The first thing people think of when presented with Grand Seiko is the association with Seiko watches, carried by any number of department stores for a few hundred dollars.
Seiko are quite good for their price point, even if there is nothing inherently special about them.
The popular brand specializes in manufacturing high quality, inexpensive timepieces that might not be haute horology, but have nevertheless made a lasting impression on the world of watches.
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Seiko vs. Grand Seiko
Grand Seiko, and its truly special take on watch making, might share part of their name with the larger Seiko brand, but that is where the similarity ends.
The objective of this article is to take away any of your preconceived notions of the Grand Seiko brand. Doing so opens the door for you to explore and experience the world of Grand Seiko.
It might even get you to take that Rolex off your grail list and replace it with a Grand Seiko Spring Drive.
A Brief History of Grand Seiko
Seiko was founded 1881 in Ginza, Tokyo, Japan, and holds the distinction of being one of the only manufactures in the world capable of manufacturing every single component inside their watches.
Founded in 1960, Grand Seiko was conceived as a part of the overall product catalog of Seiko. Its express purpose was to give the best of Japanese watch making to the world, to demonstrate not only the Swiss could create accurate and beautiful watches.
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Seiko and Grand Seiko strove to make their watches as accurate and beautiful as possible. After having won every chronometer trial in Japan, they sought out more challenging waters from which they could refine their technical capacities and movement performance.
In 1964 The Swiss Observatory Chronometer Trials allowed Seiko to participate in their renowned competition.
Seiko’s performance in these trials improved every year they participated, eventually culminating in Seiko being awarded the prize for best mechanical watch in 1968.
The Swiss canceled this competition after 1968, leading many to speculate that they knew the writing on the wall: they could not allow Seiko to continue to outshine their watches.
Due to this, the Swiss rebooted this competition in 2009 with the stipulation only watches with parts made in Europe were allowed to enter in the new competition. Seiko and Grand Seiko seem to have left a mark on the Swiss watchmaking psyche.
Using the experience gained in the Chronometer Trials, Grand Seiko was able to refine their manufacturing and technical capabilities in a way that allowed them to step out as a refined and technically proficient watch maker.
One of the first innovations to come from the Chronometer Trials was a movement that operated and amazing beat rate of 10 beats per second; resulting in a plus/minus 2 seconds a day, or one minute a month, accuracy, a feat unheard of at the time for a mass-produced mechanical watch.
In 1969, Seiko created the first quartz watch, the Astron, ushering in the “Quartz Crisis” for the mechanical watch industry.
Grand Seiko created their first quartz watch in 1988, the 95GS, with a stated accuracy of plus-or-minus 10 seconds a year – something most quartz watches couldn’t dream of achieving at the time, and many still can’t dream of achieving now.
1977 brought with it new developments: a young Seiko engineer named Yoshikazu Akahane decided achieving the precision of second-a-day accuracy was possible with a traditional mainspring driven watch.
It took this engineer over 600 prototypes and 20 years to prove he was right, but the culmination of his work was a mechanical watch that performed like no other mechanical watch available.
Spring Drive, as the movement was called, mixed a conventional watch mainspring with an electronically driven regulator.
The smooth, graceful sweep of the second hand is akin to watching the transit of planets through space and time, there is no “ticking” of the movement, no small bumping of the second hand, just a smooth continuous sweep.
Grand Seiko released their first Spring Drive model in 2004 and Spring Drive is the first thing most who know Grand Seiko think of when they hear the name.
In 2017, Grand Seiko split from the Seiko name and became its own stand-alone brand. It immediately set out to take on the established view of what a luxury watch is, and where it could be designed and manufactured.
Their use of Zaratsu polishing, a highly specialized technique that takes years to master, gives each polished part of the watch a flawless and uniform surface. Grand Seiko is the only manufacturer which uses this polishing technique at this scale of production.
Grand Seiko watches would be best described as perfectly Japanese in every aspect of their design. Form and function are held to the same standards, not one standard over the other.
Grand Seiko vs. Rolex and Omega
There is something very different between the details of a Rolex or Omega and the details of a Grand Seiko, and none are better than the other.
Having owned both Omega and Rolex, I have nothing but respect for them, but my Grand Seiko does watchmaking so differently that I found it impossible not to be taken with their brand.
