Why Everyone Loves the Casio G-SHOCK

Black Casio G-SHOCK
Image credit: dusan jovic on Unsplash

In 1981, a designer at Casio named Kikuo Ibe secretly went about creating a new kind of timepiece. His motivation was personal. He had recently been heartbroken when a pocket watch given to him by his father shattered when he accidentally dropped it. Ibe’s response was to set about designing a watch that would be all but indestructible. In time, his personal loss would prove to be the world’s gain.

In order to create his unbreakable watch, Ibe assembled a three-person squad called ‘Team Tough’. It was clear from the outset that a watch capable of withstanding the kind of punishment they had in mind would likely need to be quite bulky. Since the fashion at the time was for very slim timepieces, Ibe and his team decided to operate in secret at first — out of a restroom in Casio’s research and development building, to be specific. 

Team Tough was working toward what they referred to as the ‘triple ten’ concept: A watch that could survive a 10-meter drop, withstand 10-bar (100m) water pressure, and have a minimum 10-year battery life. They worked on their new watch for two years, creating more than two hundred prototypes which they subjected to rigorous testing. It was hard, thankless work, not least because they weren’t seeing the results they had hoped for. 

It wasn’t until Ibe happened to see a girl bouncing a rubber ball in a park that inspiration struck. He realised that the centre of a ball isn’t subject to the same forces that act on its surface, which led to the creation of the Team Tough’s revolutionary ‘floating module’, an innovative structure that suspended the watch’s timekeeping core inside soft gel cushioning within the larger case. This provided the shock protection needed without the bulk of excess padding. Additionally, just about every external part of the watch would further guard against unwanted force and impact, including the case and bezel, which would be made from urethane and designed to protrude at strategic points. Even the strap was purposefully bent in such a way that it couldn’t lie flat, thereby making it impossible to drop the watch on its back.

Thus, in 1983, the first G-SHOCK was born. The ‘G’ in the title refers to the force of gravity — the reason for Ibe’s loss of his father’s watch and the main obstacle his team sought to overcome with their new design. The first model was the DW-5000C and was brought to market in April 1983. This original G-SHOCK established many of the features that are still integral to models in the series, including a stopwatch, countdown timer, alarm, 12/24 hour mode, and light.

4 Casio G-SHOCK watches
Several G-SHOCKS from the 5000 range
Image credit: Peng Productions® on Unsplash

More importantly, it also changed our notion of what watches could be. Far from being a fragile piece of jewellery, this was a hard-wearing tool that could take a serious beating and keep on going. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the novelty of this proposition at the time, it took a while for the G-SHOCK to catch on. In fact, it sold so poorly at first that there was some talk of discontinuing the line altogether. It wasn’t until the release of the DW-5200 in 1984 —alongside a popular English-language ad that saw the watch being knocked about like a hockey puck — that the G-SHOCK took off.

Having found its niche, many versions of the 5000 line followed, although these proved to be just the beginning. Far from resting on their laurels, the G-SHOCK team set about creating further tweaks and improvements that would result in a truly staggering output. Since its initial release, hundreds of new G-SHOCK models across several lines have been brought to market every year (the most ever being 221 in 1998 alone) with more than 100 million total units shipped worldwide.

Some of the landmark additions over the years have included the first analogue/digital model, the AW-500, appearing in 1989; their first true dive watch, the Frogman DW-6300, released in 1993, and, beginning the next year, the smaller Baby-G line for women, which kicked off with the DW-520. The number of technical innovations included in different models over the decades is jaw-dropping: solar power, radio-synced time calibration, temperature and pressure sensors, tide and moon graphs, depth gauges, Bluetooth capability, GPS navigation, heart rate monitors, and more. 

Given this seemingly endless capacity for innovation, their prolific output, and the enticing variety of models on offer, the G-SHOCK seemed destined for the mass market, and, beginning in the 1990s, that’s exactly what happened. The brand started gaining mainstream success, largely thanks to a growing streetwear following. In response, Casio cannily began pairing up with popular clothing and lifestyle brands to release a range of limited edition collaborations. It’s a tradition that has continued at a prolific clip ever since and one that has helped to cement the brand within the world of fashion.

Black Casio G-SHOCK watch on a wrist
Image credit: Peng Productions® on Unsplash

All of this has meant that there’s a G-SHOCK out there for seemingly every type of person. In fact, the brand enjoys one of the most eclectic bands of followers in the watch world. It’s worn by fashion obsessives and clueless dads alike, ditto Navy SEALS and first responders, athletes and tech nerds, music superstars and menswear bloggers. In fact, G-SHOCK fans range from the most hardcore horologists down to kids who have never worn a wristwatch before, with all of them finding the same delight in their watch’s fun, spy gadget-like abilities.

Such popularity is all the more impressive when you consider that the average G-SHOCK isn’t exactly…pretty. Nevertheless, the beautiful people have worn these watches in droves, including John Mayer, Benicio del Toro, Spike Lee, Chris Martin, as well as what feels like just about every hip-hop artist and action movie star of the last thirty years. There is also my personal favourite G-SHOCK loyalist, Eric Spoelstra, the head coach of the Miami Heat basketball team, who never shows up to a game without his trusty GA100-1A1.

When I started getting into watches in earnest, the first watch I bought was a G-SHOCK. I went with a model from the original 5000 line (the GW-M5610-1ER, in particular) since I was drawn in by Kikuo Ibe’s origin story the moment I heard it. Helpfully, it also flies under the radar in a way that a lot of other G-SHOCK models don’t owing to its relatively small build and muted colour palette. Nevertheless, it still has all of the G-SHOCK bells and whistles you could want, plus bold, Blade Runner-esque ’80s futurist styling that has come to feel timeless in its own way, I think, because — like so many pieces of great design — it was born from pure utility. In other words, while it might seem a little busy and over-engineered at first glance, spend some time with it and you’ll discover that every element and angle is essential to the watch’s functioning. I still haven’t gotten tired of looking at it. I’ve also failed to fully wrap my mind around the fact that, in addition to its compelling looks, it’s a watch that charges itself using only sunlight and somehow sets the precise time automatically based on just my location…and magic, I can only assume.

Besides, it’s been gratifying to find that I’m not the only one moved by its mysterious powers. Whenever someone who doesn’t already know about G-SHOCKS has asked me about it, I’ve gotten to see their perception of it change in real time as it transforms from being just another digital watch into something altogether more wonderful. It’s a bit like the sense of wonder I’ve described before in discovering mechanical watches for the first time, but with a quartz watch that is, in most cases, a fraction of the price. 

Casio GW-M5610-1ER G-SHOCK watch on a wrist
My own GW-M5610-1ER G-SHOCK
Image is my own / All rights reserved

It’s this ability to transform from the most unremarkable, everyday kind of object into something that lights up a person’s eyes in amazement that I enjoy most about watches in general and my G-SHOCK in particular. It’s also why it’s become my go-to watch whenever I’m dressed down on a summer’s day, heading out for a hike, or just lounging around the house. If it weren’t for the fact that doing so would give off serious Bill-Clinton-wearing-an-Ironman vibes, I would probably just wear it with everything. 

The G-SHOCK is still every bit the engineering marvel it was forty years ago and its continued commitment to a founding premise of quality and resilience has made it one of the most trusted names in watchmaking. Moreover, its popularity has deservedly transformed the G-SHOCK from being a mere watch into something perhaps more accurately described as a cultural phenomenon. 

Luckily, despite all the hype, it still does everything a mere watch does too. That, and so much more.