Chronos Japan Editor-in-chief Masayuki Hirota Interviews Orient Star About the Contemporary Skeleton!
October 2, 2023
In September 2022, Orient Star released the first Skeleton model from the Contemporary Collection. To mark this occasion, Masayuki Hirota, Editor in Chief of the watch magazine Chronos Japan, and someone who has shown a lot of interest in the Skeleton ever since its release, will take a closer look at the charm and development of the model. Here to answer his questions are the model’s planner, Daisuke Tanabe and designer, Katsunori Kume. Below is an exclusive account of what went on during the interview, including moments of nerves and laughter. Don't forget to read the afterword by Mr. Hirota as well.
*The interview was conducted with the appropriate infection prevention measures in place.
The Unexplained Mystery of the “Small Seconds”
Masayuki Hirota (hereinafter “Hirota”): I’m Hirota, Editor in Chief of Chronos Japan. I’m looking forward to this interview today.
Daisuke Tanabe (hereinafter “Tanabe”), Katsunori Kume (hereinafter “Kume”): Likewise.
Hirota: I’d like to start by talking about skeleton watches from Orient Star. Orient Star has continued mass production of skeleton watches that have a power reserve, which is a difficult feature to incorporate into a skeleton design. Could you talk a little bit about the history of Orient Star skeleton watches?
Tanabe: The origin of the Skeleton goes back to the hand winding 48320 movement which was created in 1975. It had a date display that you controlled with a dedicated push-down button rather than a two-step push-pull crown. More than a decade later, we started to focus on new values for mechanical watches, specifically the skeleton design unique to its kind.
Kume: Digital and analog quartz were in high demand in the eighties, so it was unusual for a brand to continue mass-producing mechanical hand winding movements. Yet it was during this time that Orient Star released the Mon Bijou (*1) in 1991.
*1 This model has been discontinued.
Hirota: This is impressive for the time. I wonder how they created the cut-outs for the skeleton effect.
Kume: I think it was mostly done by hand. Then the second generation, a full skeleton Mon Bijou with no dial, was released. Back then, they were focused on making the movement look as bare-bones as possible. Plus, you could buy them for a mere 80,000 yen or so.
Hirota: That’s just crazy (laughs). It must be worth far more than that.
Tanabe: After that, a Skeleton model with power reserve was released in 2003. The year after, a model with improved accuracy called the Orient Star Royal (*2) was released.
*2 This model has been discontinued.
Hirota: This movement retains the usual order of centre, third, fourth and escape wheel, but then adds another gear for the small seconds hand.Nobody does that. I can’t believe you pulled off such an intriguing modification. You could say that with this model, Orient Star had perfected a certain style. Going back to the small seconds hand – why did you decide to include it in the first place?
Tanabe: You’re right, nobody does that (laughs). I’d like to say that the reason for the small seconds hand was to make it as thin as possible, but in reality, I don’t think that was the sole reason. For a long time, Orient Star has always had a culture of placing the highest value on emotional design. I can only speculate since most of the original members of the development team are no longer with us, but I believe that they were intent on figuring out the most beautiful layout for a skeleton watch. And they chose to incorporate the small seconds because they wanted to place the second hand close to the heart of the watch, which is where you see the most activity.
Hirota: Having a small seconds hand on top of the power reserve must make it even more difficult to achieve the cut-outs. Normally, a skeleton effect is created by cutting pieces out from simple movements, without small seconds or anything else.
Tanabe: We tackle tough challenges with our strong spirit, especially those that other companies would normally avoid…I believe we continue to carry this in our spirits today.
Kume: Design-wise, I think they probably wanted to add flair and make it look more elaborate.
Was it Anticipating the Direction of the Skeleton Trend!?
Kume: Then there’s the 60th anniversary Royal Orient (*3) model released in 2010 limited to 12 pieces.
Hirota: I didn’t know about this model. It’s the first time I’ve seen it. The finish is incredible. The chamfering is deep, too. There are similarities to the Contemporary Skeleton released this year.
