How must it feel to walk onto any subway carriage in the world and be confident that somebody on that train will be wearing something you invented 35 years’ ago? This is the reality of everyday life for Kikuo Ibe, the man who created Casio’s G-Shock in 1983; a watch that has gone on to sell over 100 million units. Mr Ibe has been on a world tour to celebrate the anniversary of his creation, and WatchPro caught up with him for a chat when he touched down in London last month.
Kikuo Ibe is an unassuming man when you meet him. Flanked by Casio executives who help with translation for our interview, he is diminutive and soft-spoken. He had a health scare earlier this year that forced him to cancel the United States leg of his world tour to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the G-Shock, so perhaps that explains why he wasn’t punching the air at the success of his creation.
Mr Ibe was a mid-level engineer at Casio in 1983 when his prototypes of a new style of rugged timepiece were considered ready to take to market. The Japanese were on a roll with their mastery of quartz watches, and Casio wanted to make models that would be virtually indestructible. The first G-Shock (an abbreviation of gravitational shock) was designed to survive a 10 meter fall onto a solid floor and would keep working underwater.
The DW-5000C was not a fashion watch as we think of G-Shocks today, it was a professional watch for people in physical jobs in construction, manufacturing and emergency services. “When we first developed G-Shock, it was designed for workmen in tough jobs like policemen, firemen and so on. But nowadays G-Shock is accepted by fashionable people, clubbers, young people. The customer base is much broader, which is completely different to 35 years ago,” Mr Ibe describes.
It is remarkable to see how the design of the original DW-5000C has stood up over time. Versions very similar to the 200m water resistant digital watch showing the time alongside functions for date, stopwatch and alarm clock are still being sold in their thousands today.
What has changed is the breadth of the G-Shock portfolio. For many people their first serious timepiece as a Baby-G; not so much a toddler’s watch as a teenager’s that came in bright colors. Casio calls the Baby-G a ladies’ line, but I distinctly remember my son wearing one as a youngster.
Today there are myriad G-Shock families; so many it is hard for retailers to keep track, and harder still to stock an entire portfolio that starts with £100 digital watches and tops out at highly complex Mr-G models costing north of £5000. “Once we started broadening G-Shock from being a tough watch for professionals, we wanted to make it appeal to a wide audience. We wanted young people to fall in love with the brand and then stay with G-Shock through their lives,” Mr Ibe answers when we ask why the range has become so unwieldy. “When our customers get older, they might want metal watches, and that is why we have a wide range of products at different prices. People should grow up with the brand,” he adds.
He does hint that the sheer number of different models is becoming too much, particularly for retail partners that want less money and shelf space tied up in stock for a single brand. “The base toughness is what most of our customers want, but we have produced sub-brands for specific types of G-Shock customers. That might be ladies, children, fashionable people, sporty, etc. If that is becoming confusing to the consumer then we may need to look at simplifying the sub brands in the future,” Mr Ibe concedes.
G-Shock today has several sub-brands, but it is difficult to say which is a collection, a marketing slogan, an individual watch name or a completely separate concept like Casio’s Edifice line. There’s G-Shock, Mr-G, Gravitymaster, Mudmaster, Gulfmaster, Rangeman, G-Squad, G’Mix, Standard Digital, Standard Analog Digital, G-Lide, and Bluetooth Connected watches. That is before we get started on watches for ladies and for children.
They can also be grouped by the way the watches should be used under the categories of Mud, Sea and Sky. The watches are all tough, and it is hard to discern whether any are particularly resistant to earth, water or altitude. I think they all cope with everything, so it is understandable that Mr Ibe is open to the suggestion that the line-up could be trimmed a little.
Beyond a potential re-organisation in the short term, Casio and Mr Ibe are thinking much longer term for the evolution of G-Shock. Asked what the watches might look like in another 35 years, and how they might be sold, the enigmatic inventor breaks into a laugh for the first time. “In 35 years, technology is going to have moved along dramatically. Maybe everybody will be able to easily go into space,” he muses. “Currently G-Shock is designed for every environment here on the earth: land, sea, air. Next is going to be space. Compared to the earth, space is a much tougher environment, so it will be more difficult to design a watch for space. I dream that we will see G-Shock in space, not just for people from this planet but also aliens from other planets. Perhaps the next frontier of G-Shock retail stores will be G-Shock shops in space.”
Are you joking? WatchPro asks. “This is just an idea at this stage. We cannot imagine how tough it will be, but we are dreaming,” Mr Ibe replies.