Review: Grand Seiko SBGR305
There are many reasons why Grand Seiko is an important addition to fine watchmaking, despite being from Japan, despite the affiliation with quartz and despite not being a Rolex. This particular Grand Seiko, however, is one of the most important for a very unique and specific reason: it’s the first.
Grand Seiko started out how most companies do, by mimicking someone else. I’m sure you’ve looked at something and thought to yourself, “I can do better than that”—well that’s exactly what Grand Seiko founder Kintaro Hattori decided to do.
I mean, he didn’t call the company Grand Seiko—that would be a bit forward, since Seiko hadn’t yet been established. Instead, it was called Seikosha, meaning “House of Exquisite Workmanship”, and it was a watch and clock repair shop. It was the late-1800s, and Japan had just switched from a quite frankly ridiculous method of timekeeping that changed throughout the seasons so no one really knew what time it was, to the method we all use today.
But with the changing from the old to the new, the business of repair started to dwindle. All the clocks people had were brand-spanking new to reflect this fresh, exciting—and most importantly, feasible—method of keeping time. And these clocks weren’t being made in Japan, they were coming in from somewhere already well-established at making high quality clocks—Switzerland. Hattori admired the precision and finesse of these clocks, and realised in himself a passion to match and even surpass the quality he saw before him. But first you must learn, and so he built clocks from Swiss parts to understand the mechanics first, before attempting his own. This was when Seiko as we know it today was born.
Grand Seiko watches are made in Iwate, Japan
By the early 1900s, Seiko dominated Japanese watch and clockmaking, making up 60% of the nation’s production. But these attempts, whilst very impressive, still did not garner the attention of the Swiss. But even after Hattori’s passing in 1934 at the age of 73, the company and the ethos he had established continued strong.
The sights were set on the hallowed Swiss observatory trials, gruelling tests of accuracy set in a number of taxing conditions designed to send an ordinary timekeeper haywire. Only the very best could enter, and only the very best could win. Way out in Japan, far away from the circle of Swiss watchmaking, Seiko was unable to learn from the Swiss masters—so it had to become its own master and its own apprentice.
In 1959, Seiko separated its watchmaking factories into two, pitting them against each other to create the finest watch ever made—not just in Japan, but in the world. One factory was dubbed Daini Seikosha, or King Seiko, the other, Suwa Seikosha—Grand Seiko.
Manufacturing at Grand Seiko is split between two studios. The Shizukuishi Watch Studio which makes all of Grand Seiko's mechanical watches and the Shinshu Watch Studio that makes all of it's Spring Drive and quartz-powered watches
Just one year later, in 1960, the Grand Seiko factory released its first watch, the name “Grand Seiko” proudly emblazoned on the dial. Unfortunately, the watch was placed 144th, not even qualifying as a chronometer. There was a long way to go. The following watches improved upon the first, earning chronometer status and placing 114th, then ninth, then sixth, then fourth, and then third. That’s when the Swiss started entering highly accurate quartz movements instead, taking the top three places at the trials. Fourth to tenth, however? All mechanical, all Seiko. The observatory trials were cancelled after that.
It was only ever that first Grand Seiko to be branded “Grand Seiko”, however. After that, both King and Grand Seiko proceeded the Seiko name on the dial, and it remained so for almost sixty years. The industry had suffered turmoil and change during the course of that time—not least due to Seiko’s rebuttal to the Swiss quartz movements, its own quartz Astron—and the approach to making high-end mechanical watches had changed completely.
Grand Seiko needed to change with it, and so in 2017, the Seiko branding was dropped from Grand Seiko products, with the Suwa Seikosha name rising to become the headline act. This SBGR305 marks the moment this step was taken, the first watch since the very original to bear just the Grand Seiko mark.
Although more accurate re-editions of the original Grand Seiko do exist, the SBGR305 is the first of the modern ilk, and bears many similarities to its 1960s counterpart. It’s a three-hander, plain and simple, twin baton markers ringing the crisp, white dial. The long lugs reach out just like the original, and curve around the wrist to keep the strap snug, just like the original.
The Shinshu Watch Studio was responsible for the world's first quartz watch, the Seiko Astron, released in December 1969
But there’s a lot about it that’s much more modern—at least much more modern Grand Seiko. The High Intensity Titanium case, for example, is lighter yet harder than steel, with an inset case that allows the front and the rear to overhang. The calibre 9S68 is automatic and carries a three-day power reserve, a far cry from the manually wound, slow beat, barely two day’s power reserve calibre 3180 of 1960. And that all-important accuracy has improved too, taking the 3180’s fifteen second window right down to eight, a number the company could have only dreamed of back then.
The most “Grand Seiko” thing about the SBGR305, however, is the attention to detail. The hands and markers, hand polished and razor sharp, are some of the finest found in any watch, period. The dial, subtle texture only apparent when the light catches it just right, is unmatched in Swiss watchmaking. It’s the Grand Seiko Kintaro Hattori would have wanted, and it was the first step into a new world of independence.
Grand Seiko has come on leaps and bounds since breaking away from the Seiko name, earning its keep amongst the watch buying fraternity bit by bit—and I really do mean earning. Marketing budgets will only take a product so far, but as people all around the world are starting to learn, the House of Exquisite Workmanship has truly earned its name. Seiko really has become Grand.
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