The History of the Casio G-Shock, From Tough Tool Watch to Collectible Icon

The History of the Casio G-Shock, From Tough Tool Watch to Collectible Icon

Since its landmark release in 1983, the Casio G-Shock has represented perhaps the watch world’s purest expression of high technology blended with trendsetting style. With more than 40 years on the market, the original “world’s toughest watch” today can claim its own hardcore cadre of fans and collectors; its diverse collection spans digital, analog, and ana-digi models, boasts levels of cutting-edge technology that few watch brands can equal, and still offers timepieces at prices accessible to just about everyone. Here is the story of how the G-Shock began, how it rose from humble beginnings to become a pop cultural institution, and why it's now a model that many serious watch collectors have begun to embrace.

Foundations of Casio

Four Kashio Brothers

Like many successful businesses, the Casio Computer Company, based in Shibuya, Japan, traces its origins to a resourceful innovator and a niche product that met a heretofore unfilled consumer demand. Originally founded as Kashio Seisakujo in 1946, by a technical engineer named Tadao Kashio (pictured above with his younger brothers, and fellow founders, Toshio, Kazuo, and Yukio), the company’s breakthrough product was the yubiwa pipe, a finger-mounted, ring-shaped cigarette holder that allowed a smoker (of which there were many in Japan) to smoke the cigarette down to its nib without burning one’s fingers. In postwar Japan, cigarettes were a valuable commodity not to be wasted, or to be disposed of before consuming their entirety, so the yubiwa pipe was embraced by a large and enthusiastic public, putting Kashio’s manufacturing company on a road to profitability. 

Casio Calculator 1957

It was the profits from the clever smoking accessory that funded the company’s next venture, one that would prove instrumental to its future. While visiting the first Business Show in Tokyo’s Ginza in 1949, Tadao Kashio and his brothers glimpsed the first electronic calculators, new inventions that were meant to supersede the gear-driven, hand-cranked adding machines that were still in common usage. The brothers decided to develop their own calculating device driven by electromagnetic solenoids, which resulted in the first desk-sized, electro-mechanical calculator made in Japan, finished in 1954. The Casio Computer Company as we know it today (“Casio” being an Anglicized version of the founding family’s surname) was formed in 1957, with the launch of the model 14-A, the world’s first all-electric compact calculator (above). Electronic innovation proved to be Casio’s forté as the company forged into the latter half of the 20th Century, becoming famous for its musical keyboards, cameras, cash registers, portable computers, printers, and mobile phones as well as its personal calculators. Wristwatches, which were leaning increasingly into electronic and digital technology in the 1970s, became another product category into which Casio could bring its specialized expertise. 

The First Casio Watches

Casio F91W watch

The first Casio wristwatch, the Casiotron, came to the market in 1974, and right out of the gate, the Japanese company achieved something that no watchmaker had managed before: it was the first electronic wristwatch with an integrated calendar function that automatically adjusted for the lengths of longer and shorter months. Its digital numeral display, driven by a quartz movement, was reminiscent of those on the company’s calculators. The F100 model, the first watch with a case made of impact-resistant plastic resin, followed in 1978, and the now-legendary F-91W (above) — a stylistic sibling of the G-Shock and once the most sold watch in the world, at 3 million annual units — hit the market in 1989. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Casio created timepieces that engendered mass appeal, capturing the zeitgeist of the era with their combination of high-tech digital designs, user-friendly multifunctionality, and mass-market pricing. (Click here to learn more about some of Casio’s early watches and why they became classics in the modern era.) 

Kikuo Ibe, "Team Tough," and the First G-Shock

Kikuo Ibe, Father of G-Shock

As with the mechanical watches that had preceded them, electronic watches in the 1980s had one major Achilles heel in their construction: tiny electronic components (like the similarly minuscule gears and wheels in a traditional watch movement) were sensitive to shocks and impacts, meaning that a watch’s wearer had to be careful not to subject it to harsh treatment, or challenging environments. Solving this conundrum became the personal quest of a Casio engineer named Kikuo Ibe, today regarded as the Father of the G-Shock. It all started in 1982, when Ibe bumped into another pedestrian on the sidewalk and the collision caused the mechanical watch he was wearing, a prized gift from his father, to dislodge from Ibe’s wrist and fall to the pavement, becoming irreversibly damaged. The incident prompted Ibe, who had already  been working on prototypes for a shock-proof watch since 1981, to form “Team Tough,” a consortium of eight Casio engineers dedicated to the development of a watch that would be virtually unbreakable, tough and robust enough to withstand anything the modern world could throw at it.

