Affordable luxury… An oxymoron? Probably so, but we here at Monochrome know very well that such things exist. Seiko has become the champion of this supposedly “made-up” category. Capability-wise, we all know the folks at Seikosha can easily rival their Swiss counterparts, and the Grand Seiko is a testament to that. But to make a timepiece equally good, without the price premium that comes with it… Impossible…? Let’s find out!
The dream timepiece for us collectors will always be the very best the industry could offer. The problem is…. that changes with every purchase, or sometimes every passing week. The phrase “you know you want it” kept plaguing our minds, a syndrome that we watch nerds cannot escape from. But what if our paradigms were to shift just as mine did? What if instead of looking for the very best, I look for a timepiece that hits the sweet spot and strikes the balance between quality and price? A piece that can be worn on any occasion, and also one that I won’t be ashamed of wearing? It was cherry picking, but I like to think that I finally found one that fits all the aforementioned descriptions… The Seiko Mechanical (SARB033)
At first glance, one can easily tell that the Seiko Mechanical (SARB033) has the DNA of the Grand Seiko written all over it, especially the off-white-dialed version of the watch. It is no coincidence that Seiko made the piece in such a way that it is essentially a Grand Seiko, without carrying the same premium. A Grand Seiko without the “Grand.” But that is not to say that the Seiko SARB033 is yet another mediocre timepiece…. far from it, actually.
The similarities to a GS (Grand Seiko) are uncanny, but the history of the Seiko (SARB033) comes from Seiko’s Spirit line, a lineup of dress watches from Seiko that is without the complexity of the Premier. Although some Spirit watches are riddled with battery-powered movements, this piece is completely mechanical.
Pictures may not do justice to the Seiko (SARB033), but once you’ve managed to see one in the steel, you’ll no doubt agree to most everything I’m going to say from here on out. Let’s cast aside first the stigma of Seiko being a champion of cheap quartz pieces. Citing the “Lexus effect” won’t help either; this is (I cringe when I say this) a reasonably priced timepiece, but with an overall package that is unheard of on this price range. Read on to find out why.
Overall Finishing and Case Design:
Immediately you’ll notice that this is not your average Seiko 5 Sports piece. The case finishing is fantastically well made. It’s not exactly the flashiest of the bunch, nor will it easily catch your eye. This is something that builds up on you as you go along.
The case is brushed with hints of polishing on the side, its lugs slightly curving and protruding downwards. The case itself is supremely constructed. It has that solid feel that sometimes the low-end Seiko brand clearly lacks. Just think of the Prospex series, without the added heft and size.
The case measures a very modest 38 mm in diameter without the crown. Flipping the piece over gives you a view of its see-through case back, showcasing the Seiko’s innards in all their glory. While the dial is secure behind a sapphire crystal, they’ve opted for hardflex on the back; it would have been better to have a Sapphire caseback as well, but it’s not a deal breaker.
This Seiko offers two models to choose from – black (SARB033) and off-white (SARB035). I opted for the black for the classic and discreet look; the dial is black with a matte finish. Others might go for the off-white dial simply due to that Grand Seiko-esque similarity.
In terms of legibility, this piece here is off the charts. It is by far one of the most legible timepieces at this price range that I ever owned. The hour markers are simply marked by rectangular indices with a luminous inner tip on each; the 12 o’clock marker is slightly bigger. There is a small date window at the 3 o’clock position and written above the 6 o’clock are the words “Automatic” and “23 Jewels” which gives you an idea of the movement inside… More on that later.
I mentioned its top-notch legibility earlier: this is all thanks to the design of the hands. Their sword-like design (dauphine hands) and tapered tips allow you in an instant to read the time to the exact second. The minute and hour hands are slightly polished with a thin strip of lume in the middle. The gliding motion of the seconds hand is extremely smooth; it’s not Spring Drive nor Hi-Beat motion, but it’s smooth enough to tell you that the movement inside is not your average off-the-shelf movement.
In bright sunlight, the dial color slightly changes to dark brown in the same direction of the light, making it possible to still read the time without the effects of glare. Conversely, at nighttime, Seiko’s patented luminous paint, Lumibrite glows brighter and longer than your average fluorescent paint. At merely ten minutes under artificial light (even shorter for direct sunlight), the lume can shine for hours in total darkness.
Reading the time on this piece is a joy. Although the clutter-free dial design and the sharp hands capacitate extremely quick time-reading, I still take some time letting my gaze linger upon the dial a little longer. It can be due to the smooth gliding motion of the seconds hand or the minor intricate details that Seiko put into the dial design; its aesthetic appeal is simply that easy to enjoy.
The bracelet in itself is as solid as the case. The oyster-like links have this perfect, brushed finish and polished sides. It may not be exactly as breathtaking as the Tudor Pellagos bracelet, but sufficed to say, this Seiko bracelet exudes quality.
The clasp, on the other hand, does not have the same double-lock feature that modern Prospex pieces have; instead, a single-lock mechanism allows for easier removal. It bears noting, though, that I never have experienced the clasp to come undone accidentally. It does require a bit of pressure to lock the clasp in with a click that sounds very reassuring for obsessive-compulsive folks like me.
I’ve been saying throughout this review that the movement of this piece is what really sets it apart, and Seiko knew very well that this sort of thing shouldn’t go unnoticed: hence, the see-through case back. Flipping the piece over, you get a good glimpse of one of Seiko’s premium movements. The striping on the rotor is a clear giveaway that this is neither your average 7S26 caliber nor the newer 4R36 caliber. In fact, the piece is powered by the same premium workhorse that is the 6R15 caliber.
Fans of our site know that we covered this movement a lot. In case you’ve missed it, you can read more about them here and here. And yes: It is the same caliber that powers most of the mechanical Prospex line (click here to read more about Seiko PROSPEX), and some other mid-end Seiko watches. It is a 23-jeweled automatic movement that beats at a casual 21,600 bph. It has a 50-hour power reserve that runs at +25/-15 sec/day, but we know that it’s actually even better than what’s written… The movement offers hacking mechanism. To Swiss collectors, this is nothing new, but for Seiko fanatics, the hacking function is not something we see on a standard Seiko 5 line.
To say that the 6R15 is Seiko’s answer to the Swiss workhorse that is the ETA 2824 would be an understatement. Bottom line is that the 6R15 caliber is that GOOD a movement and with the sheer number of ETA-powered watches out there, it is sometimes nice to have something different to stir up the masses.
Wrap-up and Pricing:
And now for the million-dollar question… How much is the watch? It’s just a tad below $500, and no I didn’t miss a zero there. At that price point, this piece is simply unbeatable in every respect. From the case to the dial, the hands, the bracelet, the claps, the finishing, the movement and even down to the lubricating oil, this thing emanates quality. Moreover, the classic design and size are spot-on for anyone who is not into oversized pieces. Perhaps the only complaint I can find is the lack of a screw-down crown. Everything else works like a dream.
The Seiko (SARB033) in actuality is proof that there is such a thing as affordable luxury. Yes we covered the cheapest high-end watch before, but there’s always that mantra that a Seiko 5 simply could not cut it. It is that feeling of wearing something special on one’s wrist that creates attachment. Be it the price or the complication or the rarity of the complication or even something as simple as knowing that it is of the utmost genuine quality and craftsmanship, that my friend is what sets this piece apart, a cut above the rest!
Seiko also released a slightly more refined version of the SARB033 with a price slightly above $500. The difference is very minuscule, but if you’re really gong-ho about getting THAT PERFECT piece, you may want to consider the SARB021. It is impossible to spot the difference between the two from afar, but for purists, it’s a different story altogether.