- In-house automatic mechanical movement (previous generation to current as of August 2020)
If you’re reading this in the first place, you’re probably a “stuff” person, right? I don’t mean this pejoratively. I mean that you probably imbue certain categories of, well, stuff, with meaning, relevance — that you are OK with these things contributing in some small degree to your conception of who you are, as well as your presentation to the world — your definition of yourself. If you were called upon to make a list of the things that define you: your passions, your aesthetics, your values: for quite a few of us, watches would be present on that list. What portion of your day do you spend reading about/thinking about/looking at watches? And is this particular slice of the overall pie chart cataloguing the mental rabbit holes you find yourself burrowing in over the course of your day perhaps… 20%? 30%? larger than you’d want your loved ones to know?
I think the day you become a watch person isn’t the day this happens. It’s the day you realize it happened already, maybe a while ago, and you’re OK with it — with broadening your self-definition to include this interest. For letting these small objects carry some small portion of the load of expressing who you are, or even, who you might wish to be.
And we tend to think of who we are as being the result of self-determination, with some acknowledged degree of family influence (because of, or despite) thrown in for good measure. We consider the things that define us as being the products of, you know, us. It’s normal to imagine the things that define us as being things that we arrived at in some autonomous, unmediated fashion. For example: The Clash affected my development as a kid immensely. It felt like Joe Strummer hurled a lightning bolt from Mt Olympus directly into my brain, and I formed a relationship with these four British guys I’d never met that felt like it couldn’t not be there. And it still feels that way, thirty-five years later.
But it could easily have not been there at all. It just got there because my oldest friend, Pat Finn, loved them. There was obviously something about them that really landed with me, but there’s no way I can know whether this band that came to help me define myself would have done so without Pat and his copy of “Black Market Clash.”
And it wasn’t just that Pat loved them; he also loved the Butthole Surfers, and man, I really tried, but nothing stuck. Back before the internet, you needed someone you trusted to make that introduction, but that introduction, while necessary, was not sufficient. The hooks of the New Thing needed to match the corresponding loops of your identity. But if that engagement didn’t happen immediately, the Vouch provided by the person you trusted gave you the patience to keep trying. And when you fall in love slowly, deliberately, maybe you’re less likely to get a divorce?
In talking about the Grand Seiko SBGH273, I can’t not talk about how we find the things that resonate with us. I would have called this “The Slow Burn,” but Wei Koh beat me to the punch. But, ok, about the watch:
Unlike the Swiss heavy hitters, for whom traditional mechanical movements are with rare exceptions the belle of the ball, Grand Seikos come in three flavors: quartz. spring drive (a quartz/mechanical hybrid), and mechanical (either manual wind, or automatic). You could make a good case for any of them as being the GS-est GS.
Mechanical: that’s how GS first kicked the Swiss in the teeth, and while the 36,000vph high-beat movement is not unique to Seiko, watching the second hand move is the closest you or I will get to raking sand at a Buddhist monastery in the Niigata prefecture.
Spring drive: the sort of we-don’t-give-a-shit-where-the-box-is problem solving that makes the Swiss blood run even colder than it does already.
Quartz: need I say more? If you count the hand crankers and the automatics separately, as one ought, that gives you four different categories of GS to choose from already, leaving aside GS complications, the most popular of which is a GMT hand.
I mention all of this because the profusion of references is going to make approaching Grand Seiko as a newcomer somewhat daunting. (The bland inscrutability of GS nomenclature doesn’t help, either. Tell me which of these four names makes you readiest for a nap: Daytona, Speedmaster, El Primero, SBGH273.) If someone knows an algorithm explaining modern GS naming convention, please post it in the comments. As a recent convert to Grand Seiko, I found the product line overwhelming. You may have some idea what sort of movement you prefer, but I’m not sure that’s the best way to approach Grand Seiko. So let’s talk more about influence.
