Feature: Grand Seiko vs A. Lange & Söhne Dials
Never mind the movement, how about the bit we spend the majority of our time looking at when it comes to our watches—I am of course talking about the dial. With such prestige given to the whirring, ticking bits in the back, the dial is an often-overlooked facet of watchmaking that really doesn’t get the attention—or at least the appreciation—it deserves. So here we have two of the finest, from Grand Seiko and A. Lange & Söhne, to try and understand what makes a truly great dial.
The first thing that hits you with a timepiece’s countenance is the design. Take a Richard Mille, for example, a watch that relies of the business of detail to sell complexity and ingenuity. For sure, an instantly recognisable appearance, but perhaps not one that lends itself to the core facet of reading the time.
For the product developers behind these watches, it’s a balance of individuality and clarity that makes designing a dial so hard. Take the entire category of dive watches, for example: it’s almost impossible not to see flashes of Rolex Submariner in pretty much all and any, even though the diver that came before it, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, is surprisingly distinct.
When it comes to the imparting of information in a clear and succinct way, it’s hard to beat simplicity. Yet when it comes to making a mark and stamping out a persona, simplicity is the hardest way to do it. It becomes about nuanced detail, consideration to the nth degree, as A. Lange & Söhne’s Saxonia Thin aptly demonstrates.
Dials don’t get much simpler than this, yet you and I both know that even if the branding was removed from the surface, it would still be distinctly A. Lange & Söhne. Whilst the absence of a second hand and minute track may add to the minimalism, it’s what the German watchmaker does with all it has left that gives the dial such distinction.
Grand Seiko is a Japanese watch brand, and A. Lange & Söhne is a German watch brand
For a dress watch such as this, slender hands and markers are quite typical, however for the Saxonia Thin, this is pushed to the extreme to bring out that Germanic austerity that has become so synonymous with the brand. Everything has its place, there’s no more or no less than is needed. The sword-shaped hands draw the eye straight to their sharpened tips. The fonts are formal, but don’t show off. It’s a whisper and not a shout, the few words quietly said, unmissable.
Contrasted against the Grand Seiko, and despite being, on paper at least, not too dissimilar, the SBGA211G’s dial takes an entirely different approach. Unlike the Saxonia’s indifference to exacting timekeeping, the Snowflake is keen to make sure you don’t miss a single facet of information, to make the most of its Spring Drive accuracy and smooth sweep.
There’s the addition of the seconds, date and power reserve over the Saxonia, but don’t let that fool you—once again Grand Seiko has an aesthetic that defines itself clearly enough without reliance on those additional functions. The power reserve meter may be a hallmark of the Spring Drive, but the dial is equally recognisable without it.
The broad, glistening hands, jewel-like markers and raised branding may seem like small details, but they are the essence of a Grand Seiko dial. Okay, so this one has the incredible “snowflake” finish, a hand layered tundra that depicts the view from the Shinshu Watch Studio window, however its subtlety actually means the dial can’t rely on it for its identity. It’s a secondary reward for taking the time to explore the detail, yes, but the dial is no less Grand Seiko without it.
It’s beginning to sound like a broken record, but in terms of the fit and finish of your average dial, for many it’s a priority that sits very far down the line. The movement is the main contender for this particular crown, and whilst it may seem that the fascination for in-house may be a recent addition to the collector’s lexicon, it goes a lot further back than that.
When pocket watches were a big deal, making a movement wasn’t so much. Everyone did it. Really, a watchmaker prided itself on ingenuity, efficiency, technical achievement. The finish was important of course, but even the best watchmakers opted for a rather stark approach in comparison to what’s expected today. It’s a look the late George Daniels revived in his magnificent watches.
When pocket watches were no longer a big deal, however, and watchmakers were buying movements in—yes, even Patek Philippe, even Vacheron Constantin —the onus of excellence fell instead to finishing. The decoration of a movement became its badge of honour—and meanwhile the dial was left to fend for itself. Post-war depression meant flashy-looking watches just weren’t the thing, and so any luxury afforded by a higher-end manufacturer was limited to the inside only, and so it stayed for many a decade.
