Intro: The connection
I have a very modest collection of watches. Like many here, I'd love to collect many more but (...like many here), there's that ever-present issue of finite funds. So for each watch I end up buying, I will have put some serious consideration into it. Not so much the investment potential, but rather how it fits into my collection and if it has some kind of a connection to me.
Seiko's Grand-Seiko line has a short but prestigious history and represents much of what makes a great watch as both a mechanical marvel and a work of art. That's already reason enough to consider one. However, the fact that I've always greatly admired many aspects of the Japanese culture made it imperative for me to own one some day... !
Ginza - WACO (Seiko) and Mitsukoshi (of the LE Speedmaster Panda fame) shot during my 2011 tour of Japan
Selecting the right Grand Seiko
Quite a few Grand Seikos have caught my eye over time. Their divers were the first I considered, given the simple fact that my collection is geared towards diving / tool watches. Then I thought about the GMT, also a common theme in my collection. Lastly, I was captivated by the now-legendary "Snowflake" dial. Sunburst, email or even a pure matte texture all make for a fantastic dial, but one can find many fine examples from many fine houses. The Snowflake on the other hand, is really quite unique! All three options represent fine examples of what Grand Seiko have on offer, yet all three have a very different function.
click-the-pics for hi-res goodness
Another determining factor for me when selecting a watch is the movement. I am certainly among the school of thought that the movement represents the heart of the watch. Seiko's Spring Drive technology has always fascinated me. This made my selection for a first GS that much easier. there's no question that Seiko's Grand Seiko and Credo lines have proven their prowess with traditional mechanical movements and it would be an honor to add one to the collection some day. But given the fact that the Spring-drive concept is unique in the industry, makes it all the more alluring.
From a snowflake into a blizzard
Three years later and the three (options) are now one, the Snowflake. I went over to our local Seiko AD who've always had all three in stock. But not this time; the diver, the GMT, as well as many nice "traditional" watches but not the snowflake. I did see something else that caught my eye, a dial with the most subtle sparkle in the display window. I asked to see it and was quite surprised to note what appeared to be a diamond-dust type of dial in a case similar to the one that houses the Snowflake... . As beautiful as it was, I was looking for the Snowflake, so I put it back down and called it a day... .
That evening however I decided to look up this particular model and realized that I had actually heard about the model while reading "Skyeriding's" excellent review of the Snowflake. Soon after it was clear that this model was not just a copy of the Snowflake with a different dial, but also has a different case / lug geometry as well as retro-styled, raised crystal. A few days of pacing and head-scratching later, I went back and brought the "Blizzard" home... .
This reference with the Blizzard-dial* is one of Grand Seiko's 2015 Limited-edition offerings. The collection is a tribute in honor of the 55th anniversary of the first "Grand Seiko Automatic" (and loosely based on their 1967 "62GS"). Of the four released, two were Spring-Drives (Blizzard 125 and the blue-sunburst 127). As with the Snowflake, Seiko went with titanium for both of the Spring Drives. Furthermore all four share the same case/lug geometry as well as the "box" sapphire crystal. Otherwise they all differ slightly (polished vs. brushed hands, lugs, bezel...). But it's the geometry and the crystal that won me over. As much as I admire the Snowflake dial, I feel that these LEs look a little more like an engineer's watch vs. the now-classic Snowflake's case and crystal which (imho) is the iconic Grand Seiko business-dress watch. Maybe it's just the style of business-dress watches back in the 60's; either way, it suits my tastes better.
*The SBGA125 was neither the first or only GS with such a dial; the first series was released in 2010 for GS's 50th and includes among others, the SBGA055. The latest LE, the SBGR305, has an incredibly similar texture, varying perhaps only by a slightly finer granularity.
Once you see that second-hand "gliding" around the dial, you can't help but be intrigued, if not absolutely mesmerized! There's only so much one can do with the seconds function* and everyone's familiar with both the incremental steps of the classic escapement-based mechanical movement and the jumping second of quartz watches. You may have even dealt with a mechanical watch with a jumping-seconds complication. The latter was developed way before the Quartz movement to help with measuring pulse and so on.
*There are also movements with complications that move a hand around the (sub)dial in less than 60 seconds etc. but I'm not sure we can consider this to be a "seconds" function... .
Enter Seiko's Spring Drive, brought to the general market* in 2005 (with the 5R series). There are many excellent articles on Spring-Drive technology, but this page from Seiko covers almost everything about the concept. Watching the video provided will explain everything in a straightforward fashion. In a nutshell: the traditional escapement is replaced with a glide wheel that is regulated by an electro-magnetic brake, controlled by an IC (Integrated Circuit) which in turn, uses a quartz oscillator as a timing reference. This (along with the gear train) is powered by a classic mainspring. As if the ingenuity of it all wasn't enough, the level of efficiency introduced to power this system for a whopping 72 hours is awe-inspiring in itself!
