Review: Grand Seiko Elegance GMT Ref. SBGM221

Share this story:

Grand Seiko is a true independent manufacture without an obfuscated history. The line was founded in 1960, and it was the start of Seiko’s efforts to produce high-end watches that could compete against those of the Swiss. In 1962, legendary Seiko designer Taro Tanaka developed a series of rules dubbed the Grammar of Design, and his holistic approach to what watches should look like would inform Grand Seiko’s design language for years to come. In 1972, Grand Seiko ceased production for a period of 16 years, until the brand was brought back in 1988 with Grand Seiko’s first quartz-powered watch — the 95GS. But it wasn’t until 1998 that Grand Seiko released the 9S5 mechanical series featuring Grand Seiko’s first new mechanical caliber in 20 years.

My love for Grand Seiko was cemented when I visited the brand’s facilities late last year. Seeing the watches come together, that wonderful mix of hand craft and industrial production, was really something to behold, and I ended the experience more in love with the Grand Seiko on my wrist.

Advertisement
Setting the hands.
Checking the movements.
“Zaratsu” polishing a case.
Adjusting the hairspring.

Grand Seiko is a true innovator. The brand’s pioneering Spring Drive movements continue to impressive even 21 years after they were first introduced to the world, and I personally believe Spring Drive to be one of a handful genuinely interesting developments in timekeeping mechanics of the last several decades. And, of course, there’s Grand Seiko’s 9F quartz line, which is arguably the crème de la crème as far as quartz is concerned.

The watch we’re looking at today is one of my favorites in Grand Seiko’s current catalog; in fact, it’s a watch that I own. The Ref. SBGM221 sits in Grand Seiko’s Elegance range, which is home to Grand Seiko’s dress(ier) timepieces. At $4,600, it’s also priced on the lower end for a Grand Seiko mechanical watch, but despite the lower price, it’s still a Grand Seiko through and through and one hell of a value for what you get. Let’s jump right in.

$4600

Review: Grand Seiko Elegance GMT Ref. SBGM221

Case
Stainless steel (Zaratsu polished)
Movement
in-house 9S66 automatic GMT
Dial
Cream
Lume
n/a
Lens
Box sapphire
Strap
Alligator w/ deployant
Water Resistance
3 atm
Dimensions
39.5mm x 46.3mm
Thickness
14.5mm
Lug Width
19mm
Crown
Push-pull
Warranty
Yes
Price
$4600

Measuring 39.5mm wide, 14.5mm thick, and 46.3mm lug-to-lug, the watch hits a sort of sweet spot. Being that it’s a touch dressier given the overall dial and case finishing, it’s nice that the case comes in just under 40mm. That said, I wouldn’t classify this as a straightforward dress watch, so the fact the case isn’t a svelte 37mm doesn’t bother me.

Shown here on my 7″ wrist.

While 14.5mm reads somewhat thick on paper, the case itself doesn’t look too thick, nor does it wear especially tall on the wrist. First, the mid-case isn’t a giant slab. Second, the thickness is distributed among the case back, mid-case, and sapphire box crystal. And third, the case back dips into the wrist when worn, and the lugs curve down, which ultimately allows for a really nice fit that should accommodate a variety of wrist sizes and shapes.

Advertisement
The softer nature of the case design keeps it from looking too thick.
Curving lugs and a bowl-shaped case back allow for a comfortable fit on the wrist.

Unlike the watches making up Grand Seiko’s Heritage and Sport lines, the watches of the Elegance collection feature softer cases. When I say soft, I’m not commenting on the quality of finish; in fact, everything here is as crisp and precise as can be. By “soft” I mean that the cases aren’t as harsh and angular as some of those inspired by Tanaka’s Grammar of Design. While I admire those watches in the abstract — and I’m a huge fan of many of the vintage counterparts — I haven’t fully warmed up to some of the more popular modern takes on the aesthetic. Personally, I find that many of them tend to dominate my 7-inch wrist. I completely understand that this is my preference and nothing more, and that there are many Grand Seiko devotees without this issue, but I wanted to offer context for why I’m particularly drawn to Grand Seiko’s Elegance range.

