Grand Seiko SBGD001
If you’ve been around watches a little while, you’ll know all about Grand Seiko . In fact, even if you’re new, you may have heard talk of this high-end Japanese contender infiltrating our hearts and minds—and indeed, Swiss profits. But that’s relative to its closest competitor, Rolex , with watches around the £5,000 mark. This though, this is ten times that. This is a £50,000 Grand Seiko.
If you’ve not heard the story of Grand Seiko before, here’s a quick catchup. Seiko was established in 1881 after founder Kintaro Hattori decided he could take on the Swiss, first importing parts, then making his own, with the ultimate goal to win the Swiss accuracy trials with a watch created by building two competing factories, King Seiko and Grand Seiko, finally taking the prize in 1968 for the most accurate mechanical watch, although losing out overall to the new Swiss quartz calibre, the Beta 21, and subsequently causing the Swiss to cancel the trials altogether, culminating in the 1969 release of the quartz Seiko Astron and the quiet disbandment of both King Seiko and Grand Seiko … and breathe.
The changing landscape heralded the achievements of King and Grand Seiko—and of much of the Swiss industry as well—irrelevant for the new era of electronic watches, but with the luxury mechanical watch gaining new ground in the run-up to the new millennium, it was time for Seiko’s high-end division to resurface. In 2010, Grand Seiko—just Grand Seiko—was brought out of hibernation and made internationally available once again. Six years later, and the watchmaker introduced this, the SBGD001, an unassuming title for what would be the company’s biggest gamble yet.
But the gamble gets even bigger, because this flagship Grand Seiko watch doesn’t even have the much sought-after mechanical escapement collectors are looking for at this price point, let alone a complicated one. Instead, it has the very thing that wiped it out last century: a simple, time-only quartz. It seems absolutely bonkers, and perhaps even slightly insensitive, to fit this halo piece with such a controversial technology—a bit like having your killer’s ashes spread on your grave, perhaps—but this isn’t any old quartz—this is Spring Drive.
Spring Drive was to be the next big thing after quartz, an electronic regulator that didn’t need a battery. Invented by Seiko engineer Yoshikazu Akahane in 1977, it delivered the one thing a normal quartz watch never could: sweeping seconds. To tick four or five times a second drained a quartz battery down to an unusable degree, and so the single tick per second was settled upon. With Spring Drive, however, the power source, a self-winding mainspring, would never run out.
In fact, Spring Drive goes one step further. Thanks to the incredible genius of its mechanism, instead of a fast tick like a mechanical watch, it gets a completely smooth sweep. It’s uncanny to watch, so serene and unflustered, hiding the complexity of what’s going on within. It all starts with a mainspring, like any mechanical watch, and that spring turns a wheel, the Glide Wheel. That Glide Wheel spins past an electromagnet, which generates a current. That current is fed into a quartz crystal, which regulates the watch. But instead of using a motor to drive the hands like a typical watch, the signal from the quartz is sent back to the electromagnet to control the rotational speed of the Glide Wheel, which directly connects to the smoothly sweeping second hand.
It took over 230 patents, 600 prototypes and two decades to get the thing to work, and in 2016 the technology was chosen to power Grand Seiko’s biggest challenge yet: the SBGD001.
It’s the £50,000 question: can Grand Seiko make a watch worth as much as the SBGD001 costs? Starting with the basics, it’s constructed around a 43mm wide, 13.2mm thick platinum case, so in terms of raw material it’s getting a good head start—but that’s a bit of a vulgar way of digesting this watch, and is certainly not the impression of value I think Grand Seiko really wanted anyone to have.
It’s not so much what this watch is made of as where it was made, and that’s at Seiko’s Micro Artist Studio in Shiojiri. It’s here that Seiko gathers its most talented craftspeople to build its most exquisite watches, with the intention of passing down traditional watchmaking skills through the generations. Perhaps that sounds a bit saccharin, but it’s entirely true. Every employee there has been hand-selected for their talent and dedication to the craft.
For the SBGD001, that craft starts with the dial. If the case is a Grand Seiko’s frame, the dial is its canvas, and for the SBGD001, that canvas is incredibly special indeed. It’s common for Grand Seiko to base its dials on the incredible landscapes surrounding the workshops, and the SBGD001 is no different. A crisp layer of fresh, crystalline snow from the Nagano mountains is the inspiration here, with the representation accurately portrayed through the use of diamond dust.
And as indulgent as that is, individual diamond flakes catching the light in a wholly organic way, it’s not even the most impressive thing about the dial. What is the most impressive thing about the dial are the hands and markers. Even being used to the exceptional quality of a Grand Seiko, the finish on these things is out of this world. Every facet is so deeply mirrored that they can actually be used as, well, mirrors—and that’s no exaggeration. That this finish was achieved by hand can scarcely be believed.
Even being unfair and trying to catch the reflections of the undersides of the hands yields yet more sensational quality. The heat-blued smooth seconds is uniformly brushed, whilst the hours and minutes are bead-blasted. It’s a level of attention to detail that, quite frankly, isn’t expected anywhere—yet there it is.
That’s the front—what has the Micro Artist Studio got in store for the back? This calibre 9R01 is the Studio’s first Spring Drive project, and with it being such a different and unusual technology, the watchmakers there wanted to make the design of the movement reflect that. The large, single piece bridge certainly achieves it; it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s a simplistic approach that underplays just how complex this movement is, requiring three barrels and 307 parts to run for its full reserve of eight days.
It may seem a disappointment at first, hiding the mechanism inside, but it serves a very different purpose: to demonstrate the unbeatable skill of the Micro Artist Studio watchmakers. There’s no mess of parts to hide behind, no complexity to fool the eye; the finish applied by the watchmakers stands out to the extreme, almost demanding to be scrutinised. And you should, because the twig-applied polish—that’s not a joke, they really do use sticks from the Gentian plant because of the optimum softness and ability to hold abrasive compound—on the bevelled edges is nothing short of perfect, perhaps even the best in the world. By the way, if you were wondering about the shape of the bridge and if it’s supposed to represent something, you’d be right. That’s the profile of Mount Fuji, with the Glide Wheel the sun poking up behind. Every little detail has been painstakingly considered and perfectly achieved, from the heat-blued screws to the engraved and filled text. It’s one of only a very few movements to receive the Micro Artist Studio motif, the Kikyo flower—which is of course expertly applied.
Just as Seiko approached the challenge of beating the Swiss in a unique and innovative way in the 1960s, so too has it entered the world of extreme high-end watchmaking. The SBGD001 somehow achieves the ability to be reserved, polite and delicate, all the while it’s also like nothing else ever made before. It’s a love letter to the art of watchmaking by the finest watchmakers in Japan, told in a language unique to them alone—only this time, in it’s a class of one.
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