Insight Relapping Grand Seiko – Honoring Taro Tanaka’s Vision

I suspect most people reading this article have heard about the Grammar of Design – Taro Tanaka’s 1962-drafted principles for designing Seiko watches so that they could compete visually when displayed next to their Swiss competitors in the Wako department store in Ginza. What might be less known is how many of Tanaka’s principles fundamentally rely on the interplay of light and shadow. The rules ensured light and shadow danced over the dial, hands and case as the watch was worn to create watches that glittered and shone without needing additional adornment. Perfectly polished flat surfaces were used to create areas of maximum contrast between light and dark. Today it is easy to forget after 50 years of use just how impressive these vintage Seikos were when new. Today, the polished facets are often marred with scuffs and scratches and the edges have been, at best, softened by light polishing or, at worst, completely obliterated by over polishing.

The Nine Grammar of Design Principles. Source:

I have four watches in my collection that espouse the classical Grammar of Design principles. Those watches are:

  • A Grand Seiko 6146-8000 ‘Cross Dial’
  • A King Seiko 5625-7040 Chronometer
  • A King Seiko 45-7001
  • A LordMatic 5216-8020 Special

The LordMatic is in the best condition, followed by the Chronometer. Both have near mint cases with almost no signs of use. The Zaratsu polished flanks of the watch cases retain their original mirror finishes. The manual King Seiko 45 and the cross-dial Grand Seiko are a level below the other two in quality. Both watches have the resultant softening of the edges that comes with even sympathetic hand polishing. All four watches are either freshly serviced or working well, and all have excellent dials. It is really only the watch cases on two that slightly disappoint.

The cases of my LordMatic and Chronometer in particular hold a certain fascination for me. I have always been amazed just how good the original finishing was on these watches. The LordMatic was not even a top of the range model, it was definitely aimed at the aspiring workers rather than executives. A point borne out by the sheer number of the LordMatic models that can be found with company sales target inscriptions on their casebacks. The cases of both watches can be compared to modern Grand Seiko and in so doing, hold their own, which I find somewhat astounding. That’s right, Seiko in the 1960s and 1970s were producing cases just as well crafted and just as sharp as the much-lauded modern Grand Seikos of today.

My 1971 King Seiko 5625-7040 Chronometer with its original case finishes and just a little wear

The same cannot be said of my own vintage Grand Seiko however. While my cross-dialed 61GS is a lovely example, the case shows all of its 50+ years. It has not been abused, but neither has it been kept in a sock its whole life. The case is an 8 out of 10, maybe even a 9. There is a softness to the facet edges. I can see that some minor scratches have been polished out by hand and I can see the reflections are not perfectly flat. In any normal and sane universe, this case would be perfectly acceptable for a vintage watch, after all I rank it an 8, maybe even a 9. But we do not live in sane universe, we live in a universe that is also occupied by the ‘Lapinist’.

For those that don’t know, the self-styled ‘Lapinist’ is Kamil Dunkowski, a jeweler, watchmaker and watch restorer from Poland. His Instagram feed is a constant flow of refinished cases so molecularly perfect that they do not even look real. Honestly, when I first saw his photos three years ago, I did not believe they were real. Maybe you know what I mean when I say an image can look so perfect that you know that it is a computer rendering and not a real photograph. I made occasional forum searches to see if anyone had experience of his work. This was in late 2018. Slowly, I saw more and more online posts from people for whom Kamil had restored their watches. They all contained the same information: the results were amazing, the finishing was as good as the photos indicated and Kamil’s waiting list was long. 

Restoration of a 44KS case. Image credit: Lapinist

Kamil had taught himself Zaratsu polishing and now seemed to be producing polished cases better than the factory had back in the day. It is worth dispelling one myth before proceeding… Zaratsu finishing is not Japanese. I know the idea of it being the culmination of hundreds of years of tradition with Samurai blacksmiths honing their master’s blades sounds romantic but it’s not true. Seiko themselves must bear some responsibility for this tall tale. In the officially sanctioned history book ‘A Journey In Time’, Zaratsu is described multiple times as a traditional Japanese technique, which it is not. Zaratsu polishing is lapping performed to an extremely high standard while lapping is a polishing technique where the piece is held against the flat surface of either a rotating or oscillating abrasive disk rather than being held against the curved edge of a rotating polishing wheel. 