Now, one knock that I do have against this watch — and to be more specific, the case — is the water resistance rating of just 3 atm, which Grand Seiko categorizes as “splash resistant.” As I wrote above, these are obviously meant to be dressier watches from Grand Seiko (and 3 atm is common for dress watches), but they’re not dress watches in the truest sense — not to me, anyway, though I realize that’s a matter of perspective. I’d argue that this watch can be a perfect one-watch contender given how it wears and its built-in functionality. So, with that said, 3 atm is bit disappointing (though by no means a dealbreaker, obviously, since I own this watch). To make it clear, I’m not expecting dive watch specs here, but I’d like prefer something a touch more robust.

One of the things that I really love about Grand Seiko is the brand’s commitment to impeccable finishing. I truly believe that for the price you will not find a better finished watch. Hell, even if you tacked on a couple extra grand to the comparison, Grand Seiko would still come out on top when pitted against the competition.

“And that’s what’s cool about Grand Seiko. Getting a perfectly finished watch is the rule and not the exception.”

Just look at the case. At first glance, it might look like a typical high-polish case. But note the quality of that polish. Note the bevels on the lugs, and consider how sharp they look even without the benefit of having mixed finishing for contrast.

Note how sharp and precise the polish is on the bevels on the lugs and how crisp the demarcation is between the two planes.
A highly skilled Seiko craftsman “Zaratsu”polishing the case.

Grand Seiko’s known for something called “Zaratsu” polishing, and it’s a key reason why Grand Seiko watches look as good as they do. There’s a lot of mystery around what Zaratsu actually means, but simply put, the word “zaratsu” is derived from an engraving found on a vintage polishing machine adopted by Seiko in the ‘50s. The engraving read “GEBR.SALLAZ.” In German, SALLAZ sounds more like “zallats,” which leads to the Japanese pronunciation, “zaratsu.” These Sallaz machines are relatively rare today, and, but for a few Japanese and Swiss makers, they’re not really used in the industry. What makes them distinct is that they use the side of the disc, and not the front, to polish surfaces, and that’s what results in those clearly defined points where plane meets plane that Grand Seiko watches have come to be known for. Mastery of one of these machines and this technique takes years and years of practice, and Seiko only allows their best craftspeople to perform this function.

Turning to the dial now, the dial of the SBGM221 invites you to look at it through a loop. The hands are razor sharp; the sculpted indices, applied Grand Seiko insignia, and date window frame are perfectly finished; and the dial printing is without slop. I have a reputation of being a bit eagle-eyed here at W&W HQ, and I seriously cannot find any fault here. And that’s what’s cool about Grand Seiko. Getting a perfectly finished watch is the rule and not the exception.

Let’s spend some time on the hour markers and hands. A single marker has nine perfectly polished surfaces, except at the cardinal spots where the markers are doubled (here you have twelve distinct surfaces). When you factor in how small these markers are, the degree of sculpting and finishing becomes all the more impressive. Again, I repeat: this is the rule with Grand Seiko and not the exception.

Note how sharp, angular, and precise these multifaceted markers are.

The diamond-cut hands are classic Grand Seiko: broad, tapering blades with bevels along their edges. Like the indices, the finishing here is without fault. The second hand is a simple stick with a hand-bent tip and an elegant counterweight. The GMT hand is a heat-blued arrow, and it offers a nice visual contrast against the other hands and dial. FYI, these hands are blued one-by-one and by hand. I’ve seen it myself, and it’s painstakingly awesome.

This technician has trained his eye to get that perfect blue color every single time.
The heat-blued GMT hand perks up in the right light.

