A while back, after my first purchase Grand Seiko, I had mentioned in a Member Journal that I was considering the Swiss watch market a bit dead to me — that I might go all in on Grand Seiko going forward. It’s kind of a ridiculous statement for those who think luxury watches are ridiculous, or perhaps just think having one luxury watch is enough — completely valid stand points. It’s where I was, and how I am still feeling about luxury watches today.
And as I’ve been diving deeper into Grand Seiko these days, I’ve come to realize that the way I think about watches, and what I care about in a watch, more closely aligns with Grand Seiko’s watchmaking philosophy than it does any other brand. None of this is to say that Grand Seiko is better than Rolex, Omega, or Patek — it clearly is — but rather to say that the way Grand Seiko approaches watches, feels completely unique in the market.
To that end, I wanted to talk about Grand Seiko versus the Western Watch world, and help those who have not owned a Grand Seiko, understand why those who do own a Grand Seiko may never go back to other brands.
There’s a thing you need to know about buying expensive watches and that thing is this: a cheap Casio, is generally more precise than any Rolex. I know right? Something that’s under $50 versus $10k, but the $50 is more precise. But precision is a funny thing, and something the luxury watch world addresses in a very odd manner.
‘COSC’ certified, or ‘Chronometer’, or Rolex’s “Superlative Chronometer”, or Omega’s go to “Master Chronometer” aka “METAS” — all of those make it sound like these watches are precision as fuck, right? They are, and aren’t.
There’s three ways I think about precision and determining the level of precision a watch has: change per day, change per month, or change per year. That Casio I referenced is too precise to bother with change per day, it’s rated at ’plus or minus’ 30 seconds per month. Do that math and it could be plus or minus a second per day — but that too is wrong, because we are working in averages and external factors will make the month estimate the more precise estimate. A ‘certified’ chronometer is rated to -4 to +6 seconds per day.
What does that mean? It means that under normal use, you should expect your ‘chronometer’ lose or gain between -4 to +6 seconds on the timekeeping every day. Now, this is again averages, so depending on your watch, your use, and all those factors you may get better — but probably should not get worse — performance from your timepiece’s ability to keep time.
So yeah, don’t be fooled by marketing terms. This is not to say though that wonderful things can’t be done, but rather to set a foundation for understanding. You see, the Swiss also made it so that you cannot get a ‘COSC’ or ‘Chronometer’ certification on non-swiss made shit, which is lame. So no Grand Seiko will bear that mark, unless it predates that rule change — yeah they changed the rules.
So why are we talking about this? Because Grand Seiko does precision different than other watchmakers because of all these rules, and it’s interesting (to be fair, all the big brands approach this different, but typically that difference is just the seconds per day range changing to be just within COSC).
Grand Seiko watches — any of them — are wildly precise. Often times at least as precise as their Western counterparts like Rolex or Omega, but you won’t see that from the specifications copy. Grand Seiko will list a very similar range of accuracy to chronometer standards, and then out perform the shit out of those.
I’ll stop here, my point to the above is that branding precision ratings is silly, and marketing only. And on those areas, Grand Seiko cannot use those terms, but their watches are at least as precise as what those terms mean.
That’s not the point though, instead I want to talk about three factors that Grand Seiko does to level up the precision of their watches which speak to me:
- Six positions, not five: when regulating a watch movement, western companies typically regulate to the standard five positions (3, 6, 9, dial up, dial down). These are the five most common wearing positions of a watch, and in all honestly there’s nothing wrong with this. But Grand Seiko does six positions. The sixth position is with the watch case sitting at 12 o’clock upwards — amazingly that’s not one of the five standard positions, because it’s not a position most watches find themselves in. Except in Japan, where there’s a common practice to take your watch off the wrist, and rest it on the desk as a small clock — Grand Seiko then wanted to make sure the watch remained precise in that position for its users. I don’t actually care much about adding the sixth position, but what I care about is Grand Seiko seeing how their users use a watch, and making sure it will be accurate for them as a standard part of their watch accuracy — they made more work for themselves for the sole reason of making the watch precision better for many of their users.