In college I dated a jazz singer for a time. She tried to leaven my steady diet of Cro-Mags and Led Zeppelin with jazz. I did, and do, consider myself an eminently unqualified audience for that music. She advised: don’t approach it academically. Liking it ought to be a function of taste, not aspiration. She made me a mix tape, this being 1991, and said, see what bubbles up to the top for you. What’s the thing you don’t make a decision to like? Because close listening — attention — is work, but if you do that work, something will speak to you at a level deeper than decision. (John Coltrane, if you were wondering)
My Grand Seiko whisperer was Allen, in particular his podcast about choosing a 50th birthday watch for himself. Prior to him buying that watch, GS fell into the same category as Radiohead or Thomas Pynchon for me: things you respect but which do not speak to you. There are so many watches out there, it’s not a bad policy to just decide you’re not into something as a means of sorting through all the sand on the beach. (Like jazz, watches aren’t supposed to be work.) I’d seen Grand Seikos at a shop downtown, and they looked, well, nice, but I’d gravitate towards my incredibly predictable comfort zone: Omega, Tudor, IWC, Panerai, and, what’s that scrappy underdog? Oh yeah, Rolex. For me, the “out there” watch choice was Sinn. Whoah Nelly!
This is why it’s worth mentioning how — or who — you get to the things you like, the things that over time will adhere to your identity, be it a band, a writer, or, well, you know, stuff. This is influence, not evangelism, which I’ve always felt was a fool’s errand. Why? Trying to make someone like something is nuts. The two things that occupy most of my brain these days, parenting and the Grateful Dead, are not things I’d strongarm anyone into. Not into having a kid/listening to a 27-minute version of “Dark Star?” That’s cool! Don’t! I will certainly not twist your arm. I’m happy to explain why either brings me joy, but both entail a level of commitment such that they’re not things anyone should be talked into.
And so it is with watches. I didn’t need someone to tell me why I should love Grand Seiko, I needed someone to tell me why they loved Grand Seiko. I was intrigued by GS, but I hadn’t really found my window into them. Allen and I joke that we are both “dial guys” — the name of this website notwithstanding — and what really sold him on his SBGH269 was the dial. So, I exhaled. Unclenched. And looked at a lot of GS dials. There are lots of reasons to get a GS. But, I’m telling you: the dial is the money on those watches.
I’m not pretentious enough to use the term “design language,” much less than use it in the same sentence as “paradigm shift,” so I won’t, except for right now: the Grand Seiko design language represents a paradigm shift from the Swiss heavy hitters. The design of Swiss watches doesn’t refer to anything but, well, other Swiss watches. You can like the way they look or not, but when you make that decision, you’re likely making it on the basis of: what category do I put this watch in, and how does it relate to its predecessors in that category?
Let’s say you’re considering a daily wearer that you don’t want to worry about breaking or getting wet, but you wouldn’t feel like a tool either wearing it with a suit, or on a hike, and you’re planning on keeping it for a long time, and perhaps you also fancy yourself a rugged lady/fella. Unless you already know what brand you want out of the gate, your first decision will likely be taxonomic: what kind of watch will this be?
Probably, it will be a dive watch, because, you know, James Bond, etc. Once you’ve chosen your category, you might peruse some websites, talk to your friends (who as it happens seem to be very high-centered on date windows), and quickly you’ll discover the low-hanging fruit: Submariners, Seamasters, maybe an Oris Diver 65 or a Seiko Prospex for something a bit more affordable, a Tudor Black Bay or a Tag Heuer Aquaracer at that intermediate price point, a Panerai if you’re feeling frisky; a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms or a Rolex Sea-Dweller/Deepsea if you’re feeling flush. Maybe a Doxa, a Zodiac, or a Rado if you’re feeling a little bonkers. Good choices, all. (I’ve got a bunch of them.)
Part of what you evaluate when you look at these watches is their adherence to, or deviation from, the norms of the category. You’ve got a notion in your head of the Dive Watch Platonic Ideal, and one by one, you may A/B each of the watches above with that ur-dive watch in your brain/soul. You probably don’t care about the depth of water resistance, or helium escape valves, or the extent to which the band is sharkproof; a spec sheet is not going to sell you on this watch. You’ll pull out your wallet when the dive watch synapses fire most frenetically in your brain. You may make this decision in accordance with dive watch tradition, or despite it, but your decision will be made in relation to that tradition regardless. That’s just how categories work, and that’s not a bad thing. Categories are an incredibly efficient way of making sense of the world. A Submariner stands squarely at the heart of dive watch-ness, and while they and the company who stingily manufactures them may enjoy some cultural cachet/status, with its concomitant baggage, a Sub in its design and execution isn’t referring to anything but dive watches.