It’s All About the Details
The first thing I notice when inspecting a Grand Seiko is the surfaces. They blend together in a way that directly reflects Grand Seiko’s commitment to “purity, simplicity and practicality”.
Everything on a Grand Seiko has a function; The hands are designed and manufactured for easy time telling at a glance, while perfectly blending with the rest of the watch.
The case, any of their watch cases, whether it is one of their Elegance Collection pieces or the hulking dive watches they make, is designed and manufactured in a nearly flawless way.
My personal SBGV245’s case bottom is slightly curved to fit my wrist, something noticeable when using my hands in dynamic ways. So many watches do not have this, and they suffer in comfort as a result.
The index’s on the dial are hand polished and do not detract from the effect of the dial or from easily reading the time. For those models with a date, it is placed tastefully, and is of sufficient size, to be read at a glance.
The second hand, on many of their models, is not just a flat or angular, but carefully sculpted to be round at its point.
That dial, though…
The dials are something to be experienced, as words fall short of describing their true qualities. One of the first models I became familiar with when researching Grand Seiko is the SBGA211, or the “Snowflake”.
It is often referenced as the perfect example of a Grand Seiko dial, mimicking the look of wind driven snow on a winter day. In person the dial is even more unbelievable, with each individual detail jumping out at the wearer.
In my experience the “Snowflake” is not alone in having this quality, as every Grand Seiko I have seen blows me away with the quality, design and precision of the dial.
Grand Seiko Bracelets
A criticism I hear more often than not, is that while Grand Seiko makes superb watches, the bracelet designs they have are not at the same level as the watch head. I have mixed feelings about their bracelets.
While I love the looks and the feel of Grand Seiko bracelets, many lack the micro-adjustable clasp that are found on many other watch brands.
For those of us who like to wear their watches on the bracelets through all types of weather and temperatures, this can reduce wearing comfort.
Some of their dive watches have this feature but these watches can be large and are not for everyone. It would be nice if they expanded these features to all of their bracelets in the future.
Best Grand Seiko Models
If you are wondering where to start when it comes to exploring different models of the Grand Seiko collection, here are a few models to consider.
First up is the SBGA211 “Snowflake.” This is the most cited Grand Seiko model and it contains all the design elements that make Grand Seiko what they are.
At 41×12.5mm it is not a small watch, although there are multiple sources that say it works on a great variety of wrist sizes well, and due to its case shape and construction out of high-intensity titanium, is very comfortable to wear.
It is equipped with the 9R65 Spring Drive movement and has a stated accuracy of plus-or-minus one second a day. It retails for $5,800 and can be found for less used from a reputable dealer.
For those who want a smaller watch, The Elegance Collection has a great hand-wound option in the SBGW231, which retails for $4,300.
At 37.3×11.6mm, it is perfect for smaller wrists or for those that just enjoy a more classically sized watch. It features a 3-day power reserve, and is rated to +5 to -3 seconds a day.
As far as the Sport Collection is concerned, many, if not most of these watches are large and bulky, making them difficult for many to wear comfortably.
The dive watches are amazing, if you can pull the size off, but the real winner is the SBGV245, which has a retail price of $3,000.
This is a quartz watch, but do not hold that against it, with the 9F82 movement which is rated to plus-or-minus 10 seconds a year. It has a case that is 40×11.8mm and is very comfortable for many wrist sizes.
It should be pointed out that two craftspeople are dedicated to the manufacture of all Grand Seiko quartz watches, and their expertise shows in the SBGV245.
The watch comes on a canvas strap with two really standout features:
First, it has a deployment buckle that takes the end of the strap and moves it towards the wearers thumb instead of the outside of the wrist, making it easier to type or hike through dense woods without getting it stuck in tree limbs.
Secondly, it has a synthetic lining material on the inside unlike the typical leather found on many similar straps. This simple detail makes all the difference for someone who is going to wear their watch in environments that are dirty or cause them to sweat.
Leather just can’t stand up to sweat or dirt and a watch strap with leather lining quickly starts to fail when exposed to either.
It is also possible to buy a stainless steel bracelet for it as well, which I have and I love. The bracelet fits well and is very comfortable and it changes the dynamic of the watch greatly.
Would you buy one?
Next time you are looking for something different than the more established brands, give Grand Seiko a look.
No one maker of watches is “better” than the other, they all have their own unique features, and Grand Seiko is one brand who does things differently, in a way that is intriguing and refreshing.