- Power Reserves: the latest movements in a western watch, are pushing around 70-72hr power reserves — those are the latest movements — you could take your watch off for the weekend. That’s the base reserve on a Grand Seiko for the most part (some older Hi-Beats and smaller case watches are 55hrs still), where Grand Seiko is starting to push their top power reserves to a whopping 120hrs, or 5 days and many models are moving to 80hr reserves. Most people might not think about this as a part of precision, but increasing the power a watch has, increases the ability to do a lot more interesting things, including accurate time keeping.
- Hi-Beat: most western watches (and some Grand Seiko) run at 28,800vph, but Hi-Beat is 36000. What’s that matter? The best way I have seen this described is to imagine it as a top spinning on a table surface. The slower the top is spinning around, the more prone it is to being impacted by something bumping the table, whereas the faster the top spins, the less the impact on the spinning top from a bump to the table. The same is true on a watch movement, the higher beat rate means that the watch is less prone to having the time keeping regulation impacted by bumps and vibrations when being worn. I thought Hi-Beat was a gimmick, a ‘look what we can do, looks cool’, but actually its about accuracy. Oh, and those watches still have huge power reserves too.
That’s not even talking about Grand Seiko’s quartz movements or Spring Drive — but we don’t have time for that today.
In short: I trust the time keeping of my Grand Seiko watches more than I do my Rolex or Tudor. That’s not to say a Rolex or Tudor is not an precision watch, but rather that Grand Seiko is eclipsing that level of precision and kicking things up a notch while focusing on precision while the watch is being used — however it is used, which includes sitting in a watch case.
There’s something really interesting about how Grand Seiko approaches legibility compared to other watch brands. Grand Seiko looks at legibility as a factor of how light interacts with the elements of the watch. Whereas most companies look at legibility by way of adding contrast to the elements of the watch. Now, both work, but the end result is in stylistic differences which can lead to dramatically different looking watches.
I’ll talk about this by referencing three images, to highlight what Grand Seiko is trying to achieve.
Grand Seiko has a belief (and I think a correct one) that a highly polished hand is hard to see if placed over a dark dial, whereas a brushed hand is easier to see over a dark dial. The inverse is true, with a highly polished hand being easier to see over a light dial. This is because a highly polished surface, reflects elements so well, it often appears darker visually because of that polish.
While in the West, light and shadow have been treated as contrasting elements, in the East beauty has been found in their co-existence.
Here’s my Grand Seiko SBGM221G, with highly polished hands over a cream dial:
Very good legibility there. Here’s my Rolex Datejust with polished hands over a charcoal dial:
Much poorer legibility there. My Grand Seiko SBGX261 with brushed hands over a black dial:
Again, the legibility is back — this is what Grand Seiko is trying to achieve through their approach to using light to create legibility. (Those were all shot under the same lighting/conditions.)
Now, this isn’t to say ’hahaha Rolex’, because Rolex also makes what has to be the most legible watch on the market with the Explorer II white dial:
Same mindset, here’s Tudor’s Black Bay GMT, which also has good legibility:
But, that legibility comes at a price: starkness for contrast. This is essentially the inverse approach to how Grand Seiko looks at it — two sides with similar results. Hopefully, this is making sense, because I need to move on to the bigger complaint when you talk about watch legibility and Grand Seiko: lume.
I love a watch with great lume, and Seiko makes outstanding lume. That said. Lume is not very common on Grand Seiko, why? Zaratsu is why. That’s the method of polishing being used by Grand Seiko, and it is so effective when coupled with their designs and hand styles, that even a modicum of light will allow you to read your watch in low light settings. (Even if it is a brushed hand, the beveled edges tend to be highly polished, thus reflecting light well.)
But not it is not universally great in situations when you need to rely on low light reading, thus their Sport and Evolution 9 models have lume in many of them — that lume is at least on par with my Tudor, but my gut says it has a slight edge. This is often overlooked as many of the more popular models simply lack lume — but it does exist and increasingly is more common with the brand. That’s all done in addition to how they create legibility with light and shadows.