A lapping disk (left, courtesy of Grand Seiko) compared to regular polishing wheel (right, courtesy of Longines)

The word ‘Zaratsu’ is a Japanese L-R mispronunciation of ‘Sallaz’ – the manufacturer of the Swiss lapping machines used to finish the Seiko cases back when Tanaka was deriving his Grammar of Design. This does not devalue the standard of finish Seiko achieves now and even back then, but perhaps it demystifies the process a little and explains why a talented jeweler and self-taught machinist in Poland with no Samurai heritage can now Zaratsu polish as well as the artisans in the Grand Seiko studios. 

Kamil is no stranger to watch blogs and he has been interviewed by Worn and Wound among others, so I will not go deeper into his story or how he achieves his amazing finishes in this article. Instead, I urge you to read the linked article to read more of his incredible story. When I saw the results of Kamil’s work online and how he could match the quality of a modern Grand Seiko case, I started to wonder if Kamil could restore the case of my vintage 61GS… I went back and forth discussing the idea with friends. I went back and forth in my own head, trying to decide how I’d feel having a refinished case. Common collector credo states that case should be original, not polished and the watch should display its battle scars with pride. Here I was contemplating having the case completely re-polished and potentially ending up with something that was ‘better than new’.

But what of Tanaka’s vision? What would he think of Kamil’s skill with his lapping machine? What would he think of a vintage 61GS, designed using his own principles but then refinished to a degree higher than when it left the factory? Ralph Lauren’s approach the restoration of his classic Ferrari collection came to mind. I have been lucky enough to see a number of his cars when they were displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 2005 and it was plain to see that these former race cars have been finessed, fettled and finished to a far higher degree than they ever were when originally built at Scaglietti’s Modena carozzerria in the 60s. I decided to believe Tanaka-san would be just fine seeing one of his watches over-restored to fully realize the potential he had dreamt of back in the Wako store in Tokyo so many years ago.

I contacted Kamil in April 2020 and he informed me he could restore my case in February 2021. My slot was thereby reserved and I was told to send the watch eight months later in January. While waiting for my slot, I decided to only send the case to Poland since the rest of the watch did not need any work and sending a perfectly good vintage 61GS movement internationally seemed like an unnecessary risk. Sending just the case also neatly removed the issue of declaring a high value for insurance purposes and thereby creating import tax issues upon its return. Watches and components up to $800 can be imported tax-free into the US. Declaring a value more than that will require a customs work sheet to be completed and duty paid, which can hold up delivery by several days. Kamil and I agreed to assign an insured value of $500 for the returned case which was not only realistic, but also below the duty threshold. I sent my case to Poland on the last day of 2020.

In April, a month after the case had arrived in Poland, came an email that my case was finished. The email contained before and after photos and two videos showing the light playing across the now perfect surfaces. Well, not quite perfect… While working on my case Kamil had found an inclusion within the original steel meaning that there was a slight imperfection on one facet. I can just see it with my naked eye but I doubt others will, it is pretty small but can be seen in the below image if you look carefully. According to Kamil, material faults like this were not uncommon in the vintage steel used by Seiko.

Before and after photos from Kamil

Upon my case’s fast and painless return via FedEx I felt obliged to use the pair of white cotton gloves that I had bought years before from Esslinger and had remained unused in a draw. There was no way I was prepared to touch my case just yet with bare hands. The case seemed to have lost any semblance of its previous self and now appeared more like an opaque gem stone rather than forged steel, so perfect were the edges. I don’t remember ANY modern Grand Seiko having a finish this perfect. In fact, I have never seen any watch with this perfect of a case. The Parmigiani Fleurier Tonda GT came close but even that case, fashioned by ‘Les Artisans Boîtiers’, had some softening on the edges in comparison.

The restored 61GS case on its return

After admiring the empty case for a couple of days, I refitted the movement resulting in the timepiece shown below. I am truly thrilled to be able to have first hand experience of how this vintage Grand Seiko looked when new and maybe my example is even just a little bit better than that. I suspect both Tanaka-san and Mr Lauren would likely approve of my over-restoration.

Zaratsu reflections: the completed 61GS

For the record, the cost of the work including shipping was around $500 but obviously the cost of the restoration depends on how much micro-welding, reshaping and polishing Kamil performs and whether the rest of the watch needs restoration and service. While I think this is amazing value for the skill Kamil brings to bear on his restorations, the overall benefit to the vintage Seiko community is the massive experience he now has with all of the variants of Seiko (and Grand Seiko and King Seiko) cases. Each restoration begins with all the necessary research to calculate the original proportions and angles between facets of the case. I don’t think there is anyone else that now has such an innate knowledge of vintage Seiko cases as Kamil does and for that I am very grateful. Now I just need to decide on the next restoration subject.

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