In-Depth: An Exquisite Grand Seiko With The World’s Most Beautiful Spring-Drive Movement
“You must pay the price, if you wish to secure the blessing.” – Andrew Jackson
The first Grand Seiko, which was released in 1960, used the caliber 3180 movement, which for enthusiasts has become synonymous with the watch itself. Though Grand Seiko cases exist in a wide range of designs, the classic contour of the 3180 (also sometimes called the “First”) has proven irresistible to both Grand Seiko and to enthusiasts and collectors, and has been used, over the past 20 years, in quite a few limited editions, as well as in regular production models. The first of the new breed debuted in 2001: SBGW004, which was a Japan-only watch, and this was followed by limited editions in 2013, 2017, and 2020, as well as regular production models.
Of the two 2020 limited editions, the Spring Drive caliber 9R02 platinum model was the most expensive – by a lot; $103,000 vs. $29,000 for the gold, hand-wound, conventional mechanical model with the caliber 9S64. It’s the most expensive watch Grand Seiko has ever produced, limited edition or otherwise, and while the watch is indisputably beautiful, the six-figure price tag predictably, and justifiably, inserts itself into the conversation, especially for a brand that became famous for offering quality at a price that significantly undercut the competition. Before digging into what that might or might not mean, let’s take a closer look at SBGZ005.
The watch is, at first glance, a rather unassuming piece of watchmaking – that, at least, is classic Grand Seiko, in which understatement is de rigeur, and the philosophy is to let the quality of materials and execution speak for themselves. Unless you knew what you were looking at, or had especially good antennae for detecting low-key examples of subdued expressions of masterful craftsmanship at close range, you might not give it a second glance.
In this respect, it reminds me of another extremely diffident but very elevated watch: the long out-of-production Patek Philippe Ref. 3939 minute repeater tourbillon, which wears its complexity and craft so lightly that they’re essentially invisible – as inside baseball a watch as Patek has ever released. That piece, in its absolute refusal to condescend even slightly to the impulse to peacock, may be the most uncompromisingly Swiss wristwatch ever made.
The Grand Seiko Kintaro Hattori 140th Anniversary Limited Edition SBGZ005 is, by contrast, a bit more overt in its appeal, thanks to the enormous care taken over the hands and dial furniture. It comes as no surprise to anyone who’s been following Grand Seiko for the last few years that the quality is superb, but it continues to be a source of amazement to me that the hands and markers of so many watches from other luxury brands seem perfunctory by comparison. Rolex is an exception; the really fine quality of the dials, hands, and indexes on even the least expensive Rolex watch is as much a rebuke to industry standards as Grand Seiko’s is, though Rolex and GS diverge in terms of the visual effects they’re after.
With Grand Seiko in general, and with the SBGZ005 in particular, you have an almost gem-like quality to the diamond-cut markers and hands. And as with all GS watches, the play of light is mesmerizing to watch. The razor-sharp transitions between the various surfaces and the almost implausible perfection of each surface make a dial-side experience that any brilliant-cut diamond might envy. The indexes at the quarters, for instance, each have a total of 12 distinct visible surfaces (if you include the vertical flanks), and each one is distinct and mirror bright; the other indexes have eight facets. That’s a total of 112 facets winking at you. The effect is very similar to what you get with black-polished steel surfaces in movements, where the reflection is either uniformly white, black, or grey.
The dial has a very subtle patterned etched into it, which, when we first covered the watch, a Community member noticed resembles the pattern on the inner surface of a Japanese suribachi, the traditional Japanese kitchen mortar. The pattern is called kushinome, and it’s created with a kind of comb which is dragged across the inner clay surface (the name means “comb pattern”). Whether deliberate or not, the pattern provides a background texture that adds to the richness of the dial, and softens what might otherwise have been a stark effect. The indexes and hands are white gold – the seconds hand on the watch we shot for this story is made of something a little unusual. GS says it’s tempered platinum, which in our studio shots, picks up blue highlights that weren’t evident in the press images.
Despite its small size (37.5mm x 9.6mm), SBGZ005 has a pleasant heft, thanks to the platinum case, both in the hand and on the wrist. Grand Seiko cases are sometimes criticized for their thickness, but the proportions feel just right this time around. The 44GS cases from Grand Seiko, with their pronounced facets and sharp transitions from one plane to the next, are a beautiful and iconic presence in the Grand Seiko lineup, but the 3180 case design offers a slightly more subdued take on the possibilities of Zaratsu polishing. You really get a sense that Grand Seiko set out to create something that epitomizes the entire history of Grand Seiko and condenses it into a single timepiece; the feeling of both physical and symbolic density of the whole watch radiates a sense of imperturbable dignity.
For much of the history of Grand Seiko, the aspiration of the engineers and artisans making the movements was to double down on reliability and accuracy, with aesthetics taking a back seat to performance. Of course, uncompromising functionality has an aesthetic all its own. A consequence of this approach is that Grand Seiko movements usually exhibit, if not fine hand finishing, certainly extremely precise machining, with mirror-bright polished steelwork and razor-sharp transitions between the surfaces and flanks of plates and bridges.
