Rolex versus Grand Seiko

Rolex versus Grand Seiko

To understand the Rolex versus Grand Seiko dynamic, go back to the 70’s. A band trying to fuel their drug habit had to have a hit. The general public would only buy their LP if it had at least one great song, preferably more. Bands and artists who could crank out an album full of hits minted money. Elton John. The Bee Gees. The Rolling Stones. Rolex . . .

Rolex Explorer (courtesy thetruthaboutwatches.com)

Rolex – all killer, no filler! Submariner! Daytona! Oyster Perpetual! Explorer! Yacht Master! GMT! The Swiss watchmaker’s greatest hits album rivals The Eagles’. And just as The Eagles didn’t mess with their money-making melodies Rolex has left its golden geese unmolested.

Rolex Cellini Time

Oh sure, if you look closely at Rolex’s back catalogue you’ll find the horological equivalent of Elton John’s  I Can’t Steer My Heart Clear of You. Three words: Rolex Air King. By the same token, you could say the entire Rolex Cellini line qualifies as beautifully made meh. In fact, I’ve yet to see a single Cellini on Instagram.

So what of Grand Seiko?

Grand Seiko Snowflake

The Japanese watchmaker is a one-hit wonder. And there it is. Or is it? Is the Grand Seiko Snowflake really a hit? It’s only a “famous” timepiece among people who know watches – in the same way that Little Feat was only famous among people who knew great bands that other people didn’t know.

Equally, what’s the Snowflake famous for? The Daytona is the motor racing watch. The Submariner is the dive watch. The Snowflake is the watch that evokes fresh fallen snow in the Japanese mountains, with a movement that leaves the average buyer thinking hang on, don’t all watches use springs?

If we’re talking about a head-to-head matchup between Rolex and Grand Seiko re: scientifically measurable build quality and attention to detail, there’s no question who dominates the charts. GS all day. If we’re talking about desirability amongst the hoi polloi, Grand Seiko doesn’t even make the top 10.

Grand Seiko website

No surprise there. Seiko does nothing to sell their high end watches. Have you seen Grand Seiko’s website? The Collections page couldn’t be more generic if it was Costco’s paper goods aisle. The landing page “features” 99 unadorned, identically shot watches. The watches don’t even have names – the renowned Snowflake is simply the SBGA211.

Rolex OP

Rolex versus Grand Seiko? Compare GS’s sizzle-deficiency with Rolex’s landing page. Geneva’s favorite son hits you with a macro-magnificent video header and sumptuous photography of seven – just seven – watches. Mouse-over one of the images and the chosen watch sashays towards you like a lover coming to bed. Oh baby!

Rolex versus Grand Seiko - Grand Seiko

Rolex is the watch brand. Grand Seiko is a non-brand. At best, it’s a really expensive Seiko. A really expensive Seiko – for buyers can get past Seiko’s rep for mass market merch. Who don’t care what other people think about their watch. Who can afford to pay big bucks for a watch that only watch people recognize as anything other than a mass market Seiko.

Grand Seiko Godzilla

If you’ve ever wondered why GS’ magnificently crafted timepieces are such great value, there’s your answer: their marketing sucks. The Godzilla watch was most exciting thing to happen to Grand Seiko and that was just plain stupid. Not to put too fine a point on it, Seiko doesn’t have a clue how to sell high horology.

All great marketing starts with the product. Check! So, all Grand Seiko has to do is . . . do what Rolex does. Same approach to model selection, same marketing plan and same sales approach. Add personalized customer contact – Rolex’s blind spot – and Bob-san’s your uncle.

Rolex versus Grand Seiko threesome

Could Grand Seiko overcome its blah image and get woke, marketing-wise? It’s doubtful. The same corporate culture that creates GS’ minimalist watches creates its blah marketing. Still, hope spring drives eternal. Meanwhile, it’s Rolex two, Grand Seiko one in the Farago household. What does that tell you music fans?

28 comments

  1. Re: all your music references all I can say is “ok Boomer.” Everyone knows that The Stones were only popular and relevant because they specifically were not The Beatles.

    Anyway…

    GS is the Lexus of the horology world. They are the small brand that their huge parent company uses to showcase their best technology and style direction. The high tech movements, precisely machine and polish work, and artful dials are to Seiko what the Lexus LFA was to Toyota. And like Lexus, GS is a way to get people to pay vastly more money for watches that, in many cases, don’t cost much more to make than a regular nice Seiko like a Presage or Prospex.

    Building up the Lexus brand and reputation was a 20+ year process that cost Toyota tons of money but undoubtedly put a shine on all their products. I think Seiko is starting that with the GS now. I agree that the best thing they could do is put an executive in charge of GS and task that person with elevating the prestige and marketing position of the brand.

