A GS spring drive as good as the Snowflake?
The Grand Seiko SBGA103 Review
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Today we look at our third new Grand Seiko of 2014, and the second homage to the famous 1964 Self-Dater. The other one, the SBGV009 and SBGV011, was the more restrained of the two, in terms of size, complications and dial layout--these new SBGAs, the 103, 105 and platinum 107, are sportier and more contemporary, their nod to 1964 mainly being primarily their elegant case. This also features the "super spring drive" 9R15 movement, which is even more accurate than an ordinary spring drive. All of this come together to make the SBGA103 a compelling value proposition, and dare I say it, a direct competitor the the famous SBGA011 Snowflake.The Video
Take a moment to see the new SBGA103 in action before reading on and make sure to watch it in 1080p: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zReA_Dm6LE8
It's the only way to appreciate the dynamic sunburst dial and super smooth spring drive seconds hand without seeing it in person. The Introduction
2014 was the 50th anniversary of the first Grand Seiko with a date, the aptly named Self-Dater, so it's no surprise that this year's lineup has several nods to that classic watch. Grand Seikos are keenly in tune with tradition, so homages to their original models rarely look vintage--the nods to the originals are very subtle and Grand Seiko hasn't deviated much from their successful formula.
The design that most connects the SBGA103 with the original Self-Dater is the case--namely, the lugs of the case. Gone are the more angular lugs of most Grand Seikos, themselves following the design of 1966. Replacing them are the shorter, more rounded off lugs. I actually may prefer this design to the more conventional case. It's also in sharp contrast to last year's 44GS homages, which had a more angular case than usual.
Unlike the original watch, however, the SBGA103 features a spring drive movement, and not the "ordinary" 9R65 you'd find in most Grand Seikos. Replacing it is the 9R15, which is rated for 33% better accuracy than the original. It's also complimented by that terrific rotor with gold medallion, an improvement over the already-beautiful but relatively plain 9R65 rotor. The Face
Like all Grand Seikos, the dialwork is good enough to compete with anyone in the industry. In fact, other than perhaps the Snowflake, I think this is the prettiest spring drive available.
It may surprise you to learn that the original 1960 Grand Seiko did not have the sunburst dial that GS is so associated with. In fact, it was the 1964 Self-Dater that started that tradition. Oddly, therefore, in keeping with the status quo, the SBGA103 is also honoring the original model. It can be said, however, that Grand Seiko's sunburst has never been more beautiful. Fans of sunburst dials will rejoice in this model, because the effect is extremely strong. It's so bright it comes off looking like white gold or a rhodium plating.
One of the great things about reviewing a Grand Seiko is that I can get in really, really close to the dial with confidence. With most brands of watches, even those costing much more than GS, despite their high quality, at this level of magnification flaws become easily observable, like rough edges on hands or indices. Grand Seiko, however, simply takes a level of magnification that my camera (and certainly a human eye) cannot achieve.
Like all GS spring drives a power reserve is used. Stylistically, it's very similar to the Snowflake's fine guilloche finishing and polished inner surface.
Like almost all Grand Seikos, including the original, the classic and beautiful dauphine hands are used. The hour markers, however, are slightly different from your normal fair and instead resemble the original 1964's. An improvement over the original is the addition of the blued seconds hand, adding some visual pizzazz without detracting from the dressy/sporty duality of the watch.
Of course it also features a date, and like all spring drives, it's surprisingly large for an ordinary date complication. It uses a date frame, which helps contribute to dial balance since otherwise an hour marker would be absent.
It all comes together to create one of the most attractive spring drives Grand Seiko has ever made. I'd put the three new models (SBGA103, 105, 107) up against any of them and, honestly, the SBGA103 really should be treated as a legitimate alternative to the legendary Snowflake. The Case
As I mentioned earlier, the biggest nod to tradition is in the new case, and I also think these new cases are one of the finest points of 2014's lineup. Frankly, I prefer them to last year's sportier, edgier designs, which I also loved, but I think this dressier direction is better yet.
The basic difference over the conventional Grand Seiko case is in the lugs--they're shorter and less acute. They have gentler lines that come off as dressier than the ordinary lugs. Of course, although the SBGA103 can also do dress duty, it's clear that Grand Seiko intended it to be one of their sportier models--if you want an ultra-dressy 2014 model you need to look at the SBGV009 and 011. Still, I really like them, and I hope that like last year's limited editions, the case sticks around for a full run model next year.
Otherwise, the case is extremely similar to the excellent ones you'd see anywhere else in Grand Seiko's lineup. Their alternating brushed and polished surfaces are of a quality and precision not duplicated virtually anywhere else. Grand Seiko movements, however, always prioritize performance over anything else, including thinness, and that aspect is present--the case isn't thick, but neither is it thin. Those seeking a thin Grand Seiko would be best served by looking to the new SBGV009 and 011, whose 9F movements are substantially thinner than the 9R15 automatic.
The screw down crown is beautiful too, with the GS in relief. Winding a spring drive is an interesting feeling, requiring very little effort and with a very high frequency clicking.
Perhaps most interesting, however, is that if you choose to hand wind a spring drive, it takes very little effort to see the power reserve go up substantially, despite a 3 day power reserve. I've never seen a watch that winds as quickly and effortlessly as a spring drive. Like almost all Grand Seikos, the watch is rated for 100 meters, making it safe for any pretty much any non-diving situation.
