There’s a lot of conventional wisdom in the watch world. How many times have we all heard things like “Rolex Daytonas? In the 70s you couldn’t give them away!” Or, “The Swatch saved Swiss watchmaking.” These ideas permeate watch culture because in an enthusiast community, frankly, there’s not a lot of daylight between how we all feel about these things. We love watches, we share stories and very often opinions as well.
One trope that I’ve heard a lot in recent years is the idea of Grand Seiko as a great undiscovered watch brand. Oh, if only you were in the game years ago when only 4 American watch nerds knew who they were!
The secret has been out for awhile. While Grand Seiko isn’t “everywhere” here in the US, it’s not as exotic as it once was. They have definitely been discovered, and where in the past it may have been the the go-to brand if you needed something stealthy that was incredibly nice but under the radar to the point that nobody else would have heard of it, let alone own it, well, that’s just not the case any longer.
Sometimes when the reach of a brand grows, the quality suffers. Less money is poured into design, and more into marketing, and things start to get stale. Grand Seiko seems to have avoided this pitfall, at least for now, as evidenced by their slate of releases over the last 2 years since being spun off as a distinct business apart from their Seiko lineage
The Grand Seiko SBGJ203 is a hi-beat GMT with an independently set local hours hand, and it’s probably, in terms of pride of ownership, my favorite watch. I had always been told that you have to see a Grand Seiko in person to appreciate the level of quality that goes into each and every aspect of the watch (this is another one of those common watch community tropes, and it happens to be true). The first time I held this watch, I was dumbstruck. The finishing isn’t just up to a high standard, it’s done in a way that is unique to Grand Seiko.
The polishing for one. Take this watch and lay it down on top of a newspaper, and the text is reflected back in the mid-case without any distortion and perfectly clearly. Look at the hands through a good loupe. They are so sharp they are suitable for surgery (if in the hands of a very tiny surgeon, of course). The hour markers. Again, through a loupe they have detail that is impossible to see with the naked eye, and you wonder to yourself how a human being created this.
These little details, and the way that the artisans who work at Grand Seiko create them, are really unlike anything else I’ve encountered in watches. And I think the reason for that is that there’s something uniquely Japanese about these things and the way that they’re made.
And then there’s the dial. In the Grand Seiko vernacular this is known as the Mt. Iwate dial. Mine, as you see here, is black, but there’s another variant in white with largely the same effect. It’s not exactly a sunburst dial, but there are these radiating ridges coming from the center of the watch, meant to reflect the expanse of Mt. Iwate, visible from the workshop where these watches are made. It’s simply not possible for me, as an amateur photographer, to capture the effect accurately. But when you see it for yourself in the right light, it is quite mesmerizing.
The whole presentation leaves you with the impression of a great omakase in one of the world’s fine sushi restaurants. There’s a craft to the laborious and exacting process of making this watch, just as there is in presenting perfect cuts of fish. The accumulated knowledge from years of study and hard work is present in the finished product and there’s a great level of care that’s put into these things. Yes, there’s technical precision, but there’s also an emotional and cultural transference in these objects that I just don’t experience in Swiss timepieces (even ones that I love) that are in a similar relative price range.
I do have a criticism of this watch, and it’s the same criticism I have of the many wonderful entry level Seiko dive watches I’ve owned over the years: the bracelet. It’s not a great bracelet. Let me put it another way – it’s not a bracelet that matches the extremely high quality of the rest of the watch. Good thing a less than stellar bracelet is literally the easiest thing to fix on a watch – you simply remove it, and add a strap of your choice. I had a few custom crocodile straps made for me and I think it further elevates the handmade charm of the watch.
Sometimes when I wear this thing I think to myself that I could very easily and happily collect Grand Seiko exclusively for the rest of my watch collecting life. There are so many interesting levels to this brand – the different movement types (and the incredibly rare and highly regulated versions of each movement), the heritage case shapes, the special editions and their funky dials. I never get as excited for a new release announcement as I do for those from Grand Seiko, because I know it will be something that is interesting, even if it isn’t exactly my cup of tea.
This watch has the dimensions and heft of sports watch, and it’s water resistant to 100 meters, so feel free to wash the dishes with it strapped to your wrist. But the extremely elaborate finishing, particularly the zaratsu polishing on the case, propel and accentuate the formality of the piece. It’s thickness, though, is not that of a discreet dress watch. What we’re left with then is a substantial piece with a lot of presence. It’s flashy, and it will be noticed, just as if you were walking down Main Street with a traditional samurai sword on your back, you’ll be spotted with this thing, and I think that’s the desired effect. It’s not a tool, it’s an ornament, and a beautiful one.
A bit about the hi-beat GMT movement: those who are familiar with the GMT function of the newest iteration of the Rolex GMT Master II will be familiar the Grand Seiko’s independently set hour hand. This isn’t just a more useful way to make a GMT watch (being able to quickly adjust local time when, for example, stepping off a plane without stopping the watch’s movement), it’s makes for easier resetting of the watch on those rare occasions when you put it down long enough that the power reserve stops running. It’s also amazingly accurate, and in my very unscientific tests it gains maybe a second or two every 2-3 days. The sweep of second hand is noticeably smoother than a typical mechanical watch thanks to the high frequency movement, nearly resembling the perfectly smooth arc of the Spring Drive movement.
In my personal “journey” of watch collecting, picking up my first Grand Seiko was a significant experience. I feel like I immediately downloaded a ton of information on value for money, the nature of Swiss versus Japanese watchmaking, and what qualities really make a watch valuable to me. Grand Seiko might no longer be under the radar, but they are definitely still doing things that other brands don’t, and that holds a lot of appeal.