Kume: The movement’s design is entirely original and finished by hand, including the base plate. The Mechanical Engineering Team said they were sick of working on it (laughs). This was a time when the brand was attempting to take the classical Skeleton and make it more modern.
*3 This model has been discontinued.
Tanabe: Then in 2016, Orient Star released this mass-produced model that shifted away from the previous Skeletons that focused on carving the movement down to its elemental structure.
Hirota: Orient Star’s Skeleton was bare bones to begin with. So, when you started adding functions to something so sparse, you had to think about ways to tweak the shape of the bridges so that additional elements could be placed there. This model seems to be an answer to that question. It’s the result of trying to balance everything out.
Hirota: In a way, it anticipated the direction that watchmakers are heading towards today. More and more manufacturers are releasing skeletons, but rather than removing pieces of the dial in the easiest way possible, they do so in a manner that respects the shape of the skeleton. I feel like Orient Star was a forerunner in this trend. What do you think?
Kume: I wasn’t directly involved in the model back then, but I assume they started by thinking about the shape of the base plate first, before figuring out the layout of the dial.
Hirota: Mass-produced movements aren’t made to accommodate holes, and all of the parts inside are placed in that way purely for the sake of productivity. They’re not suited for making skeleton designs at all, so I’m amazed that you’ve continued to use them to this day. It’s crazy (laughs).
Tanabe: Around 2012 was when Orient Star reviewed its product lineup and significantly changed direction as a brand. Until then, we were producing mechanical watches including skeletons more as luxury or hobby items. However, we decided to make them more suitable for daily use by equipping power reserve indicators.
Kume: We have been making mechanical watches since the company’s founding and have successfully overcome the era of quartz watches. When we thought back to what our brand represents and what makes us unique, we came to the conclusion that it is our spirit and determination to modify the movement itself, creating something completely brand new and something no one has never seen before.
Hirota: Determination is indeed the right word.
Kume: The Skeleton was an extension of that. We were thinking of ideas on how to make hand winding watches more convenient, and the answer was the power reserve indicator.
Hirota: I see. Recently, I was surprised by the Skeleton from the Classic Collection released last year. How did you improve the finish so drastically? From the way the bridges are carved out to the colours… everything about it was an improvement on previous models. And all at that price (note: 352,000 yen). What changed?
Tanabe: We always wanted to make the Skeleton more advanced, but there were various functional restrictions when it came to designing the movement itself. There was growing momentum to develop a skeleton watch that would become the face of the brand, combining the beauty of form and finish.
Hirota: When was this?
Tanabe: A significant turning point was in 2017, when Seiko Epson and Orient Watch merged. When we were released the Moon Phase model, which was our first post-merger release, we were simultaneously working on a new Skeleton which was to be the brand’s flagship model. This led to the release of the Classic Skeleton in 2021, and the Contemporary Skeleton this year.
“I Can’t Believe You Pulled This Off…” Chamfering that Even Takes Editor in Chief Hirota’s Breath Away
Hirota: It seems as though the F8 caliber in the Skeleton has deep chamfering that was made possible by taking advantage of the thickness of the movement. It’s completely different than what you’d see on skeleton watches with thinner movements at the base.
Tanabe: After revising our finishing and processing like I just mentioned, we had repeated discussions with the technical department about how we could make the movement look more beautiful. Our aim was to create a beautiful dial while being conscious of its functions.
Hirota: I’m still amazed by how deep the chamfering is. You must have gotten complaints from the Production Division…
Kume: The complaints never stopped (laughs).
Tanabe: We also had repeated discussions about pricing, right up to its release, because we wanted it to be accessible to as many people as possible.
Hirota: It’s certainly very rare to see such deep chamfering at this price point. It’s so effective, and it brings depth to the overall form. It’s obviously better to have chamfering, but it must be such hard work having it everywhere like this.
Kume: Chamfering is indeed everywhere, and in spots that are hard to chamfer. From an efficiency standpoint, we’d probably opt for a simpler form…
Hirota: I’m sure you would. This bridge supporting the small seconds, for example, is almost S-shaped. You wouldn’t do this, normally. Is this to show the escape wheel?
