In my career at MONOCHROME, I’ve seen, handled, tried and tested thousands of watches. And this includes, of course, an array of Grand Seiko models. There is something about Grand Seiko that makes them unique and special. And it’s not the recent move into textured dials and Japanese nature inspiration (which is, honestly, rather delightful). It’s more about the attention to detail and the exceptional finishing of all the components of the habillage, combined with true watchmaking expertise. And with this in mind, Grand Seiko watches are often priced right, in my opinion. Yet, after seeing several dozens of GS models, there’s one that always comes back. One that, to me, remains after all these years the best Grand Seiko your money can get. A watch that costs below 5K and yet offers much, much more in return. I don’t ask you to agree with me; I just want to share my very personal thoughts on a watch I love (and own), the Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221.
There’s so much I enjoy about this watch that I hardly know where to start. Today, it’s all about one guy and his watch. No objectivity, no rationale, just passion. Each time I strap this watch around my wrist, it really gives me a sensation of joy and pleasure. It’s the kind of watch that I wear for the sole purpose of looking at it. It could have stopped; the time could be wrong – I wouldn’t really care. When I take this watch out of the box, I play with the light reflections, looking at its smooth colour, observing the bevels on the hands and indexes doing their magic, still being amazed by the polishing of the case. And overall, enjoying a watch that is soft, elegant but not formal, ultra-demonstrative and yet restrained. In short, it’s a watch that suits me perfectly. And weirdly enough, these feelings were not immediate.
I bought this watch as a gift to myself after a relatively successful year. A sort of impromptu purchase of a watch I had been looking at from a certain distance for several years without taking the leap. And then came the so-called honeymoon. But not the typical love-at-first-sight, passionate love affair. It took me some time to really start to appreciate the SBGM221. I first had to change the strap, as the original dark brown crocodile leather strap really doesn’t do justice to the beauty of the case and dial: too formal, too classic, too old-school. This watch deserves something more casual and works really well with a cognac leather, a taupe nubuck or a simple smooth calfskin blue strap. And I know from navigating on Instagram that many other options work as well.
After a while, she became something special to me. I started to appreciate more and more of the details on this watch, and what could have been a classic honeymoon period didn’t fade away, and my love for the watch grew gradually, to the point where the SBGM221 is now one of my favourite watches.
Let’s try to add a bit of objectivity and facts into this highly sentimental equation. After all, this is a watch and thus a manufactured, mechanical object. What is the Grand Seiko Elegance GMT SBGM221? It is one of the most emblematic models of the brand with a more classic approach to design than recent models like the White Birch or the pink dial Shunbun. More timeless, more discreet, but no less impressive regarding the execution. This watch is part of the Elegance collection and, as such, offers more elegance (sorry, this was an easy one) but not in a too formal Altiplano or Calatrava way. It’s basically a GMT variation around the concept created with the Hand-Wound SBGW231. The main difference is that, thanks to a different dial colour and finish, and the addition of a traveller’s complication, it becomes more complex visually and thus less dressy.
One of the nicest aspects of the SBGM221 is the proportions of the case. Its 39.5mm diameter and lug-to-lug just below 47mm make it a perfect all-rounder. The height, at 13.7mm, could be reduced, but there’s no drama either. Contrary to some of the watches produced by GS, such as the 44GS-inspired watches, which are way too sharp for my tastes, the GMT Elegance plays on curves and soft lines. The bezel is, as you’d expect, razor-sharp in its definition, but the central case is nicely curved on the sides, the lugs are thin and also have a rounded bevel on the edges, and there’s a gently domed box-sapphire crystal on top, for added softness. What makes it special is the polishing. You’ve probably read a lot about Zaratsu (distortion-free) polishing, but believe me, it really is something special. The way it reflects light is unique and adds to the exclusivity of the watch. It makes it a superbly refined object, with a high-definition look that not many other brands can match.
And then comes the dial. Once again, I know that everyone has different tastes, but there’s something truly appealing to me about the soft, subtle cream colour of the dial of the Elegance GMT SBGM221, and the contrast offered by the discreet blue accents on the brand name and GMT hand. The glossy aspect of the dial is also very attractive in my eyes – surprising, as I’m more of a matte dial kind of guy. More objectively, the most appealing aspect of this Grand Seiko – and most GS watches, as a matter of fact – is the INSANE level of finishing of the elements of the dial. The definition, sharpness and precision of finishing on the hands and applied indexes remain one of the best in the industry, whatever the price range you’re looking at. I’ve hardly ever seen such attention to detail from mainstream brands, and even some of the most revered independent watchmakers can’t match these hands/markers.
Finally, the mechanics. Of course, it has to be in-house, in the typical Japanese industrial tradition of vertical integration. But besides the specifications of this calibre 9S66 or the fact that it is a genuine traveller’s GMT watch (where it’s the local time hour hand that is adjusted in one-hour increments, not the GMT hand), there’s the level of precision it offers. It is given for -3/+5 seconds a day, and, in normal conditions, when it’s on my wrist, my watch usually runs at about -1 second a day. Pretty impressive.
All in all, there’s so much (subjectively, of course) I love about the SBGM221 that I still believe it’s the best watch Grand Seiko produces in this price range. And talking about money, this watch retails for EUR 4,800 (incl. taxes) or USD 4,600 (excl. taxes). Now you can really talk about the pleasure/price ratio, as few watches from established brands can rival it. And that is objectively true.