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Feature: 5 Grand Seikos that changed the game

It’s funny how quickly we adapt. Today it feels like Grand Seiko has been a staple of the watch game forever, but in a world where the oldest watch brands number their years in centuries, it’s easy to forget that Grand Seiko has only been available to the wider world since 2010. And in that short time, it’s gone from “that cheap Japanese brand” to one of the best. Here are the five watches I think made that happen.

Grand Seiko Snowflake SBGA211G

Remember when that Icelandic volcano that no one could pronounce erupted and sent most of Europe’s air traffic home? Yeah, that was 2010, and that was the same year Grand Seiko decided it would make itself known outside of Japan. It was originally created in 1960 as the performance division of Seiko, but with the pivot to quartz at the end of that decade, it fell dormant. It returned with the revival of mechanical watchmaking, but as a domestic brand only until 2010. And it was with this Snowflake that Grand Seiko was reintroduced to the world.

Back then, Seiko was up top on the dial and Grand Seiko appeared in the lower half. I remember the discontent when they changed that to the current arrangement, but I think they made the right choice. The two weirdly gothic letters have become part of the furniture, and so has the Snowflake. But it’s an odd watch in so many ways. First of all, the watch Grand Seiko chose to attract the attention of luxury watch buyers the world over was a quartz. A special kind of quartz, but no less a quartz.

This is Spring Drive, a quartz movement that uses mechanical energy instead of a battery and a continuous sweep regulated by magnets rather than a stepper motor. So there’s no ticking, but a glide of the heat-blued second hand. Funnily enough, that’s not the hand that caused the most controversy. There’s a power reserve indicator too, what was until recent years a mainstay of Grand Seiko design. Despite this being an automatic, self-winding watch, it’s there front and centre.

Grand Seiko really wanted people to be at odds with this watch, even down to the way it feels. That’s because, despite it being a sizeable 41mm across with pretty long lugs, the case and bracelet are both made of titanium. So it looks heavy and feels light, which for many people is the antithesis of luxury. When most people think of luxury watchmaking they think of gold Rolexes, and this feels like entirely the opposite.

But by far and away the most alluring aspect of this watch, in amongst all the seemingly deliberate efforts to contravene watchmaking expectations, is the dial. Through the 1990s, watchmaking in the west was very reserved, and I mean very reserved. A dial was black, or white, matte or glossy. If you were feeling fruity, it might be blue. Then, in the 2000s, everything went massive. Panerai, Richard Mille, the Royal Oak Offshore—all that stuff. And so to kick 2010 off with a dial that was refined and reserved yet also beguiling was exactly the move Grand Seiko needed to get the ball rolling.

The Snowflake introduced the idea of using nature as inspiration for a watch dial, taking the colours, patterns and textures of the surrounding natural environment of Japan—which, let’s face it, has a particularly fetching surrounding natural environment—capturing them on a tiny, round canvas. In this case, it was the snowfields opposite the Shinshu watch studio where the watch is made from which inspiration was drawn, and the feeling has been, in a most Japanese way, expertly captured.

Grand Seiko owes a lot to this watch and the people behind it. It did so much to not only show how different watchmaking could be within something that, at a glance, looked very familiar, but also connected the dots between the precision and artistry for which Japan is famous and the watches it makes.

Grand Seiko SBGV245

The next watch I think cemented Grand Seiko as an enthusiast’s favourite is probably one that flew under the radar a bit, and likely because much of its short life was as a domestic-only model. It is the SBGV245, one of a pairing of black and grey dial watches that did duty as the sportier, more rugged choice in Grand Seiko’s line-up. It also happens to be quartz, and not fancy Spring Drive quartz—plain old, powered by a battery, ticking quartz.

Aside from twisting the knife following the whole quartz debacle, a quartz luxury sports watch that costs thousands is just the worst approach to market-driven product development. Even today, quartz is considered the devil, such that even the Swatch Blancpain does without. But that’s what Grand Seiko is all about. We’d call it something lame like “subverting expectations” or “disrupting the industry”. Grand Seiko calls it the 9F82.

If you’re the kind of gamer who one hundred percents Elden Ring, then you’ll understand the completionist mentality Grand Seiko is exhibiting here. They’re the king of quartz whether they like it or not, and so, alongside mechanical and Spring Drive, quartz needs to not just exist within the Grand Seiko line-up, but in the best way possible. And so the 9F82, built alongside the Spring Drive calibres, is built just like the Spring Drive calibres, with the same intense level of care and attention to detail.

Despite being hidden away, it gets applied finishing like the other calibres. And that’s because Grand Seiko are proud of it. It’s one of the most complete movements on the market, by which I mean every aspect has not only been developed by Grand Seiko, but manufactured as well. You may or may not know, but many manufacturers of in-house movements still outsource components like the jewels and hairspring. Even hyper-watches like the Greubel Foresy Hand Made 1 do that. For the 9F82, Grand Seiko makes everything. Yes, even the battery and the quartz crystal itself.

The tech in this movement is above and beyond what you’d expect from a quartz. For starters, it’s possible to regulate, which means it’s serviceable in the long term like any good mechanical. But it also has little tricks up its sleeve like a backlash auto adjust mechanism that takes the judder out of each tick. Even the motor itself required a twin pulse control system to move the heavy Grand Seiko hands, so they didn’t have to compromise on looks.

And in fact the watch itself achieves some of the highest levels of Grand Seiko design and finishing. The styling is spot on, the brushed dial gives the impression of the watch being made of a single block of steel and the hands and markers—complete with lume, this is a sports watch after all—get Grand Seiko’s customary levels of high finishing. It might not have been popular, but it is legendary.

