The Grand Seiko SBGA229 Spring Drive Diver is emphatically not an OMEGA Seamaster or Rolex Submariner. But it is priced that way. So why would anyone spend their hard-earned and increasingly scarce money on a fancy Seiko rather than one of the Swiss stalwarts? Let’s be clear . . .
The SBGA229 isn’t a diver’s watch. Like its Swiss peers, it’s a modern stainless steel sports watch with styling cues borrowed from vintage dive watches. While Grand Seiko’s designers clearly love those legendary dive tools, they’re thankfully not hidebound by Swiss dive watch heritage. They aren’t compelled to slather their creations with fauxtina. They’re also free to subtly tweak the classic dive watch design language bringing in uniquely Japanese touches – both prosaic and luxurious.
On the luxurious side, the SBGA229’s case is a solid chunk of hardened stainless steel measuring 44.2 mm in diameter and 14 mm thick. The entire case is polished, contoured and faceted using Grand Seiko’s sensuous zaratsu technique. Unlike a Rolex Submariner, the SBGA229’s case has no hard edges on its crown, bezel or anywhere else.
As light plays across its curves and facets, the Spring Drive diver’s gives off a soft, warm glow. The polishing also creates an interesting optical illusion. From head on, the SBGA229’s round case appears vaguely tonneau-shaped – echoing Seiko’s classic dive watches without slavish imitation.
Grand Seiko surrounded the watch’s dial with the usual black rotating diver’s bezel, indexed with 60 minute markings and a luminous pip, fashioned from the same material that protects spacecraft re-entering Earth’s atmosphere (titanium carbide ceramic). The SBGA229’s sapphire crystal is AR coated. It’s oblivious to 4,800 A/m of magnetic interference, and fully operational down to 200m/660ft. below the waves.
Note that some of those specs don’t match the Swiss brands precisely. A Submariner lets you dive 100m deeper (not that you should), and at least one Seamaster is safer around MRI machines. As all of these “dive” watches are generally worn as style statements rather than serious tools, the relatively minor variations in theoretical performance are easily ignored.
Not so the SBGA229’s dial. It’s classic Grand Seiko in both styling and detail. The applied “GS” logo proudly proclaims the watch’s workmanship. The hour indicators and large arrow style hands are zaratsu polished, generously filled with Seiko’s Lumibrite (strontium aluminate doped with europium and dysprosium, not the teeth whitening stuff). The contrast between the white hands and the inky black dial is striking, aided by the case’s playfulness with light.
Like many Grand Seikos, the SBGA229’s dial stands accused of clutter. Specifically, the presence of the much maligned power reserve indicator (PRI). The PRI offends less here than it does on Grand Seiko’s uber-clean dress models. You could even argue that it serves a valuable function on a dive watch – reminding you to check your watch before you head underwater in case it runs out of power before you run out of air.
Nonsense. The SBGA229 is a self-winding watch with a 72 hour power reserve. Three full days off the wrist don’t seem to bother the SBGA229. When it is out of power just a few minutes on the wrist builds a surprising amount of energy. If you want to engage with it more directly you can unscrew the crown and wind up the power reserve with just a handful of turns.
You can take the SBGA229 off on a Friday and put it back on a Monday without it dying. Equally, the power reserve indicator isn’t beautiful, or beautifully integrated. If Grand Seiko wants to make the PRI a part of their brand identity, they’d do well to explore other industrial design options.
That indicator gives insight into the SBGA229’s big trick – it’s Spring Drive movement. The technical innovations that brought Spring Drive to the market, and Seiko’s continuous improvement of the technology since it’s introduction in 1999, demonstrate a comprehensive mastery of physics, metallurgy, precision engineering, manufacturing and many other disciplines. Spring Drive draws the biggest contrast between Grand Seiko and the Swiss brands.
While the Swiss use refined movements made with high tech materials, all of them share a basic theory of operation with every automatic watch made since 1923. Grand Seiko’s Spring Drive brings something new to the table: a self-winding mainspring combined with a quartz regulator and electromagnetic brake to control the timekeeping gear train. This innovative engine, built to micron-level tolerances with a smoothly gliding seconds hand, may be enough for some enthusiasts to choose the SBGA229 over the usual suspects.
The 9r65 Spring Drive caliber found in the SBGA229 is Grand Seiko’s workhorse. It includes an instant change date wheel. Grand Seiko claims the watch’s accuracy is better than 0.5 seconds per day; most lab tests have revealed even better real world performance.
The Grand Seiko SBGA229 excels as a daily watch. As in the SBGN003 9F Quartz GMT, the bracelet’s edges are faceted so that they glide rather than bite. The links are precise and move with an uncommon smoothness. The locking three-fold clasp includes four micro-adjustment holes to ensure a precise fit.
The bracelet also includes Seiko’s unique extension mechanism, which simply telescopes out by unlocking the safety and can add up to three centimeters of additional length. I’m sure this would be great for fitting it over a wetsuit, but also works if you just get overheated on a hike.
The SBGA229’s overall size matches a number of its peers, but probably still places it at the large end for most people. Even with my 8” wrist, I don’t care to wear anything bigger. That said, the pains that Grand Seiko has taken to ensure it’s comfortable are meaningful and make it more enjoyable on the wrist than other big Seikos further down-range.
I find the SBGA229 more comfortable over a long day than both the Tudor Heritage Black Bay and the Rolex Submariner 114060. It all comes down to the case and bracelet finishing. Grand Seiko simply pays more attention to those details than the Swiss.
The Grand Seiko SBGA229 is a great sports watch, but there are a lot of great sports watches in this price range. After this wave of contagion breaks, there will be deals to be had on many of them. When you finally make that first joyous trip to your favorite retailer to help restart the consumer economy, what you choose will depend primarily on what you value and admire.
If you prefer a classic Swiss design steeped in heritage and classical mechanical watchmaking, there are plenty of choices up and down the price range. If you admire a uniquely Japanese aesthetic and high tech electromechanical engineering, the Grand Seiko SBGA229 is in a class of its own.
Model: Grand Seiko SBGA229 Spring Drive Diver
Case: 44.2 mm x 14 mm polished stainless steel
Crown: Screw down
Bezel: Unidirectional rotating with elapsed time
Crystal: Sapphire with AR coating
Bracelet: Stainless steel with locking clasp and integral diver’s extension
Movement: Caliber 9R65 Spring Drive
Power Reserve: 70 hours
Water resistance: 200m (660 ft)
RATINGS (out of five stars):
Design * * * *
Pleasant to look at and beautifully finished, assuming you appreciate the Japanese take on a big sports watch.
Legibility * * * *
Crisp indicators, big luminous hands, a date window…and a distracting and unnecessary power gauge.
Comfort * * * * *
More comfortable than any big watch has a right to be. Rolex could ask another $2000 if they could figure out bracelets like this.
Overall * * * *
Even in a crowded field excellence will always stand tall.