There are moments in life that call for an elegant, time-only watch. Situations in which a strapping tool watch with protruding pushers and a glowing dial won’t look quite right. If you are in the market for a handsome, straightforward time-only watch we have two very interesting candidates as different in looks as their cultural backgrounds. The Drive de Cartier is a très French take on elegance and refinement; the Grand Seiko SBGW231 is also a very elegant and refined watch but interpreted from a Japanese aesthetic. Let’s put them side by side and gauge the strengths and weaknesses of each watch before we formulate a verdict.
Case size and presence on the wrist
The Drive de Cartier Extra-Flat has a diameter of 39mm and a case height of 6.6mm, proportions that categorically affirm its status as a dress watch. The cushion-shaped case of the Drive spells Cartier over and over again and seems to have been a member of Cartier’s renowned family of shaped watches forever (note: the Drive collection was introduced in 2016). The case is superbly proportioned and its smooth, rounded edges and gentle cambering allow the watch to sit on the wrist like a second skin. It is slim but not anorexic like some other models on the market today with enough weight and presence to make itself felt. The finishes are satisfactory with a polished bezel and lugs and horizontal brushing on the flanks of the case and sealed case back. In keeping with a very Cartier tradition, there is a blue cabochon in the crown.
The Grand Seiko SBGW231 has a diameter of 37.3mm and a case thickness of 11.6mm. The diameter will please purists although they might argue that the thickness of the case disqualifies the GS as a perfect dress watch. There is nothing revolutionary about the shape of the round case until you discover the exceptional finishes of the metal. Like a gleaming Japanese katana sword, the Zaratsu polished bezel and lugs reflect the light like a mirror, with no distortions.
Conclusion: The Drive de Cartier displays superior design flair and proportions but the finishes can’t hold a candle to the Grand Seiko. The case of the GS is less original, more traditional and slightly thicker than the mandates of a dress watch. However, the craftsmanship of Seiko’s artisans brings the metallic scenery to life with finishes that rival and often surpass the crème de la crème of Swiss watchmakers. Design-wise the Cartier is more interesting, finish-wise the GS displays a great deal more attention to detail.
The face of time
Once again, the dial of the Drive de Cartier is quintessential Cartier and all the recognizable family traits are on display: the pronounced Roman numerals, the railway minutes track, the blued-steel hands and the secret Cartier signature on the VII numeral. The dial is a lovely silver-white with a sunburst finish that shines ever so slightly; a clean, minimalist background for the time-only functions.
The dial of the Grand Seiko is also a minimalist, almost frugal affair inspired by the first Grand Seiko model of 1960. In addition to the hour and minutes, this watch has a central seconds hand. The dial is an off-white colour with twelve elongated and applied hour markers and a simple minutes track with black markings. The apparent sobriety is countered by the most exquisite attention to detail on the hour markers and hands. The sharp faceted edges and the polishing bring the details to life as light bounces off their edges. The interplay of light and shadow is very much a Japanese aesthetic touch and adds extraordinary volume and brilliance to the otherwise simple dial.
Conclusion: Two very simple time-only dials that faithfully reflect their provenance. Even if just a portion of the dial was revealed, you would have no doubt about the brand behind the Drive de Cartier Extra-Flat, and the same could be said about the Grand Seiko. It too conforms to a set of strict rules and design tenets laid down in 1967 by designer Taro Tanaka for the Grand Seiko family.
The Drive de Cartier Extra-Flat is fitted with a hand-would calibre (430 MC) based closely on Piaget’s ultra-thin 430P. Beating at 21,600vph, the power reserve is of 36 hours. Although you can’t see the movement and the power reserve is on the short side, these are a fair trade-off for the svelte profile.
The movement of the Grand Seiko is visible under the sapphire crystal case back and is entirely made in-house with in-house components to Seiko’s exacting (above COSC chronometry) standards. Calibre 9S64 is a hand-wound movement with a 3-day power reserve calibrated to an impressive precision rate of -3 to +5 seconds a day. The balance spring is shock-resistant and anti-magnetic and the time setting functions are enhanced with a stop-seconds function. The bridges are decorated with Seiko stripes that pick up the light/shadow theme of the dial.
Conclusion: No debate here. The Grand Seiko wins hands down in this category offering a superlative manual-winding movement with additional stop-seconds functionality, longer power reserve and superlative decoration (but a thicker profile too). If you want to nitpick, the lack of a power reserve indicator on the GS might be a con.
Price and Availability
The Drive de Cartier Extra-Flat in steel retails for EUR 5,650 or USD 5,600 (excl. sales tax). The Grand Seiko SBGW231 retails for USD 4,300 and is currently quite hard to find in Europe.
Conclusion: The price of both models reflects their entry-level status. Given the prestige of both brands, the price is not exorbitant in either case.
Editor’s note: keep in mind that the verdict here is based on Rebecca’s personal preferences.
The Drive de Cartier and the Grand Seiko are two ambassadors of exceptionally good taste and breeding. They are products of their respective cultural backgrounds and as such transmit different sensations and core values.
If we gauge mechanical prowess, precision, and execution of finishes, the Grand Seiko wins hands down. The watch might look disarmingly simple and perhaps a little cold at first, but it is a true representative of Japanese aesthetic taste where discretion and elegance are key and craftsmanship a matter of national pride. It is a watch that needs to be discovered and appreciated. I know that it took me time to warm to its stark aesthetics, but having discovered the wonderful details it has found a place in my heart.
But, and this is a big “but”…the ultimate arbiter in this battle is taste. And no matter how hard a sell I’ve made for the Seiko, there will be many of you who are happy to swap the technical superiority and superlative finishes of the Seiko for the more eloquent, chic beauty of the French candidate.
As you can see, the verdict is not written in stone for the simple reason that these two watches are not meant for the same kind of collectors/customers. Their designs will reflect the personality of the wearer and there are no bad choices, just different tastes. I can’t blame anyone for having a preference for the Seiko – the execution and price/quality ratio are unbeatable. Still, I can’t blame someone whose heart cries out for the Cartier as it oozes elegance and an old-European sense of taste. In any case, these two watches are excellent choices for someone on the hunt for an elegant, discreet time-only watch with great pedigree.
Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this one!