If you want to get a better idea of the high standard of precision machining in typical Grand Seiko movements, there’s an excellent and very thorough tear-down over at The Naked Watchmaker (of a 44GS-cased Hi-Beat). The impression you get is of a watch which, in addition to the aesthetic flourishes in the case, dial, dial furniture, and hands, is very strongly built (the robust winding rotor attachment and crown tube are just two examples) and which is designed to work reliably for a lifetime (probably more than one).
Real hand finishing, with all the skill and expenditure of considerable amounts of additional time that it entails, has historically come not from Grand Seiko, but from Credor, with the most famous examples being the Eichi and Eichi II watches. These watches used the Spring Drive calibers 7R08A and 7R14 (the first was done with plates and bridges in maillechort, or German silver) which are both hand-wound. Hand-wound Spring Drive movements are a rarity for Grand Seiko (although the first Spring Drive watch from 1999 – SBDW001 – was hand-wound).
In 2016, Grand Seiko released the Grand Seiko Spring Drive 8-Day, with caliber 9R01. In 2019, for the 20th anniversary of Spring Drive, Grand Seiko released two new hand-wound Spring Drive movements. These are the high-end caliber 9R02, which is essentially a next-generation 7R14, and the 9R31, which has the same basic architecture as the 9R02, but with much simpler finishing, and without the Torque Return System of the 9R02.
The additional decorative embellishments to the 9R02 include the bell-flower motif on the mainspring barrel, an elaborate inner boundary between the two upper bridges, mirror-polished countersinks, and hand-applied, rounded anglage pretty much everywhere the Micro Artist Studio could put it. This type of anglage is unusual – in general, anglage is a more or less flat, angled transition between the upper surface of a bridge and the flank proper; Philippe Dufour uses a very beautiful, rounded anglage in his Simplicity watches.
While the standard of case finishing and overall very high-quality in the dial and hands is, in the SBGZ005, exactly what we have come to expect from Grand Seiko, it’s the execution and finish of the 9R02 that elevates the watch from the merely luxurious to the genuinely exceptional. Since the first Credor Eichi debuted, the family of movements of which it was the first – 7R08, 7R14, and now the 9R02 – have gradually but noticeably become more and more refined in design. While the 7R08 is nothing to sneeze at, to put it mildly, the 9R02 in person is as gasp-inducing a piece of watchmaking as any hardcore movement lover could ever hope to see.
While at its most basic, the vocabulary of classic high-end movement finishing is essentially Swiss, it is with very few exceptions (Philippe Dufour being one of them) not consistently practiced in its homeland. This is merely to say that excellence is by definition exceptional; after all, it’s not as if the average Grand Seiko is finished to the level of a Dufour, or of the 9R02, either. However, the finish of caliber 9R02 is indeed a study in excellence, and it’s also a very Japanese – and very Grand Seiko – reinterpretation of the idioms of high-end movement finishing, both in its details and in the obsessive refinement of its execution.
It is a cliché of Grand Seiko writing to, at some point, bring up Japanese swordmaking as an analogy. Well, it’s apt. I’ve seen a few examples of very high-quality katanas in museums and, on one occasion, at a swordsmith’s studio in Japan – and the blades looked as if they were dreamed into existence; it hardly seemed credible that they could have been created with the rough-looking tools of the forge. By the same token, the 9R02 seems less a hand-made mechanism and more something which has appeared by some process of spontaneous generation out of a Platonic realm of idealized Grand Seiko watches.
It has to some extent rightly been said that you can look at the 9R02 as an homage to the Simplicity. In both certain details (that engraved gold plate, for instance) and in general philosophy, the Simplicity caliber and the 9R02 are of a kind. But I think the 9R02 stands apart, and on its own merits, on both aesthetic and technical grounds. What it is, at the end of the day, is simply the most beautifully designed and finished Spring Drive movement ever to come down the pike.
This is an extremely expensive watch, even by the not admittedly very restrained standards of luxury watchmaking. At $103,000, for a limited edition of 50 watches, the field seems at first to be rich with alternatives. Even Patek, which can get right out at the very frisky end of pricing, offers a platinum Calatrava, with the hand-wound mechanical caliber 215, for just north of $40,000. However, the Calatrava uses what is at this point something of a legacy movement.
The caliber 215 was introduced in 1974, and at 21.9mm in diameter, or 9 ¾ lignes, is on the small side as well (if one of the criteria important to you is a reasonable match between movement dimensions and case size). Comparing the 215 to the 9R02 – and a platinum Calatrava to the SBGZ005 – is, in any case, an apples-to-oranges comparison that really doesn’t do justice to either watch. The Calatrava is a piece of very conservative and traditional Swiss legacy watchmaking, while the SBGZ005 is a deliberate exercise in exceptionalism in technology, design, and execution.
