Grand Seiko’s Urushi Dials Give The Elegance Collection A Competitive Edge (And Eye Candy)
by Martin Green
If you talk to me about Grand Seiko, I will tell you that I think that the company’s biggest problem is that it is too perfect. Of course, perfectionism is a very Japanese thing and it has helped Seiko to secure a unique position in the low- to mid-range of the watch market by offering incredible value for money.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, things work a little differently. One could argue that the more expensive a watch is, the more it is about the emotion that it triggers in potential buyers.
Nobody needs a mechanical timepiece these days, especially not an expensive one. It is no secret that the Swiss dominate this part of the market, with a more modest role played by a handful of German brands.
Until now, Grand Seiko has been duking it out with the Swiss using sense and sensibility; for the most part with very precise, Spring Drive-powered movements that are housed in stainless steel cases polished to perfection using a technique that Grand Seiko calls Zaratsu, a name deriving from a sword-polishing technique.
Sadly, this only took the company so far.
But at Baselworld 2019 Grand Seiko took the next step toward what I believe will consolidate its position in the high-end watch market.
Grand Seiko’s precious approach: using indigenous crafts
One of the significant differences in the 2019 products is the availability of precious-metal case options.
Yes, the crisp Zaratsu finish that Grand Seiko can apply to its stainless steel cases is absolutely amazing. But that only goes so far in the luxury watch market.
We find the same situation with minute repeaters, considered the most precious complication in watches: while stainless steel and titanium cases offer far better sound performance for repeater mechanisms, customers still want them in gold and platinum because those case metals are considered more luxurious.
Grand Seiko now caters to this sentiment while simultaneously tapping into a particular superpower that it has: being Japanese. This ancient culture is not only rich in tradition but is also expert in several crafts that are unique to the country. Utilizing them gives Grand Seiko an edge that no Swiss or German brand can offer.
I am a bit biased when it comes to this country’s artisanal use of lacquer. And two of the new members of the Grand Seiko Elegance Collection – Reference SBGK002 and Reference SBGK004 – boast superb Urushi lacquer dials.
While this type of lacquer can be applied to a variety of different objects, it is primarily known in the Western world as an artistic decoration on high-end fountain pens.
Urushi lacquer is made from a particular species of tree native to Japan called toxicodendron vernicifluum. The sap is very carefully collected from this tree and allowed to mature.
Applying Urushi lacquer is extremely difficult as the layers have to be very thin, and each layer must have sufficient time to dry before the next coat is applied. This expertise and patience pay off because once finished, Urushi creates a very hard coating that can be polished to reveal the subtle yet distinct luster that is so typical of this material.
Both of these new Grand Seiko models are housed in pink gold cases, one offering a deep black dial (SBGK004) while the other one is more of a brown-burgundy tone (SBGK002).
The black version is created by adding iron to the Urushi lacquer, while the deep burgundy version is very slightly translucent so that it can subtly reveal the Mt. Iwate-inspired pattern underneath it.
The splendor of these two Urushi lacquer dials is accentuated by the slightly domed dial, and the hands are also curved to follow this. The domed sapphire crystal ensures that even that part of the watch stays on theme with an anti-reflective coating to ensure that it is the dial that shines and not the crystal.
Grand Seiko Caliber 9S63: right movement for the moment
Grand Seiko even went through the trouble of developing a new movement variation for this watch.
Caliber 9S63 is quite surprisingly manually wound and offers 72 hours of autonomy from a fully wound mainspring. On the dial side are displays for central hours and minutes, small seconds, and power reserve.
Even though it is a rather elegant movement, you shouldn’t expect any romantic swan-neck regulators or such things. The 9S63 might be manual wind, but it still has no time for such sentimental “nonsense.”
Grand Seiko’s focus on reliability and precision before anything else is responsible for that, and that’s okay because these values have a firm position within the brand’s values.
Thanks to this movement, the heart, soul, and physical appearance of these two Grand Seiko are perfectly aligned.
They are also profoundly Japanese, but in a way that is also understood outside of the imperial island nation.
This is only the beginning: I expect that Grand Seiko will capture its place in the heart of Western watch connoisseurs with these watches and the ones bound to follow.
For more information, please visit www.grand-seiko.com/global-en/collections/sbgk002g.
Quick Facts Grand Seiko Elegance Reference SBGK002 and Reference SBGK004
Case: 39 mm x 11.6 mm, pink gold
Movement: manual-wind Caliber 9S63, 28,800 vph/4 Hz frequency, 72-hour power reserve
Functions: hours, minutes, small seconds; power reserve indication
Limitation: 150 pieces in each color
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If this one new series is under 12mm thick, that’s an exception not their standard practice. The majority of their products are overly fat. Additionally, their bracelets and Staps are not perfect either. I have other watches in the same price range with superior straps and bracelets. Finally, the power reserve on the dial, on an automatic, why? It doesn’t seem to be perfectly loved either. Overall, GS are nice watches but as far from perfect as I am!
These pieces are hand wound, not automatic. I think that’s part of how they’ve been able to shrink the width a bit. I don’t suppose that’ll matter for you regarding the power reserve. I’m on the side that enjoys a power reserve, but I understand why people find them inelegant, as there doesn’t seem to be a terribly good way to implement them without disturbing the symmetry of the watch. I guess you can put them on the back of the movement, as some do. Tudor’s North Flag does a nice job balancing it against the date complication.
€31,400 for Europe, yet $29,000 for the U.S? That snubbing only helps cement a decision to get something far, far better for the price. The list is long.
There has been a shift in GS management. An extremely cynical and thuggish shift resulting in new models unworthy of the marque and a desire to capture Frat-boy and Tech-bro dollars. In the process, everything that made GS GS is being unmade by money-grubbers.
Several times I have left the house with the firm intention of buying a GS and came home with something else. I profoundly admire GS (and am extremely unhappy at the direction it is going in) but they are not…charming. As this article says, there is something…cold, or mathematical…safe about them which other watches don’t have. Which is why I bought a Rado Captain Cook over a 37mm GS at the same price. Inexplicable. Stupid. Wrong. But I adore my neo-vintage Rado. Looking at the perfect black dial and the “eternal” lines of the GS case, it didn’t feel like it was mine.
Is that you, JAGOTW?
Haha! Hey mate.
Martin, in my opinion, Gran Seikos are similar to electric cars. Great innovative pieces without the infrastructure. As you know, I have two pieces but I’m seriously considering selling them as any serious mechanical faults or polishing requires a trip back to Japan. Even then, there have been some unfavourable reports on the condition of watches upon return. If they can get their act together and put a support network in place, then they can seriously challenge the best from Switzerland.
Totally agree, If I’m paying for a premium watch, it is because of the overall quality of the piece. I would expect it to work without fault until such time that I need to take it to regular service and this is something that you just can’t rely on with brands like Grand Seiko anymore; I mean what is the point of buying a watch if the complications are faulty. From experience, I recommend the watchmaker Backes & Strauss – the way they combine their precious stones with an elite quality watchmaker in Franck Muller makes it innovative AND reliable. Even in the unlikely scenario that the watch becomes faulty or damaged, I can always bear it to their boutique on Grosvenor street, just off of Bond street to get it repaired quickly and reliably instead of sending it to a distant location and having to worry, you just shouldn’t have to hassle any more than you have to earn the money to buy the watch than maintaining.