Review Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221

A dressy watch with GMT functionality, meticulous finishes, superlative performance and classic Grand Seiko aesthetics.

calendar | ic_dehaze_black_24px By Rebecca Doulton | ic_query_builder_black_24px 10 minute read |
Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221

Precision, perfect execution and beauty are very real concerns in Japanese craftsmanship and Grand Seiko’s mission, ever since its creation in 1960, is to live up to these demanding principles. Precision and superlative execution are easy to gauge in Grand Seiko’s repertoire, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder and not everybody warms to Grand Seiko’s conservative, often spartan styling. Like other watches in the Elegance collection, including the ultra-discreet and sober SBGW231 or the mesmerizing blue dial of the SBGK005G, this Elegance GMT SBGM221 needs to be seen in the metal to appreciate the exemplary finishes that are rarely seen on Swiss watches in the under 5k segment. So, let’s go in-depth with this steel Elegance GMT model and see if it encapsulates Grand Seiko’s quest to create the “ideal watch”.

Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221

Grand Seiko – In pursuit of the “ideal watch”

Seiko has a long history marked by impressive technological feats. Originally called Seikosha, the first wall clock to emerge from Kintaro Hattori’s fledgling manufacture was in 1892 followed by Japan’s first pocket watch in 1895. Hattori dreamed large and was determined to build every component in-house. With typical Japanese dedication, by 1940 Seiko had produced its first temperature-resistant hairspring followed by the shock-absorbing Diashock system.

Seiko’s first pocket watch, the 1895 “Time Keeper”

However, one thing is having all the necessary components but quite another to extract precision performance from them. Hattori had a team of specialised craftsmen trained for this very task resulting in the development of calibre 3180. The recipient of this ultra-precise calibre was the 1960 Grand Seiko; a new line of watches that would embody the very best Seiko had to offer. The idea behind the Grand Seiko was to create a watch that would become the paragon of precision, legibility and beauty, in short, the “ideal watch”.

Recreating The First Grand Seiko (SBGW251 - SBGW252 - SBGW253) Plus A Modern Reissue (SBGR305)
The first Grand Seiko Watch, 1960

With precision under his belt, the next step was to devise a series of mandates that would govern the design and legibility of the Grand Seiko family. Encapsulating a unique Japanese idea of beauty, nine strict rules were formulated by Seiko’s famous designer Taro Tanaka in 1962. These rules governed proportions, finishes and angles and still govern the design tenets of the Grand Seiko today. The 1967 44GS model was the standard-bearer of Grand Seiko’s design philosophy expressed with straight lines, planes and two-dimensional curved surfaces. But there was another detail that truly set apart these watches from anything else on the market: the incredible mirror-like reflections created by the zaratsu polishing on the case.

The 1967 Grand Seiko 44GS

In 2017, Seiko CEO Shinji Hattori announced that Grand Seiko would be a separate, independent brand. This step helped further separate Japan’s most prominent luxury watches from Seiko’s otherwise diverse portfolio. Rising from its relative obscurity in the West, since 2010 Grand Seiko has been available internationally and is fast becoming a presence for the Swiss to contend with. And in keeping with Hattori’s ambitious programme, the goal for Grand Seiko in the US and Europe is to become one of the top five luxury watch brands with products positioned in the USD 5,000 – 10,000 price segment.

Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221

A simple case with extraordinary finishes

The stainless steel case has a diameter of 39.5mm, which nowadays is pretty close to dress watch standards. The 13.7mm height of the case is slightly thicker than dress watch mandates but the curvature of the lugs means that the watch hugs the wrist perfectly, as you can see in the photos of the watch on Brice’s 17cm wrist. Finally, the lug-to-lug dimension is just over 46mm, which is by today’s standards, rather small. Another aspect to take into consideration is the shape of the case. Models in the Elegance line have slightly less angular, blocky cases than models in Grand Seiko’s Heritage and Sports lines upping the elegance factor noticeably.

Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221

The beauty of the Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221 lies in its not-so-conservative elegance and the insane way it plays with light.

