Grand Seiko SBGJ011G
It may surprise you to learn that, in the 1920s, 95% of the cars actually produced in Japan were done so not by Japanese manufacturers, but by Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. Today, by contrast, Japan is the second largest passenger car-producing nation in the world, following only China, with the United States slipping down to fourth. Japan has spanned a century by moving from the production of poor quality domestic-only commercial vehicles to giving the world class-leading gems like the Nissan GT-R and the Lexus LFA. The question is, can the Japanese do the same with watches?
Watch our video review of the Grand Seiko Hi-Beat GMT SBGJ011G and theRolex GMT-Master II 116710 LN
The reason Japanese car manufacture has done so well is twofold: precision and performance. Although the nation has, for a long time, been trying to crack the luxury car market with varying degrees of success, it's towards the more affordable end that Japan has really made its mark. To think that, at one point, the idea of a car starting first time every time, not immediately turning into rust and not having panel gaps big enough to lose a finger was pure fiction—that is, until the Japanese got involved.
Grand Seiko provides high-end watchmaking with a Japanese flavour
When the Toyota Motor Corporation introduced just-in-time manufacturing—where only the materials needed are supplied, and as the name suggests, supplied just in time—it changed car production forever. It was the beginning of the end for many a slovenly car maker, resulting in engines that could spin over 8,000 rpm while maintaining a level of reliability that put the rest of the world to shame.
Japanese watchmaking follows a similar, if not yet concluded, story. Shortly after the 1872 change from Japan's old system of time—which had a variable day length depending on the season—to western time, Kintaro Hattori founded Seikosha—the 'House of Exquisite Workmanship'.
Hattori, like Toyota and many other Japanese car manufacturers, was inspired by the exports coming in from the west in the creation of his products, using Swiss movements in his pocket watches and giving them western names like 'Time Keeper'. But supply of parts was slow, and so a determined Hattori developed his own, including the hardest-to-make of all, the balance spring.
Not even the destruction of the Seikosha factory in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake could discourage a then 63-year-old Hattori. In just a year he had rebuilt it, and to mark the emergence of his brand from the ashes, Hattori gave the first watch built in the new factory a Japanese name: Seiko.
The quality of the dial is something Grand Seiko prides itself in
In 1956, after Hattori's death, the Marvel, the first ground-up Seiko, was released. A marked improvement on previous watches, it gave Seiko the confidence to pursue something never achieved by a Japanese watchmaker: a certificate of chronometric excellence from the Swiss.
The attempt to build such a watch was delivered by way of a challenge between the two Seiko factories, which competed against each other to build the better watch. While one factory worked on what it called the 'King Seiko,' the other built a watch based upon the Marvel, and gave it the name ’Grand Seiko’ . This Grand Seiko became the first Japanese watch ever to receive official Swiss certification.
The two factories continued to compete, trying to best each other on both accuracy and finish. The result was a 1967 second and third place finish in the Swiss chronometer trials for each factory respectively, leading to a merger of King and Grand to simply Grand Seiko. But the relentless advent of quartz spelt the end of Seiko's high-end arm, which went into hibernation for over a quarter of a century.
Against the odds, Seiko reintroduced Grand Seiko once again in 1998, building a new factory dedicated to the production of its flagship watches. But by this point the Seiko brand had developed a global reputation for its cheap but well-made sports watches, and so it took 12 years to perfect its product within Japan before opening the floodgates to the world in 2010.
This SBGJ011G is one of the new breed of Grand Seiko, and at first glance, this GMT timekeeper looks just like a Seiko. But it doesn't cost £600 just like a Seiko—it costs £6,000. To an audience familiar with Seiko's high street jewellery chain offerings, it's hard not to baulk at that revelation. £6,000?! That's the cost of ... well, perhaps the most ubiquitous GMT watch of all, Rolex's GMT-Master II.
The quality is easily the equivalent of Rolex, but is it as desirable?
So, a game of top trumps then. Both manufacturers can happily claim movements that adhere strictly to the moniker 'in-house', so let's compare the specs further. The Rolex calibre 3186, ticking eight times per second, ekes out 48 hours from its mainspring, which is fairly typical; the calibre 9S86 in the Grand Seiko, however, is a different story. Ten ticks per second gives a smoother sweep of the second hand, yet despite doing 25% more work, the Grand Seiko's power reserve is actually up on the Rolex by seven hours for a total of 55.
How is this possible? MEMS, or Micro Electrical Mechanical Systems. Just as the Japanese car makers were able to build higher-revving, more powerful engines that were smaller and more economic, so too can Japanese watchmakers. By using advanced photolithographic technology from Seiko's semi-conductor division, usually used in the manufacture of microprocessors, the parts in the escapement are printed with light to one thousandth of a millimetre.
This kind of tolerance opens up a whole new perspective on watchmaking, and Grand Seiko has used that to its fullest potential. The balance wheel is adjusted to within one thousandth of a gram for supreme balance and less wasted energy. The escape wheel and pallet fork, they've both been skeletonised for a 25% weight reduction, and that means they need less power to move, making them more efficient. There are even little vertical divots on the escape wheel teeth for greater retention of lubrication for reduced friction.
But it's not all machine. Every tooth on every wheel is hand polished to reduce friction even further, while every coil on the balance spring is spaced by hand for a uniform beat. The result is 55 hours of power from a 36,000 vph movement.
That's on the inside, but what about the outside? The Rolex is dressed in a particularly corrosion resistant 904L stainless steel to complement its 100 metres of water resistance, and that seems pretty decent. The Grand Seiko does away with steel altogether and uses the darling material of the armed forces: titanium.
The movement features a number of technological innovations
Titanium is usually a brutish material, rough and dark and industrial, but on the Grand Seiko it's as elegant as steel. Multiple facets between brushed and polished metal make Rolex's efforts seem rather one dimensional. It's a technique that's mirrored on the dial, with the faceted hands and markers defined with jewel-like clarity.
What could the next chapter in Grand Seiko's story be I wonder? It seems such a stretch to believe that people could ever set themselves apart from Swiss watchmaking enough to give it a chance, but the same could have been said about Japanese car makers some 50 years ago. But even for Grand Seiko's automotive equivalents, the luxury market still hovers just out of reach, so close they could almost touch it. Will they ever get there?
Well, let's not forget that Swiss watchmaking was once a cheap alternative to French and British, and it took about a century to turn that attitude around—and they really did turn it around. There could be hope for Grand Seiko yet.
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Other watches you may be interested in: Rolex Daytona 116500 LN Rolex Submariner 14060 Rolex Explorer II 16570 Rolex Datejust 1601 Rolex GMT-Master II 16710