Updated: Dec 27, 2020
December was the month SEIKO launched the very first Grand Seiko more than 60 years ago, and ever since I got that call to do an interview and talk about vintage mechanical Grand Seiko, all kinds of thoughts creeped into my mind, either because of excitement or because I have been dying to talk about the brand to whoever would listen. As I did my outline, I found myself getting carried away trying to think of what to discuss or what to say. I took out all my notes that I had accumulated over the years studying the brand, some of them were covered with coffee stains and hardened over time, while others needed to be retrieved from my old hard drives. But the hardest part was featuring the watches that had to be discussed and choosing what those watches were from my collection or from the collection of others. I quickly got my list of people I had dealt with over the years and who I had helped purchase a GS piece and I begged them to lend me their watches just for the interview. So as early as now I am already declaring that the watches featured on this blog are not all mine and were lent to be by some very generous people who have the same thoughts I have -- to get the brand introduced to more people and to get them to appreciate or even fall in love with the brand.
From left to write starting at the top: GS3180, GS6146, GS6245, GS SBGW005 (9s54), GS5722, GS4420, GS SBGR001 (9s55), GS SBGM001 (9s56)
As I got back to creating the outline and after gathering the watches from friends who were willing to lend them, I thought long and hard and realized that I needed to tell a story, a story of a mechanical watch that was developed against all odds. Stories of milestones by a Japanese Company called SEIKO with an obscure watch brand called "Grand Seiko" and the countless other milestones that were set leading to a long 20 year hiatus that will eventually redound to a reintroduction of the brand after many years of waiting for the right moment. A "right moment" that had to see the convergence of demand, perfect timing and technology, and that right moment eventually came with the reintroduction of the very first modern mechanical Grand Seiko watch in the late 90's. It is a story that needs to be told to make people understand the brand even more and make them aware of how important the beginnings of this company was as it has become its own brand and has started a worldwide expansion. A story that has to be told before people forget how important the beginning was to achieve the many milestones they are achieving now.
A lot of people have asked me why Grand Seiko, why not other brands. My fascination with the brand stems from an article that was written about mechanical Grand Seiko which covered each of the watches issued from 1960 to 1975. A fifteen year period where a finite number of 20 movements were issued and produced, and so that was when I thought that it would be easy to collect or even just handle and experience each one. Plus, it helped that I developed a friendship with Mr. Gerald Donovan, the man also known as "The Grand Seiko Guy" and the persona behind www.thegrandseikoguy.com and it was his own personal collection that inspired me to try and get each piece of the vintage Grand Seiko line-up and it was his immense knowledge of the brand that inspired me to study even more and to find out about the small details, anecdotes and stories about the brand first made famous by Seiko in the early 60's.
A story about Grand Seiko has to start in the 1950's when Seiko issued or released their Seiko Marvel pieces and the other earlier mechanical pieces of different names such as "Marvel", "Super" and "Unique." These are the watches that had case sizes measuring around 30mm to 35mm and were all strictly made in-house. The beautiful thing about these Marvels were the dials that were created. This was the most fascinating thing about the brand and SEIKO had experimented with all kinds of different dial designs from the Astrological dial design to the bark design of the Marvel. All of them were beautifully crafted and had that applique "S" right below the 12 o'clock. I was an avid collector of these watches, in fact, I had accumulated close to 35 different designs as I was drawn to their uniqueness and love the thought that a Japanese watch company could think of designs like this in the 50's. But it was the obsession of SEIKO with accuracy and the development of the most accurate mechanical watch that made them venture in the direction of trying to create the most accurate watch around. In my opinion, I believe that with their experience in creating a watch purely in-house with the Marvel of the 50's gave them the confidence to replicate the same and develop a purely in-house watch with the Grand Seiko brand going into the 60's.
THE VINTAGE LINE
It was December 18, 1960 when Grand Seiko came out with the 3180 aptly called the Grand Seiko "First." I will not bore you with the historical details of the watch as you can read about it on the internet. But it is important to point out that Seiko would always include a "ratings certificate" in all their watches, especially the first variants. (please excuse the attached ratings certificate as it is not original to the watch, just a prop one picks up when obsessing with the brand). These certificates would indicate the ratings accuracy of the watch which was a very nice touch on their part because, at one point, they were guaranteeing the accuracy of their watches and they took pride in doing so. Something that the brand has stopped doing with their modern offerings.
