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Feature: 5 times Grand Seiko DESTROYED Rolex

I hear the question a lot, probably second to people asking which watch they should buy to get the best investment: “Is Grand Seiko any good? Is it as good as Rolex?” Well, I’m not here to tell you whether or not Grand Seiko is good. I’m here to show you. Here’s five Grand Seikos that will give you second thoughts if you’re thinking of a Rolex.

Grand Seiko Snowscape SLGH013

It all kicked off for Grand Seiko’s 2010 international rollout with a watch called the Snowflake. Packing a lightweight titanium case and a Spring Drive movement, it was the watch equivalent of Toyota introducing Lexus with a carbon hatchback powered by a jet engine. Over a decade later, and Grand Seiko is pulling no fewer punches—although now those punches are wrapped up in boxing gloves made of the finest silk.

This is the Snowscape SLGH013. Whilst it draws from the same icy-cold inspiration as the original Snowflake, you won’t see a single thing in it that’s the same. Everything is better. The case, in 40mm of stainless steel, is a bit less out there than the long-lugged, 41mm titanium job of the Snowflake. The icy dial has more depth and chill to it and does a very convincing job of looking like it’s been left in the freezer overnight.

But where the sweet sting of silk hits the hardest is in the two lines of text at the bottom of the dial: Hi-Beat 36,000, 80 Hours. Not entirely unusual things to see, at least not in isolation. Together though, that’s a different story. Normally, a watchmaker has to choose a faster, more stable beat or more power reserve. Having both is a step towards asking for perpetual motion.

Grand Seiko, on the other hand, told physics to shut up and created the calibre 9SA5. And aside from the fact that the movement looks like the lovechild of Jaeger-LeCoultre and A. Lange & Söhne, there’s nothing obvious here that reveals the hocus pocus going on inside. That’s such a typical Japanese humblebrag. “Oh this thing? Well, yeah, you can’t really see it, but we only went and reinvented the Swiss lever escapement that’s been used for hundreds of years to make it totally better!”

That’s literally what Grand Seiko did. They violently showed that silk glove to the Swiss by taking its beloved escapement tech and making it dramatically more efficient so it could have a longer power reserve and a faster beat. It’s a once-a-generation invention. The last time something like this happened, it was at the hands of a certain legendary someone called George Daniels. He wasn’t Swiss either.

Grand Seiko 20th Anniversary SBGM235

It’s nice to have a watch with a dial that’s good looking. After all, it’s the part of the watch you’ll be eyeballing 99% of the time. Grand Seiko has made a business out of turning its dials into a canvas, painting scenes that get you closer to nature than watching Avatar in 4D with your feet in a paddling pool.

But the Grand Seiko dial is no one trick pony. It’s not all snowy mountain this and icy lake that. Sometimes, just sometimes, the artisans in the Grand Seiko studio shut the blind for a minute, put the incredible Japanese landscape to the back of their minds, and come up with something else.

For the 20th Anniversary SBGM235, the theme was more of a self-reflecting one. Grand Seiko was celebrating 20 years since it decided the world outside of Japan was ready to embrace a luxury watch made as far away from Switzerland as possible, and so focus very much sat on those two Gothic letters: G and S.

The dial furniture, as it’s known, the hands and markers, are all very typical Grand Seiko fare. That is to say, these obelisk-like features are manufactured to within an inch of perfection. Even to describe them as being manufactured feels like an injustice. The mirror finish is so crisp that they appear more like objects left here by interdimensional beings from the far side of the universe, totems of their ability to manufacturer very small things very, very well.

But it’s what’s behind all that that’s made the 1,000-piece limited edition SBGM235 a cult favourite: the dial itself. The most incredible piece of malicious compliance I’ve ever seen, when the Grand Seiko designers were urged to forego the natural world for one minute and focus on the achievements of the great Grand Seiko, Grand Seiko is exactly what they got.

This tesseract of logos, flashing between the G and S enough times to mark each passing hour of those 20 years, seems less like a dial and more like an artefact of ancient Mayan times, a clue that reveals the whereabouts of that elusive treasure … except it is the treasure, a fractal-like whirlpool of silvery metal burrowing deep into the heart of the watch.

Grand Seiko Omiwatari SBGY007

When we think of value, we tend to think about just how cheap we can get a watch that’s not going to literally disintegrate at the first sign of trouble. Funnily enough, Grand Seiko’s older, more affordable brother is pretty much the default place to go for the cheapest watchmaking thrills you can get, and so it stands to reason that the same theory applies regardless of the price point.

The Grand Seiko Omiwatari SBGY007 costs almost £8,000, yet it’s still just as eligible to earn the title good value. Add up what you get, cost it out and pair it up with what Grand Seiko’s asking, and you’ll find yourself wondering how they intend to make any money with this thing.

