Innovation has always been at the core of Casio’s endeavours. From Tadao Kashio’s earliest electronic calculators through to today’s GPS- and Bluetooth-equipped watches, the Japanese brand is one step ahead. But there’s one particular Casio innovation that has resonated with the sneakersphere like no other. On the eve of G-SHOCK's 35th anniversary, with sales having just sailed past the 100 million mark, it’s time to take a look back at how a broken heirloom and one man’s vision produced the world’s first unbreakable watch.
As a young engineer in Casio’s watch department, Kikuo Ibe was aware that time was a precious commodity. His father had presented him with a valuable wristwatch, and he knew that using his time wisely would result in a lifetime of memorable minutes, hours and days. When the precious gift broke free of its buckle and shattered on impact, Kikuo Ibe was disconsolate. Yet the moment was an epiphany. Staring at the fragments on the floor, he realised something: the world needed an unbreakable watch. What he didn’t know then, of course, was that this was the jumping-off point for a revolution in timepiece technology.
Mr Ibe’s ambitious side project began as a solo assignment on top of an already heavy workload, but it quickly became a full-time obsession. He began by devising criteria for what he considered ‘absolute toughness’. Known as the ‘Triple 10’, the watch would have to withstand a drop from 10 metres, hold up under 10 atmospheres of water pressure and have a battery life of 10 years.
With approval from his superiors, Mr Ibe recruited a small crew that became known as Team Tough. Over two years, they threw more than 200 prototypes from the bathroom window on the third floor of Casio’s office. But no matter how much padding they used or which shock-absorbing material they chose, the delicate electronic modules never survived.
One day, Mr Ibe found himself sitting in a local park on the verge of abandoning the project. He was taking in the surrounding scenery when something unexpected caught his attention. A child was bouncing a ball on the hard ground. ‘Hmmm,’ thought Mr Ibe, ‘if the watch module was suspended inside a ball-like structure, maybe it would survive impact.’ It was the breakthrough moment he had been looking for.
The First G
After further experiments, the first G-SHOCK model hit the street – this time not literally – in 1983. The DW-5000 utilised Mr Ibe’s park-born inspiration by suspending the watch module inside a resin case. To protect the fragile parts inside the module itself, the same cushioning material was applied to specific points within the componentry. The resin case was designed with manifold protrusions that would protect the buttons and screen from any angle.
The original G-SHOCK was quickly adopted by anyone needing a tough watch to cope with a tough job. Military and emergency personnel, construction workers, miners and outdoors types all gravitated to the new Japanese brand. Encouraged by the success, Casio saw an opportunity to create even more specialised versions. These days it isn’t unusual for G-SHOCK to release 200 watches in a year, but back in the 80s, it took Mr Ibe two more years to perfect the rounded DW-5400 and dust-proof DW-5500. Four years after that, the first analogue G-SHOCK appeared.
Despite bold new watch designs and updated capabilities, the classic DW-5000 remained in high demand. After vanishing from the lineup for several seasons, the traditional square-bodied design was relaunched in 1987. In keeping with Casio tradition, new releases were given a numerically ascending product code, so the revamped DW-5000 was christened the DW-5600.
Every aspect of a G-SHOCK’s shape plays a role in protecting it from impact. We've never designed watches to simply look tough, we design for ultimate protection. – Mr Moriai, G-SHOCK Designer
In the early 90s, G-SHOCKs got bigger and bulkier as product engineers pushed into every conceivable heavy-duty scenario. Watches tuned for extreme cold weather and deep-sea diving arrived, along with solar-power capability and altitude sensors. The offering was expanding quickly and G-SHOCKs were suddenly available in a multitude of shapes, colours and sizes.
Despite the increasing tech demands of consumers, the purity of the original shape maintained the DW-5600’s relevance. When Keanu Reeves’ character wore the watch in 1994’s blockbuster Speed, a whole new audience was turned on to the utilitarian time-teller. The first high-vis resin case arrived with the DW-5600C-9B, while the famous bumper-bar protective grills arrived in 1996. Three years later, cloth straps were introduced, followed shortly after by the use of metal bands. Rather than being pensioned off as an obsolete curiosity, the DW-5600 was suddenly the staging-ground for innovation once again.
One of 1996’s breakout releases was the MR-G, the first all-metal G-SHOCK. As impressive as the resin cases were for shock absorption, demand for a more formal and elegant version of the unbreakable timepiece was brewing. Unlike the standard urethane case material, which has inherent shock-absorbing properties, the metal case required an entire redesign. Thanks to Mr Ibe’s uncompromising vision, the 90s G-team was able to devise an all-directional system that prevented any part of the internal timepiece from coming in contact with the case.
The DW-5600 has been a staple in G-SHOCK’s offering for decades, but the design is much more than just a watch; it’s symbolic of the ‘absolute toughness’ mentality perfected by Casio. And it’s surprisingly played a pioneering role in developing sneaker culture today.
Balance between each component is an important part of the design. The aspect ratio of bezel and LCD display, font, engraving and even the connection between case and band – everything has to be balanced. If we lose synchronicity, suddenly G-SHOCK loses its beauty. We call it the golden balance of 5600, it is a very delicate procedure. – Mr Moriai, G-SHOCK Designer
When G-SHOCK joined forces with Stüssy and BAPE in the early 90s, they were one of the first brands to embrace the idea of collaborative design. The nostalgic and cyclical nature of fashion has inspired many brands to favour the old-school shape of the DW-5600, ensuring the squared-off bezel has stayed in the spotlight.
G-SHOCK’s history of product collaboration dates all the way back to the mid 1990s, predating the sneaker industry’s obsession with colabs by several years. Recent G-alumni in the streetwear world includes the likes of Alife, Supra, CLOT, Undefeated, Medicom and DGK, with Parra, atmos and Ta-Ku all favouring the DW-5600 as their collaborative model of choice.
When you break down the DW-5600’s legendary status, the most comparable sneaker that comes to mind is the Converse All Star. Classic, simple and totally timeless, the DW-5600 is a graceful design that will never go out of style.
In 2015, all eyes were on G-SHOCK when Mr Ibe unveiled his dream project. The solid 18-karat gold GW-5600 was intended as an exhibition piece, but it’s a true G-SHOCK by every measure, including its reengineered shock-absorbing structure. Considering the production cost was rumoured to be $120,000, it’s not likely anyone will ever test this model’s ability to bounce from a height of 10 metres.
Dreams of heavy-metal DW-5600s have been rekindled this year with the release of the GMW-B5000.The latest evolution takes the model to a whole new dimension.
In honour of the DW-5600, the new Full Metal series is an inspired choice as the headliner of G-SHOCK’s 35th anniversary. In addition to standard shock resistance and 200-metre waterproof capability, the series is loaded with the best in G-Tech. Bluetooth takes care of mobile connectivity, while Multi-Band 6, Tough Solar, world time-sync, five different alarms and the Super Illuminator LED make for an impressive suite of tech credentials.
Available in ion-plated gold or stainless silver, both models feature the solid screw-back, which takes the weight to a chunky 170 grams. In collaboration with Japanese luggage-maker Yoshida & Co, an all-black edition will reportedly retail for $1200, so get ready to flex the Amex!
– Originally published in Sneaker Freaker Issue 40