The History of Casio Watches

Casio dive watch
Image credit: dz on Unsplash

Casio is admittedly something of an odd case study for a menswear site. For one thing, they make watches rather than clothing, and by and large those watches have an ostensibly niche appeal. Moreover, watchmaking is just one part of an otherwise sprawling and multifaceted business empire. You’re as likely to find ‘Casio’ printed on a calculator or keyboard as you are a wristwatch, not to mention a slew of other electronic products including digital cameras, mobile phones, gaming consoles, and tills (or cash registers, depending on which part of the world you’re conducting said bit of technological sleuthing).

While all of this makes Casio a somewhat unusual proposition in menswear, these selfsame features make it a paragon of Japanese business in the latter part of the 20th century and beyond, the landscape of which is largely defined by labyrinthine conglomerates boasting a laundry lists of diversified operations. Casio was founded well before this became the norm, however, back in 1946 in Mitaka, Tokyo by Kashio Seisakujo, who started out making mechanical parts. Among his early products was a so-called yubiwa pipe, a metal ring worn on the hand intended to suspend a cigarette while smoking. Since tobacco, like so many commodities, was in short supply in postwar Japan, cigarettes were typically smoked right down to the nub and Casio’s early innovation helped save smokers’ fingers and lips from getting burnt in the process.

Pretty soon, though, Kashio was joined in the business by his brothers who had expertise in electronics and so operations pivoted in the direction that remains the company’s bread and butter today. Their first foray into consumer electronics was with calculators, which they began producing as early as 1949, although their groundbreaking all-electronic models first arrived in the 1950s.

It was only in the 1970s that Casio got into watchmaking. It proved a canny move as the incumbent watch world was in crisis at the time. A new generation of quartz-driven watches created by Japanese companies — Casio among them — was laying waste to the watchmaking establishment. Since Casio had spent nearly three decades developing calculators and computers, they were able to maximise the electronics infrastructure they had already built for the new purpose of making digital watches. Moreover, Casio was by this time well-known as a maker of advanced electronic instruments in Japan and increasingly on a global stage. Making a novel kind of digital watch would, therefore, have seemed like a natural next step, meaning they weren’t faced with the same market barriers that other watchmaking upstarts were up against.

Casio CASIOTRON digital watch
Casio’s first watch, the futuristic CASIOTRON
Image credit: Deutsches Uhrenmuseum / CC BY-SA

Casio’s first electronic watch came to market in 1974 with the CASIOTRON, a groundbreaking quartz watch with an appropriately futuristic title. The CASIOTRON boasted a digital display showing hours, minutes, and seconds, in addition to an entirely original feature: a fully automatic calendar function. If all of that seems quaint by contemporary standards, it was positively space-age at the time and the CASIOTRON duly sold like hotcakes.

Inevitably, however, the novelty of quartz watches waned eventually and Casio and its fellow Japanese manufacturers had to regroup. Luckily, quartz watches could be produced far more cheaply than their mechanical counterparts, so they could still compete on price. Moreover, the technology allowed for any number of advancements to be gained by an enterprising R&D team such as Casio’s.

Accordingly, the brand continued to develop an impressive roster of innovative, affordable, and long-lived models, including the dirt-cheap F-91W and its metal counterpart, the A168W-1. There’s also the Databank calculator watch, the globetrotting AE1200WH-1A World Timer, the normcore analogue MQ24-7B, a slew of G-SHOCKs (which I have already thoroughly rhapsodised, in addition to many other cult favourites.

Hidden among all those uninspiring serial numbers and all-too-familiar facades is the kind of brand appeal that has been quitely working its way into the hearts of consumers for four decades. Casios are often someone’s first watch — they certainly were one of mine, in the form of a colourful BABY-G women’s G-SHOCK, to be precise — making them inescapably memorable and permanently tinted in a welcome glow of nostalgia. They also remain unbeatably cheap and still have a kind of retro-futurist novelty to them. Mostly, though, these are watches that have basically just stuck around long enough to become icons. They might not always be cool in the strictest sense, but they remain consistently desirable and, to those who own them, dearly beloved.

And who, exactly, are the people who wear Casio watches, you might ask? If film and television are anything to go by, they are all either everyman protagonists, lovable eccentrics, cool ’80s teens, or red-blooded action stars. An incongruous grouping of fictional types, to be sure, but also surprisingly instructive when considering their real-life counterparts.

The fact is, Casios are worn by people who have just gotten into watches or and those who have been collecting them for years. You see them on the arm of the guy who only ever wears one watch that he bought because it was the cheapest he could find and on the trend hopper scouring the secondary market in search of the latest limited release. They’re wrapped around the wrists of kids and grandparents, the fashionable and the clueless, hypebeasts and hipsters, ardent outdoorspeople and vitamin D-deficient bookcore adherents. In fact, just about the only thing these people have in common is likely to be the logo printed on the face of their favourite watch. 

It’s this crossover quality and peon appeal that has kept a Casio by my side even as nearly every other part of my wardrobe has changed over the decades. This, combined with their price, aethetic, and nostlaic appeal, will no doubt keep one — or, more likely, many — there for decades to come.