The Grand Seiko of futuristic Japan

By Adi Soon

It used to be that when one thought of Grand Seiko, one would picture the prototypical Grand Seiko as a watch that presented a conservative appearance. Legibility, practicality and reliability were the key traits of such a watch and anyone looking for these characteristics would be well served by buying one.  This changed last year, with the appearance of the Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph Black Ceramic Edition — a watch that not only featured a compound ceramic and titanium case, but one that was also designed with an aesthetic vision that was set firmly in the future.

With an inner case made from Bright Titanium — a proprietary Seiko concoction said to be 50-percent harder than regular titanium — and scratch-resistant ceramic for the bezel and lug claddings, it was a mélange of straight lines, sharp angles and futuristic complexity. It was a watch that one could more easily imagine on the wrist of a pilot in one of the giant robots in the Japanese manga Gundam than on the wrist of an average salaryman going to work every day.

G.seiko-034_v1Grand Seiko rethinks its Black Ceramic Spring Drive Chronograph GMT for the future with the release of three striking new editions.

Strong and lightweight, the two versions of the 2016 watch — the SBGC015 with black dial, and SBGC017 with green dial featuring an embossed fir tree guilloché motif — were a clear signal of Grand Seiko embracing the futuristic side of Japanese culture, after having definitively proven their technical chops in the traditional.
While some might have questioned such a deviation in design from the traditional character of Grand Seiko, the watches have remained true to the brand’s mission to be a symbol of quality and extreme dedication to craftsmanship. Indeed, a Grand Seiko could embody any kind of design principle, as long as the manufacture of the watch was done to the same high standards that Grand Seiko fans have always been used to.
For a watch with an exterior that embodies a new aesthetic direction for Grand Seiko, it was no surprise then that it would take the well-regarded and similarly futuristic Spring Drive caliber 9R96 (a fine-tuned version of the 9R86) as the basis for the modern transformation.
Utilizing the Seiko-invented Spring Drive movement that uses a quartz crystal for regulation, everything is the same as a regular mechanical movement up until the fourth wheel. In place of a traditional escapement system, there is a continuously turning glide wheel running at eight revolutions a second, with an electromagnetic braking system that regulates its speed, allowing the system to achieve an unheard-of (for a primarily mechanical system, at least) +/- 15 seconds per month accuracy. The original version of the Spring Drive caliber for this watch, the 9R86, was first seen in 2007. The most complicated Grand Seiko movement even today, it offered a whole suite of complications, including column-wheel chronograph, GMT, date and a power reserve of 72 hours.

Grand Seiko SBGC001

This year, Grand Seiko has doubled down on the theme of modernizing the line by introducing three new variations of last year’s watches — SBGC219, SBGC221 and SBGC223 — but now coming on a hybrid titanium-ceramic bracelet instead of an alligator band. This is a move that makes the already good-looking watch even more attractive, showcasing as well the abilities of the manufacture to make a good bracelet.
Indeed, any watch brand can make a watch head to place on a strap, but it takes a brand with much more know-how to make an integrated bracelet. Many aspects of its fabrication and design have to be considered, because the bracelet has to not only hold the watch head in place securely on the wrist, it has to also maintain the same aesthetic style in order that the entire package looks good as a whole. Complicating the process in this particular instance is the necessity of fabricating each individual ceramic center-link, which ups the difficulty quotient.

Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph Black Ceramic Editions SBGC015

The verdict on whether the job has been done well can be felt when one wears the new watches. Due to the titanium-and-ceramic construction, the watches feel very light on the wrist — a stark contrast to the original all stainless-steel version of the watch, the SBGC001 from 2007. Additionally, even with the hardness of ceramic, the edges of these parts are Zaratsu polished, retaining the sword-like shine that has been Grand Seiko’s hallmark.

Grand Seiko announced big news at Baselworld 2017 that it would become its own independent brand, separate from its parent brand Seiko. This was a move prompted by the need to distinguish Grand Seiko as its own unique entity. The move is reflected in a change of the text on the dial, with the removal of the word “Seiko” from the center and replacing this with the “GS” logo and the words “Grand Seiko” below, slightly off-center to the left in order to balance with the 30-minute subdial.
In sum, what we have with the new versions of the Grand Seiko Black Ceramic Spring Drive Chronograph GMT is the ultimate expression of what Japanese watchmaking can achieve technically, as well as an expansion of what the Grand Seiko brand can stand for aesthetically. As a precursor for the future, it definitively opens the door for the use of more advanced materials and other new ideas by the premier Japanese watchmaker of our time.

Grand Seiko SBGC219

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