Defining a brand identity is probably one of the most complex tasks. As a watchmaker, creating complications and movements is certainly not something easy, and it requires investment and time, but the definition of a style that is unique and immediately recognisable might be even more important. And consistency is key in this path to a signature design. Even though it was presented to the world in 1960, it took several years for Grand Seiko to define the style that would, inevitably, be associated with the brand. To be more precise, this occurred in 1967 with the presentation of an important model, the 44GS. Fifty-five years later, and to celebrate this special watch, Grand Seiko has released a limited edition timepiece directly inspired by this vintage model. And today, we go hands-on with this Grand Seiko Heritage Hi-Beat GMT SBGJ255.
Defining a design for the decades to come – the 44GS and the Grammar of Design
If there were one word to keep in mind when talking about the design of Grand Seiko watches, it would be consistency. But since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it’s always hard to judge if a watch is successful or not. What is far more objective is how a brand manages to make this design its own and perpetuate it over the years. Grand Seiko was created in 1960, at a time where the focus was more on mechanical matters than on the definition of style. Remember that Grand Seiko is the outcome, together with King Seiko, of an internal competition for the creation of the most precise watch possible.
The definition of the design, later named “Grammar of Design”, occurred a few years later, in the mid-1960s, and involved one man in particular: Taro Tanaka. Prior to his arrival, Seiko was not really about consistency and creativity. In fact, there was not even a design department before the mid-1950s, and, even after its creation in 1956, this group of designers was mostly responsible for the creation of dials. Things changed in 1959 when Seiko hired Tanaka, a freshly graduated designer, to handle the design department of the brand. His vision was global and covered the process for the creation of an entire watch. The mission of Taro Tanaka was simple and complex at the same time, and it was to give Seiko and Grand Seiko a true Japanese identity while retaining classic watchmaking codes. The problem he had to surpass was that, according to people he questioned when showing them the watches, Grand Seiko watches did not have a clear and common identity. They were attractive as individual designs but not immediately recognisable.
In 1962, Taro Tanaka defined the design of future watches with a series of rules, to be applied across all creations, under the name “Grammar of Design”, a densely written design guide that defined exacting standards for every visible component, from hour markers to case. Besides the notions of precision, legibility, beauty and ease of use so that form follows function, this design language was all about the subtle use of light, reflection and shadow. First, surfaces and case lines are polished to a distortion-free mirror finish (the famous Zaratsu polishing technique). Second, all lines of the case and dial have to be flat and graphically sharp to reflect light in the best possible way. Hands are polished to razor-edge sharpness so that they catch even the faintest ray of light and the lugs combine polished and hairline finishes in a way that lets light create a subtle and uniquely Japanese effect. Finally, bezels have to be flat and have simple, two-dimensional designs.
Going deeper into the details, this definition of the style by Taro Tanaka gave birth to a series of nine different rules, which can be seen below. And the first watch to integrate this “Grammar of Design” was the 44GS, presented in 1967 and now regarded as one of the most important watches in the brand’s history and a turning point in the production of Grand Seiko. Moreover, this watch is still a great source of inspiration for the brand’s designers. As the model is celebrating its 55th anniversary this year, Grand Seiko has decided to pay tribute to this emblematic design by releasing a new limited edition model, faithful to the original design yet modernised.
The Grand Seiko Hi-Beat GMT SBGJ255
This new Hi-Beat GMT SBGJ255 was presented officially a few weeks ago, and while it shouldn’t be regarded as a true vintage re-edition of the 44GS – this has been done by Grand Seiko in 2013, with the SBGW047, SBGW043, SBGW044, and SBGW046 – it should be regarded as a true case study in design consistency. In fact, it’s not even about re-creating a design since this shape of the case has been seen very often in the collection. It’s really about the coherence and longevity of the brand’s identity. As you can see for yourself, the 44GS remains an important source of inspiration for the brand, with multiple watches following the “Grammar of Design”.
