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Review: Grand Seiko SBGY003

I bet there are quite a few of you who are on the fence about Grand Seiko. Of course, there will be those of you who are sold on the brand and those of you who just aren’t interested, but that slice in the middle, the people whose attention has been piqued but just not quite enough—I can understand why you might not be completely convinced. Well, allow me to introduce you to the Grand Seiko SBGY003—if this doesn’t change your mind, I don’t know what will.

Before I address why the SBGY003 just might be the watch to sway you on Grand Seiko, let’s have a look at the reasons why it—or rather Grand Seiko in its entirety—might not be for you. First and foremost, and it’s the elephant in the room, Grand Seiko is not Swiss. Nor is it German, Italian or French, or any other of the surrounding countries. It’s Japanese, and in watch circles, the Japanese aren’t looked too kindly upon, for, you know, causing the quartz crisis that wiped out most of Swiss watchmaking. Old grudges die hard.

Not only is Grand Seiko from the country that kicked Swiss watchmaking square in its balance wheel, but it’s also a subsidiary of the brand responsible, too. In fact, Grand Seiko was deliberately set up to better the Swiss at their own game, before Seiko unleashed the quartz Astron onto an unsuspecting industry. If you’ve ever wondered why a once-mighty brand like Omega now trails Rolex, or why an incredible watchmaker like Minerva now makes movements for Montblanc, you can blame Seiko. Like I said, old grudges die hard.

But that’s then; this is now. A Grand Seiko watch of today isn’t the decimator of Swiss brands it once was—at least not in terms of brand clout. “What watch are you wearing?” “A Grand Seiko.” Takes some explaining. At least no one will ask you if it’s fake I suppose—you’ll be too busy attempting to educate them on the art of Zaratsu polishing for them to get a word in edgeways.

Then there’s the dial. It’s a trait Grand Seiko is fast earning a very positive reputation for, using it as a canvas to express a wonder for nature, colour, texture—but there’s a single, significant detail that sends a lot of would-be Grand Seiko buyers straight to the sick bucket: the power reserve. This is simply a matter of preference, although if you were to poll it, I think you’ll find a larger chunk of people siding in the negative than you would the positive. Even if you’re in the “yay” camp and not the “nay” camp, it’s not hard to sympathise with the dislike. How necessary is it on an automatic watch anyway?

How about the use of quartz, too? It goes against every bone in an enthusiast’s body, Swiss conditioning to traditional mechanical movements so strong. There’s that grudge again. Even with the smooth-sweeping Spring Drive, you’re never truly free of electronic interference; it may be mechanically powered, but many would insist that the quartz regulator has tainted it, preventing it from really being proper watchmaking. A Spring Drive movement can make a watch a little thick, too.

There’s a lot there to put you off a Grand Seiko. I mean, a lot a lot. It’s not like the watches are many magnitudes cheaper than the default Rolex choice, so what hope does the brand really have for those perched atop the fence, let alone the die-hard nay-sayers? That’s what the SBGY003 hopes to address. Let’s find out how.

The SBGY003 has, by all accounts, a lot of work to do. And it’s not me placing the responsibility on its shoulders—it’s part of Grand Seiko’s very expensive and very exclusive 20th Anniversary of Spring Drive collection. The priciest of its brethren, a platinum watch with a hand-engraved “snowflake” case from the Micro Artist Studio, is the most expensive watch Grand Seiko has ever made at a whopping £75,000. At ten percent of that, the SBGY003 has a bit more of a fighting chance—although it’s hardly asking for pittance.

Nothing’s going to stop this watch originating from Japan or being part of the Seiko corporation—but the truth is a little more complex than perhaps people have the time for. The Swiss were already experimenting with quartz long before Seiko’s Astron came to light; in fact, it was a Swiss secret weapon to push back against the rising quality of the mechanical Grand Seikos.

Think of Grand Seiko more as a homage to the work of the Swiss, much like Swiss watchmaking is a homage to the work of the French and the Brits. Founder Kintaro Hattori’s love of Swiss watchmaking was what drove him to create Seiko in the first place—a quarter-century before Rolex I might add. All he ever wanted was to earn the respect of the watchmakers he admired so much.

You could say that the modern Grand Seiko, with its dedication to the art of watchmaking, bestows greater reverence upon the history of the craft than anything Rolex makes today. Take the aforementioned Micro Artist Studio; this is a collection of the most talented artisans in the entire Seiko organisation, gathered in one place to manufacture watches to the highest degree of quality humanly possible. Does Rolex do that?

But what about the SBGY003 itself? You don’t need me to tell you that it’s a beautiful watch. The sunray dial is impossibly flawless—and that’s not an exaggeration. But it’s a work of art as well as engineering, the mirror finish of the razor-sharp hands and markers achieved by hand, right down to the little cap sat atop the blued seconds.

And what else do you notice about the dial? No power reserve! The radiant pattern—in both senses of the word—is free to fan around the dial unfettered, passing the shadow of the liquid-smooth second hand from peak to valley. There’s not even a date window to spoil the party, either.

And speaking of power reserve, that brings us to the best bit of the SBGY003, the part that makes you look at the price and say, “Oh right, I get it now.” In the much more expensive anniversary models, the Micro Artist Studio calibre 9R02 is proudly on display in back—and of course it is, because that watch is very expensive, and the work done by the Micro Artist Studio is extremely cost-prohibitive. But that doesn’t mean this SBGY003 gets your run-of-the-mill Spring Drive—it gets the calibre 9R31 instead.

Based on the Micro Artist Studio’s 9R02, the 9R31 does away with the torque return system that scrapes another twelve hours of power reserve from the mainspring, leaving it with a still healthy seventy-two, as well as the more complex bridgework of the 9R02 as well. What you do get is an incredibly high level of finishing from this hand-wound movement—which keeps the watch at a respectable 10.2mm thick—as well as the actually useful power reserve tucked in by the mainspring. As movements go, this is a special one, Spring Drive or otherwise. It may have a quartz crystal grown in a lab inside, but the immaculate graining and polished bevelling say far more about Grand Seiko’s respect for watchmaking than any Submariner.

Grand Seiko’s SBGY003 is about more than just a celebration of the twenty years since the invention of Spring Drive. It’s a commemoration of the journey watchmaking has taken to get to now, through thick and thin. Quartz, mechanical, hand-crafted, high-tech—it’s all there in the SBGY003, and every part of it has been given the care and respect they deserve to make the watch what it is. At just 700 pieces, this isn’t the mass-produced output of a conglomerate—it’s the fulfilment of Kintaro Hattori’s dream.

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