The company was founded in 1881, when Kintarō Hattori opened a watch and jewelry shop called "K. Hattori" (服部時計店 Hattori Tokeiten) in the Ginza area of Tokyo, Japan. Eleven years later, in 1892, he began to produce clocks under the name Seikosha (精工舎 Seikōsha), meaning roughly "House of Exquisite Workmanship". According to Seiko's official company history, titled "A Journey In Time: The Remarkable Story of Seiko" (2003), Seiko is a Japanese word meaning "exquisite" or "success" ("exquisite" is usually written 精巧 from Chinese jīngqiǎo, while the meaning "success" is usually written 成功 from Chinese chénggōng).
The first watches produced under the Seiko brand appeared in 1924. In 1969, Seiko introduced the Astron, the world's first production quartz watch; when it was introduced, it cost the same as a medium-sized car. Seiko later went on to introduce the first quartz chronograph. In the late 1980s, Seiko produced the first Kinetic watch that combined the self-energizing attributes of an automatic watch with quartz accuracy. The watch is entirely powered by its movement in everyday wear.
In 1985, Orient and Seiko established a joint factory.
The company was incorporated (K. Hattori & Co., Ltd.) in 1917 and was renamed Hattori Seiko Co., Ltd. in 1983 and Seiko Corporation in 1990. After reconstructing and creating its operating subsidiaries (such as Seiko Watch Corporation and Seiko Clock Inc.), it became a holding company in 2001 and was renamed Seiko Holdings Corporation as of July 1, 2007.
Seiko is perhaps best known for its wristwatches, all of which were at one time produced entirely in-house. This includes not only major items such as microgears, motors, hands, crystal oscillators, batteries, sensors, LCDs but also minor items such as the oils used in lubricating the watches and the luminous compounds used on the hands and the dials. Seiko watches were originally produced by two different subsidiaries. One was Diani Seikosha Co.,(now known as Seiko Instruments Inc.), and the other was Suwa Seikosha Co.(now known as Seiko Epson Corporation). Having two companies both producing the same brand of watch enabled Seiko to improve technology through competition and hedge risk. It also reduced risk of production problems, since one company can increase production in the case of decreased production in the other party.
Currently watch movements are made in Shizukuishi, Iwate (SII Morioka Seiko Instruments), Ninohe, Iwate (SII Ninohe Tokei Kogyo), Shiojiri, Nagano (Seiko Epson) and their subsidiaries in China, Malaysia and Singapore. The fully integrated in-house production system is still practised for luxury watches in Japan.