Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph SBGC231

Mark McArthur-Christie looks closely at the Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph SBGC231, a watch painstakingly crafted for purists, produced to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Spring Drive.

Somewhere in Japan’s Nagano prefecture, sitting in a dark corner (and quite possibly cradling another steadying glass of Yamazaki) is a Grand Seiko case polisher. As he rocks gently from side to side in the gloom, he’s muttering something that sounds rather like “…those edges…all those damned edges”.

Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph SBGC231

You really can feel for him. Even looking at the rear of the 231’s case there are twenty different surfaces at different angles, some brushed, some polished.  And that’s without the caseback. Good luck with counting the surfaces on the front of the case – bet it takes you at least five tries.

Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph SBGC231

The applied hour dial markers alone are enough to give the poor man the jitters.  Each has eight tiny surfaces as well as their own lumibrite centres.  The 12 o’clock marker chucks in a couple of bevelled edges too.

Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph SBGC231

If you’re used to the Grand Seiko design language of subtlety, understatement and restraint then the Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph SBGC231 is certainly a departure. For a start, it’s rather larger than we’re accustomed to seeing from GS. OK, not in a size-of-an-IWC-Grosse-Fliegeruhr-dinnerplate way, but it’s a substantial piece. It’s nearly 46mm in diameter and almost 17mm deep.  Short lugs and some shaping to the case underside help it sit neatly on your wrist though. All in all, it’s a little reminiscent of a more angular version of the 1970s Omega Speedsonic Lobster case.

This isn’t – in any sense – to ‘dis’ what Grand Seiko has achieved here. The larger the case, the harder it is to polish effectively. Make the case from even the sort of high intensity titanium – or rose gold – that Grand Seiko has chosen and it’s even harder, but those Grand Seiko polishers have aced it.

According to Seiko, the lugs of the Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph SBGC231 are shaped like a lion’s claw (to link with the Grand Seiko motif). One can almost imagine the production briefing; “We want the lugs to appear like a lion’s claw…” *sound of zaratsu case polishers quietly leaving the room to weep*

The new direction for this sports watch continues with the dial. Seiko suggests the brown graining is intended to represent a lion’s mane. It’s certainly a remarkable piece of dial-making, especially in full sunlight and even more so on the rose gold version.

Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph SBGC231

You get large hour, minute, chrono seconds and GMT hands – all a new design – on the centre pinion. Then the four subdials with the spring drive power reserve as a large quarter dial, a chrono 12 hour indicator, a 30 minute counter (both with red accents) and a small running seconds hand. The minute and hour dials snuggle up to the nearest hour marker, with a running seconds subdial a little nearer the middle of the dial.

It’s clear that Grand Seiko is now a maker in its own right – the Grand Seiko gothic logo is up on the top right side of the dial, near the 11 o’clock index, contrasting with the plain, unornamented ‘SPRING DRIVE’ subdial wording and ‘GMT’ lettering down at 6.

The new bevelled hands for the Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph SBGC231 are flatter and more spatulate than the usual GS dauphins, with the GMT hand shaped a little like an oar. Yet again, there’s a contrast between the main hands’ style and the more subtle and plain hands on the subdials.

The GMT bezel is a paragon of simplicity. Its sapphire capped, so should be pretty robust and simple to read.

Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph SBGC231

This is the watch Seiko has made to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Yoshikazu Akahane’s remarkable Spring Drive movement, originally conceived back in the 1970s. The Spring Drive is a movement that could get a job lecturing in microelectrical engineering. It’s a sort of Lexus RC300H of the watch world, combining traditional engineering with electronics and producing something that’s more than the sum of its parts.

“Spring Drive” isn’t actually a very helpful name.  For a start, it makes everything sound far too simple. You get a winding rotor powering up a mainspring that turns a gear train with a wheel at the end – so far, so traditional. But that wheel isn’t a standard balance wheel that oscillates – that would be too easy. This one turns constantly and smoothly in a single direction, making eight revolutions per minute.

It works a little like the dynamo on your bicycle wheel, generating an electrical current through two coil packs. The electricity then powers an integrated circuit and a quartz crystal that puts out a reference signal of 32,786Hz.  So far, so clever. But stopping here and sending the signal on to power the hands would be too simple for Grand Seiko.  Instead, the electricity then flows back to the electromagnets next to the wheel, giving it the force it needs to regulate its rotation precisely via a tri-synchro regulator that works by firing quarks at strands of Alan Turing’s DNA.

The cal. 9R96 in the anniversary watches has a specially selected quartz crystal and is adjusted to ±10 seconds a month (equivalent to ±0.5 seconds per day) – the standard 9R86 (if there is ever a ’standard’ spring drive movement) runs at ±15 seconds a month (equivalent to ±1 second per day).  And this is a movement that uses a LOT of mechanical components, remember.

The same level of obsession led Seiko’s watchmakers to send their observatory chronometers to the Neuchâtel trials by special sea routes that minimised the impact of the earth’s magnetic fields. And some people think the Swiss are pernickety.

This sort of detail focus extends to the bracelet and clasp on the titanium watch. While you can size the bracelet by removing links (pinned rather than screwed, perhaps because it’s easier to strip a titanium thread), the clasp itself gives you another 25mm of adjustment from a ratchet extender.

Image – Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph SBGC230

You can choose your case material from rose gold and never have to visit the gym again, assuming you have €44,800 (SBGC230), or a rather lighter hard titanium version weighing in at €13,700 (£12,200). There are just 100 examples of the rose gold watch and 500 titanium watches.

There is no doubt that the Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph SBGC231 is a remarkable feat of movement, case and dial making. It has technology that is properly boggling in its complexity and depth. And the standard of finishing is typically GS obsessive.  Grand Seiko watches traditionally have a knack of looking simple, almost to the point of plainness – until you start wearing one for a while. Then you start noticing the tiny, classical details that make the watch special. This watch takes a different direction – it’s large, bold and packed with detail and detailing. It is – after all – intended as a sports watch rather than a more traditional GS dress watch. As a striking celebration of the spring drive’s twentieth anniversary, it certainly succeeds.

Further reading

Technical specifications

  • Model: Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph SBGC231
  • Case: High-intensity titanium; diameter 44.5mm; height 16.8mm; water resistance 20ATM (200 metres) sapphire crystals to the front and back
  • Functions: Hours; minutes; small seconds; date; power-reserve indicator; GMT; chronograph
  • Movement: Spring Drive 9R96; automatic movement; contains 50 jewels; power reserve 72 hours
  • Strap:High-intensity titanium bracelet with three-fold clasp with push button release and slide adjuster.
  • Price: £12,200 (RRP as at 24.10.2019)
  • Limited Edition: 500 pieces

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