Although it can’t be considered ‘revolutionary’ since this watch is based on existing models like the SBGJ235 (also a GMT) or the SBGH281, this watch shows the dedication of Grand Seiko’s design team to reaffirm its identity and the culture that has been implemented within the teams for years. Looking at the illustrations above and comparing it to the actual watch we’re testing today, the resemblance is uncanny. Proportions, shapes, overall, there isn’t a single aspect of this watch that doesn’t respect the rules defined in the 1960s. What’s even more impressive is how modern the SBGJ255 feels although its design is based on a series of guidelines that are 55 years old. I think timelessness is an appropriate word here…
What we’re looking at is a modern interpretation of the design defined by the 44GS and expressed with modern mechanics and materials. Indeed, this new watch is made of high-intensity titanium, the brand’s name for a specific alloy with greater corrosion and scratch resistance (Vickers hardness of about 300-350, versus 180-200 for stainless steel). This alloy is indispensable for the brand to respect its design language because contrary to classic grade 2 titanium, high-intensity titanium can be polished. As such, it means that the signature distortion-free surfaces are present. Being made of high-intensity titanium introduces several advantages. First is a weight reduction inherent to all titanium alloys. Second is the ability to resist scratches better than stainless steel (not a bad thing with all the Zaratsu-polished areas). Last is the colour, which is brighter than traditional titanium alloys used by other brands.
The SBGJ255 is a well-proportioned watch, with a diameter of 40mm and a case length of 46.2mm, making it relatively easy on the wrist and for most wearers. It’s light and comfortable, with its curved profile, but do keep in mind that the specific shape of this watch – and all 44GS-inspired models – makes it relatively present on the wrist due to the large and solid shoulders giving the case a large surface. All the classic elements of the Grand Seiko “Grammar of Design” are present: the curved sideline; the highly polished yet simple bezel; the flat and distortion-free surfaces on the sides of the case and the lugs; the reversed slanted bezel wall and case side; and finally, the half-recessed crown. Not only are these features respectful of the brand’s codes, but they endow the watch with its unique GS personality. Our only complaint, something we’ve said repeatedly when reviewing Grand Seiko models, concerns the height of these watches. At 14mm, the SBGJ255 is fairly thick, and although the brand has started to work on this issue with the Evolution 9 collection, other models are not there yet.
Moving to the dial, there can be no doubt regarding the manufacturer of this watch. Like the case, the dials produced by Grand Seiko are defined by a certain number of rules, including notions of symmetry but mostly of textures and surface finishings. Guided by beauty and legibility, the hour and minute hands and the hour markers are multi-faceted, so they can reflect light in different directions and remain highly visible in all angles. In this watch, the base of the dial is a discreetly textured (vertical pattern) silvery-white surface. The most noticeable element, which has been extremely well received by the community when the watch was first presented, is the addition of luminescent material to the hands and markers, making for a more versatile watch. The rest of the dial is traditional, with multiple dark blue accents on the logos, GMT hand, and the 24h scale.
Under the sapphire crystal back is the well-known in-house calibre 9S86. An automatic engine with hi-beat regulation, it beats at 5Hz or 36,000 vibrations/hour and is rated at an accuracy of +5 to –3 seconds per day (surpassing classic chronometer standards). The 55h power reserve is comfortable despite the high frequency, and the GMT function is a true traveller’s one, meaning that the local time hour hand is adjusted by one-hour increments, not the GMT hand on most entry-level watches. Looking at this movement, you’ll immediately notice the specific decoration, with a rotor executed in an uneven gold colour, which is achieved through an anodic oxidation process, where the titanium is subjected to electrolysis to generate an oxide film.
This Grand Seiko Heritage Hi-Beat 36000 GMT 44GS reference SBGJ255 is worn on a high-intensity titanium 3-link bracelet, finished mostly with brushed surfaces and some polished accents. It is closed by a three-fold clasp with a push-button release. While the overall execution of the bracelet and its comfort are beyond reproach, GS could think about adding a micro-adjustment system to improve the experience.
Availability & Price
The Grand Seiko Heritage Hi-Beat 36000 GMT 44GS 55th Anniversary SBGJ255 is released as a limited edition of 1,200 pieces and is now available at Grand Seiko Boutiques and selected retail partners worldwide. It is priced at EUR 8,500 or USD 8,500. For more details, please visit www.grand-seiko.com.