It was 1983, the same year that Switzerland's poptastic Swatch hit the shelves, that Japan's own bit of cult plastic-fantastic was unveiled. Before then, if it wasn’t a diving watch, then your average timekeeper was born of a delicate disposition – a situation that, on damaging his
father’s precious pocket watch, got a young engineer working for Japan’s second-biggest watchmaker thinking.
“When I joined Casio,” Kikuo Ibe recalls, “all watches were getting thinner. Ironically, I was working on exactly that; thinner cases, which housed the same amount of electronics.”
Ironic, because Mr Ibe was destined to create one of the first overtly chunky watches in history, years before the Swiss invented the “oversize” fashion with Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Offshore beast and the revived Panerai diving brand.
“Casio as a company accept challenges very readily,” says Ibe, “so as soon as I proposed the idea of a shock-resistant watch, they said yes!”
Casio accept challenges very readily, so as soon as I proposed the idea of a shock-resistant watch in 1981, they said yes!
Ibe was assigned two more engineers and, dubbing themselves ‘Project Team Tough’, spent the next two years developing a prototype digital watch that passed their self-imposed ‘triple 10’ test: water resistance to 10 bar (about 100m), a 10-year battery life, and – most importantly – the ability to survive a 10 metre drop onto a hard surface, unscathed and working perfectly. Ibe’s solution was to ‘float’ the delicate electronics within a tough, hollow resin shell, suspended on urethane bumpers, allowing a certain degree of movement.
Being able to operate the G-Shock’s multi-functionality (Ibe’s other piece de resistance) is ensured however much this movement, as the external pushbuttons link to the core processor via flexible wires, which never snap.
“Coming up with the 5-stage shock absorbance system was the biggest challenge of course,” he says, “especially the final part, which protects the finest components.”
He and his team must have done a bang-up job, as the G-Shock’s revolutionary structure hasn't changed fundamentally since 1983 – nor, Ibe believes, will it ever have to. In fact, the biggest change over the past 30-odd years has been the introduction of metal cases (as Swatch did with its appropriately named ‘Irony’) in order to grow up with its loyal fans.
And it’s the 20th anniversary of this ‘MR-G’ range that brings Mr Ibe to London town. The commemorative limited edition jutting from his tiny wrist is the catchily titled ‘MRG-G1000HT-1ADR’ – or, more simply, ‘Hammer Tone’.
Given that G-Shock starts at £80, the £4,900 tag may seem a bit lumpy, but it’s precisely because of the lumps decorating the case and bracelet of the Hammer Tone’s 300 examples that the tag is justified. The titanium and copper alloy has been painstakingly hammer-beaten using an ancient craft called ‘tsu-i-ki’, first seen 1,200 years ago decorating Samurai armour. This exquisite work, which renders every watch unique, is done in Kyoto by a single metalworker by the name of Bihou Asano.
“It’s the fusion of Japanese craftsmanship with the latest technology like GPS and solar,” explains Ibe. “One of our younger engineers was researching traditional domestic craftsmanship, which is how he met the armour maker. The pattern is only found on smaller, finer parts of armour, not the whole thing, as it just takes so long.”
In many ways, despite the cost, it’s the apogee of what G-Shock is all about, combining modern tech with Japanese craft, whether 1,200 years old or 33 years young.
Despite his natural habitat being the engineering department, the runaway success of his baby means Mr Ibe finds himself almost constantly on the road nowadays, meeting and greeting the many thousands of G-Shock fans – fans whose obsessiveness borders that of trainer collectors, which says something.
But as long as he keeps doing so, publications like this will continue to learn about and report on watchmaking that doesn’t always need to be Swiss, or be driven by finely polished levers and cogs to justify that little bit of discerning recognition.
Go on, wear a G-Shock to tomorrow’s board meeting; it’s one shock that will be irresistible.