Part of why I had trouble finding my entry point into Grand Seiko is that they don’t work that way at all. Sure, they make a dive watch, but it feels like an outlier in the GS line, and not because it’s the only GS in tool watch drag. It feels like an outlier in that it’s referring to that (primarily Swiss) dive watch tradition, and that’s not what makes GS exceptional. It’s someone else’s game — see all of the manufacturers listed above. And, yes, one of those names is Seiko.
Seiko — the Regular Old one, not the Grand one — has been making robust dive watches since the ’60s; the venerable and dare I say idiosyncratic SKX007 has been a few hundred thousand people’s entry into the world of watches that don’t have batteries in them. To call these knock-offs of Swiss watches is a tremendous disservice. Seiko has been making tool watches that are exactly that for decades. Whereas it feels like a stretch to call, say, a 6-digit Sub a tool watch, even tho, well, it is. The prosaic Seikos, as opposed to the Grand ones, are the textbook unpretentious, beater diver, even when Seiko’s design sense gets out over their skis a bit occasionally. (Seiko Monster, go home, you’re drunk) You’re still dealing with that conventional watch taxonomy there.
Grand Seikos aren’t playing the same game. This may be part of why they seem daunting to newcomers; it’s certainly why they seemed daunting to me. A Seiko Turtle, as much as a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, exists in relationship to the imagined ideal of a dive watch, despite skinning that particular cat in vastly different fashions, and at vastly different price points. They are not referring to anything that isn’t a watch. Grand Seikos are — and the purest expression of that is the dial.
I don’t want to speak for him, but the dial, and what that dial alluded to, is what seemed to draw Allen to the SBGH269 [yes, John, you are correct]. And that dial doesn’t refer to any category of watch, implicitly encouraging you to compare that watch to its dress watch/tool watch/pilot watch/ad nauseam predecessors. Instead, the dial refers to leaves. In the fall. And the texture of the dial? Lacquered wooden floors.
You try that in La Chaux-de-Fonds, you’d get your ass kicked.
The seasonal reference is not arbitrary: ordinarily, haiku will contain a seasonal reference. To don my Ruth Benedict hat for a moment, the Japanese recognition of seasons is both an acknowledgement of nature, and a recognition of impermanence. Seasons are by definition transient, and much of the beauty contained in nature (ie, autumn leaves) is a reflection not only of transience but of decay, death. Even the cherry blossoms, symbolic of spring and rebirth, are only beautiful since they have about two weeks from blossom to littering the sidewalk.
You don’t have to care about this to like Grand Seiko. But if you spend a few minutes thinking about this, you may realize how deeply you — ok, I — have a very parochial attitude towards watch aesthetics. This isn’t something you’d ever have a reason to think about unless someone presented you with a reason to think about it. Seeing the process Allen went through in choosing his GS allowed me to pull the camera back a little bit in terms of how I’d always thought about watches. And basically, for me, every watch I look at exists in a dyadic relationship with a Rolex Submariner. Which I never really thought about until staring at GS dials on the internet became a major component of my sheltering in place global pandemic mental health routine this spring.
I looked at a lot of dials. In fact, I think I looked at all the dials. I’d keep a tab open on my browser for every passing contender. This was not a stressful competition — in fact, you may wish to spend a few minutes a day with a special beverage during, say, the election this fall, really going deep on Grand Seiko dials.
Part of why this is a soothing exercise is due to the underlying design harmony to the contemporary Grand Seiko line. There are design elements that are consistent from one GS to another — nine of them, to be precise — and their purpose is, in part, to “reflect even the smallest ray of light, creating a crisp, clear, unique aesthetic that says: this is Grand Seiko, the ultimate practical watch.” The facets on the hands, indices, and case, the flat dial, and the polished bezel, all are designed to maximize the interplay between the watch and the rest of the world. Swiss design, by contrast, seems to exist either in a vacuum, or to conquer the elements. Whereas, say, Zaratsu polishing ensures a crispness and definition to the reflections on the watch’s case, which isn’t something you notice until you do, and then you can’t stop looking at it during meetings, along with the sweep of the second hand, and, of course, the dial.
Ah, yes. The dial. For me the last browser window standing contained the SBGH273.
