Hustle and Bustle
The trip started with a four-hour bus ride to Iida City, where Citizen has built their Iida Tonooka Factory. Nestled in the Nagano prefecture, Iida City was known for cool, temperate climate and abundant agriculture such as persimmons, peach blossoms, Asian pears, and apples. It was still cherry blossom season, known in Japan as Sakura, so they were all over the city, covering certain parts of the mountainside with blips of pink and white as most were in full bloom, adding a splash of color to an already green landscape.
It was a great change of pace, escaping the noisy and frantic atmosphere of Tokyo and being embraced by the crisp, mountain air with the abundance of foliage around me. It was a nice trip heading there.
While there were multiple Citizen watch factories throughout Japan, the Iida Tonooka factory was a special treat because it’s where the mechanical watch movements and luxury watches are strictly made. After World War II, Citizen Watch Company was told to head to Iida City for relocation and the factory remained in the Iida City while the headquarters returned to Tokyo.
As we navigated through the narrow country roads, Corey educated me on how the Iida factory was initially known as the Heiwa Watch Factory. ‘Heiwa’, which stood for ‘peace’, was a symbol of recovery and moving forward from the troubles of the past. For many years, Citizen has contributed positively to Iida City, providing employment for many, and also growing agriculture within the company grounds: the Iida factory is surrounded by apple trees, and at full bloom, the apples harvested from the factory are donated to schoolchildren within the city to have a balanced diet and to provide to the local economy.
We were greeted at the factory where we went over a quick overview of the location and the factory in general. From there, it was straight to work. It was my first view of a multi-billion yen factory at work, and it was awe-inspiring, to say the least. Not only does Citizen build their own movement in-house, but Citizen also designs and build their own machining/manufacturing equipment as well so every piece of the puzzle was catered to their needs and how their process works.
From a manufacturing perspective, it was a great insight to kaizen or process improvement to Lean Six Sigma methodology, where it’s a manufacturing way of life where the desire to improve is married with statistical proof to encourage improvements. In order to stay motivated, all parts of the assembly line have full transparency on production quotas and quality control percentages in order to monitor efficiency and likewise, deficiencies. If one line is lagging, the factory is adaptable that it can switch when required to increase efficiency and to continue meeting quota.
Citizen prides itself on building all watch parts in-house, and the manufacturing tools required to create the parts. We were greeted with two specific assembly lines: one for movement, and one for the calendar wheel, with each line having their own goal quota, quality control, and productivity levels. Citizen creates the following parts within their own line of factories:
- Oscillating weights
- Electronic circuits
- Escape wheel and pinions
- Jeweled pallet forks
- Pressing parts
- Main plates
- Watch assembly
Citizen is focused on advancing the watch technology and I met the wife of the chief engineer that designed and developed the latest Eco-Drive One which focused on a thinner, smaller, tougher, more beautiful, and a more accurate movement. In fact, their latest release at Baselworld was the Calibre 0100, which is a light-powered movement that is “accurate to ± one second per year”. Continuing to be better than before, Citizen is focused on staying as a top contender in the watchmaking world.
The endless curiosity for accurate timepieces and perfection are visible throughout the factory. In their quality control tests, they have random tests of functionality, and precise measurement tests to ensure that the hands accurately show 12 o’clock when it has to. Down to the last micron, the hands are measured for accuracy and removed from the queue if it doesn’t pass QC.
Continuing with accuracy, Citizen watches boasts GPS and radio frequency as technologies to keep accurate time within different time zones. Here is the coil assembly line, featuring 24 coil wrapping machines, which is less than ⅓ the width of a human hair.
Being accurate means nothing can interfere with the parts, so cleanliness and a sterile environment are a must. Before entering the facilities, we had to wear hairnets, a dust-free suit, and to go through an airlock and dusting sequence. If you have OCD, you would have a field day. With a focus on keeping the elements away, Citizen pieces are subject to water resistance, with the typical 10 bar or 100m water resistance, but special divers watches are tested in machines that simulate depth of 100 bar! Not only that, but some pieces are tested by temperature to determine the accuracy of the altimeter functionality. Amazing.
The Harmony Between Automation and Hand-Crafted
When we discussed the way of life for Citizen employees, they were focused on creating a balance between automation and hand assembly. It was the key to achieving efficiency as not everything can be fully automated, just like everything shouldn’t be built by hand. This was achieved through ‘OPAS’, which blends the harmony between automated processes and hand-craft finishing and takes advantage of the automated assembly line for efficiency while providing the final touches that only human hands can do. It was an ingenious solution to solve efficiency problems and it was amazing to see in-person.
Traditionalists At Heart
As we continue on, we now meet the Citizen meisters or the master craftsmen that educated their way to achieving that title. There are educational pillars that a person must go through in order to become a meister and an infographic below can quickly inform you what needs to be done in order to become a Citizen meister.
With an emphasis on education, it is crucial in order to become an expert in the Citizen field and established since 1921, the Citizen Watch School is focused on having the focus on pursuing watch-making techniques to benefit Citizen. While all staff is required to be professionals, only meisters can build Citizen’s luxury-line available in Japan called Campanola.
Campanola: A Japanese Masterpiece
Situated on the top floor of the Iida factory lies the meister domain. Overlooking the Nagano mountains, here are Citizen’s top watchmakers creating the best timepieces offered in the market today. One of the brands highlighted is Campanola, which is Citizen’s response to Seiko’s Grand Seiko collection and to compete with the high-end Swiss brands.
Their unique approach to offering a Swiss-made movement by recently-acquired La Joux-Perret, which creates timepieces for high-end brand Arnold and Son. Through their Mechanical Movement collection, here we see the creation of the ruby-red dialed NZ0000 – 07 W. The precision required for these artisan pieces to be created is intense and the steady hands she has are inspiring. Each piece, even the tiny hands for the sub-dials have been placed by hand, and are hand-tested.
Only a handful examples get created, and with the blue CTR 57-1101 from their Complication collection is my absolute favorite. Featuring a rare sun/moon phase, it boasts six complications, which are:
- Minute repeater function
- Moon phase function
- Perpetual calendar
- 24-hour display function
- Second hand stop function
I was floored by the quickness and the accuracy the meister had and she even joked that dropping a piece would be annoying because each piece is so small and delicate. I’m just happy when people can find joy in their jobs: it means they’re not doing a job at all, but something they love to do.
These pieces are well over 750,000JPY and whoever has the means to purchase these pieces are getting what they paid for.
From the highly-mirrored casing, to the double-sapphire crystal, to the painstakingly handcrafted movement and dial, the Campanola line should be a viable alternative to high-end Swiss timepieces that everyone already has.
The tour concludes with a museum of Citizen’s most influential timepieces which included:
- Citizen’s first-ever manufactured watch (pocket watch)
- Citizen’s first RF-controlled watch
- Citizen-made pieces that require a movement to run
- Various awards and trophies Citizen employees have won throughout the years
After this tour, I have a newfound respect for Citizen and what they have accomplished to-date. Their Eco-Drive technology was definitely a game-changer in the watchmaking realm, and their never-ending drive to be better continues to show as they grow their brand even further. Creating every part in-house and the machines required to build is a feat on its own and I commend them for achieving it. Their focus on having a balance between automation and handcrafting shows a positive embrace for progression and a desire to be competitive wherever the watchmaking future takes them.
I have a soft spot for Japanese-made watches, growing up in Asia and seeing an influx of them, and I do have a Citizen quartz watch in my collection. After this, maybe there’ll be a Campanola added in as well. Only time will tell.