Grand Seiko Shunbun “Spring” SBGA413

The Snowflake carried Grand Seiko into the West for a long while, and although it still presents a remarkable set of features for a reasonable sum of money, there were rumblings on the wireless that perhaps the brand from Japan was a bit of a one trick pony. There were other nice watches emerging, but nothing that really upped the ante set by the Snowflake.

So, in 2019, Grand Seiko introduced a four-part series celebrating the seasons. There was an icy winter one, a greeny summer one, a bluey autumn one, and this, the Shunbun, for spring. It’s well-known around the world that Japan takes spring very seriously, with the huge tourist draw that is the cherry blossoms getting its own forecast every year. And that’s because they’re a natural wonder of the world.

In true Grand Seiko style, the Shunbun wasn’t simply pink like wot the cherry blossoms are, but combined with a delicate texture to represent the floating petals swirling on water, known as hanaikada, or flower rafts. The end result has become a bit of cultural phenomenon within watch collecting circles, with ownership of the Shunbun being less of an if and more of a when. It’s even become a bit of a thing to visit Japan and pick one up from its homeland. I mean, if a watch collector visits Japan in Spring and doesn’t buy a Shunbun, are they even a collector? This is the kind of spiritual rhetoric Grand Seiko has inspired amongst us.

The watch in its titanium 62GS form bridges both casual and smart, and improves on the wearability of the Snowflake, but really it’s the dial doing all the heavy lifting here. As much as the texture, which it shares with the winter edition, it’s the colour that’s most impressive. In some lights it’s a deep, powdery pink, but in most it’s closer to silver. If you were to boil down the biggest step forward for the Shunbun over the Snowflake it’s the simple addition of colour.

Grand Seiko Omiwatari SBGY007

As good as the Shunbun is, there are many aspects for which it didn’t move the Grand Seiko Snowflake on at all. Same Spring Drive movement, same dial-side power reserve, same thickness in the case. The watchmaker has made its mark for sure, but with rising prices, it needed to do something special to impress the next achievement upon its legacy. In 2021, we got that: the Omiwatari.

Dubbed, “God’s Footsteps”, the Omiwatari’s inspiration came from the moving sheets of ice that form over Lake Suwa near the Spring Drive movement’s birthplace in Shiojiri. A delicate blue complimented the rippled texture, which, like the Shunbun, could shift from a strong powdery hue to completely silver.

By this point, Grand Seiko’s au naturelle escapades hadn’t become old hat per se, but they didn’t have the freshness and originality they once had. That’s not to say the dial on the Omiwatari isn’t a very pretty thing—it is—just simply that the idea of nature-themed dials had become familiar.

If the Omiwatari had simply introduced a new dial, it would’ve been an underwhelming moment for Grand Seiko—except the brand had three major tricks up its sleeve. The first is the absence of the dial-side power reserve which had put off so many potential buyers. With it clean and open, with limited text, it allowed Grand Seiko’s famous dial treatment the breathing room it needed. And as such it felt like a whole new experience. I’m not personally against the power reserve, but this watch really is better without it.

Second is the case, which combines a 38.5mm diameter with a thickness of 10.2mm. It’s not the thinnest watch in the world, but it is a fair amount thinner than previous Spring Drive watches, and with some clever sculpting of the case sides, reads even slimmer still. This gives the watch a much more high-end feel, closer to the Saxonias and Calatravas of the top dogs.

This was all made possible by the final jewel in the crown: the 9R31 movement. That’s a three-day, hand-wound Spring Drive movement. You might be thinking that this is the perfect watch for a power reserve, being hand wound, and now it’s gone—but it’s not gone. It’s on the back instead. With an architecture based on the range-topping 9R02 calibre, the 9R31 is not only a functional improvement to the watch with its slender build and rearward power reserve, it also looks more premium, further elevating the Omiwatari.

It was the first watch in the Grand Seiko collection that, to me at least, didn’t feel compromised in any way, and yet it still entertained a price tag that compared incredibly favourably with its competition.

Grand Seiko SBGD001

The last watch isn’t the most recent, and in fact was first announced before Grand Seiko had separated off and become its own brand, yet it stands as the unsung hero of the Grand Seiko collection. It doesn’t even have a nickname, titled simply, “SBGD001”. It has been updated since to switch the branding around, but is otherwise as it stood when it was first announced in 2016.

This rather simple-looking watch actually represents some of the greatest artistry achievable within Grand Seiko, a creation of the Micro Artist Studio in Shiojiri. That simple case is 43mm of platinum. The plain white dial glistens with diamond fragments. And the Spring Drive calibre 9R01 is a work of mechanical artistry.

The Micro Artist Studio is an amalgamation of Grand Seiko’s best talents. There are barely ten people there, each trained to master level in a particular skill. They are responsible for the most impressive works from Grand Seiko and Credor, including the Eichi II, and their work has been given the blessing of nonother than Philippe Dufour.

Like many things Grand Seiko, the calibre 9R01 is a simple looking thing at first glance. But instead of two or even three days of power reserve, this Spring Drive gets eight, measured by the indicator on the right-hand side. And the glide wheel, seen poking out from behind the bridgework: that represents the sun setting behind Mount Fuji.

The edge of the bridge is polished with the thickest, glossiest bevel you have ever seen in your life. Grand Seiko didn’t want to go overboard in decorating the movement and wanted to retain the reservedness the brand—and Japan—is known for, so they went all out on the sparing detail there is. It’s the ultimate flex, proving their capabilities without getting needy.

The fact this watch has existed for so long within Grand Seiko just shows the level of untapped potential that’s there. So whilst we look back at an incredible decade and a bit since the brave pill was swallowed and the Snowflake was unleashed from the safety of the Japanese islands, we also look forward to the possibility of what’s next.

What watches do you think best mark the achievements of Grand Seiko in this modern era?

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