    They need to do more to differentiate it from the rest of the Seiko line and build awareness of the unique technology and style of the brand. From a historical standpoint, Japan has a much (MUCH) longer and stronger heritage of art and craftsmanship than Switzerland. I’d love to see GS further embrace that and push it into the market.

    1. I was going to make the exact same comment. The stuff that Lexus puts its back into (LFA yeah, but also the LS, and the GS-F) has a level of finish that most of the luxury brands can’t match. Seriously, go to a dealership and look at the paint finish on an LS.

      Same with the detailing on a Grand Seiko – it’s definitely a cut above a Rolex.

      Rolex makes very very very nice watches and have done a great job of balancing marketing, technology, and availability (at least until a couple of years ago). The fact that they product somewhere north of 750k units a year at such a high level and with such brand cachet is evidence that they didn’t just stumble into success.

      GS can compete, but I think they’re missing a couple of things:
      – The association with Seiko doesn’t do them any favors; it’s why Lexus aren’t “Gran Toyotas”. Downmarket associations are kiss of death in the luxury space.
      – They need to get rid of the lower end. Get rid of anything under 4 or 5 grand USD. Right now, the range looks too much like Omega – bottom end luxury to stratospheric heights. Since money generally doesn’t buy any real performance advantage – unlike cars – give consumers the exclusivity signaling they want.
      – Marketing, as you said. Get rid of the alphanumeric names and create some brand equity in model lines. Sponsor events. Build awareness beyond watch nerds without chasing IG.

      1. What are the chances they’ll kill the Grand Seiko name and rebrand the whole line Credor? Slim to none and slim just left town.

  2. gs…the choice of a true horologist and those who value individuality over the herd mentality. not all their watches are a hit from an aesthetic point of view (granted) however, the finishing is always exquisite. i have the spring drive diver and its a work of art whilst being incredibly robust. you can knock around a gs with zaratsu polishing and it will be difficult to bang up. few other brands offer watches that are so resilient.

  3. @snippy in fact this affection to GS is some kind of herd mentality as well (no offense intended). When the majority of people don’t want to follow the mainstream and go the opposite way, they create a new mainstream. Years ago there was a hype over swiss watches, then more and more people started to turn to japanese watches as an act of rebellion against the common trends. There were so many of them that they created a new trend – try searching WUS or watch reviews on YT. You’ll find plenty of comments comparing £1000-5000 high end swiss watches to £50-100 Casios, Seikos, Orients and Citizens, calling the latter winners because for example their quartz watches “are more accurate than swiss mechanical ones” (facepalm).

    To clear things up, I think GS are nice and interesting watches. But let’s be reasonable, these are just nicely finished, rather generic in terms of design, semi-quartz SARBs that come on a less than satisfactory bracelet and cost quite a lot. It’s not like it’s a bargain of your life as many people seem to portray it. If you buy GS because they are appealing to you, enjoy them. It’s your money and your conscious choice. Same applies to Rolex, these are some of great watches and trust me, there are watch enthusiasts who buy them because of the history, quality, design and not necessarily to show off. It’s unfair to call all Rolex owners sheep, just as it’s delusional to think that people who buy GS to impress the watch community or to be “individual” don’t have a herd mentality.

    (It’s a response to Your message but it’s not meant to be personal, I just read a lot of bashing on Rolex on other fora as well as a lot of Seiko/Grand Seiko fanboying, never replied to them, let it be my first time)

    1. The herd mentality is a thing. But then so is GS quality. Their watches are assembled with a level of perfectionism that rivals or beats their Swiss competitors. It can been seen in every detail, including the unseen movements. In that sense, most GS watches are a bargain. (Some of the truly expensive ones are real head scratchers.)

      In another sense – which you rightly highlight – GS lacks the history and je ne sais quoi of their Swiss rivals. This is revealed by GS’s ridiculously generic website and blah marketing (they don’t even name their models).

      People who buy watches to impress the watch community are certainly prone to buying “what’s in” rather than satisfying their personal taste (if they even have such a thing). Humans are, after all, pack animals. But I reckon we can make some generalisations about Rolex owners outside of the watch community bubble.

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe most people buy Rolex because A) they confer status and B) quality. In that order. As I’ve said many times, there’s nothing wrong with buying something to project your status. It’s a free country and capitalism works. And Rolex are made beautifully.

      But the vast majority of Rolex models are ugly. Overwrought. Tacky? Maybe that too. There are exceptions. (I own an OP39 which is my minimalism delight.) Basically, if people buy things because they love them, herd for the win. But if they buy them because of a lack of imagination, baaaaaa.

      1. Seiko and Grand Seiko not having a great horology history?? I am pretty sure they have a lot more history than Rolex!

  4. Wow! This article was deceiving. I thought they were actually going to be compared. I don’t care about who has the best marketing strategy.

      1. I didn’t see the comparisons. You’ve got 12 paragraphs. The first 5 gush about Rolexes “hit factory”. 6 is a cursory reference to GS being technically better but the last 5 are about marketing.