The stated goal, according to Ibe, was the elusive “Triple Ten” — i.e., a watch that could withstand a fall from 10 meters, resisted water pressure to 10 bar (100 meters), and had a 10-year battery life. More than 200 prototypes were made and destroyed as part of the testing process. The “eureka” moment came when Ibe noticed a young girl bouncing a rubber ball at a playground, which sparked the idea of a “floating module” to protect the watch’s movement inside a shock-resistant rubber structure. Ibe and his team found creative and, in hindsight, amusing ways to test their prototypes: dropping them to the pavement from the upper-floor bathroom windows at Casio’s research and development center, and even running over them with cars.

G-Shock DW 5600 - 1983

In 1983, the intensive R&D bore fruit with the launch of the DW-5000C (above), which took its model name “G-Shock” from the “gravitational shock” that it was designed to withstand. Every aspect of the watch was designed with durability in mind: the movement floated within a hollow structure filled with gel, behind five protective layers, thus minimizing the effects of impacts on its functioning. The resin case was reinforced with a urethane bezel, which extended beyond the surface of the LCD-display crystal so it would absorb impacts and prevent the latter element from shattering. In fact, in some regards, the DW5000C exceeded the goals of the Triple Ten concept, with 200 meters (20 bar) of water resistance; the commercial models also easily survived the previously intimidating 10-meter drop.

G-Shock Style & Culture

Eminem wearing Casio G-Shock watchIt’s difficult to imagine how odd the Casio G-Shock must have seemed to watch enthusiasts at the time, even those who’d become familiar with digital timekeepers. Its “all black” aesthetic was unprecedented and eventually, impactful on the watchmaking industry at large, even at the upper levels of luxury. Its unconventional materials and squared case shape also raised eyebrows, along with its built-in toolbox of functions, which we take for granted in G-Shocks today but represented a pinnacle of technical achievement in the early ‘80s: stopwatch, countdown timer, 12/24-hour timekeeping mode, alarms and backlight. After a somewhat sluggish start on the market — In Japan, where it first launched, the public still preferred dressier watches, and might not have known what to make of  the G-Shock’s defiantly utilitarian, non-luxury look — the G-Shock took off in popularity, particularly in the United States. Its virtually indestructible construction appealed to young, active users eager for a watch they could wear while skateboarding or surfing, as well as to blue-collar professionals who wore their watches in extreme and potentially high-impact situations, like police officers, firefighters, athletic trainers and soldiers. G-Shocks even became a staple on the wrists of entertainers, like rapper Eminem (above), who collaborated with Casio on one of many G-Shock special editions. It helped that most G-Shocks, then as now, were eminently affordable: in the ‘80s, you could get one for around $50. 

G-Shock DW 5600

The most successful model of the first wave of G-Shocks to hit the U.S.A. was the DW-5200C, released in June 1984. (Its modern descendant, the DW5600, is pictured above.) Casio’s American department conceived the idea for a television commercial in which an ice hockey player uses the watch as a puck, taking a slapshot that knocked it into a goalie’s glove, after which it remained intact and functioning. This shocking display initially had a negative impact on the public, which couldn’t believe a watch could survive such punishment, and many accused Casio of false advertising. Afterward, a news outlet repeated the hockey-puck test under the same conditions and found that the watch did indeed survive the ordeal. 

Mudmen, Frogman, and a New Analog Era

G-Shock Mudman watch

By the middle of the decade, the G-Shock had become successful enough to spawn additional versions, which Casio would continue to equip with its latest breakthroughs in both electronic and materials technology. The DW-5500-C model, which dropped in 1985, acquired the nickname “Mudman” for its mud-resistant structure; eventually, Casio adopted the name for a line of watches that launched a decade later, in 1995. (A recent Mudman model is pictured above.) The first G-Shock Frogman model, the DW-6300, debuted in 1993, becoming the collection’s first ISO-certified divers’ watch. The Frogman and Mudman formed the foundation of a subfamily referred to by the brand today as “Master of G” — G-Shock models purpose-built for various outdoorsy situations and adventurous pursuits, most of them with memorable monikers ending in “Man” or “Master.” These include the Fisherman (1996), equipped with a tides graph and moon-phase; the Gaussman (1999), with an enhanced magnetic-field-resistant structure; the Rangeman (2013), with pressure, temperature, and direction sensors; and the Gravitymaster (2016), with GPS and hybrid time-reception technologies. 