So, next time you look at a Grand Seiko and worry it won’t have good legibility, you should be assured that you are wrong — it will have excellent legibility even in low light, but in a more subtle method than what you are likely used to on a watch but the same net effect. And if it does have lume, it’ll be great lume, and then you get the best of both worlds in a single watch.
What Grand Seiko very rarely does is to create an extremely high contrast design for the sake of legibility.
Oh man, this is going to be contentious no matter which brand you like best. I think I’ll start with three anecdotal things:
- There’s lore out there that so long as you replace a battery in a Grand Seiko quartz, it should run for 50 yrs.
- There’s people who have tried to have some of the oldest generation of Spring Drive movements repaired, only to be told that Grand Seiko doesn’t have the parts and they should buy a new watch.
- There are mountains of used Rolex and Omegas which exist for ready purchase, and quick repairs to get them functional if they are not currently functional. Ditto old Grand Seikos.
And yet, Grand Seiko has a massive focus on the long term use of their watches. So much so, that on page 5 of the manual of my SBGM221, Grand Seiko starts by listing the first of 6 rules for “lifelong use” of the watch.
Grand Seiko is serious about longevity.
Getting to the truth around this is a mess, and really not conclusive. So here’s what I know for sure:
- Grand Seiko focuses on keeping stock of old parts, because they talk about doing this. Rolex never talks about it, yet I’ve never heard of someone not being able to get a Rolex part, and I have with Grand Seiko. I have a hard time reconciling that.
- Service intervals for most Swiss Luxury watches are now in the 7-10yr range, whereas Grand Seiko states 3yrs. With the explicitly stated caveat that the ‘first service is the most important’ for long term wear. That said, most (but not all) costs for a Grand Seiko service are less expensive than a Rolex, with the highest priced movement being the same as Rolex. This is less ideal for Grand Seiko, but more servicing does mean better longevity so it seems inline with the goals of Grand Seiko at least. But certainly leans in the favor of the Swiss.
- Seiko’s non-Grand Seiko movements are some of the best workhorse movements in watches today with most people labeling them as ’indestructible’.
- Every new movement from Grand Seiko is being made along side watchmakers and the Grand Seiko repair team in order to help optimize the movements for easy repair. This includes the 9F quartz movements. I have to suspect Rolex and Omega do the same, but Grand Seiko has explicitly talked about it in several videos they have produced. They are proud of this, and sometimes this type of virtue signaling is important to take note of — and here I think it is.
I really didn’t know what to make of any of this, and so I think I would be hard pressed here to say that Grand Seiko is any better, or worse, of an investment long term than just about any other luxury watch brand as far as the watch continuing to work and be repairable.
However, I do think that long term you are going to have an easier time finding parts for any automatic watch (or hand wind) over the HAQ quartz, or Spring Drive movements. That’s not to say that those are less of a long term durable watch, just a matter of the ubiquity of parts and knowledge on the more common movement mechanisms. So I call this a wash, I remain unconvinced you can say one is better than the other.
Everything I have talked about so far, is by way of comparing Grand Seiko to direct competitors and showing that it either is right in line, or surpasses them. This next part, is the part I find very unique to the brand itself, to the point where there almost is no competition for them on these fronts.
Making watches, popular watches, and charging a pretty penny for them — and doing so without lume in many models is ballsy in 2023. Then, putting lots of shiny mirrored finishes in a world that is trending towards a rugged brushed case vibe. On top of all that, having a massive line of dress watches while also keeping the cases smaller than almost every other brand.
No watch company does these things.
But Grand Seiko does all of these things.
The question people often have is: why? Why would they focus on these areas where the bigger brands simply seem to be moving away from them? At the end of the day, Grand Seiko focuses on how the watch wears on your wrist, not the fashion of the moment.
Big watches are harder to wear, heavy watches too. A polished case is easier to clean up and polish. Lume wears out over time. I don’t know, call me crazy, but this seems like a better way to think about designing for the long term. Shiny surfaces, and parts that don’t naturally breakdown over time (lume).
