In 2013, a surprising figure was dropped on the watch industry: Japanese watch sales had topped $2 billion, a number untouched since the late 1990s. This boom is due in part to changing perceptions of what Japanese watches bring to the table. The best case study in this shift is the world’s largest watchmaker of the past 30 years, Citizen.

When I speak with many younger or first-time watch buyers, I find that some are seeking out vintage watches (a daunting proposition unless you’re purchasing from well-vetted shops like HODINKEE and Analog/Shift); some are into unique upstarts like Nomos, Uniform Wares and Autodromo; some are on the hunt for ultimate classics like the Speedmaster. But many also seek out the sheer value-to-function ratio of a Citizen Promaster or a Seiko 5. Spend enough time with a Swiss watchmaker and they’ll agree that these watches are excellently made for their price.

But Japanese watchmaking isn’t just quartz movements and value anymore. Take, for example, the Citizen Eco-Drive One, released at this year’s Baselworld. An impossibly thin analog watch, its case is only 2.98mm thick; the movement inside measures just 1.00mm. To accomplish this, Citizen had to make a bezel out of cermet, a composite of ceramic and metal. Despite the thinness, Citizen was able to advance its own Eco-Drive technology. The One can run up to 10 months on a single charge and is water resistant to 30 meters.

Citizen is, perhaps unsurprisingly, tight-lipped about how they accomplish the feats of the Eco-Drive One and their other watches. But earlier this year I was able to peek behind the curtain to glimpse their vast operation across Japan, which employs 20,000 people. There, the men and women behind Citizen’s dominance are evolving what a high-end timepiece can be.

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The Citizen Eco-Drive One, Limited Edition. Black crocodile strap. Limited to 800 pieces, $6,000. 38.15mm/2.98mm.

The Citizen Eco-Drive One, Limited Edition. Black crocodile strap. Limited to 800 pieces, $6,000. 38.15mm/2.98mm.


Citizen’s unique Satellite Wave technology keeps accurate time across all 40 standard UTC timezones. It takes 3 seconds to sync and lock with a satellite signal.

Citizen’s unique Satellite Wave technology keeps accurate time across all 40 standard UTC timezones. It takes 3 seconds to sync and lock with a satellite signal.


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February 17: Mr. Norio Takeuchi, Citizen Worldwide Watch Director and Brand Manager, gives a quick thumbs up after showing us the new Eco-Drive One.

Mr. Norio Takeuchi, Citizen worldwide watch director and brand manager, gives a quick thumbs-up after showing us the new Eco-Drive One on February 17.


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Left: A Citizen Pocketwatch from 1924; Right: 1960s Citizen Home Para Shock Phynox.

Left: A Citizen Pocketwatch from 1924. Right: 1960s Citizen Home Para Shock Phynox.


Left: 1960s stainless-steel, manual-wind Citizen Diamond Flake Parshock, 36mm; Right: 1980s Citizen Voice Memo

Left: 1960s stainless-steel, manual-wind Citizen Diamond Flake Parshock, 36mm. Right: 1980s Citizen Voice Memo.


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Citizen’s watch factory near Mt. Fuji.

Citizen’s watch factory near Mt. Fuji.


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A unique “printer” where the GPS and electrical components of watches like the Citizen F150 are printed onto a microchip board. Citizen, like many Japanese companies, makes every piece of their watches in house (including much of the equipment that helps assemble the watches). That includes the GPS units.

A unique “printer” where the GPS and electrical components of watches like the Citizen F150 are printed onto a microchip board. Citizen, like many Japanese companies, makes every piece of their watches in house (including much of the equipment that helps assemble the watches). That includes the GPS units.


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Citizen's watches are made using both human and robotic assembly. The factory is hushed and laboratory-like. Workers assemble in sync with robotic equipment.

Citizen’s watches are made using both human and robotic assembly. The factory is hushed and laboratory-like. Workers assemble in sync with robotic equipment.


A worker carefully arranges watch hands into organized stacks for easy assembly. This is a task still handled best by a human hand.

A worker carefully arranges watch hands into organized stacks for easy assembly. This is a task still handled best by a human hand.


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Citizen’s “Supermeister” -- a title held by only one person at Citizen who boasts 30 years of experience building Citizen’s top-end timepieces. She has been working at Citizen for 49 years.

Citizen’s “Supermeister” — a title held by only one person at Citizen who boasts 30 years of experience building Citizen’s top-end timepieces. She has been working at Citizen for 49 years.


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A mastery board that shows levels and accomplishments of Citizen’s best.

A mastery board that shows levels and accomplishments of Citizen’s best.


A mechanical Campanola powered by Citizen's own Swiss movement.

A mechanical Campanola powered by Citizen’s own Swiss movement.


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