G-Shock DW 9052

Another milestone for the G-Shock as a diverse and expanding product family came in 1989, with the debut of the AW-500 series. These models were not only the first G-Shocks with an analog-digital timekeeping display, as opposed to the all-digital display of the first several generations of the model, but also the first to exchange the hallmark blocky rectangular case for a more traditional round one. In 2012, perhaps in response to the increasing demand for even tougher and more multifunctional G-Shock watches by the military units that had grown to love them, Casio introduced the DW9052 series (example above), another round-cased watch with unapologetically massive dimensions (48.5mm in diameter), a robust and ergonomic design, and a slew of mission-ready digital functions that could be used by wearers even underwater; for many years, the DW9052 was standard-issue gear for many U.S. Navy divers. 

Full Metal and a Leap to Luxury

G-Shock MRG-100

Embraced as streetwear by fashion-conscious youths and adopted as a badge of cool by hip-hop artists and extreme-sports athletes, G-Shocks had become a part of the pop culture landscape as the 20th Century started giving way to the 21st. The next step, Casio reasoned, was to raise the profile of its groundbreaking timepiece among serious watch collectors and enthusiasts. The first “Full Metal” G-Shock, the MRG-100, landed in 1996, born from a mission by Ibe and his team to create a steel-cased watch that was just as shock-resistant as its groundbreaking rubber-cased predecessor. To achieve this feat, they adopted the concept of an automobile’s bumper to develop a metal bezel that was separated from the main case by a layer of shock-absorbent material, then added an airtight, L-shaped cushion between the bezel and the mineral crystal glass. The first MRG models were digital, like the first resin models from 1983; they were also expensive, more than five times the MSRP of a standard G-Shock. Nevertheless, the “Full Metal” G-Shock found a willing audience and has since become a mainstay of the overall G-Shock collection, its appeal to timepiece purists enhanced by the MRG’s evolution into an all-analog watch. Joining the MRG series in 1999 was the MTG, or “Metal Twisted” G-Shock models, noteworthy for the lightweight wearability and relative thinness of their composite cases, made from a “twisted”combination of metal, carbon, and glass fibers. Casio has subsequently produced editions of the “Full Metal” G-Shock in titanium and also in several proprietary alloys that the brand has developed, like the gleaming, super-hard Cobarion used for the samurai-armor-inspired bezel of the MR-G "Hana-Basara" model below; you can find some of the most exclusive and luxurious models on this list. 

G-Shock MR-G "Hana Basara"

In keeping with the Casio philosophy of continually pushing the envelope in technological advancements — a mission statement that the company has followed at least since the era of its first portable calculators — G-Shock watches have become the most cutting-edge electronic timepieces on the market in the 21st Century, with new innovations following in rapid succession. As early as 1998, with the DW-9300, Casio introduced solar charging capabilities (known as “Tough Solar”) into its G-Shock watches, a move that virtually eliminated the need for battery changes. In 2002 came the first G-Shocks that were designed to receive time signals from radio-controlled atomic clocks, making manual setting of the time a thing of the past. The most substantial development came in 2008: the so-called “Tough Movement,” the evolution of “Tough Solar,” which combined solar charging with “Multiband 6” radio-controlled timekeeping that can receive signals from six atomic timekeeping stations around the globe; it also features a “hybrid mount” construction that automatically corrects the time on the hands of analog models if an impact throws them out of alignment. In 2012, three years before the first Apple Watch, the G-Shock GB-6900 model boasted Bluetooth connectivity that enabled a user to pair the watch with a smartphone.

G-Shock CasiOaks

All of these technologies have since proliferated throughout many models in the vast G-Shock portfolio, including the so-called "Casioak" series of octagonal-cased ana-digi models (above, explored in much detail here), which acquired their nickname from their resemblance to the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, one of the icons of the Swiss luxury watch world, and which have gained a respectable audience among the watch collector community. Whether the focus is avant-garde technology, pop culture ubiquity, bold excursions into luxury and exclusivity, or a combination of any of these, G-Shock watches continue to represent, even for the most seasoned and jaded of enthusiasts, a richly creative niche of the watch industry that is impossible to ignore.

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