Like a haiku, or Allen’s SBGH269, the SBGH273 embodies a seasonal reference; both the SBGH269 and the SBGH273 refer to fall, in fact. The rich blue dial refers, in particular, to Shubun no Hi, the Japanese public holiday celebrating the late-September autumnal equinox. (I do not believe the Swiss have a holiday observing the autumnal equinox. Correct me if I’m wrong.) However, I only know about this design allusion on account of the internet. Perhaps I’m too literal-minded, but all I see is a blue dial. As the old acronym goes, YMMV.
My American narrow-mindedness in no way detracts from the beauty of the dial. Depending on the light, it seems to have a radial pattern, or a series of wavy lines, with subtle gradations in hue; its richness and depth accentuate the contrast with the faceted silver hands and indices. The dramatic differences between how the hands/indices and the dial reflect light ensure high legibility in most light conditions, despite the — gasp! — absence of lume, which would of course look absurd on a watch like this.
The dial is simple in its design. There’s a gold second hand which coordinates with the gold “GS” emblem below the double width index at noon, a minute track on the minute rehaut (see what I did there?), and a perfectly-executed date window with a chamfered, silver frame that not even the most churlish watch forum rager could find fault with. (Also, mid-pandemic, not only do I find a date window quite handy, I actually wouldn’t mind a day complication as well, but I’d miss the dial real estate.)
While the dial on the GS is the money, the polishing on the case ensures that dial is perfectly framed. While the dial draws you in, the perfection of the case only becomes evident when you choose to focus on the subtle facets by the lugs, the contrast between the zaratsu polish on the top of the case and the fine brushing on the side of the case and between the lugs, and the overall sense of, dare I say it, balance and harmony imparted by its symmetrical shape. A signed, screw-in crown sits semi-recessed in the case at 3 o’clock; unscrewed it is quite large and easy to manipulate and will make winding the watch a pleasure even when you don’t need to wind it. After winding, first stop on the crown is a quick-set date adjustment, followed quite naturally by a hacking set feature, lest you worry the movement is just borrowed from the SKX007. It’s water resistant to 100 metres, should you feel the urge.
I love the Grand Seiko lion, I love the exhibition case back. But I do not love that the GS lion is printed on the case back. The printing on the sapphire seems a little low-budget; this is the only aesthetic bum note on the whole watch. It’s like putting a silk screen of an anemone on the side of an aquarium. And the point of a clear case back isn’t branding, it’s to highlight the beautiful polishing on the caliber 9S85 dwelling within, in all of its ten-beat-per-second, 37 jewel, 55 hour power reserve glory. This power reserve is possible via a proprietary magnetic resistant hairspring and mainspring alloys. (Remember, this 10 beat/second movement is working 20% harder than, say, the venerable 3135 in your Rolex.)
As is their wont, Grand Seiko conservatively rates the accuracy at +5 to -3 seconds per day static, +8 to -1 in daily wear. As of this writing, I’ve worn the watch daily for over a month, and it has picked up exactly a second per day. I don’t know about you, but I can live with six minutes a year. So it would be delightful if your view of this engineering marvel was not obscured by the GS logo — I love the lion, and it definitely would have cluttered the dial; would it have killed them to put it on the crown? — but to my eye it’s preferable to the skeletonized rotor on Allen’s SBGH269, which only gives you the most fleeting glimpses of the caliber 9S85, perhaps in a horological allusion to Junichiro Tanizaki’s “In Praise Of Shadows.” (Read it, if you haven’t; they should distribute free copies at Grand Seiko dealers. It may or may not inform your aesthetic judgment of watches, but you’ll never think about bathroom lighting the same way again.)
Before I divert my eyes from this flawless case, please allow my gaze to linger momentarily on — again, gasp — the drilled lug holes. Can you, dear reader, feel my swoon through whatever electronic aperture you are reading this on? Honestly, this was one of the surfeit of details pushing me irrevocably over the transom of love on this watch. With the exception of pure dress watches (platonic ideal: Patek Calatrava), ie, watches you would feel like a jackass wearing with a sweatshirt and jeans, which this is not, the gradual disappearance of those four little perforations is one of the greatest travesties of modern watch design, foisted upon us by, uh, whoever makes case polishing machinery (ie, Big Polish, and I don’t mean the country.)