The Grand Seiko First or Caliber 3180 (J14070) was issued December 1960. This was the very first milestone of Grand Seiko. The watch was gold-plated, manual wind, had a no-date dial and a lion engraved on the caseback. To me, it is the classic Grand Seiko design. But there were other metal variants that were said to have been made. The steel variant, which was rumoured to act as a "temporary watch replacement" for the GS 3180 owners who had to have their watch repaired or refreshed with Seiko. In other words, it was meant to be a temporary replacement while waiting for their watch to be finished. While I have no knowledge of any special reason why the Plantinum variant was issued, all I know is that I've only seen one Plat GS in the past 5 years of studying Grand Seiko and that is the picture above from the Instagram account of the famous collector Mr. Erick Strickland.
As we go to the details of the GS First, we see that the watch had many varieties, and these were based on the different variations or treatments of the GRAND SEIKO logo at the heart of the watch.
So you see, there were 3 known types of treatments, from the carved or engraved logo dial, to the printed logo and finally to raised or applique-style logo. I am not too familiar with the "order of rarity" but I would assume that the hardest to find was the engraved logo dial, given that it was difficult to do so Seiko decided to scrap the engraving of the logo altogether. I am uncertain where the printed style of logo falls in that order of rarity as different schools of thought have mentioned that the printed logo was the very first one to be created. But one thing I do know for certain is that the applique-style logo was the most common, and the one found on most GS 3180 dials.
It is important to note that the GS 3180 was one of 5 watches issued by Seiko that had the word "Chronometer" plastered all over the dial. The other 4 being other watches in the SEIKO line-up.
My feeling is that SEIKO was attempting to create "the watch" that could go toe-to-toe with Swiss watches and they looked at each of the watch variants they had in their watch portfolio, from the GS 3180 and 43999/5722 to the KS49999 from Daini and the hard to find Seiko Liner Chronometer 46999; not to be left out is the Seikomatic 6216 Chronometer, which was the precursor of the 62GS, the first automatic watch of Grand Seiko. So you see, SEIKO had put the word "Chronometer" in a majority of all the watch variants and brands they had, and they were probably testing the market to see what would click and what would stick.
According to Mr. Don Crotty, also known as Ninja01 in the Seiko Forums, "one thing Seiko Collectors have to understand....when Seiko simply badged the watch as "Chronometer" (prior to the time an Independent certification agency was started in Japan), the term "Chronometer" (on the dial or case-back) simply meant that that the "certification" or testing was done ALL in-house by Seiko itself with NO independent agency involvement. This caused the Swiss to object to the use of the word Chronometer on the dial....and resulted in the founding of a Japanese agency which tested independently to the Swiss standards for that badge (Chronometer).
As Grand Seiko finally crossed that chasm from manual to automatic, it went through different specimens using the 62 movement, from the Seikomatic with the 6206 movement which evolved over time to become the 6217 movement of the world timer and the 62MAS. Eventually, it was this same 6216 Seikomatic Chronometer that eventually became the very first automatic watch of Grand Seiko with the GS 6245/6-9000. This particular piece happens to be one of my greatest regrets. It has a flawless dial and is, in my opinion considered a fine example of an earlier piece with the highly desirable lion case back. These transitional pieces were only issued in 1966, making it one of the hardest to find Vintage Grand Seikos in the market.
After conquering the mountain of successfully introducing a mechanical automatic watch, SEIKO needed another mountain to conquer, and that is a watch whose heart was beating faster than usual. The 36,000 hi-beat was a beast that SEIKO conquered rather easily with the introduction of the 6145/6 movement that was made in 1968. This watch and had practically put SEIKO under the radar and announced to everyone that this brand is here to stay, and they are not screwing around. All kinds of variants came out, but for me two stood out the most, the 6146-8010 which came with a faceted crystal and the very first time Seiko featured that type of a detail in a watch. It had an "Arabesque" symbol surrounding it's 'GS' logo a message that this watch is something not to be taken lightly, and it is believed that it is the precursor to the Grand Seiko "Special" -- A watch whose accuracy was a notch below the VFA line of Grand Seiko, a line that definitely deserves its own blog that we shall reserve for another time.
Another important facet of the watch is that it is made of hardened stainless steel (HSS) which makes it heavier than the usual watch issued during those days. Unfortunately I had sold this watch in a local auction house two years ago, and its weight was 65.5 grams more than 17 grams heavier than the solidly-built GS43999 and close to twice the weight of the Seiko Liner Chronometer 46999. Aside from making it a heavier watch, the HSS also made the watch more resistant to scratches plus it had an added lustre and shine from the material used. An innovation that announced to the world once again Grand Seiko is here to stay.
