On The Distant Mountains: The new Grand Seiko Hi-Beat 36,000 GMT Limited Edition
The Grand Seiko Hi-Beat 36000 GMT Limited Edition is the latest in a long line of watches that redefine what Japanese watchmaking is capable of.
Since it was released in 1960, the Grand Seiko has proved itself time and time again as the pinnacle of Japanese watchmaking and has remained a testament to the idea that the worth of a watch is from how well its made, not where it's made. That being said, I don't think there is another country that could have made the Grand Seiko because it is intertwined with the desire and dogged determination to prove an entire industry wrong.
Seiko has a watchmaking pedigree dating back to 1895 and were among the first to make wristwatches in 1913 before the trend took off after the first World War. Before World War 2 Seiko were producing over 100,000 watches a month however Japan's economy was crippled during the war and it wouldn't be until 1954 that production was at the same level. Seiko was determined not only to continue to revitalize the economy but also to make world-class watches with the ultimate goal of exceeding the standards of Swiss production. It took six years but on December 18th 1960, the Grand Seiko was available for sale at ¥25,000, nearly two month's salary for the average Japanese professional. It was still years before Seiko could manufacture a high-beat movement, the Caliber 3180 inside the Grand Seiko ran at 18,000bph, but the watch still rated at chronometer performance and they used the designation on the dial.
Unfortunately despite its accuracy, the European Chronometer Official Association didn't like that Seiko was using the designation, even though that chronometer wasn't a protected designation until 1976 and even though the watch easily surpassed the standards, and appealed to Seiko to remove it. Seiko politely stopped using the term until 1969 when the Japanese Chronometer Approval Organization was founded whereby Seiko promptly started using chronometer on the dials again. In the meantime Seiko still entered their watches into International Chronometer trials eventually placing 4th to 10th in 1968 with a mechanical high beat movement (1st to 3rd was awarded to the Beta-21 quartz movement). The initial run of Grand Seikos only lasted from 1960 till 1975 when it became apparent that Seiko's own quartz movement had started the quartz crisis and temporarily ruined the market for high end movements.
The Grand Seiko returned in limited fashion over the years but it has been in the last decade that the small team of watchmakers has been producing work to critical acclaim. Located in the Iwate Prefecture, an administrative region in Japan similar to a U.S. state, the Seiko manufacture has over five hundred and fifty employees but the Shizuku-ishi Watch Studio that create the Grand Seiko and Credor timepieces has only around sixty staff, nineteen of them being watchmakers.
These watchmakers subject every movement to an initial test that lasts three hundred hours before an additional four hundred hour long test to determine whether the movement is fit to be placed inside the watch. Seiko no longer write chronometer on the dial even though their accuracy tests are far more stringent than their Swiss counterparts; Seiko test to one more position, one more temperature variation, have two more days of testing and allow a smaller deviation than COSC (-3/+5 instead of -4/+6). Just because chronometer isn't on the dial, that doesn't mean it isn't as good or better.
The new limited edition Hi-Beat 36,000 GMT Ref.SBG021 might have the same case and certain design elements as the Ref. SBGJ005 from a few years ago but it has a unique oscillating weight. Whilst past Grand Seiko weights have been colored before, this time the oxidizing process has imbued the weight with a dazzling array of colors from blue to purple to orange and yellow; as the weight glimmers in the light, it is meant to mimic the sunrise above Mount Iwake that can be seen from the windows of the Shizuku-ishi studio.
This isn't the first time that Seiko have used their environment as inspiration with the Grand Seiko Ref. SBGA011's white dial inspired by the fresh snowfall on the mountainside. It's easy to scoff at this as countless brands claim this, that and the other as inspiration for a particular model but I just find this to be more genuine. Perhaps it's because it isn't a marketing deal with another brand rather a design inspired by nature.
Seiko remain one of two brands, the other being Zenith, to manufacture a hi-beat movement which runs at the super high frequency of 36,000 bph. This higher frequency allows for greater accuracy but typically has a shorter power reserve to compensate for the increased output, the Caliber 9S86 however has an ample power reserve of 55 hours.
Not only have Seiko released the SBG021, a modern interpretation of the Ref. 44GS, but they have also released two classically designed GMTs as well. Not only do these watches have the same caliber as the limited edition but are available for general release are a hair cheaper as well, the limited edition is approximately $8200 and the two classic designs are approximately $8000; whilst substantially more than your average vintage Ref. 6139, they represent a level of quality typically reserved for watches with Swiss origins and higher price tags.