Interestingly, Grand Seiko appeared to have wanted to make a 40mm watch but just couldn't quite get there, as this one is 39.9mm. This makes it ever so slightly smaller than the 41mm Snowflake. Despite this, it's also substantially more...substantial, due entirely to its steel construction versus the Snowflake's titanium. Be that as it may, I like a little weight in the watch, and steel is tougher. Opinions will vary, of course, but comparisons between this and the Snowflake are inevitable. The Movement
By now you're probably familiar with Grand Seiko's legendary spring drive movements, movements that combine the accuracy of quartz with the beauty of a traditional mechanical. You may not be familiar, however, with the relatively rare 9R15 spring drive movement, seen here.
The 9R15 is a special variant of the more common 9R65, seen on all the other 3 hand (by which I mean 4 hand, thanks to the power reserve) GS spring drives. The 9R15 is mechanically identical to the 9R65, saving for decorative flourishes, but is made by the best watchmakers within GS' already overachieving studio and is held to a higher standard during testing. As a result, the accuracy is pushed from 15 seconds to just 10 seconds a month.
Of course, the spring drive is already so crazy accurate that most fans may appreciate the special rotor even more than the improved accuracy. The difference is obvious--it lacks the large Grand Seiko script and instead has a traditional gold medallion, the kind of which adorned many Grand Seikos of the 1960s.
Like all Grand Seiko movements, of course (and yes, even the quartz ones), it's gorgeous. The finely beveled edges throughout the top plate, however, put it a notch above any of Grand Seiko's 9S (mechanical) or 9F (quartz) movements--the decoration of a GS spring drive is one notch up from all other available GS movements.
Diagonal Tokyo stripes adorn the movement and the shape of the top plate is very interesting, revealing part of the automatic winding system and the going barrel, apparently mounted exclusively on the mainplate--it reveals more of the actual functioning components within than most mechanical movements, including Grand Seiko's own 9S. Short of the far more expensive 9R86 or the rare 9S64, the 9R15 is the prettiest movement Grand Seiko has ever made, and therefore, one of the prettiest movements Japan has ever mass produced.
I'll address the technical aspect of the spring drive here, so frequent readers, feel free to skip on down. Essentially, spring drives are "ordinary mechanicals" (quoted because no Grand Seiko movement should be described as ordinary) but with a few crucial components replaced. The pallet fork, escape wheel, balance wheel and hairspring (oversimplifying a bit), the components responsible for the core timekeeping duties of a mechanical, are replaced by the tri-synchro regulator. The TSR is an ingenious system of regulating the three energies present in the function of a spring drive, namely kinetic (the energy present in any mechanical, in terms of the mainspring unwinding and gears turning), the electrical (operating the quartz crystal and circuit on which time keeping is based), and the electromagnetic, which is really the crucial new component of a spring drive movement. The last part was the key to combining quartz and mechanical technologies into a coherent whole because electromagnetism allows the watch to apply a "brake" to the unwinding of the mainspring. Were it not for this, the watch would simply unwind in moments, facing no resistance. But by extremely finely regulating the amount of energy the brake receives, and therefore how much resistance is applied to the movement, the watch is kept running in perfect sequence. In practice, the spring drive is as accurate as many of the finest non-thermocompensated quartz movements.
In terms of specs, aside from its superior accuracy, it shares the same amazing 72 hour power reserve of most other Grand Seikos. Unlike the current iteration of the 9S, Grand Seiko's famous magic lever bidirectional winding system is used. From a design standpoint, it is the most elegant solution to make a rotor wind in both direction out there, and you can actually see the pawl wheel, and a single pawl, sticking out from under the top plate. The Bracelet
Grand Seiko's 5 link bracelet is present, of course, in all its glory. It's called the 5 link because each individual piece in the bracelet is actually 5 independent links, which allows Grand Seiko to hand polish each piece differently.
Grand Seiko's traditional clasp is also present, a piece which help make it among the most comfortable bracelets on the market. Although flawless, a slight suggestion for future limited edition Grand Seikos that come with the gold medallion on the rotor: use a gold GS logo in the middle of the clasp as well to match. They've done this before on the SBGC005 and it looked great.
As you'd expect from a world class watch, the bracelet uses screws instead of friction pins. Grand Seiko's design is especially robust, because it's actually something of a hybrid of both designs. There's a tiny screw on each side of a link with a pin running between them. Thus, not only does a screw have to work itself out without you noticing (highly improbable and I've never seen it happen on a Grand Seiko), but even if a screw fell out, the pin inside would then have to work itself out. They're not friction pins, so they don't normally require a tool to push out, but it's a very snug fit, so they won't just fall out with gravity when you take a screw out. In other words, the bracelet is extremely reliable. The Conclusion
The SBGA103, 105 and 107 are definitely hits, perhaps comparable to the SBGR081 and 083 of last year. 2014 is such a strong year for Grand Seiko that it's difficult to predict which will be most fondly remembered, but for me, the SBGA103 is way up on that list, competing only with the SBGJ001. It's my favorite new limited edition too, at least until I see the blue dialed SBGA105. But at the moment, I actually think I prefer the silver dial to the blue one, at least in photos.
It's a solid value too. Although it's a limited edition of just 500 pieces, it costs only nominally more than the Snowflake. Once you factor in the improved 9R15 movement, both in looks and performance, that price difference becomes simply trivial.
If you're considering getting a Snowflake right now, or one of the other full production GSes, I'd take a moment to seriously consider this as an alternative. You can get one of the other GSes next year or probably 3 years from now, but there aren't that many of these new SBGA103s/105s/107s in existence and it really is good enough to go head to head with the Snowflake. It's one of my favorite Grand Seikos right now and I really hope they keep something like this case around for next year. I look forward to looking at its blue dialed brother, the SBGA105, very soon because it might even be better looking than this one.