Take the £55,000 SBGZ003 as the starting point for my theory. The Omiwatari starts off in good shape with the same 38.5mm case, albeit in steel rather than platinum. The engraved dial is replicated in an equally pleasing fashion but this time with frosty waves that represent the winter freeze of Lake Suwa. The hands and markers are sharpened to the same infinite point we’ve become used to on the very best of Grand Seiko.

Where the value really comes is in the back, however. Both watches take advantage of Grand Seiko’s revolutionary Spring Drive, which benefits from mechanical autonomy and quartz accuracy—and if there were any naysayers of the possibility of quartz being true watchmaking, these watches are here to slap that theory in the face.

Inside the more expensive watch is the 9R02, which is built in Grand Seiko’s Micro Artist Studio. This is some of the best watchmaking in world. It’s been given the nod by the master himself, Philippe Dufour. Now, the 9R02 is a no-holds-barred execution of a movement, but seat the Omiwatari’s 9R31 side by side and the real value starts to make itself known. These movements clearly share the same architecture. There are some technical differences, like a lower power reserve of 72 hours compared to the more expensive movement’s 84, but then we are talking just 15% of the price.

Put it all together and you get a level of artistry, technicality and watchmaking that rivals watches that jump into the five figures. It’s not often you get to talk about value in the luxury watch sector these days; the Omiwatari is flying the flag for this dying art.

Grand Seiko Elegance SBGW231

For those looking to wear something that really goes back to basics, that harks back to the early years of the wristwatch format, ornate dials and Spring Drive movements are just going to be too much. That’s why Grand Seiko opens up its mechanical collection with the SBGW231, what could be described as a no-frills experience that actually offers so much more.

When we think of pure watchmaking experiences, we think Calatrava, Patrimony, Saxonia Thin. We also think big bucks. Funny how pared back watchmaking ends up costing so much, and I think I have a theory for that. Basically, those watches are best appreciated with time. Time to hand wind the manual movements, time to sit and study the immaculate details—and time to earn the money they cost.

For most people, they ain’t got time to be fussing with those things. Time is, unfortunately, an expensive privilege and not a right as perhaps it should be. Nevertheless, that yields a selection of watches at the lower end that aim to cater for convenience: automatically wound, featuring a date and ready to go.

Grand Seiko has bucked that trend with the SBGW231 by offering a £4,150 alternative to the Calatrava experience. You’ll first notice the size, 37.3mm. It’s small. It’s discreet. It takes scrutiny to appreciate the typical levels of Grand Seiko effort that go into making it. The dial itself is plain, an off-white canvas supporting classic double stacked markers at three, six, nine and twelve.

A sizeable crown tells you all you need to know: this thing isn’t going to wind itself. You can’t just set and forget; you need to take time to make a routine to hand wind it every three days. The calibre 9S64 gets no rotor weight and so that offers a less cluttered viewing experience to enjoy the polished ratchet wheel with its ruby ratchet, the broad striping and the eight-beat balance wheel.

This watch is no movie poster hero, no feature-laden mega watch that wows with glitz and tech, but for those few that still appreciate taking the time to enjoy the little moments, it’s basically unrivalled.

Grand Seiko Masterpiece SBGD001

We’ve spoken a lot about the balance of quality and value, but what happens when Grand Seiko kindly asks the budget to stand out in the corridor for a bit and goes all out in making the best watch it can? Those moments come more frequently than you might imagine, and one of those moments was the Masterpiece SBGD001.

That chunky, sporty case is platinum of course, not a single gram spared in getting the heft Grand Seiko wanted to present a dial that, of course, represents the snow settling of a winter morning in the Suwa region. You might wonder to yourself how Grand Seiko so accurately represented the diamond-like twinkle of fresh, crystalline snow; remember, this is the budget-be-damned version, so it goes without saying that actual diamonds were used to get the sparkle just so.

This £52,500 watch proudly wears the Spring Drive badge, a totem for the technology, and in the back we see that same attitude fostered in the calibre 9R01. Here we get to see in detail what the Micro Artist Studio is capable of, producing the deepest reflections in the broadest bevelling watchmaking has seen this side of Dufour’s revered Simplicity.

Power reserve is up to eight days as indicated by the scalloped power reserve, drawing all that power through the spinning glide wheel that sits up top, peeking like the sun over an angular representation of Mount Fuji. Turn your back on Grand Seiko for just a moment and there they go sneaking in references to the great outdoors again.

The 9R01 is not the showiest example of movement finishing the world has ever seen, but nevertheless the same skillsets apply to an enormously high degree. It’s typically Japanese in its reserved approach to luxury, only revealing the true nature of its achievements to those who really take the time to appreciate them.

What do you think of Grand Seiko as a watchmaker? Do you have a favourite piece? Or do you think they’re all overpriced Seikos?

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