Having said that. You can dress the SBGH273 down a bit with a leather strap (pictures), if you’re so inclined, tho you probably don’t have any 21 mm straps sitting around. I certainly didn’t — when the GS arrived, had neither a spare 21 mm strap, nor the tool to remove some links, so in my impatience, I put it on the only option I had, a Speidel. I’ll spare you a picture, but I’ll say: it actually kind of worked. (Don’t judge.) But nothing about the bracelet will make you want to remove it, only your desire to not leave things well alone will.
First, the bracelet’s near perfect, brushed with polished accents and a small, signed clasp which makes an Oyster clasp look like a behemoth by comparison. The end links are solid, not hollow, and are integrated into the case, rather than being secured by the spring bars, which contributes in some small way to the GS’s feel of solidity. (Why aren’t all bracelets like this? I’m sure there’s a good reason for it, feel free to tell me in the comments. The only other watch I have with integrated end links is a 6-digit Rolex.) My only pet peeve would be that there’s no provision for adjustment short of adding/removing links. I know this is hardly unique to Grand Seiko, but it’s an inconvenience in a tremendously well-thought-out watch, and thus the Rolex Glidelock remains at the top of the bracelet heap. If Grand Seiko could find a way to incorporate fine, tool-free adjustment (I’d even take thumbtack/paperclip adjustment), but keep the clasp so small, and I bet they could, you’d have a Rushmore-worthy bracelet here.
Second, when you swap the bracelet for a leather strap, it may add a bit of versatility, but at the cost of undermining the design singularity of the watch. It still looks good, but the cohesiveness of the look and feel suffer a bit. It’s like when your dad wears a pro team jersey — he can pull it off, he works out and all, but it looks like he’s in drag a little bit, and you feel slightly uneasy until he puts a button down back on. You could also try a NATO, or a rubber strap, or Milanese mesh, or — no, actually you couldn’t. Those would look terrible. Don’t do that.
This cohesiveness highlights what makes the SBGH273 so satisfying to wear. Every separate element of this watch is rowing the boat in the same direction, in terms of design and execution. Just as there are watch writing cliches, there are motorcycle writing cliches (when I wrote for CityBike magazine in San Francisco; the adjective “flickable” was banned); one of the highest cliche-praises was to say a motorcycle felt like it was “carved from billet.” ie, it wasn’t a bunch of parts-bin shit lying around the factory bolted together, there was an underlying singularity to the design and construction which got you to a better-than-the-sum-of-the-parts satori that made you feel like the motorcycle you were riding was one indivisible object, which, in fact, it isn’t. Like most cliches, this cliche is real; it became real for me when I made a 15-minute trade of my tattered Suzuki TL1000, which later in retribution (unsuccessfully) tried to kill me, for a friend’s Ducati 748. While hardly a faultless motorcycle, that 748, which, I should point out, was flickable as fuck, rode like the wizards of Bologna had carved it, Michelangelo-style, from a massive ingot of fine-grained fossilized God Bones.
I was surprised by the mass of the GS, when I tried it on for the first time. On the web and in the shop counters, they look small, and almost delicate. On the wrist, the SBGH273 has a presence belying its intermediate case size. It has a heft traditionally described as “reassuring.” And it sits a bit higher on the wrist than the proportions would lead you to expect. Viewed longitudinally, the polished top and brushed side case of the case are revealed to be just a portion of the watch’s height; the slightly domed, beveled sapphire crystal on top, and convex, stainless steel screw down exhibition caseback augment the GS’s height more than you might expect from the pictures. (There’s no bezel, the crystal is attached directly to the case, which only emphasizes the dial-forward nature of the design.) It’s a comfortable watch, but it’s not a dainty watch: you know you’ve got it on your wrist. It’s not the biggest watch I’ve worn, but it would look wrong if it were bigger than it is.
The size, level of refinement, and unassuming beauty combine to make the SBGH273 a remarkably versatile watch. I’ve been wearing this watch for a month and a half now, which is the longest I’ve worn a watch without a bezel since I lost my TI digital watch with the LED display in the waning years of the Carter administration. The truest test of a watch’s versatility is how often you need to take it off; I did everything but yard work and bike rides in the Grand Seiko, tasks for which the G-Shock was invented. I wore it with everything from a suit to jeans and a sweatshirt; I wore it to work and I wore it walking my two-year-old to go admire a parked bulldozer. At no point in any of these activities did I wish for a different watch on my wrist. In fact, were I capable of watch monogamy — which I am not — this would be all I need, provided I could sneak in a little hot G-Shock action on the side. (Hell, I’d settle for a Casio F-91W.)
