Grand Seiko’s inception into the world of horology in 1960 was fueled by a strong and determined intent from Seiko to rival the offerings of its Swiss contemporaries. The addition of the word “Grand” was meant to be self-explanatory, that all Grand Seiko watches will be highly elevated and exalted watches compared to regular Seiko watches. From 1964 to 1967, Grand Seiko competed in the Neuchatel chronometer testing, in which its movements were tested and ranked by the Neuchatel observatory. In just 3 years, its movements had jumped from being placed in the hundreds to being in the top 10. Since then, Grand Seiko has never stopped pushing the boundaries of horological innovations and designs, while respecting its heritage, tradition and drive for perfection. Their Spring Drive and Hi-Beat movements perfectly epitomize their growth and philosophy.
Mention Grand Seiko to any watch fans out there today and one of the first things they’ll think about is the revolutionary Spring Drive movement. The fact is, Grand Seiko’s Spring Drive is highly exclusive to Grand Seiko and has become thoroughly ingrained into the brand’s identity that is has become almost synonymous with the brand. Spring Drive only came into being in 2005 with the SNR003, despite it being conceived by the father of Spring Drive, Yoshikazu Akahane, in 1977. The fact that it took close to 3 decades to produce the movement is a testament to its technical complexity. The Spring Drive is an 80% mechanical and 20% quartz hybrid movement. It aims to reconcile mechanical prowess with the accuracy of quartz watches, all without the need for a battery. This is achieved with the presence of their Tri-synchro Regulator, which houses a quartz crystal to regulate the unwinding of the watch’s mainspring. The result is an elegant and buttery-smooth gliding motion of the seconds hand with an accuracy of +/- 0.5 seconds per day. This is comparably better than chronometer movements, which have accuracies listed as +6/-4 seconds per day. To the naked eye, one cannot see the jerking motions of the seconds hand unlike those of conventional mechanical movements. Today, Spring Drive can be found in many Grand Seiko watches, the most popular arguably being the SBGA211, nicknamed the Snowflake due to the dial resembling that of snowdrifts. The blue-heated seconds hand that glides across the dial makes for a very hypnotic yet tranquil experience. The Spring Drive movement, in this case, helps to tell and complete the narrative of the watch, as we see the beauty of the Spring Drive movement being extrapolated by the design of the watch itself, displaying the great pride Grand Seiko watchmakers have of the movement. Purists will definitely find Spring Drive polarizing. However, as Seiko was the first brand to produce the first Quartz watch, the Seiko Astron in 1969, I felt that it’s only right that they continue to innovate and bring Quartz to a whole new level.
Although purists will feel divided by the Spring Drive, they will no doubt be tantalized by Grand Seiko’s highly revered hi-beat mechanical movements. These movements beat at a very high frequency of 36000BPH compared to the industry average of 28800BPH. Higher beat rates allow for greater accuracy and precision. However, it can serve as an impediment to the longevity of the watch and adversely affect its power reserve. Grand Seiko was able to dampen these issues with its 10 beat movement that has a power reserve of 55 hours and an accuracy of +5/-3 seconds per day, resulting in the caliber 9S85 that is incorporated in many of its high-end hi-beat models such as the SBGH267.
Grand Seiko is also very notable for quartz. As previously mentioned, Seiko produced the world’s first Quartz watch, the Seiko Astron, in 1969. Seiko also almost single-handedly destroyed its mechanical competition during the Quartz crises of the late 20th century. The Grand Seiko Quartz 9F movements are pretty much unparalleled when it comes to Quartz, being the father of Quartz movements after all. It stands far above its competition when it comes to build and accuracy. Firstly, the 9F Quartz movements have an anti-backlash system that allows the seconds hand to hit every minute markers on-point, without it being slightly off. It also gets rid of the vibration and wobble of the seconds hand that you see with every tick in other Quartz movements. Secondly, Grand Seiko Quartz are very accurate relative to other contemporary Quartz movements, as they are rated to 10 seconds a year compared to the industry standard of 15 seconds a month. This is because they have built-in thermocompensation which helps to check for temperature inaccuracies during the day and then compensated for any so that the adverse effects of temperature on the movement is negated. Furthermore, Grand Seiko Quartz were all developed in-house, meaning that they have a huge degree of control in selecting the ones with the best quality to be used in their movements. Grand Seiko Quartz movements have shown that even a movement, that is perceived to be cheap and mass-produced, can be elevated to a degree of luxury and superlative quality.
Other than movements, Grand Seiko brings many attractive eastern watchmaking techniques to the world of horology, notably its Zaratsu finishing on all of its watches’ case, hands, bracelet, and indices. Zaratsu is a blade-polishing technique that dates back hundreds of centuries ago and provides a spectacular mirror-like finish to its polished surfaces. These finishes are only done by a select few artisans, making Grand Seiko watches even more enticing propositions. Furthermore, Grand Seiko is well-known for producing unique and outstanding dial works. With an illustrious history and watches that are of the within the highest of standards, it is no wonder that Grand Seiko received the adulation of many.
Photos and text by our contributor Alvin Chong @watchrology