Feature: Here’s Why Grand Seiko Is Better Than Rolex
Why are you here? Why are you watching this? I’m going to assume you like watches, or at the very least saw the title and were intrigued. I mean you’ve got to like watches at least a little bit to be here; it’s a pretty niche topic to be exploring if you don’t. So, follow-up question: why do you like watches? I’m sure there are many reasons, and I expect the ability to tell the time is pretty far down that list. Here are what I think are the three main reasons—and three reasons why Grand Seiko just might be better than Rolex.
The first reason why we choose to spend our hard-earned on an old-fashioned technology may be a well-beaten drum when it comes to mechanical watchmaking, but like it or not, heritage is here to stay. It’s a bit of a buzzword these days that can mean anything from inventing the watch itself to purchasing a long-dead brand and making rubbish watches under the name.
What I mean is that on the face of it, heritage doesn’t hold much water anymore. Little white lies here and there, exaggerations, bold claims and outright deception have soured many a collector from the notion. When a brand mentions it these days, the consequence is usually a lot of eye-rolling.
Even when it is truly relevant, as it is for both Rolex and Grand Seiko, it’s used to such a poetic degree that it becomes a simpering mess. Founders are painted in the light of deities, and small details blown up out of all proportion. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that a watchmaker revolutionised watchmaking. A few of them did, but they can’t all have done, that’s impossible.
Once you’ve got your PR-resistant goggles on, however, and you can see the stories for what they are, the origins and existences of both Rolex and Grand Seiko make for very interesting consumption. Both brands really did revolutionise watchmaking, destabilising norms and causing a cultural shift. With Rolex, it was with the wristwatch, a forerunner in the changing attitudes from the previously favoured pocket watch.
Seiko was founded in 1881, Chuo City, Tokyo, Japan
For Grand Seiko, or rather the Seiko group as a whole, it wasn’t just in destabilising the top Swiss watchmakers—it brought the entire industry to its knees. We know that Seiko’s quartz Astron spelt the end of the mechanical watch for several decades, but the damage to Swiss watchmaking was actually self-inflicted.
After the Swiss inherited the business of watchmaking from the French and the British, it developed a bit of a monopoly, one the Japanese—or rather, Seiko founder Kintaro Hattori specifically—admired very much. In his quest to have his work acknowledged by the Swiss, his company built a watch so good, it bested every Swiss offering at competition. The only rebuttal the Swiss had was the state-funded Beta 21 quartz movement. When it comes to the quartz crisis, the Swiss made the first move.
So, although Rolex shaped a lot of what we know and love today about the mechanical wristwatch, it didn’t do it alone; Grand Seiko, on the other hand, single-handedly took on the Swiss and won.
Take the reduced accuracy, positional variation and temperature sensitivity of a mechanical watch and put it side-by-side with something more modern, and really there’s no reason to choose one. At least, that’s how I expect many people for whom mechanical watches are a bore would see it.
The reality is that at the heart of mechanical watchmaking, it’s less about what the product can do and more about how it does it that really gets the palms clammy. I imagine most people with a vague knowledge of luxury brands would have heard of Patek Philippe, for example, and that it’s very expensive—but how many would really know why it is very expensive? “It’s a Patek Philippe,” they’d say. Yeah, but why.
We know why. You’re here because you know why and because you appreciate why. And if you’ve been here a while, you’d probably even be able to state exactly why Patek Philippe isn’t the be-all and end-all, and would be able to state at least three brands you’d rather have instead. Go on, give it a go. See how deep you are in all this.
So, Rolex. Craftsmanship? Sure, especially these days. Solid, well-finished, nicely detailed. Simple, in a rugged way, but executed to a high level. Solid movement, in-house, again pretty nicely decorated—if you could see it. This is a bit of an Achilles heel for Rolex really, because unlike, say, Omega or Patek Philippe or even Longines, it was never supposed to be a finely hewn luxury product. A Rolex sports watch is a hammer; it does a job, does it well, and doesn’t flinch whilst it’s doing it.
Seiko was founded by Kintaro Hattori
I mean, that’s part of the appeal, but alongside something that truly falls under the craftsmanship banner and it’s easy to be left cold. An older Rolex still has that tool-to-do-a-job charm—a new one is neither one thing nor the other.
Grand Seiko, however, phew. Whatever craftsmanship is in Japanese, that’s its middle name. Hand finishing, complex detailing, beautiful creativity, new facets that reveal themselves every time you look at it. The company’s earned a bit of a reputation for making dials that could be hung on a wall in the world’s smallest art gallery, and it’s a reputation that’s hard to dispute.
And it’s not just that it looks pretty, but it’s been executed with a level of perfection reserved only for the very crème de la crème. Nowhere on a Rolex will you catch a reflection so crisp; nowhere on a Rolex can you scrutinise so invasively and come up clean.
Now, I’m sure we’d all say we don’t care what other people think about our watches but—come on. We do. Even if it’s just a little bit. To get a compliment on your watch is a day-maker, even a week-maker if it’s not been a great week. You’ve got to hand it to Rolex on this one—wear one of those suckers and you’ll be sure to make a lot of inferior wrists very jealous.
Although, experience speaks to the opposite. Wearing a Rolex, you’ll certainly get more attention from that same crowd that knows Patek Philippe is expensive but doesn’t know why, but this is the attention you’ll get: “Is that Rolex real?”
Believe me, I speak from experience; every man and his damn dog wants to know if your Rolex is fake. And those who know better? Nah, they’re not interested. They probably also have one, and chances are it’ll be better than your one. If that’s the case, they’ll let you know, don’t worry.
It’s the world of the mainstream. Bowers and Wilkins, Leica, Gucci—all great brands, all very familiar terms in the average person’s Lexicon. But we’re interested in watches—that’s why we’re here, remember—so style goes a little deeper than the name on the dial. Well, kind of.
Grand Seiko was created in 1960 by Daini Seikosha and Suwa Seikosha
I’ll tell you what’s even better than a compliment on your Rolex—a compliment on your Grand Seiko. Not only do you get to feel chuffed that someone has recognised the beauty and quality of a watch you chose to purchase, but you also get to explain what it is, because undoubtedly no one will have heard of it. You can tell them everything I told you in part one, and they should come away enlightened. If they don’t then, well, that’s their fault. They shouldn’t have asked.
But there is an elevated sense of pride in wearing something that has a backstory, where the decision that led to its purchase consisted of more than just, “that’s what everyone wears.” Okay, so it makes us seem like nerds—for clarity, we are—but a passionate nerd is worth ten times an impassionate follower-of-the-herd. This is all starting to sound a bit hipster-ish.
I mean, it all depends on what you want, doesn’t it? The default is the default for a reason. Rolex is a very good brand, it makes very good watches and you will very much enjoy wearing one, but I think a Grand Seiko just offers that bit more. You have to work for it, you have to explain it; you’re way more likely to end up talking watches with someone wearing a Grand Seiko than you are a Rolex. At the very least, you’ll have the kind of conversation you’d rather have.
So, there you go. You popped in to catch some light content about watches and ended up getting psycho-analysed instead. Perhaps some of it rings true? Maybe you agree with my sentiments, even if you weren’t sure when you first walked in. Perhaps you disagree entirely, in which case I’ll have to ask how much you paid for your Rolex. Either way, it’s something to talk about, and when it comes to collecting watches, isn’t that the best thing of all?
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