        I have owned both, having previously owned a DJ. But when u walked into a dealer to get a new DJ and ran into GS it was mind blowing. Case finish and movement quality are at least two steps above Rolex, the former easily comparable to PP and the later to JLC. But when it comes to the dial no other watchmaker can stand in GS shoes. Rolex wouldn’t even make my top 10 for dial and dial furniture quality. I do admit Rolex makes better bracelets, but I wear mine on straps anyway.

        I would have expected to see an objective comparison to comment on movements, cases, dials and bracelets. Yours falls way short, I’m afraid.

  5. I feel like this was a written by a Rolex fanboy… I’m fortunate enough to have one of each… A Datejust 1999 smooth bezel and a SBGA375… If I absolutely needed to keep only one… Then GS it is.

    1. Good quality or expensive? One could argue that some sub 1k Swiss watches are good quality.
      You totally missed or are unaware of the Seiko vs Swiss battle in the early 70’s that had Grand Seiko besting the very top Swiss manufactures.

      1. “some sub 1k Swiss watches”: Yes. In 2012 I bought a “Land Rover” branded quartz watch from (UK) Paddock Motors accessory shop, Swiss manufacturer not known, calibre not known.

        It cost me $325.00 AU and is as accurate as my daily driver, a 2002 Aqua Terra which cost a lot more. Both watches gain about 30 seconds a month.

        1. Accuracy is not the ultimate determinate of a mechanical watches quality. Make that desirability.

  6. By the way, Rolex was nowhere to be found in that battle. In fact, the most complicated movement Rolex had at the time wasn’t of their own manufacture. It was made by Zenith.

    1. I know about the history or Japanese watchmaking as it took on and beat the Swiss. To the point where the Swiss eliminated prestigious competitions lest Seiko completely kick their ass.

      This article is more about which watch to choose given latter day considerations.

  7. For the average person uneducated in watch history your article makes sense. For the seasoned collector it dismisses the history of Seiko’s accomplishments.
    First and foremost, is an all steel Submariner really worth 15k?
    During the Vietnam War you could buy either a submariner or a 6105-8110 for about the same price in the PX.
    From that point Rolex raised prices annually at astronomical price jumps while Seiko kept prices affordable.
    Heck, when the Daytona was released nobody bought it.
    Advertising is the game Rolex plays. But does advertising make it a better watch?
    The funny thing is one of Hans Wildorf’s goals was to create an affordable high quality watch.

    1. Which he did with Tudor.

      Rolex are high quality watches. Grand Seiko are higher. But that doesn’t dismiss Rolex’s claim.

      Yes, Rolex is as driven. But all marketing starts with the product, and Rolex has a great product.

      As for Rolex prices, something is worth exactly what someone will pay for it. And all that advertising doesn’t come cheap!

  8. I’ve always considered Rolex a victim of their own success. Rolex manufacture around 200,000 new watches per year but 2,000,000 “Rolexs” are purchased every year. It takes one of Seiko’s watchmakers at least 8 hours to build a GS, up until a year or so ago they were producing them at the rate of about 125 per week. I wonder what the market’s like for fake GS’. If I had the dosh I’d probably buy a GS before I’d buy a Rolex, I don’t so I’ll make do with the Omegas, Longines and CWCs I use.

  9. When buying a luxury watch you can spend a lot of money for the quality or you can buy a lot of quality for the money . I own a Grand Seiko. I do not want/own a Rolex. I own a Porsche. I do not want/own a Mercedes. The Grand Seiko is a far far better watch. The Porsche is a far better vehicle. You could own them all but why do that when you can choose. The reason why I do not possess a Patek Philippe is by not having bought one I instead bought the Grand Seiko, the Porsche….and my house! After all, the GAS syndrome must be stopped in its tracks at some moment in time.

  10. I bought a Rolex Air King in 2016. The case scratched really easily with everyday wear, much more so than the cheaper Tissot I had been wearing every day for years. When trying to adjust the minute hand it would move forward or backward of the hour marker but not precisely on the marker. After persevering with it for a year I sold it and bought a Grand Seiko. The Gs is better finished by far and more accurate and exceeded my expectations. My experience tells me Rolex is all about branding, GS is about the watch.I did not feel the Rolex I bought was worth the money.
    Just being honest.

  11. I believe you are right. While Rolex manufacturers nice watches, their focus seems to be more on marketing. GS on the other hand manufacturers absolutely outstanding watches on a level that Rolex cant or doesn’t want to match and their marketing is an afterthought.

  12. This article is a 100 % right . GS makes amazing watch but they make way too many instead of refining and banking on what they do best .
    People fail to understand that Rolex is the king because it retains and appreciate in value . Not because they make the best most technically advance watch .
    They should scale their catalogue way down . And improve their marketing .
    The name isn’t ideal but it would be weird to change now .

Leave a Reply