But that’s not to say the pared-back designs of those dials did not still adhere to same standards of quality, even if it wasn’t immediately apparent. When contrast is lacking and details are scant, there’s much a watchmaker can do with their skills to bring visual clarity back again.
The Grand Seiko Snowflake was first introduced in 2010
For the Saxonia Thin, it starts with materials, leveraging silver for the dial and white gold for the hands and markers. All very plush, but white on silver is hardly the last word in startling contrast, and so the dial becomes reliant on quality to operate at its best. That’s done with polishing, and not the kind you did to the school trophies in detention, but a kind that blends hand craftsmanship with engineering precision.
Every facet must be ripple free, every delineating edge infinitely crisp, such that the light catching flashes bright and dark to stand clearly against the frosted silver backdrop. It’s an identical principle used by the Grand Seiko, each mirrored surface a window into an alternate reality, and although those windows appear larger than on the Saxonia, and perhaps dazzle more brightly, it’s the achievement of such divine reflection on such a slender canvas that really gives the Saxonia’s merit away.
To master both delicacy and precision is the tell of a truly astounding watchmaker, from the impossible sharpness of the print to the depth of the polish; herein lie the calling cards of a level of quality that is limited only by the skill of the human hand.
The matter of value is so often considered in a very two-dimensional way, to see that something cheap is of greater value than something more expensive—however it is a discussion that yields far greater depth and nuance the more it is explored, particularly when it comes to watchmaking.
For instance, take A. Lange & Söhne’s approach to movement finishing. For most watchmakers, including those at the very top, finishing is a tiered system. An entry level product will be finished with a ceiling of quality in comparison to a flagship piece, and with good reason: spend the time and expertise finishing both to the same degree and all that happens is that the entry level pieces cease to be entry level.
That is, unless you’re A. Lange & Söhne, whose approach to finishing and quality control is identical from the very top to the very bottom. A wheel from this Saxonia will be indistinguishable from that of a Triple Split. Impossible, you might think, based on what you’ve just been told—until a single consideration is made: growth.
Patek Philippe is a big company. It is a company with over a thousand employees. It is a business, and businesses seek to expand. A. Lange & Söhne, on the other hand, is a tenth the size. This affords a level of attention to detail from every member of the family that just can’t be accommodated in a bigger organisation. In fact, it puts a halt to any consideration of growth at all, because, well, the margins just aren’t there. It can be as it is, but to grow, it would have to change.
The A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia was first introduced in 1994
This is where these two watches differ most, because Seiko as an organisation is gargantuan. It has a hundred times as many employees as A. Lange & Söhne, and this affords a different kind of value: quantities of scale. The automated precision manufacturing technology utilised by Seiko across its many avenues means that tiny, precise details can be executed at enormous scale with marginal cost—perfect for the junior brand, Seiko.
But for Grand Seiko, it provides a low-cost base onto which to apply more expenditure into the parts that count for people like us. Computer machined components can then be finished exclusively by hand, by a small selection of people who’ve shown great pride and skill in their work for Seiko. To work on a Grand Seiko watch is an enormous privilege, one that’s reflected in the excellence of the labour.
Where these two contrasting opposites meet is in the presentation of value. The Saxonia may be some two-and-a-half times more expensive than the Snowflake, but collectively it is of exceptional value when considered against its peers. By comparison, a Snowflake owner gets to enjoy a high level of finish thanks to the value of production afforded by Seiko’s larger operation. What that means for you and me is that we can enjoy some truly exceptional watchmaking that punches well above its weight.
There’s a reason these two brands, seemingly so dissimilar, that hail from opposite ends of the world, sit so well together. They both assume an attitude towards market dominance at all costs, choosing instead to value the craft in their own ways and bring something of a spirit of hope and dedication to the community. The dials of these watches read like the faces of a person who wears their heart firmly on their sleeve; from Grand Seiko’s internal celebration of its finest achievers to A. Lange & Söhne’s prioritisation of its passion over its commercial expansion, both companies mark a moment in history that makes now one of the very best times to be a watch enthusiast.
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