*Seiko released a Special edition Credor in 1999 powered by a 7R series, a manual-wound 48hr PR Spring Drive. Several other manual Credor / Seikos were also released before 2005.
All this talk of the technical concept yet lest I forget to point out the obvious - the principle objective... accuracy. The official specs state 15s/month... ! With some fine "juggling", I can get my PAM 233 to match those specs but the SD delivers position-independent accuracy. Wear it, don't wear it, dial up, crown left... regardless, the SD will deliver the stated specs and that, for a long time to come.
Considering that the SBGA125 is a LE with exhibition caseback, I would have loved to see Seiko choose the 9R15 for the Blizzard but there is no denying that even in the more modest 9R65 format, the movement is something to behold. The finish of the movement is somewhat unique and to some extent, has an industrial look to it (compared to Grand Seiko's more traditionally-finished automatics). Perhaps said finish is symbolic of the modern technology that makes up the Spring Drive. While at first glance one might think Seiko decorated everything in Geneva stripes, it turns out that the main plate is decorated in what's known as Tokyo stripes.... Regarding the main plate's shape; It is cut in a way to resemble the mountain range visible from Seiko's Shinshu Takumi Studio (Shiojiri, Nagano).
A few last comments regarding the movement. I find that the rotor can get a bit loud if purposely (and forcefully) spun, louder than my Sea Dweller or Seamaster. This seems to be the standard for Seiko as my recently acquired SLA017J which houses Seiko's 8L35 automatic movement is just about as loud. It's however not a topic under normal use. Furthermore, it will take me some time to get used to the sound of manually winding the crown. The Seikos have a bit of a higher pitch and odd feel to them, relative to other movements I'm familiar with (including 6497, 2824-2, 3135, 8400, 1861...).
Design and execution as its finest
The SBGA125 is a fine example of Grand Seiko's mission statement - to design and build their watches to perfection, down to the smallest detail. The aesthetics are both simple and elegant. Starting with the basic dial; looking straight down at it in normal lighting presents a relatively low-key, clean look. Move your wrist and witness a most subtle sparkle... . Hit just the right angle(s) and it's like "diamond dust". Ditto for the high-polished dauphine hands and hour markers. Looking straight at the dial provides the perfect contrast. Move your wrist... and enjoy the light dancing off the facets of each hand, each marker. Just like a cut diamond, the accurately beveled edges amplify the light effects, but never to the point of interfering. The serene monochrome background is given a little splash of color, thanks to the blued seconds-hand and the "Spring Drive" text.
Moving on to the case, the SBGA125 has a perfect mix of brushed and polished sections. This gives the whole watch a lively look without going overboard. The case sides consist of four facets which alternate in finish. Even the lug-ends are shaped to play with light. Grand Seiko starts with an in-house "High-Intensity" Ti / Ti-alloy mix and then achieves a mirror-polish finish using an age-old technique known as "Zaratsu" along with modern tools and a steady, experienced hand.
It's not all just about aesthetics; there are also useful features uncommon in such a watch genre, such as the screw-down crown. At 6mm, the crown is proportional to the case (after all, this is not a tool watch). The lugholes are also quite a welcome feature. The 47mm lug2lug, along with the gentle down-curves of the lugs makes for a very comfortable fit. To add to the overall comfort is the matching high-intensity Ti bracelet, with watch and bracelet barely tilting the scale at 93g! To put it into perspective, a classic 40mm Rolex Sea Dweller worn on NATO weighs 100g and the 41mm Omega SM300MC with SS bracelet a stately 165g. Considering my collection is mainly larger tool watches, I have no issue with a heavier watch and even appreciate their "presence" on my wrist. However those who appreciate an unobtrusive watch, Titanium is the way to go.
Size-wise Seiko choose to reduce the diameter of this series by 1mm down to 40mm but do note that in contrast to the Snowflake (and similar-style dials), the Blizzard's dial has has the seconds graduation-markings directly on the (angled) rehaut. Be it lug geometry or other factors, I cannot say that there's an obvious difference in size when looking at them both when clasped to my wrist. In any event, the watch fills the surface of my wrist nicely and I never get the feeling it's too small, even when I was wearing my 47mm "1950" Panerai the day before. On the other hand, it's definitely more compatible with shirt-cuffs given its 12.8mm thickness.
The world of fine gentleman's watches is almost limitless and selecting one is a daunting task. I've always admired the Japanese culture and their dedication to perfection, making Grand Seiko a top contender. The Spring Drive technology simply adds to the attraction, providing almost Quartz-like accuracy to a mechanically powered and driven movement. By default, we attribute the best in horology to the great Swiss (...German, French...) houses, but it would be remiss of us to omit this great house from the far east; I am very pleased to have this exquisite timepiece in my collection!
A traditional GS box; some may want GS to follow Omega's recent switch to wood...
It's the smallest details that make a Grand Seiko "grand"...
A generous date window... reading-glasses optional.
Looking good from every side...
Some technical details...