A more useful comparison might be to hand-finished watches from independent watchmakers, and here we start to see pricing that approximates the cost of the SBGZ005. Laurent Ferrier’s Gallet Microrotor is a time-only automatic watch in platinum which debuted in 2015 at $95,000, in a limited edition of 18 pieces. Rexhep Rexhepi’s Chronométre Contemporaine, in platinum, is as refined a piece of Swiss watchmaking as you could want, and it retails for CHF 58,000.
On the other hand, the Greubel Forsey Balancier Contemporaine, which is also a time-only watch, albeit with complex architecture and very high-quality finishing, is $195,000, in white gold – inexpensive, certainly, by Greubel Forsey standards, but extremely expensive by anyone else’s.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that another Grand Seiko, with this movement, in platinum, debuted in 2019 – the 20th Anniversary Of Spring Drive SBGZ001. That watch was markedly less expensive than SBGZ005, in a more elaborate case and in a smaller production run (30 pieces); although, at $76,000 – then a record for Grand Seiko – you’re not exactly buying that one with change from the swear jar either.
Now these watches, plus the SBGZ005, pretty much have in common only that they’re all time-only (with or without power reserve), and that they all represent, on the part of their makers, an ambitious shot at creating a watch without regard for economy of any kind. What seems obvious to me is that at this level, price and objective specifics don’t necessarily dovetail. They do to some extent – in every case, we have obviously high-quality movement finishing, for example, albeit undertaking with different philosophies and priorities. But it’s not as if you can say, “Okay, this movement took X number of hours to finish, and this, X-1; therefore, the first is more ‘worth it’ than the second.” Certainly, price has exactly zip to do with the case material – platinum confers prestige, and for sure, it’s harder to machine than gold or steel, but the premium brands charge for platinum cases has at least as much to do with its intangible status value as anything else (and as we discussed in our in-depth look at the history of platinum, it is in fact not any more expensive than gold).
When it comes to pricing for luxury watches, I always end up thinking of two things. One is a passage from an article by Alan Downing, a.k.a Watchbore, on Timezone.com, in which he wrote, “I am usually asked two questions. The first is, ‘is my watch worth what I paid for it?’ and the second is, ‘is my watch a good watch?’ The answer to the first question is always ‘no.’ The answer to the second is, ‘it depends.'” The second is the old saw about Lamborghinis – if you want one and you can afford it, the question is not, “Is it worth it?” It’s, “What color?”
An End And A Beginning
SBGZ005, the Grand Seiko Kintaro Hattori 160th Anniversary Limited Edition, was obviously intended to appeal very specifically to Grand Seiko enthusiasts, and it was also obviously intended to be a kind of one-watch summary of not only the entire history of Grand Seiko’s aspirations, but Seiko’s aspirations as a company as well, going all the way back to the founder.
The price is absolutely jarring, especially at first. And, too, Grand Seiko has been doing an awful lot of enthusiastic communicating about limited-edition watches, often at prices that would’ve been inconceivable for the brand even just a few years ago. The price for SBGZ005 may be on par with some of its competition, but the alteration in brand identity is happening with relative rapidity. It’s not just that GS is expanding into the (very) high end, it’s that they’re doing it at such a clip, I worry it’ll create a disruption of the perceived core identity that put GS on the map internationally in the first place. Of course, that may be exactly what Grand Seiko is after.
For me, as a decades-long Grand Seiko enthusiast (fanboy would be fair, if I’m honest), what redeems the whole enterprise is that the quality of the watches at the high end is exceptional, and in the case of SBGZ005, it is exceptional and then some. The cost is a shock in the context of Grand Seiko’s past; in the context of its competition, it is high, but not unreasonable and certainly not unprecedented.
All of the decisions made, from a design perspective and from a watchmaking perspective, have been carried out with an obvious commitment to not only obsessive perfectionism, but also to employing crafts and techniques that sit at the top of the vocabulary of fine watchmaking. To spend time with SBGZ005 is to increasingly forget about the price tag and fall in love with its plethora of charms.
Are there 50 people in the world with the means and love for Grand Seiko who will feel the same way? I’m betting the answer is yes. Grand Seiko is obviously making the same bet, and while it represents a bit of a gamble, this brand has a history of throwing the dice to win.
The Grand Seiko Kintaro Hattori 160th Anniversary Limited Edition SBGZ005: case, 37.5mm x 9.6mm, platinum, with sapphire crystals front and back; white-gold diamond-polished applied markers and hands; water resistance 30 meters. Movement, Spring Drive caliber 9R02, 84-hour power reserve; twin mainspring barrels with Torque Return System to recover train energy and return it to the mainsprings; antimagnetic to 4,800 A/m, hand-wound with 39 jewels and maximum daily deviation in rate of ±1 second per day/±15 seconds per month. Boutique-only limited edition of 50 pieces worldwide; price, $103,000. Find out more at Grand Seiko USA.