Ok, we’ve covered the case specs and can now move to the ‘wow’ factor of this Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221: the polishing. It really needs to be seen in the metal to believe and I encourage any doubting Thomas to visit a local Seiko distributor to see what we mean. This is truly a level of execution you are not likely to find on your traditional luxury Swiss watch. Like gleaming Japanese katana swords, the zaratsu polishing on the case maximises the interaction of light on the flat surfaces to create sharp, crisp edges and a mirror-like surface with no distortions. The level of polishing is so perfect that you can see your reflection on the case.

Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221

Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221

Although the word ‘zaratsu’ might sound Japanese, it is, in fact, the Japanese pronunciation of the German word ‘sallaz’, the name of the German manufacturer of the polishing machines acquired by Seiko in the 1950s. Three years of training are required before a craftsman can lay his hands on the zaratsu polishing machine.

Dial

The dial of the Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221 has a warm, glossy ivory colour and is perfectly flat. If you view the dial with a loupe you will appreciate the amazing level of detail that has been invested in every single feature.

Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221

The rectangular hour markers are like miniature sculptures with facets and a mirror-finish on the superior surfaces. On the simpler hour markers, you’ll find no fewer than 8 hand-polished facets. On the 12, 6 and 9 o’clock markers, it’s 11 of them… And they are all perfectly executed, with reflections changing from bright white to almost full black, without distortion or flaws. It is just impressive.

Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221

The hands follow a similar procedure and are so sharply defined you could use them in an operating theatre. The top surface here is mirror polished – some GS watches have a brushed top surface – again to a flawless level. The sides of the hands have a sharp and wide bevel, again mirror hand-polished. Depending on the angle, the contrast between the surfaces not only looks stunning but also enhances legibility… when one surface is bright, the other is almost black and vice-versa. The Japanese craftsmen from Grand Seiko achieve have achieved beauty and practicality.

Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221

Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221

A 24-hour GMT scale with Arabic numerals is indicated with a heat-blued arrow-tipped hand. This hand is again beautifully executed, even though less demonstrative. It also adds a discreet touch of colour to this dial. The Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221 features a date window, which again comes with a  beautifully executed bevelled frame at 3 o’clock. I know lots of you have issues with date windows, but in the context of a GMT traveller’s watch, it is really useful.

Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221

Setting the home and local time is a cinch and everything is executed via the crown. The main hour hand (local time) jumps forwards or backwards while the blue 24-hour hand can be set to home time. A box-shaped sapphire crystal, with anti-reflective coating on the underside, protects the dial.

Altogether, it is hard to find flaws in terms of execution on this SBGM221. All aspects – hands, indexes, dial, printings – reveal a level of execution you’ll only find on high-end Swiss watches – in the EUR 15k category and up. Whether or not you like the design is obviously personal, but the combination of the bright, sharp and reflective case/hands/indices with the soft, cream colour of the dial has great elegance and enough audacity to make this watch far (very far) removed from classic.

Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221

Calibre 9S66

Still consumed by achieving the “ideal watch”, Hattori’s Grand Seiko watchmakers wanted to go one step further and created an entirely new movement, calibre 9S, released in 1998. Having passed the Swiss COSC chronometer tests with flying colours, Grand Seiko’s team decided to up the ante and submitted its calibre 9S to its own chronometry test, the Grand Seiko standard (17 days of testing, six different positions, three different temperatures, precision of -3/+5 seconds per day).

Calibre 9S66 is a derivation of the famous 9S with an additional GMT function. Inside its state-of-the-art manufacture, Grand Seiko uses Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) technology to produce lightweight precision parts, including the escape wheel and pallet forks. Grand Seiko has developed a cobalt-nickel alloy for its hairspring known as “Spron 610” providing more resilience to shocks and magnetic fields. The reinforced mainspring is capable of achieving a level of torque for a power reserve of up to 72 hours.

Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221

However, the adjustment of the hairspring is done entirely by hand by a specialised team of master craftsmen. Even the individual teeth of the gears are polished by hand to ensure the flow of power with minimal loss of energy.

Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221

You can see the finishes of the robust automatic Calibre 9S66 with its balance wheel under the sapphire crystal caseback. Decorated with Seiko stripes and perlage, the movement is well-finished but not perhaps to the levels you would associate with a watch from Glashütte. It is very sharp and neat, of course, but slightly technical. It might lack a bit of that Swiss or German exuberance in the decoration that makes a fine movement attractive. Some polished bevels and blued screws, even though not your typical Japanese way of decorating a movement, would make the watch even more spectacular.

Thoughts

A reliable travel companion with its simple-to-use GMT functionality and generous power reserve, the Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221 is an exemplary marriage of high-tech components and meticulous craftsmanship that Grand Seiko strives for in its pursuit of the “ideal watch”.

Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221

Sizing is practically perfect but would be 100% perfect if the thickness were whittled down a bit and I would have preferred the date window to have the same colour background as the dial – even though it matches the window’s frame… but these are personal preferences and, let’s be honest, won’t change the overall beauty of the watch.

Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221

My first impressions are always radically altered after viewing Grand Seiko watches in the metal. What might come across as a classic, conservative, low-key kind of watch in pictures shines in a completely different light when viewed in real life. It’s a watch that needs time to be appreciated and admired, creating an intimate bond with its wearer. This watch has an incredible charm, a great presence and feels far less formal than you’d think at first. It’s dressy without being strict and every single angle reveals incredibly finished details. And the way it plays with ambient light is mesmerizing.

Price

The SBGM221 comes with an elegant brown crocodile leather strap and folding buckle – the watch photographed here being a personal item and not a review/press watch, it is here worn on a smooth and more casual strap, which adds great charm to this piece. The OEM strap and buckle are, however, well-executed but maybe a bit too formal.

Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221

The retail price of the Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221 is EUR 4,800. That is quite a lot of money for most of us, but I challenge you to find a Swiss counterpart with this level of finishing and precision performance at this price.

More information at grand-seiko.com.

9 responses

  1. Beautiful watch but splash resistant only at that price?
    It’s all great with the tech specs but it’s like a Nissan GTR. If you like that then fair enough but i prefer Maserati, Bentley etc with way more heritage.

  2. Size IS perfect, but there are two massive problems with that wrist shot.
    1) You are wearing it ON YOUR HAND
    2) It is too big (or you shot this with a 28mm lens from too close.)
    The quality of this piece simply oozes from the photographs, but I still don’t like the design.

  3. Kuldeep, you are sadly mistaken.
    Seiko was founded in 1892.
    Seiko is a significant company in Global Horology.
    Every educated watch enthusiast is aware of this.

  4. I really like this watch from so many perspectives, but would never consider it at almost 14mm thickness. Below 12mm and I would seriously consider, around 10mm I would have bought it already.

  5. Yeah they reversed engineered a lot (started as a repairer) of the original time pieces I’m sure. The English for instance were the pioneers in watches back in the day.

  6. Great article, exceptional photos. Sigh indeed… I’m a collector and I bought this model in October last year. It fascinated me from the moment I wandered into a GS boutique in France in August, leading to an hour-long conversation with the sales guy. Now I find that I wear it more regularly than any of my other pieces (all Swiss, except the Bremont). It is exquisitely finished and it draws the eye and it fascinates me – I have not seen any other piece in this price category that plays with light this way, and with this level of attention to even the minutest of details. It is flawless. I find myself staring at it a number of times a day, in any lighting condition. Yes, it could have been more water resistant. Yes, it might have been a tad thinner (although it fits the wrist perfectly)… But that does not detract from the stunning beauty of this watch in the flesh, and the enjoyment I get from it.

  7. The thickness , the achilles heel of many G S , if only they could make the proportions a tad more svelte ….

  8. Stunning watch if a bit too thick as usual for GS (I have a 44GS which shares the same traits).
    Nice strap pairing. Where did you get that one? 🙏

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