Kume: Primarily, yes. It’s about showing the part you want to show the most, in the most beautiful way possible.
Tanabe: Blue is a colour that looks very bright in certain places but also pitch black in darkness, so we focused on making sure the light hits the escape wheel as much as possible. The vivid blue of the silicone escape wheel isn’t artificially coloured, but rather achieved by adjusting the thickness of the oxide film applied to the wheel in nanometre (a millionth of a millimetre) increments and controlling the light’s reflection. Light is crucial to achieving this brightness of colour, which is why the opening of the small seconds is shaped this way.
Hirota: I feel as though the Skeleton model has reached its zenith. A skeleton watch with this finish, at this price point? What can I say, I’m impressed. This Contemporary Skeleton is Orient Star’s first skeleton in a modern style. Did you draw inspiration from any particular design motifs?
Kume: The theme was to create a skeleton that is more suitable for daily use, so our first thought was that it should resemble something that you see in daily life. From there, we started imagining constructed, linear spaces like you’d find in contemporary architecture, through which you can see the universe beyond.
Hirota: Were there any works of architecture that inspired you?
Kume: Well, I wanted to draw inspiration from contemporary architecture in Japan, like the Tokyo International Forum for example. Furthermore, I haven’t mentioned this to people in the office, but Japanese temple and shrine architecture uses these beams called koryo (“rainbow beams”) which not only look beautiful but also very familiar to Japanese people. I wanted to bring an essence of this into the design as well. So, the design was inspired by a mix of these things.
Hirota: It’s funny how you were trying to create a linear design using a mass-produced movement (laughs). Skeleton watches by other brands have the gear train of the movement facing the skeleton. They’re designer-friendly designs. But Orient Star’s watches are different.
Kume: Completely different. The screw positions are fixed, so we had to think carefully about how we could set it apart from the Classic style.
Watch Fanatics Are Delighted by the “Rainbow”
Hirota: I thought the recent Skeleton watches were almost perfect in terms of quality of finish, but the Contemporary Skeleton took it up a notch with the brushed rainbow finish (note: a brushed finish that shines like a rainbow). This rainbow effect is visible in the finish of both the indices and movement. Was this intentional?
Kume: The rainbow’s visibility can be controlled to a certain extent by calculating the pitch and angle of finish. In last year’s Classic Skeleton, the brushed rainbow finish is less visible because the movement itself sparkles radiantly. This time, however, the entire movement is grey-plated to reduce some of the glare, which may have enhanced the beautiful radiance of the brushed rainbow finish. This was a new discovery for us.
Hirota: I feel like the colour scheme is more cohesive this time, giving a sense of unity to the entire watch.
Tanabe: In Orient Star’s traditional classical skeleton watches, the movement and dial were often separated to highlight the beauty of the movement itself. If you were using it as a hobby watch, the shiny radiance of the movement was great. But we knew there were things we could do to make it even more suitable for daily use. With this in mind, we gave the movement and dial parts a unified look with a grey tone to create a Skeleton that “blended in,” which was a new approach for us. The lack of colour gives it a modest yet sexy look.
Hirota: I think this model is a culmination of all Orient Star’s Skeleton watches, in the sense that you managed to achieve a sense of unity in terms of both finish and colour. Also, I noticed that the case is thinner. Was this an intentional choice to make the watch more usable?
Kume: We usually design automatic watches, but for this model, we physically slimmed the watch down by adopting a hand winding movement and also opting for a dual curved sapphire crystal glass, making it even thinner. But to be honest, I wasn’t too hung up about making the watch thinner; what we were aiming for was overall unity.
Hirota: When you say unity, which parts did you focus on in particular?
Kume: The construction of the case requires there to be a rubber seal around the sapphire crystal glass. If you were to prioritize thinness, there would inevitably end up being a slight bump that gets caught on your finger when you touch it. This time, we decided to prioritize the beautiful curve connecting the glass to the bezel over thinness, and fine-tuned the curvature and thickness of the spherical glass accordingly.