We all know certain brands with small cases and long lugs, making a 36mm case wear like a 42mm Submariner. Or brands claiming that the watch is large because it is a Pilot watch, and therefore it should be massive. But with Grand Seiko everything is in balance and I dare to say that most of their watches wear very similar in feeling no matter the measured case size. A 37mm dress watch and a 41mm sport watch, both sit on the wrist with the same level of fit. Even their 44mm-ish diver wears like their smaller 40mm watches.
And it’s not just in the lug size, but in the entire design of the case shapes. Making them look visually well balanced on your wrist — they feel balanced on your wrist. Playing with light through angles and polishing to visually reduce, or increase the perceived size.
The focus on “how does this look on your wrist” over “this looks cool here” feels so evident in every Grand Seiko I have tried, that I find myself wondering if other brands wear their watches before they start production.
Practical Changes: Evolution 9
If you haven’t heard, the latest Grand Seiko watch line is their Evolution 9. I’ve reviewed, own, love, the SBGE285 from this line. The hallmark thinking behind this line of watches has been summed up by Grand Seiko (in various areas all over, and notably in the GS9 Club videos) as:
- Lowering the center of gravity on your wrist
- Adding in more lume to the watch overall
- Creating a sporty vibe which still works well in an office, but also with less formal clothes (as they have seen the trend towards more casual attire)
Let me flip this around. Rolex responded to changing trends in lifestyles by making their watches larger. Yes, they did other things, but to the end user, that’s what Rolex did — oh and put the Jubilee on the GMT-Master II. Grand Seiko responded to the same trends (much later down the road) by completely redesigning how they think about a watch, creating 9 principles/rules for the design of these to follow, and outputting some astoundingly amazing watches which wear even better.
A 41mm GMT (SBGE285) which disappears on your wrist and slips under your shirt cuff as if it were a 39mm dress watch is really something to experience.
The ability for these watches to co-existence with your wrist, and your life is something I’ve yet to experience in another brand. One of the designers said something to the effect of how people are dressing less formal now, but still going into the office, and how there is a strong desire to have a single watch that can do it all — that’s Evolution 9.
It’s not just small changes, it’s a fundamental shift in design thinking, to create a fundamentally more ideal watch for current times. Tudor kind of has started on this path with the BB58 and Pelagos 39, but Grand Seiko is taking it to the next level.
And it works. It works very well.
Pricing & Buying
Long time lovers of Grand Seiko will tell you that prices for Grand Seiko have moved up market. New buyers will tell you about all the amazing value to be had throughout the lineup. Most of the pricing ranges from something in line with other luxury brands, to a stupidly good deal.
But, here’s the part I like the most: you can see all the pricing online, and click to buy the watch online (for most models, only exclusives are harder to find). And in fact by buying online, Grand Seiko gives you an additional year of warranty. They reward you for buying the easy way!
To recap that: wide availability of the popular models, and you can order online and get rewarded for doing so. That’s quite something.
And the pricing is really good too, with a much wider range than most luxury brands. Which opens the brand to a lot more potential buyers — with all the watches receiving the same level of care and finishing regardless of price.
Outstanding value for your money and ease of purchase. That’s a winning recipe.
That, as verbose as it was, is why Grand Seiko is a brand to strongly consider. Oh, yeah, and that whole thing about them having some of the best case finishing in the world is true also, forgot about that.
But so is that thing about the lack of micro-adjust on most of their bracelets. Which can range from annoying, to a non-issue.
Still, Grand Seiko is quite something. And while I love Swiss Brands, my heart is pulled to Grand Seiko.
But why do I prefer Grand Seiko right now? I prefer it because I buy a watch to be something I enjoy looking at, and love using whenever I want to wear it, and I believe strongly that Grand Seiko does that better than anyone else right now — at least in the sub-$20k watch market.
That is to say, I prefer Grand Seiko because I buy a watch to be a watch, and Grand Seiko is making the best watches.