The other variant that I especially liked is this 6145-8050 issued in 1972. This piece also had a heart that beat faster; but it was the beautiful bracelet that the watch came with that made it more special. This watch I got close to NOS and passed it on to a dear friend and serious collector as it happens to be his BMBY (Birth Month, Birth Year watch May 1972). I have been looking for another bracelet for another 6146-8050 I picked up, but haven't been successful for the past two years already. It is probably safe to say that this combination watch and bracelet is definitely a winner, and one of the hardest to find combinations in the vintage GS line.
Finally, we go to the last of the vintages from the line up of watches that was lent to me in my attempt to tell the story of Grand Seiko, the 45GS. This movement was the second movement made by the Daini Seikosha Company. It was a manual hi-beat movement that had a certain feel to it as you listen to each click every time you wind the watch.
The highlight of the watch has to be the shape of the case which reminds me of a tie-fighter or maybe even the helmet of a trojan soldier. Whatever it is, the fit of the case as it rests on one's wrist is something that needs to be experienced. Plus the very dark blue dial that borders already on black is also a unique touch given that it is probably the only watch in the Vintage GS line that has that dark blue color on the dial. This watch was released around late 1968 up to the beginning of 1974, around the same time the 61GS was released by the SUWA Seikosha factory. Both were hi-beat watches but this had a mechanical handwind movement while the 6146 was automatic. If you were to ask me which was my preference I'd go with the manual hi-beat. I just feel the romance one feels as one winds the watch and the sound of each click is an experience I cannot describe. Plus, this 45GS movement was the foundation of the 4580 calibre, and according to The Grand Seiko Guy... "These models can undoubtedly be considered the absolute pinnacle of the entire vintage Grand Seiko era, and either of them would qualify without peer as the ultimate "grail" piece in any vintage Grand Seiko collection -- not just because of their rarity, but also because these represent the ultimate achievement of what Grand Seiko was all about -- creating quite simply the best watch on the planet.
THE MODERN VINTAGE LINE: TECHNOLOGY TO THE RESCUE
A discussion of modern Mechanical Grand Seikos has to start in the 90's with, ironically the 9F Quartz, which was acclaimed "as the ultimate quartz watch." But there were some people in SEIKO that continued to have the passion for mechanical watches and they knew their first goal was to improve the machine that was at the heart of the watch. The movement chosen was the 52-series, which was installed in the King Seiko in the 1970's. A high-performance movement that was certified chronometer by the Japan Chronometer Certification Association. Eventually, the movement that was developed was the Caliber 4s35 released in 1992. In addition to it being a self-winding watch the thickness was reduced to 4mm while having a calendar function. It was an all-important achievement as it was the beginning of the "revival of domestic mechanical wristwatches" in SEIKO. But the company felt it was still a notch below what they wanted to achieve for the Modern Grand Seiko. It was this obsession with achieving accuracy that should exceed the Swiss chronometer standard that has become Seiko's minimum hurdle and they knew that the 4s35 just didn't cut it. This obsession, which has been there since the 1960's started again when the 4S movement was carefully adjusted and submitted to the certification test of the Swiss Chronometer Certification Association in 1996, and 3 out of 4 passed. This eventually proved that SEIKO's mechanical watch technology was not dull and had potential. However, the problem still remained as SEIKO wanted the modern GS movement to exceed Swiss chronometer standard and it was with the advent of a particular technology that SEIKO was able to achieve this. Just like how George Lucas was able to fulfill his dream of creating Episode 1-3 of his Star Wars series 16 years after the release of Episode 6 in 1983, the advent of computer technology allowed him to create new worlds on film, a new standard that he had set for himself. And just like SEIKO, which had set a minimum standard of beating the Swiss Chronometer accuracy, the development of the 9S movement exclusively for Grand Seiko had to clear this extremely strict standard of -3 to +5 seconds (Swiss Chronometer standard is -4 to +6 seconds) and it was the use of the 3D CAD computer technology system that helped achieve this dream. This was developed by SEIKO Instruments and this allowed SEIKO to create "new worlds" in the field of Modern Mechanical Grand Seiko watches.
Enter the new world of Modern Mechanical Grand Seiko with the 9S movement. I will limit my discussion of Modern Grand Seiko with three watches and their 3 different movements because I feel that SEIKO was at a point where, after they had achieved their minimum standard of accuracy for their new Grand Seiko line, they wanted to come up with a minimum standard for their Grand Seiko watch design and it was with these 3 watches where SEIKO, in my opinion went through a "trial and error" phase combined with a study of market reception to see where their "new world" will lead them. A lot has been discussed about the Zaratsu polishing and how it has played a very big role in the new modern Grand Seiko watches. I will not get into that, I will just dabble and attempt to discuss the vintage modern line-up of Grand Seiko with these 3 watches that I believe were "modern transition" pieces as to their design, make and build and in my opinion a major milestone for SEIKO.
