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Review: Grand Seiko SBGW231

Ever wondered if there was a watch that quite simply personified the word “watch”? A timekeeper so pure and simple yet so perfectly judged that it could well be the last one you ever wear? Without exaggeration, the Grand Seiko SBGW231 could be that watch. Here are three reasons why.

The Style

Back in the 1930s, the watch industry was going south. Very south. Their business was big, flashy, complicated pocket watches that made their owners the talk of the town—wealthy customers would compete to commission the most complex—and in a post war, mid-depression world, they were as welcome as a wet cough. On a dime, customers turned their backs on businesses built over centuries—businesses that didn’t look very long for this world.

At least, they wouldn’t have been had they not innovated. Now, hard as it might be to consider the wristwatch an innovation, back then it was like the jump from the CD Walkman to the MP3 player. Small, discreet, elegant—now wearing a timepiece from your favourite watchmaker wasn’t akin to having a sign pinned to your back that said, “Rob me and leave my corpse in the gutter.”

There were a number of brands revisiting the format of the pocket watch, notably Jaeger-LeCoultre with the novel Reverso, but sporting intentions aside, it was the Patek Philippe Calatrava that paved the way for wristwatch design for the next century. It had a case, sized to fit comfortably on a wrist and be worn discreetly under a cuff, minimally decorated if at all; it had a strap, simple, plain, unadorned, to hold it in place; and it had a dial that did nothing more than tell the time. Forget perpetual calendars, tourbillons and other such finery—this watch went back to basics and did the only thing it really needed too.

We’ve seen that benchmark evolve over time, and it has been revisited in any number of ways, watchmakers trying to recapture the essence of a time when the wristwatch was just taking hold—but very few have achieved that in quite the same way as the Grand Seiko SBGW231. Where others border on pastiche, caricatures enlarged to fit modern ideals, the SBGW231 keeps a small, 37.3mm case, just 11.6mm tall.

This restraint continues into the dial, hours marked with raised trapezoidal prisms with quarters doubling up and minutes dashed in print. Dauphine hands mimic the light-catching properties of those markers, with the smallest flourish allowed with the applied logo used above the Grand Seiko branding. You won’t find a date window here; if anything the centre second would be considered flair.

There comes a period in some people’s lives where, after the noise and the drama of youth, maturity dictates a simpler outlook. With the ever-increasing rush of time, solace is found in the moments taken to appreciate stillness, serenity—and the Grand Seiko SBGW231 embodies that. There’s just something about it that makes you take pause and remember that not everything has to be difficult.

The Quality

But these watchmakers that had dedicated their being to a pursuit of excellence, being forced into making watches that had no grand complexity—how were they to express their differentiating talents in something so small and so basic? I imagine the reaction was similar to asking Gordon Ramsey to make you a pot noodle.

Far from throwing their toys out of the pram, watchmakers like Patek Philippe embraced this new challenge to produce a level of quality scaled down to these new diminutive proportions. A wristwatch movement was a fraction of the size of the pocket watch calibres they were used to, and decorating them to the same level of quality was a challenge in itself.

The same was true of the rest of the watch. Much smaller dials, markers and hands required a finer degree of tolerance to achieve proportional quality, and they were aiming for that and more. Second only to the format itself, it has become this pursuit that defines the upper echelons of watchmaking today.

Today, those watches, the Calatravas and such, ask £20,000 and more. For the Grand Seiko SBGW231, the price is significantly less at £3,900. The quality of these two modern examples isn’t necessarily comparable, but that’s not the point. Compare this Grand Seiko to a period Calatrava and that’s where you’ll find a closer match.

Thanks to the might of Grand Seiko’s parent brand Seiko and the advances in computer aided machining technology, finished with the assistance of skilled watchmakers, the SBGW231 brings a level of quality consistent with that achieved in the 1930s in a way that feels wholly authentic, like this watch had just emerged from a time capsule buried almost a century ago.

There’s a richness to the attention to detail that carries the simplicity throughout, a knowing sense of saying more with less so often missed today. When there’s nothing left to hide behind, the true nature of a watch can really shine through.

The Movement

The Grand Seiko SBGW231 isn’t just a visual trip back in time—it’s a hands-on experience as well. And I don’t mean that just in the sense that it uses a mechanical movement rather than quartz or an OLED screen and a computer chip—the way this watch is powered continues this high level of authenticity we’ve seen so far.

It wasn’t until later in the decade after the Calatrava was introduced that the newly invented automatic winding movement would become commonplace. For watches like the Calatrava, the required thickness to house such a thing meant it wouldn’t be until 1953 for the technology to be adequately compact enough to meet Patek Philippe’s standards.

And so, the Grand Seiko SBGW231 is befittingly equipped with a hand wound movement, the calibre 9S64. Technically speaking, the three-day power reserve and plus five to minus three seconds per day accuracy are all rather modern, but the way it sources its power is very much old fashioned. Waking up in the morning and topping up the mainspring by winding the crown yourself is a little taste of a simpler time that watches like this were made for.

The affordability of the watch means you won’t see the same quality in back as you will in the front, but that’s not to say the 9S64 is an unattractive thing. The striped three-quarter plate, ruby click and additional shock protection add intrigue to the otherwise plain view. Under the hood, proprietary alloys in the main and balance springs provide more shock-resistance, power reserve and anti-magnetism than previous version of the movement, whilst an electroformed escapement brings reliable and consistent accuracy.

It may not be a movement for the ages, but it’s certainly timeless. A sapphire case back was virtually unheard of in the 1930s, but as a small deviation from the rulebook to let owners further enjoy such a pure experience, it’s more than forgiven—it’s applauded.

Between the way it looks, feels and operates, the Grand Seiko SBGW231 may not be a watch for everyone, but for those seeking as holistic an experience as possible with their watch, not much else comes close. In an era of information overload, technological mystery and increasingly complicated existence, for a select few, the SBGW231 will be all the watch they could ever need.

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