I’ll usually swap watches every few days, but the languid yet anxious tenor of life in COVID times led me to forgo my usual rotation. After a few weeks of daily wear, I began to rethink my initial opinion regarding the ambiguous taxonomy of the GS. To get back to motorcycles for a moment. Motojournalists created the category label “UJM” (link to https://silodrome.com/brief-history-ujm-universal-japanese-motorcycle/)— Universal Japanese Motorcycle — in the 70s. A UJM both notable for what it was (versatile, practical, affordable, well-engineered, durable, oil-tight, quiet and, obviously Japanese), and what it was not (temperamental, narrow purpose, pricey, idiosyncratic, esoteric, leaky, noisy, European/American). These motorcycles were so common in my ‘70s boyhood, that when I imagined Stuart Little with his ping pong ball/rubber band helmet, he was riding a Honda CB750, not a Harley Panhead or a Norton Commando. You didn’t need to know about points or jets or kickstarting to own and enjoy a UJM, and you didn’t have to feel like you were in an outlaw cult to ride one. And as the Quartz Crisis nearly buried the Swiss watch industry, the UJM decimated the European and American competition.
You see what I’m getting at here. And, yes, the analogy is imprecise. A Grand Seiko is not inexpensive, and it is not purely utilitarian, and it has a level of decorative craftsmanship which is a source of enduring beauty. But my own brief time in the motorcycle industry showed me that the term “UJM” was not pejorative, as I’d initially imagined it to be. I’d argue that building something that does everything pretty well is a lot harder than building something very well. It may not carry the bragging rights of being the first watch at the top of Everest or the bottom of the Marianas Trench. But I feel 100% OK about saying that I will never find myself in either of those places. Like a Rolex, a GS will excel for decades and decades at its completely anachronistic task, and while you may frequently admire the beauty or the reliability of either, you won’t spend much time worrying about it. The biggest difference is that Patrick Bateman didn’t wear a Grand Seiko. No one but the most seasoned watch nerd is going to notice what’s on your wrist. For them, a GS is the secret handshake; for the other 99.9% of the world, it’s, well, a Seiko.
I wore the watch for nearly six weeks straight while writing this. This may partially explain the length of this essay. The longer I wore the watch, the more ideas I had about it. When I went to bed the first night I wore a different watch, I had a thought that I didn’t want to forget, so I wrote it down: “Maybe wearing a GS is like what wearing a Rolex felt like before Rolex became Rolex.”
Is there such a thing as a “timeless” design? We use the term lazily: a Speedmaster, or a Sub, or a Porsche 911, or a Ducati 916, or a Masi Gran Criterium are beautiful, and perfect, but they’re not timeless; each refers to a very particular period in the design of that particular category of thing, but all have aged remarkably well. Pencils are timeless. Bricks. Hammers. But anything with a design more evolved than that is likely to carry a set of cues and references to a particular time.
While some Grand Seikos are recreations of decades-old designs, a watch like the SBGH273, which isn’t recreating anything, bears some resemblance to the sort of practical watches my father would have worn in the 70s, when something both modern and relatively unadorned like his Bulova Accutron would have been the watch equivalent of a Honda CB750. Similar to, say, a Rolex OP, there’s a design conservatism to the GS which means that while it doesn’t look new, it’s also not going to look old forty years from now. It’s solid. If I was to create a category for these watches, it would be Dad Watches, but I’m not going to do that, both because it would certainly strike a contemporary reader as exclusionary, which is not my intent, and also because Dad Watch, like Mom Jeans, may not seem especially cool. But “the ultimate semi-dressy, but not overly so, practical watch” may need a little workshopping from the handsomely compensated Beyond The Dial marketing department. Call it what you will. But for a daily wearer, I’m not sure you can do better.
Sincere thanks to Joey for the GS. Joey’s got excellent taste and he’s a great source for deals on watches; he’s @watchoutchicago on IG, and WatchOutChicago on WatchUSeek.