1. GRAND SEIKO SBGR001
Enter the SBGR001 which was released in 1998 after SEIKO conquered the mountain and achieved their standard accuracy of -3 to +5. It came with the 9s55 movement and had 26 jewels coupled with a 50 hour power reserve. At the time the 9s55 was released, the no-date 9s51 movement also came out on the Grand Seiko SBGR002. But only one variant of this watch was released and that is an 18 karat YG watch. Both of these watches had a lion engraved caseback consistent with traditional Grand Seikos. A lot of people weren't too impressed with this watch as it only had a 50 hour power reserve and some new owners were talking about some issues with the crown which they felt was not built in properly, an issue they resolved when the SBGR001 was reissued with the SBGR051. Yet, I still consider this watch one of SEIKO's greatest milestones because in a very competitive industry where the name of the game is always achieving more and constant improvement, this watch proved to the whole world that SEIKO could come out with a modern Grand Seiko line that can compete against the Swiss in the rejuvenated mechanical wristwatch industry.
2. GRAND SEIKO SBGW005
Released around the beginning of 2001, the SBGW005 was, in my opinion the traditional and classic Grand Seiko design that had a no-date dial, a hand wind movement and had the lion engraved case back. This SBGW005 was the second release of the 9s54 movement, coming in behind the SBGW001 which came with a leather strap and had the same 50 hour power reserve. The beauty though of the SBGW005 is that it came with a bead of rice bracelet which gave it a vintage feel that was accented by the "blue" second hand on a no-date cream dial. The feel of the click as one winds the watch reminds me of the feel of the 45GS discussed earlier. From my experience, I have counted up to 50 twists of the crown with the second hand starting to move after the 25th twist to make the watch last more than 48 hours.
3. GRAND SEIKO SBGM001
The third important modern Grand Seiko that needs to be discussed is the SBGM001 released in 2002 with the very first complication ever put by Seiko on a GS line. It came with the 9s56 automatic movement with a GMT function, and yet still had a 50 hour power reserve just like the other watches that came out during this period. The watch came built with 27 jewels and had the lion engraved caseback which gives it a traditional touch coupled with a modern GMT twist. I personally like this watch as I feel it is very much underrated. I can live with the 50 hour power reserve, but the design of the watch is just superb. What I don't understand is why SEIKO would reissue this watch with the SBGM027 and had changed the design by adding huge crown guards that completely destroyed its symmetry (again, my opinion). The SBGM001 was such a success that 10 years later SEIKO had celebrated the 10 year anniversary of the watch's issuance by coming out with the Grand Seiko SBGM029 to celebrate the success of their first Grand Seiko watch with the very first complication.
So you see, three modern Grand Seiko watches issued within 5 years of each other, from 1998 to 2003. Three watches that more or less had the same designs and more importantly a Lion engraved on caseback, a symbol of watch accuracy superiority for Grand Seiko going back to 60 years ago. Yet, I feel SEIKO was not satisfied. Their constant improvement and their obsession to topping every offering they had made them reissue each of these watches. The SBGR001 became the SBGR051 and then eventually reissued to the SBGR251 when Grand Seiko became its own brand in 2017. The SBGW005 was reissued to the SBGW035 and then eventually to the SBGW235; and finally the SBGM001 became the SBGM027 and then eventually reissued to the SBGM227, still with those huge unappealing crown guards.
*Top Row: SBGR051, SBGW035, SBGM029
**Bottom Row: SBGR251, SBGW235, SBGM229
Each of these reissued watches had their own improvements in their movement such as a longer power reserve and a much improved design for some but all came out with a new standard design for Grand Seiko that is the transparent casebacks to highlight the beautifully crafted design of the movement. A standard that will be part of all future modern mechanical Grand Seiko watches moving forward. These 3 watches gave SEIKO the courage and the confidence to ramp up and open the floodgates for more offerings down the road. It gave them the confidence to say, "yes, we can do it and we can do it better even with "complications"." In other words these 3 watches and their subsequent reissues paved the way for the modern Grand Seiko and led the way to more modern mechanical offerings with new innovations in their coming new lines. They've come a long way from 60 years ago when the first Grand Seiko "First" was issued. They have conquered many mountains with "tradition and innovation" combined with relentless passion. But I still get that feeling that SEIKO and now GRAND SEIKO will never be satisfied.