HAMURA, Japan — Casio’s G-Shock watch celebrated its 35th birthday last year. Since its introduction in 1983, the chunky, inexpensive and durable timepiece has been seen on the wrists of everyone from firefighters to pilots and from Eminem to Francis Ford Coppola.
A number of G-Shock models became collectibles, and entire watch forums are dedicated to the watch that doesn’t break when it’s dropped. (“Just buy one and you’ll see! It doesn’t end at just one!” and “You can boil it, freeze it, drop it off a building and run it over with a truck and it will last you” are just some of the posts.)
But what happens when a watch is 36?
“Thirty-five years was a turning point for us and we wanted to show how we evolved after the big celebration,” said Kazuto Ushiyama, 48, an engineer in the product planning department for timepieces at Casio. He was involved in the creation of the Gravitymaster model GWR-B1000X, the sleeker, lighter model of G-Shock that was scheduled to be introduced at Baselworld this week, priced at 120,000 Japanese yen.
“It’s a watch designed for pilots but of course anyone can wear it,” Mr. Ushiyama said. “It’s more about the aviation image, as pilots need to see the time quickly. This time we used carbon fiber for most parts. It’s cleaner, smaller, lighter. Less chunky than usual.”
For the first time, Casio used a carbon and resin shell-like structure, called a monocoque, for the watch’s case. As a result, the bezel doesn’t have features like the metal parts protecting the operating buttons that were on previous models.
“It weighs 72 grams as opposed to 120” — or a little more than 2.5 ounces compared with 4.2 ounces — Mr. Ushiyama said as he displayed the red and black timepiece (the concept colors of G-Shock). The watch had contrasting bronze screws, stripes adorning the side of the bezel and a smaller solar panel than previous models, which allowed the designers to use more carbon fiber on the face.
“Some people might think that G-Shock changed and is turning into something different, that it’s not a classic G-Shock anymore,” he said. “But I don’t want people to think that. It’s something we have considered carefully in order to advance G-Shock to next stage.”
“It’s not any weaker, it still has the same toughness, same resistance to shock, the same properties that we’ve been proud of.”
Last year, Casio shipped 9 million G-Shocks; it also produced timepieces like the Oceanus, primarily sold in Asia, and the outdoorsy Pro Trek but none of them sell as well as G-Shock. (The company employs about 12,000 people worldwide and, in addition to watches, produces calculators, digital pianos and electronic dictionaries.)
The G-Shock was the dream of its creator, Kikuo Ibe: a watch that never breaks. And to ensure every watch meets its standards, Casio has established a laboratory in the company’s research and development offices, located in the town of Hamura, just west of Tokyo, where each watch produced is put through as many as 183 tests.
“The goal is not to test over and over, but to make different tests and effective tests,” said Shohei Ogawa, from the company’s quality assurance department for timepieces. For example, a diving watch would have a pressure test but a standard timepiece would not.
At first sight, the lab looked a bit like a playground. And both Mr. Ogawa and his colleague Ryoji Abe were wearing the factory’s navy and red uniform jacket over their clothes, and yellow helmets bearing the G-Shock logo were at their disposal.
There is a sweat test: “We create a new batch of artificial sweat once a week,” said Mr. Ogawa, opening the bottle to offer a whiff (it didn’t smell like a gym locker; more like a chemical). In the hammer test, the watch was hit, went flying and was caught in a hockey-like net (the watch didn’t break).
The spinning test uses what looks like a D.J.’s turntable. There also is a microwave test (“this is not to heat up your bento,” Mr. Ogawa warned); a drop test that is enclosed in a cage (“because the watches bounce far”); a vibration test (“the sound is so loud that we get complaints from other staff in the building”). And, of course, the water pressure, water resistance and mud tests.
“Those are the flashy tests,” Mr. Abe said, “but there are less flashy ones that are even more important, so the customers feel safe” in trusting the brand. Only watches that pass the tests are shipped for sale.
Casio was established as Kashio Seisakujo in 1946 in Tokyo. Tadao Kashio, its founder, invented the yubiwa pipe, a ring-like cigarette holder that allowed users to smoke cigarettes all the way down to the filterless end — an important advance in postwar Japan when tobacco was especially costly.
Using the profits from that success, Mr. Kashio and his three brothers developed their own calculator, a desk-sized device at the time. Over the years, the company became Casio Computer Company Ltd. (adapted from their surname), and the products offerings expanded to musical keyboards and, eventually, digital watches — with the introduction of the G-Shock.
“When we entered the timepiece market in 1983 as a newcomer, we wanted to do something that analog watches couldn’t do,” said Yuichi Masuda, 64, senior executive managing officer and co-inventor of the G-Shock. “We wanted to make a watch that could be used anywhere and that wouldn’t break.”
Sales, however, were much more successful in the United States than in Japan, he said: “G-Shock was born in the U.S.A. It was sold at Walmart back then for — can you guess the price? $39.” (Walmart still sells G-Shocks; the average price is about $50, depending on discounts.)
In the 1990s the G-Shock designs expanded (it only came in black originally) and added colors, styles and materials as well as the Baby-G women’s line.
It became particularly popular in the early 1990s. “Young people viewed this thickness and ruggedness as fashionable,” Mr. Masuda said. “It’s not how we had planned it. We didn’t understand why so many people suddenly liked our watch.”
After 1997, however, the trend faded and Casio, left with overstock, had to come up with a different strategy. So it shifted to analog. The bold move (which created a backlash inside the company, Mr. Masuda said) came during a time when there were no smartphones, touch screens or much online communication, and digital devices were not as small as today.
“We combined that analog movement with a G-Shock shell, which gave us the ability to reach more users globally and to raise the price,” he said. Some intelligent analog, radio-controlled G-Shocks display the exact local time thanks to the signals they receive in different regions of the world, and some feature the atomic time technology, which means they self-adjust to new time zones.
With the analog shift came collaborations like those with the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, in 2010; Maison Martin Margiela, in 2013; the Japanese streetwear brand Bape, in September 2018, and most recently, the hip South Korean fashion house Ader Error.
“As an engineer, I still think of the G-Shock as a man’s watch,” Mr. Masuda said with a laugh. “Now people wear it as a fashion item, I never thought it would become like this.”
Casio’s next chapter, he said, is about smartwatches. “We can’t compete with Apple, so we will give smart functions to some of our G-Shock and advance them,” Mr. Masuda said. “Some people want the sleek design of Apple but they’re not rugged, and the screen is easily breakable. When they have to choose among smartwatches all featuring similar functions, customers pick a brand they like.”
Casio also is focused on strengthening its marketing in Southeast Asia, India and China. “There is room to grow the G-Shock brand in Asia,” Mr. Masuda said, adding that revived designs — like the recent metallic version of the classic black 1983 model — and collaborations also do well.
In February, Casio announced it would release an 18-karat gold G-Shock in a 35-piece limited edition, for 7,700,000 yen — about $69,000.
“It was Mr. Ibe’s dream to make an all-gold watch,” Mr. Masuda said. “I feel it doesn’t fit Casio’s philosophy, but we believe in all the work and technology we’ve worked on until now — and that’s what we want to keep doing.”