The dial itself is cream-colored so it has a pleasing warmth to it, and the printed text is black. Once again, as far as quality goes, the printing here is beyond reproach. Cream-colored dials aren’t all too common today. Normally you see white, or something with more of a silvery metallic look, so the warmer vibe here almost feels like a throwback. I really like the color of the dial, and I feel that it offers something different from what’s largely on the market. I’ve also noticed that depending on the light source, the tone definitely morphs. Outside the warmth is a touch tempered, but under warmer color temperatures the dial perks up.

At three is a framed date window. The date wheel is a metallic silver with black text. While I normally prefer a matching date window, the subtle bit of contrast here between the matte, cream-colored dial and metallic date wheel looks great. My main issue with mismatched date discs is that they emphasize date windows that often feel like afterthoughts, which is definitely not a problem here. The date integration here works really well, and it’s in the rights spot. Plus, this is a GMT, and a GMT without a date would feel so wrong.

Powering the watch is Grand Seiko’s 9S66 automatic GMT movement. It features a three-day (72 hours) power reserve, a beat rate of 28,800 vbh (or 4 hrz), 35 jewels, it’s regulated to six positions, and it’s rated to +5/-3 seconds per day.

“But it’s not just all looks — the 9S66 is also technically impressive.”

The 9S66 is a “true” GMT. Here’s what that means. The watch features a jumping local-hour hand, which is exactly what it sounds like — via the crown, you can jump the hour hand forward or backward (and bring the date with you when you move past midnight) to set your watch to the new local time after you’ve crossed timezones. The 24-hour hand remains linked to home time or any other timezone you’d like to track. This is by far the preferred implementation for GMTs.

Because the hour hand jumps in both directions via the crown, there’s no traditional quickset date via the crown. To advance the date quickly, you have to jump the hour hand past midnight until you reach your desired date. It sounds more tedious than it really is, and I’d argue that the added GMT functionality as is is worth the small sacrifice here.

The 9S66 is a beautifully finished caliber, visible through the open case back. At certain angles on the crystal, you can see the Grand Seiko lion emblem — a nod to the beautiful medallions that once adorned vintage Grand Seikos.

9S66 GMT From Grand Seiko visible through the display back. Note the subtle Grand Seiko lion on the crystal.

But it’s not just all looks — the 9S66 is also technically impressive. Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems — otherwise known as MEMS — is a highly advanced semi-conductor manufacturing technology employed by Seiko here to produce lightweight precision parts for their 9S calibers. Using MEMS, Grand Seiko can make escape wheels that are 5% lighter and pallet forks that are 25% lighter. Grand Seiko also uses their own anti-magnetic metallic alloy for their hairsprings. Their latest is Spron 610, and it’s very resilient to shock, magnetism, heat, and corrosion.

Advertisement

The SBGM221 comes on a 19mm alligator strap with a unique folding deployant. Both are well-made and up to par with the quality found on the rest of the watch. Having said that, I’m not a huge fan of deployant claps, nor do I generally like alligator straps, so I opted for something a bit more dressed down. While straps are certainly a matter of preference, I do like the SBGM221 on brown leather. I find that brown works well with the cream dial and the pop of blue on the GMT hand.

I began this review by stating that the SBGM221 is one of the most affordably-priced mechanical Grand Seikos currently on the market. After all that I covered here, you can see that despite its price, it’s by no means a lesser watch. From the movement to the finishing, this is a full-fledged Grand Seiko through and through. At $4,600, you’re getting a level of precision, mastery, and design that blows the competition away. People often talk about Grand Seiko offering amazing bang-for-buck in the luxury segment, and they’re not wrong. This is one hell of a watch, and without a doubt worthy of the moniker “Grand.” Grand Seiko

Images from this post:
Ilya is Worn & Wound's Managing Editor and Video Producer. He believes that when it comes to watches, quality, simplicity and functionality are king. This may very well explain his love for German and military-inspired watches. In addition to watches, Ilya brings an encyclopedic knowledge of leather, denim and all things related to menswear.
ryvini
Categories: