Today I get to look at one of my absolute favorite Grand Seikos and one that gets far too little attention. The SBGC series, of which this is a member, is Grand Seiko’s response to some people’s criticism that they’re too traditional and that they don’t take chances. The SBGC001 is proof that they do. The SBGC001 is way outside of Grand Seiko’s normal design, as it’s a brand that cherishes minimalist design first and foremost. It’s a company that treasures restraint. And it’s also a brand that has never once produced a chronograph. Except for this one.
If you can’t see the SBGC001 in person, the next best thing is in video! Check out our 1 minute video of the watch before you read the article: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0tS_bX4fy0
The SBGC series is Grand Seiko’s first and so far only chronograph, so it marks an important departure for the legendary brand. But the departure is greater than simply a new movement or complication, because the SBGC line is also the only Grand Seiko to have a truly busy dial.
And it is busy–very. Grand Seiko, dial writing aside, is revered in large part due to their minimalist dials, usually resisting even simple things like lume or numerals. So the challenge for the SBGC watches is to take this new complication and busy layout and somehow fit it into Grand Seiko design principles. Does it succeed?
Opt for the white dial (also available in black dials in the SBGC003 and 005) like we did and you will be treated to a beautiful, and traditional, sunburst dial. So right away we see that GS design principles are at work in terms of the style of watch. What’s also immediately obvious is that the layout of the dial is very unconventional. Do not take this as a rare exercise in avant garde design by Grand Seiko–this is thoughtful and deliberate.
This could have been an extremely cluttered watch that was difficult to read as it has, get this, 8 hands. But Grand Seiko has effectively color coded the SBGC001. Notice, for instance, that all hands associated with the chronograph are beautifully heat blued. The GMT hand is red. All hands used for ordinary time-telling are steel. The only exception to this formula is the power reserve, but it’s off on its own anyway and is unlikely to be confused with anything else.
Now under heavy magnification we can really appreciate those famous dauphine hands, yet another component from Grand Seiko’s traditional stable. Grand Seiko took great care in increasing legibility of the watch. For instance, although I was unable to take a photo of it, the chronograph seconds hand is bent down at the top. This is because the seconds hand, which is the top hand, is raised so far off the dial due to the existence of the GMT hand that looking at it at slightly different angles means you would be seeing it point to different things. Bending the seconds hand down at the tip, however, mitigates this problem. Even so, with my camera just a hair off angle, you can see that the seconds hand appears to be slightly off. Pay attention, however, because as I move the watch to other positions, you’ll see it be centered or even off-centered the other way due to angle. Imagine how much worse that would be if the seconds hand were straight.
Here’s a great look at those blued chronograph hands as well as the red-tipped GMT hand. I absolutely adore this color-coded approach and that, along with the bent chronograph seconds hand–it makes the dial so much more legible.
Here’s a quick look at the 72 hour power reserve, in Grand Seiko’s typical upside down fashion. It’s out of the way of the chronograph functions, both spatially and chromatically, so while it increases clutter, it doesn’t hurt legibility. In future incarnations of the 9S86, I would suggest to Grand Seiko that they use some form of small power reserve window, like the one on the Nomos Tangente Gangreserve for example. This takes one hand out of the picture and keeps the dial a little cleaner. Still, I actually love very complex dials, so for me, this is great.
The usual incredible sharpness of Grand Seiko is still present. Just because the dial is more complex doesn’t mean GS gets to relax the detail a bit–it’s finished to the same level of quality as a Snowflake or a Hi-Beat.
Because the SBGC001 is both a chronograph and a GMT watch, it can use two additional sets of markers. Grand Seiko increases legibility by staggering the numerals–the GMT hand reaches the GMT numerals and the chronograph seconds hand reaches the ticks.
Grand Seiko’s position of the SEIKO applied logo is very interesting to me. The 9R86 (in 5R86 guise) is present in the Ananta Spring Drive Chronograph as well, and the Seiko and Ananta logos take up that void below 11:00, which I actually rather like. As it stands, this really the only empty space on the dial. Perhaps more broadly, I think having a dial with 4 different complications (chronograph, GMT, power reserve and date) is the strongest argument to drop the big SEIKO logo altogether on this particular watch (although I don’t mind it on any other GS).
All in all, the dial work is astonishingly good. I have little doubt that this is the finest dial work that has ever come out of Suwa, probably up to and including even Credor. Is it for every Grand Seiko fan? Absolutely not. Is it for THIS Grand Seiko fan? Oh yes. But like the dial or not, it can’t be said that Grand Seiko doesn’t take chances.
Although the dial and case are controversial among Grand Seiko collectors, the movement isn’t. Quite simply, the 9R86 is the most advanced movement that has ever come out of the company.
We’ll get the basics out of the way first. It’s a spring drive with 72 hours of power reserve. In terms of spring drive technology, which is itself incredibly advanced, there’s not much different here. Basically, spring drives replace a few very important parts from an ordinary mechanical movement with a tri-synchro regulator. Instead of a pallet fork, escape wheel, hairspring and balance wheel Grand Seiko has used their proprietary tri-synchro regulator. Instead of the balance wheel oscillating back and forth, creating the characteristic and evenly parsed ticks we associate with a watch, a tiny electromagnetic brake slows the movement down in an incredibly precise fashion.
There are a few consequences to that: it has the beauty of a mechanical, as it’s almost entirely mechanical, it’s got the accuracy of a quartz, and it has a smoother seconds hand than any other watch in the world. Like all current spring drives, the 72 hour power reserve is very nice because it lets you take the watch off after work Friday and it’ll still be running Monday. The spring drive has absolutely none of the instability associated with different levels of energy in the mainspring, meaning it will still be as accurate with one hour left in the reserve as it is with 72. Most owners experience under 5 seconds a month accuracy.
Not only is the 9R86 the most advanced movement to ever leave Grand Seiko’s workshops, it’s also the prettiest. By far.
The top plate on all GS spring drives is quite minimal, but a ton of it has been removed for the 9R86. It gives the owner a terrific view of the column wheel chronograph. You can actually see it actuate and reset when you used the pushers. The glide wheel, the functional equivalent to an ordinary mechanical’s balance wheel, is on full display and is quite interesting to watch. The glide wheel is the key to the seconds hand’s smoothness–balance wheels go back and forth, basically unlocking the movement to take one little step which each full back and forth. The glide wheel only turns in one direction so there is no stop and go associated with the lever escapement. The only time the movement stops is when you hack the seconds or it dies.
The large rotor is gorgeous and pretty much identical to what you’d see on most Grand Seiko spring drives. Unlike the 9S6X and 9S8X mechanical movements, all 9R automatics use Seiko’s famous magic lever bidirectional winding system. It’s one of the most elegant solutions for bidirectional winding ever created and very proven.
Every complication on the 9R86 has already been utilized by Grand Seiko for awhile now aside from the chronograph. For instance, there are several spring drives with the 9R66 movement, which has a date, power reserve and GMT hand. But the addition of a chronograph to the spring drive is more revolutionary than evolutionary in a sense. Several high-end chronograph makers, from Zenith, to TAG Heuer and even to Breguet like to talk about how precise their chronographs are due to their high-frequency movements. Yet, none of them can match the precision of a perfectly smooth seconds hand. The precision of a spring drive chronograph far exceeds what a human being can react to in real life–it’s more precise than you’re capable of being.
Here’s a closeup of that column wheel. In our video you can actually see it in action. I love that you can peer down into the movement and see these details.
Here’s a closeup of the glide wheel in action. It rotates precisely 8 times per second, so it’s just a blur in real life. It still has the mesmerizing character of the star of every display case back, the balance wheel.
Like all Grand Seiko GMTs, the 50 jewel 9R86 has an independent hour hand. It’s an extremely solid click into each detent, much more satisfying than most watches I’ve owned and tested. The date can also be set forward or backwards by using the independent hour hand.
So there you have it, Grand Seiko’s most sophisticated and most beautiful movement ever, the 9R86. It doesn’t get much better than this no matter how much you pay. Aside from some incredibly rare and expensive Credors, this may be the most technologically advanced movement in the world.
And now we turn to an even more controversial subject of the SBGC series, the case. Of course, you’ll find all your (extra)ordinary Grand Seiko details there–the hand polished zaratsu technique’s alternating mirror polished and brushed surfaces, the unrelenting attention to detail and a thicker than you’d expect case. What you may not have expected to find are two very substantial pushers.
In a rare instance of bold design, Grand Seiko has chosen to use large screw down pushers in addition to the screw down crown. The visual effect is that the watch has three separate crowns. This is perhaps the most polarizing element of the entire watch.
At first I could take them or leave them, but over time they’ve really grown on me. They’re big and bold, to be sure, and it’s quite unlikely you’ll be diving with your $8600 SBGC001 on, especially with its 100 meter rating, so the screw down component of them seems out of the blue, but they’re something else as well–they’re different. Grand Seiko is my favorite brand and, as such, I see them either in person, on my wrist, or on the internet, constantly. So I like it that Grand Seiko mixed things up here. The screw down component is neat, although I’m not sure how necessary. Basically, there are metal sleeves that come up along the pusher and block the pusher from being used, presumably while underwater. Unscrewing them actually doesn’t make the pusher pop out like a crown, it just sucks the metal sleeves into the case. It’s very neat, and while pretty much useless for 99% of wearers, helps to distinguish the SBGC from the rest of the lineup.
Of course, for all the great things Grand Seikos are known for, thinness isn’t one of them. This 43.5mm case is about 16mm thick, or about 3.5mm thicker than a Snowflake. Still, its larger dimensions helps hide its thickness, and unlike many Grand Seikos, there simply is no attempt to make this a dress watch–this is very clearly a sports watch. It’s no thicker than many 7750 based watches and it doesn’t bother me at all, especially for one with so many complications, but it’s something to keep in mind.
The shape and style of the case is otherwise standard Grand Seiko fair. I love how GS cases look, including this one, and I think they’re very comfortable, so while I definitely understand how this particular iteration is divisive, I think if you look at it enough to adjust to the pushers, you’ll end up liking them more and more.
The bracelet is also fairly typical of Grand Seiko. Present is the famous 5 link design, where each piece of the bracelet is actually 5 separate links, individually hand polished. But there’s a twist.
Namely, take a look at that longer-than-average clasp.
Interestingly, the clasp used on the SBGC has a lot of micro-adjustment possibilities. This hasn’t always been the case for the SBGC, as I recall, and is a fairly recent update. This should help it find a very comfortable length for the wearer and also make it much easier to adjust for hot or cold weather.
As beautiful as it is, it’s too bad they could have added the gold GS logo to the clasp like the did on the SBGC005. Still, the bracelet is very much world class in finish, comfort and now adjustment. It also uses Grand Seiko’s screwed link design which is very secure. Two micro screws secure each link with a friction pin between them. So in order for a link to detach, a screw has to work itself out (very rare) and then the friction pin inside has to fall out–this is very unlikely. So your amazing watch is very secure on the GS bracelet.
The SBGC001 is the first Grand Seiko chronograph, and as such, takes a lot of chances with design. Does it succeed? For me, absolutely. I’m about as big a Grand Seiko fan as exists and I’ve always loved their extremely classic styling. But I also love it when Seiko takes a chance with watches like Ananta or Credor. Seiko, and therefore Grand Seiko, is capable of adventurous forays in design. As Grand Seiko collectors, we should be happy to have this option, an option I hope to one day exercise.
A fan of the styling or not, the part that has received universal praise is the 9R86 movement. It’s a real technological wonder and is a departure, in terms of complications and complexity, from existing spring drive design. If you’re really driven by the idea of having the best, most beautifully finished, most accurate movement, it’ll be very hard to find a watch that does better than this one.
I love it. I desperately want one of my own. The dial is as impressive as the best I’ve seen. The movement is exciting and beautiful. You get not one but two perfectly smooth sweep hands to show off your spring drive capabilities. I don’t want Grand Seiko to leave it’s traditional roots, but adding a whole new line of watches like this is a good thing and I can’t wait to see what comes next.