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Feature: 5 Reasons Grand Seiko Is Better Than Rolex

Never did anyone think that five letters in that particular order could have such an astounding effect. Rolex fever seems to have come in at a close second for this generation’s largest pandemic, replete with its own political divide and even conspiracy. So if you’ve had it up to here with Rolex dealers telling you what to do, then you’re in luck, because you’re about to find out five reasons why you should probably get a Grand Seiko instead.

The Brand

It’s a very bold claim to start this comparison by saying that the best thing about Grand Seiko, and the first reason you should buy one over a Rolex, is the brand. Rolex isn’t so much a brand these days as it is a religion, with many a fervent worshipper travelling countless miles in pilgrimage to have their names inscribed upon the ancient tablets of waiting, hoping to hear an all-powerful, disembodied voice tell them that they’ve been chosen.

Is that what all this is about? Don’t get me wrong, Rolex make great watches and have a fantastic story, but this particular chapter feels like I keep reading the same sentence over and over. It’s time for a palette cleanser, something fresh and uncorrupted from about as far away from the Rolex HQ as you can get: Japan.

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that where Grand Seiko once lay siege to Swiss watchmaking, it is now the purer choice. I suppose, when you think about it, all founder Kintaro Hattori wanted was for the Swiss watchmakers he so idolised to acknowledge that his work met the standards of his heroes. The goal has always been the same: to make watches. The best watches.

And because Grand Seiko operates outside the heavily politicised arena of Swiss watchmaking, it can go about its business in a way that feels far more wholesome. You won’t find a Grand Seiko adorning a tennis player’s wrist on the court, and that’s a good thing. When you choose a Grand Seiko, the only reason you have to do so is because you want a fantastic watch.

The Dials

You can’t talk about Grand Seiko without talking about dials. What are typically to Rolex simply a method of communicating the time, executed in a clinically exact way and unchanged for many decades, the dial of a Grand Seiko is something so much richer. It’s been described as a canvas, but such arty-farty nonsense feels ill-fitting for what Grand Seiko has actually managed to achieve. A Grand Seiko dial is more like a landscape, an environment, all bottled up underneath a dome of sapphire.

There are many brands—including Rolex—that borrow inspiration from nature in their dials. Rolex has taken this quite literally in the past, featuring stone, wood and even meteorite in place of its usually black backdrop. All very lovely I’m sure, but the difference between those and a Grand Seiko is startling. One is an exhibit of nature in a museum, hanging in clinical isolation—the other is like being right there amongst nature itself.

If that sounds like hyperbole, it really isn’t. There is something magic in what Grand Seiko does in imparting breathtaking Japanese landscapes in miniature scale, not just in form but in feel as well. The icy tundra of the Snowflake’s dial really, physically makes me feel cold. I think what makes them so effective is that in contrast to Rolex’s very on-the-nose efforts, Grand Seiko, in true Japanese fashion, takes a far more abstract and holistic approach. It’s not obvious, not in-your-face.

If we were to stretch an analogy to breaking point and wondered how both brands might approach a watch that were intended to inspire feelings of summer as a carefree child, perhaps, the Grand Seiko would use rich, green-gold colours and the textures of a freshly cut lawn. The Rolex would just have a picture of a kid playing football on it. There’s just simply a level of communication that transcends mere words, that conjures feelings that happen almost instinctively. Let’s see a Rolex do that.

The Tech

Talking about technology when it comes to mechanical watches may seem rather like putting a spoiler on a horse, and given Rolex’s tentative approach to revolutionising watchmaking, you can see why that attitude might have come about—but Grand Seiko, in contrast, goes at it with a very different approach.

Yeah, with Rolex you get some silicon here and there, some anti-magnetic alloys, all that kind of stuff, but really it’s all variations on a theme. When it comes to technological innovation, your money is better spent elsewhere.

Take the White Birch, for example, packing the Grand Seiko calibre 9SA5, a thoroughly traditional and very attractive looking affair that wouldn’t look out of place inside the watches of some of the oldest Swiss brands in the world. But looks can be deceiving, because this thing packs a punch that’s about as innovative as watchmaking gets.

Sitting snugly behind the 36,000vph balance—a smoother and faster beat than the Rolex—is the Dual Impulse Escapement. This is no marketing gimmick: it’s an entirely new way of regulating a watch that manages to squeeze a whopping 80 hours out of the mainspring, despite the faster beat. It is the biggest step forward in watchmaking since the 1980s.

And if you’re thinking that just fiddling with the tired, old mechanical movement is nothing special, wait until you see the calibre 9R65. This is a movement that combines all the best bits of what are otherwise competing technologies: you get the accuracy of a quartz with the autonomy of mechanical, a battery-less, never ending power source that means your quartz watch can finally sweep and not tick.

The Quality

So far we’re running a considerable lead on Grand Seiko, but there surely has to be a point at which the penny drops with the arrival of a “but”. Perhaps you might be thinking that Rolex may be simple, but it’s famous Swiss quality will stand head-and-shoulders above Grand Seiko, that Grand Seiko is, after all, built like a Japanese watch.

I can understand why someone might think that, but it could not be further from the truth. Rolex makes a cracking watch, it really does, but it’s always been a simple brand, favouring reliability and practicality over outright beauty and perfection. The Rolex watches of yesteryear were less Rolls Royce and more steam roller.

As with everything the Japanese watchmaker seems to touch, Grand Seiko has a mentality that seems to belie what’s possible when it comes to making a physical object the size of a watch. Where Rolex might polish a facet to a mirror-like shine, Grand Seiko pushes it to the extreme, with surfaces so flat and bright they could be used to collect light in the Hubble Space Telescope.

It’s all in the tiniest details that contrasts Rolex’s “that’ll do” approach with, again, a distinctly Japanese, “good isn’t good enough.” The brand goes to such extreme lengths to outdo its competition that it almost seems unfair. Grand Seiko doesn’t just push Rolex hard on quality, it absolutely humiliates them.

The Price

But the best is yet to come, because for all this talk of Grand Seiko’s unbelievable performance, it would only seem justified for it to be matched with an unbelievable price. Except—that’s not the case. An entry-level Grand Seiko costs less than £4,000, a price point Rolex had to introduce an entirely separate brand, Tudor, to compete in. Sure, you can buy some very, very expensive Grand Seikos, but without exception you’ll always find value falling in the favour of the Japanese watchmaker.

So, what’s the catch? Well, if you’re looking for a great watch you can cherish and enjoy for being a great watch, there isn’t one. Sure, the depreciation’s not so great by comparison, but if you choose a Grand Seiko well you won’t be selling it anyway. Or you could take advantage of someone else’s misery and buy one pre-owned.

And yeah, it doesn’t say Rolex on it, but given the Swiss brand’s ridiculous popularity, it doesn’t take much to swing that into a positive. Who doesn’t like to be into something before it’s cool? A Grand Seiko really is the enthusiast’s watchmaker, and that’s reflected in the growing popularity the brand is beginning to enjoy. There are—dare I say it—even Grand Seiko models that have generated such enthusiasm that they have appreciated in value. Better get in there before it’s too late.

Before you go thinking that this praise of Grand Seiko comes at the cost of Rolex’s reputation, stop. It doesn’t. Rolex is a monumentally important brand in the watchmaking sphere and will never in a million years be replaced by a watchmaker like Grand Seiko. It wasn’t back in the 60s, and it won’t be now. What Grand Seiko offers is an opportunity to enjoy these funny little timekeepers in a new, unfamiliar and refreshing way, something it feels the stifled frustration of many an enthusiast needs. At the very least it’s something to enjoy until you get the call.

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