Hirota: Just as the glass leads to the bezel in a smooth curve, I like how the base of the lug is slightly elevated to bring a sense of unity to the design of the watch. I also noticed how the tip of the hands are often curved in Orient Star watches.
Kume: This is something that has become indispensable in bringing our designs together.
Tanabe: It’s difficult creating these curved hands, because you need to bend hands that have been bevelled on three sides rather than flat ones. You wouldn’t usually bend bevelled hands.
Hirota: Production must hate it (laughs). Plus, the hand always lands perfectly above the indices, overlapping completely. I sense obsession to the slightest detail.
Tanabe: That’s exactly right. This model has a minute ring scale on the outer edge of the indices. The interior base of the case is sloped to give a sense of density to the entire dial. We thought that by giving the watch a reasonable amount of density and moving away from the “openness” associated with the skeleton, we could create a sense of reassurance and make it more suitable for daily use.
Becoming a More Mature Orient Star Through Repeated "Play"
Hirota: The previous Classic Skeleton was great, but I like the Contemporary Skeleton even more. It has the whole package, including colour scheme and thinness. How would you like customers to use this watch?
Tanabe: Many customers who bought previous Skeleton models already owned multiple mechanical watches, and used the Skeleton as a hobby watch, so you could say that skeletons were seen as a special model only to be worn on selected occasions. If you were to compare it to a car, it would be like a second car or sidecar. This is one way of enjoying it, of course, but we wanted more people to experience the beauty of the skeleton, which is why we opted for a more modern design and incorporated elements such as a metal strap, compact case size, and grey movement with reduced shine, in order to create a skeleton watch that can be worn on any occasion. I hope this model will turn everyone into a mechanical watch fan – even those who have never encountered one before.
Hirota: The deep chamfering picks up light and gives it a luxurious feel, even with the grey colouring. It’s an excellent skeleton for daily use that suits everyone and any style.
Tanabe: Nowadays there are fewer and fewer occasions when we need to wear watches, but I hope that people will come to see this watch as something that will give boost their moods and give them an encouraging push when they wear it in the morning. Not just a tool you look at when you need to check the time, but something that you want to gaze at during the day and wear all day long. That’s the kind of watch we had in mind when designing it.
Kume: Ultimately, we had two wishes. The first was for people with fewer opportunities to wear a watch to actually hold it and look at it for themselves. And the second was for those same people to go on to feel that the watch is so indispensable that they feel uneasy when they’re not wearing it. Those wishes were the base ideas that we had.
Hirota: Orient Star, a brand that has repeatedly incorporated an element of “play” until now, has created a watch that blends in despite still being unique. I’d say that’s a sign of maturity.
Tanabe: We’ve managed to make it this far thanks to all the different skeletons we’ve grappled with over the past thirty-plus years. It’s like our style of "play" has matured a bit. (laughs).
Hirota: Talking to you today has cemented in my mind that this model very much carries the characteristics of Orient Star, including the packaging. Personally, I think it would be nice if the design continues to grow in this direction. Thank you for your time today.
Tanabe/Kume: Thank you.
Afterword by Chronos Japan Editor in Chief Masayuki Hirota
I may have been wrong about Orient Star. This collection is more than just a series of interesting experiments; everything about their watchmaking is stubborn, in a good way. The Skeleton model with F8 is symbolic of this. To carve “holes” into a movement to create a skeleton, you need to start with an appropriate base – in other words, a thin movement that looks good when skeletonized. However, Orient Star kept carving holes into mass- produced movements that are absolutely not suited for the skeleton style. I kept an eye on them to see what would happen, and was astounded by the recent models they had released in the past few years. With the F8 Skeleton, they began incorporating deep chamfering around each hole. No other watch under 400,000 yen has chamfering that looks this good. As a result, when you look at the watch in the light, it exudes a distinctive brilliance (you’ll see what I mean when you hold it up to the light) and three-dimensionality. Plus, the watch is reasonably thin, providing excellent comfort when worn. The word “stubborn” may sound negative. But you could say that this stubbornness and tenacity is what brought such a high degree of perfection to Orient Star’s Skeleton.