Review: Grand Seiko Chronograph GMT
Little known and often overlooked, Grand Seiko has for years undercut Swiss quality with a collection of watches that have earned a loyal—if compact—following. For any one of the few people who have ever so happened to come across a Grand Seiko, the reaction is always the same: astonishment. The legend is true. But has it all been undone?
For those of you who don’t know and are wondering, yes, Grand Seiko is a relation of parent brand Seiko. It’s like Toyota’s Lexus, or Nissan’s Infiniti, a flagship operation designed to demonstrate the capabilities of the organisation at its unfettered best—specifically to give the Swiss a pasting. Blow after blow has been traded since 1960, when Seiko left the comfort of the Japanese domestic market and took to fighting brands like Rolex, Omega and Zenith in their own back yard.
It was a personal endeavour of Seiko founder Kintaro Hattori to surpass the Swiss quality he had come to admire so much, and what spurred him to found the company in 1881 in the first place. But it’s the way his company approached the colossal task of not only matching but beating the centuries of development the Swiss had in hand that’s most incredible. Not one factory but two were established to manufacture this game-changing watch, but not primarily to challenge the Swiss—but each other.
Grand Seiko and King Seiko, as these two divisions came to be known, waged a war between themselves first, competing to exceed the achievements of the other. This unique and novel approach accelerated progress tenfold, and before long Seiko was challenging and beating Swiss brands at the hallowed observatory trials, accuracy tests held across Switzerland. As Swiss brand after Swiss brand was caught and surpassed by this foreign outlier, it became clear that it was no joke.
It all came to a head in 1968, when the watches submitted by Seiko beat every other mechanical Swiss watch in the competition. The Japanese were no longer a threat; it was too late for that. Dominance had been shown, and it would be followed by near-annihilation. I said Seiko had beaten every mechanical watch, because there was another type of movement the Swiss had submitted: quartz. By the end of the decade, however, it was a Japanese quartz watch that would tear the entire Swiss watch industry apart. Grand Seiko had done its job, and in the wake of a new technology, it was quietly retired.
Here emerged a new dawn for Swiss watchmaking, one of luxury, and in 1998, Grand Seiko was revived to take the challenge to the Swiss once more. Only this time, the target wasn’t as clear as a number to beat or a record to break; this time, it was about branding. Rolex, a company younger than Seiko, had risen from the ashes of the decimated Swiss watchmaking industry and taken hold in a big way, once again forging a bond between Switzerland and high-end watchmaking that would, this time, be a lot harder to break.
With such an indistinct target, Grand Seiko’s approach has, this time, been more ponderous, less precise. The capabilities are there, but getting the attention of an audience infatuated with Rolex will take more than a high-quality product this time around. It has been the biggest challenge faced by the brand yet, and despite lots of different approaches, headway is slow going. This is modern, guerrilla warfare, fought in pockets under the cover of darkness. Little by little, person by person, the Grand Seiko resistance is gaining ground—and this Ceramic Spring Drive Chronograph GMT is on the frontline. Question is, has Grand Seiko made a tactical error?
Very quickly, in this new resurgence against Rolex, Grand Seiko learned that making a watch to a high standard wasn’t going to be enough. Watches better made than Rolex, at the same or less cost, are no mythical thing; there are enough brands that fulfil this requirement to run out of fingers counting. No, to draw eyes away from the golden coronet, Grand Seiko would need to do something daring, bold, striking—stirring.
With models such as the SBGA211G, with its dial a windswept tundra; the US-only SBGA387, tinged blue with an icy frost; and the upcoming SBGA413, glowing with the warmth of spring, Grand Seiko has found its calling making watches that go beyond timekeeping. These are small canvases worn on the wrist, viewed through the crystal, and they’re starting to turn heads.
For the Spring Drive Chronograph GMT, however, it’s a different approach, competing directly with the sell-out ceramic Daytona 116500LN. Rather than go for delicacy and subtlety, however, Grand Seiko has gone all-out on impact. Let me tell you a few of the specs here for this watch: first, the size; it’s over 46mm in diameter, making even a Panerai seem tame. Then there’s the construction, a titanium case and bracelet adorned with black ceramic highlights screwed in place. And the dial—it’s covering off the time, date, GMT, chronograph, power reserve—there’s a lot going on, so much so that there’s barely room left for the logo. There’s barely room for any of it, running seconds overlapped on one side, the power reserve angled in beneath like a well-played game of Tetris.
At this point it’s worth remembering that Grand Seiko watches are built to some of the highest standards in the business. Not to mention the 9R86 spring drive chronograph in the back, which offers a pusher feel that’s one of the best and most consistent in any chronograph, ever, as well as rewarding the eyes with that perfectly smooth second hand sweep. Looks are subjective, of course; what’s simply a statement of fact is that every surface, every finish, every detail is executed in a way that makes a Rolex feel pedestrian, and herein lies the true value of a Grand Seiko watch.
Well, I say value, but the Spring Drive Chronograph GMT is, at £14,000, something of an outlier. That’s—if you can get one—over £4,000 more expensive than the Rolex Daytona. Whilst the looks of this Grand Seiko are not going to be universally loved, at this price its appearance could make onlookers physically weak at the knees and it would still be a hard sell. As you would expect, residuals are not kind to Grand Seikos—except for the handful of limited editions, which Grand Seiko is becoming more aware of—and a watch like this is going to be hit hardest. It’s no coincidence that there’s a strong audience for pre-owned Grand Seikos.
Is this watch a failure for Grand Seiko? Has it missed the mark? There will be those who love the way it looks and will be happy to pay the price, but I expect that list is slim. Even at half the price I expect it’s a tough sell. Grand Seiko is making some real waves in its endeavour to put pressure on the Swiss and Rolex in particular at the moment—and I sincerely hope this Spring Drive Chronograph GMT doesn’t hinder that.
Grand Seiko’s time is soon, I can feel it. Whilst the might of Rolex is likely too strong to ever topple, there are some irresistible gems surfacing in the Grand Seiko catalogue that are starting to generate chatter. For proponents of the Grand Seiko resistance, the worry is that a high-priced chronograph like this could hamper the brand’s chances of greater success, make it seem out of touch, and we can only hope that’s not the case. Whilst there are no right or wrong answers, there’s no denying that the Spring Drive Chronograph GMT is certainly not an answer anyone expected.
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