Your mother probably told you that first impressions are important: advice which frequently goes ignored in the watch collecting community. With all their talk of gear trains and chronometer certification, horology nerds often fetishise esoteric details over the universal pleasure one should feel every time they look down at their wrist. So when Seiko Presage — the eponymous diffusion label renowned for making mechanical timepieces with a uniquely Japanese sensibility — announced their Shippō Enamel Limited Edition at Baselworld 2018, we were excited to see a release which was, at its very core, about superlative aesthetics.
This month, the new watches are finally hitting the shelves. In the metal they’re every bit as beautifully detailed as we’ve come to expect from the design team behind last year’s grand feu release; and cement the Presage reputation for robust mechanical watchmaking elevated by industry-leading finishing and a price point so low it’s stupefying.
Shippō: the Japanese answer to cloisonné
To better understand the appeal of shippō, it’s helpful to start with a primer on this traditional Japanese art form. Literally translated as “seven treasures”, shippō involves an enamelling technique whereby fine wires are used to form shapes on an enamel object. Particular areas that have been delineated by wire are treated with enamel paste, before the whole object is kiln-fired and polished. Synonymous with the Western technique of cloisonné, shippō was typically reserved for architecture or ceremonial weapons. The output and sophistication of this decorative art increased significantly in the 1850s, as Japan opened its borders to European trade and intensified manufacture of export wares. Thus, a global obsession with a uniquely Japanese craft was born.
Since the 1830s, Nagoya has been the Japanese epicentre of shippō manufacturing. The city is home to some of the most skilled enamelers in Japan, so it’s no surprise that when Presage resolved to continue production of their Japan-centric releases they turned to Ando Cloisonné (a Nagoya-based enamel specialist since 1880) for help.
Dialling things up a notch
The Shippō Enamel is the kind of watch which lives and dies by its dial. For Presage, getting the myriad aspects (colour, depth, texture) of cloisonné right was priority number one. All base dials were engraved with a radiating pattern before being sent to Ando Cloisonné for glazing. The Nagoya-based specialist charged artisan Wataru Totani with the task of overseeing each dial’s decoration: an intricate process requiring assessment of 5,000 individual dials over the project’s lifespan. For each timepiece, Totani hand painted the dial using a lead-free glaze (which conforms to the Seiko corporation’s strict ecological protection standards).
The colour itself is significant: symbolising the connection between Japanese culture and the deep blue oceans which brought shippō to international attention over 100 years ago. After glazing, the dials are fired at 800 degrees celsius before the process starts all over again. In order to achieve sumptuous depth, a smooth surface and consistency of colour across the cloisonné pattern, glazing and firing occur repeatedly — until Totani himself is satisfied with the quality.
The result is breathtaking: a rebuke against the notion that you need spend tens of thousands of Swiss francs in order to enjoy a hand-painted enamel dial. The radiating cloisonné pattern, alternating through blue, black and flickers of white nicely foreshadows how the rest of the dial is executed. Svelte roman numerals are printed onto the completed shippō; and along with the distinctive crescent moon seconds hand make for a style which speaks volumes without making much noise. These releases also incorporate a 60-second chapter ring, referencing the 1895 Time Keeper that is a crucial part of Seiko’s history. That detail mightn’t necessarily line up with the Presage design identity but it’s hardly fatal, executed in a scale and font that complements the rest of the dial. Add to this proportions typical of the Presage collection (i.e. 40mm diameter), and you have a release which is well positioned to be your new daily wearer.
Despite the finite nature of the new shippō enamel models, Presage have opted to manufacture two separate runs capped at 2,500 units each. The first of these is the classic SPB075J1: a three hand model featuring the ubiquitous 3 o’clock date window. Powered by the robust calibre 6R15, this release tops out with a 50-hour power reserve; making it an excellent option for office wear five days a week. The alternate and visibly busier release is the SPB073J1, embellished with a power reserve indicator and date display. Presage chose to present the date in a sub-dial format, reminiscent of a 30-second chronograph register. It’s an interesting design quirk, albeit one that lends itself to the cognitive dissonance of mistaking the date for ticking seconds. On the movement side, the SBP073J1 also proves to be more ornate than its three hand sibling, featuring gilded engraving on the rotor and baseplate.
Regardless of which you choose, both of the new shippō enamel models present incredible value for money. Priced at US$1,400 (SPB075J1) and US$1,600 (SPB073J1) respectively, they’re another home run for Presage, likely to win over discerning watch lovers with a penchant for traditional Japanese arts and crafts.
For more information, visit Seiko Watches online.