Grand Seiko – What Kind of Man Buys One?

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Rolex versus Grand Seiko

“The Grand Seiko customer is open to discover an alternative option to Swiss-made,” Grand Seiko’s USA President Brice Le Troadec tells watchtime.com,“[they’re] more attracted to functionality and craftsmanship vs. investing in a timepiece for the sake of its brand name.” There’s a lot to unpack there . . .

What does Mr. Le Troadec mean by “functionality?” Grand Seikos tell the time. If GS’s top U.S. exec means complications, huh? Grand Seikos are some of the least complicated watches money can buy. The Japanese brand doesn’t even make a moon phase watch.

Grand Seiko 60th Anniversary Limited Edition Spring Drive Chronograph GMT

The limited edition Grand Seiko 60th Anniversary Limited Edition Spring Drive Chronograph GMT and the SBGC229 are as complicated as the brand gets. The LE costs a staggering $44k. Staggering because it competes with big name Swiss luxury watches.

And yes, GS kicks major league Swiss ass in terms of craftsmanship. As do many if not most if not all of their Japanese-made watches. Simply put, there’s no better built watch than a Grand Seiko. Every detail is perfect. Period.

Grand Seiko SBGZ003 caliber 9R02Perhaps Mr. Le Troadec meant buyers are attracted to Grand Seiko watches’ “functionality” as in their superior accuracy and quality of timekeeping relative to their Swiss competition. That’s also true.

Grand Seiko’s engines are so good the Swiss killed long-standing horological competitions to prevent GS from humiliating the home team. That’s without considering Spring Drive, GS’s exclusive electromechanical movement with its mesmerizingly smooth sweeping second hand.

Grail watch - Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

Mr. Le Troadec’s assessment of his customers gets hinky when he disses buyers of Swiss watches like Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe.

His suggestion – they’re “investing in a Swiss timepiece for the sake of its brand name” – implies that a) their primary concern is money and b) they’re brand snobs.

Rolex Daytona prices

A great deal of watch community attention focuses on watches that maintain their value and/or appreciate (e.g., the panda-faced Rolex Daytona). This “financial return” is a key qualifying characteristic of a “grail watch.”

Would aficionados hold the Daytona or the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak in the same high regard if they depreciated like a stone? Chicken and the egg I know. But still . . .

Grail watch - Patek Philippe Nautilus

How many buyers of expensive luxury Swiss watches view them as an investment? Our man Adams has debunked that idea (A Watch is Not An Asset). I think the majority of people who purchase a stainless steel Patek Philippe Nautilus (or similar) have at least as much insight into money management.

Put another way, if you’ve got 80 grand in disposable income, you probably didn’t achieve that financial position by “investing” in watches. And if you buy a relatively non-expensive, non-grail Swiss watch, depreciation is a thing.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas binoculars

Moving on, how many buyers who eschew a Grand Seiko for a Swiss luxury watch do so “for the sake of the brand name” rather than the fact that . . . wait for it . . . they like the watch?

Sure, snobbery. It’s out there. You know it. I know it. Rolex sure as Hell knows it. But so is an appreciation for Swiss horological history, design and quality. While many luxury Swiss watches have [unacknowledged] Chinese-made parts, the words “Swiss made” still possess a profound allure. And, I’d say, rightly so.

Grand Seiko has all that, too. Maybe not as much history, and certainly no Chinese parts, but an equally illustrious backstory. Well, to those who know the brand. And that’s where the rubber doesn’t meet the road.

Grand Seiko product page

As I pointed out in Rolex versus Grand Seiko, the Japanese watchmaker does a miserable job of marketing. The kind of man who buys a Grand Seiko is the kind of man capable of ignoring the brand’s downmarket association with “Seiko” and can see past Costco-level product presentation.

A $185k nameless watch next to a $12,200 watch? As they say in the state where I spent my formative years, geddowdaheah! “In 2017, the brand was not perceived properly by the U.S. trade and consumers,” Mr. Le Troadec opines. Connect the dots. Whose fault is that?

“After an hour explaining about the uniqueness of the brand, [a wealthy watch collector] became totally captivated by the Spring Drive technology,” Mr. Le Toadec relates, “and stated that it would be sold with an additional zero on the price tag if it were the property of any major Swiss group.”

Grand Seiko (courtesy The Truth About Watches)

An hour! A whole hour! With one customer! Clearly, Grand Seiko’s U.S. meishu is frustrated by the anti-Japanese watch bias holding back his brand. I wouldn’t be surprised if the spirit of urami (resentment) bedevils Grand Seiko’s corporate culture. Why can’t gaijin (outsiders) see that our watches are better than the Swiss?

Thankfully, enough do to keep Grand Seiko afloat. But I’d suggest that most Grand Seiko buyers – especially those who purchase GS’s above $20k – already have a number of expensive Swiss watches in their collection. They grok Grand Seiko quality, but they buy a Grand Seiko because it’s different.

Grand Seiko Godzilla LE watch

I reckon Mr. Le Troadec should tackle this Swiss-is-best issue head on. And not on a one-to-one basis. First, drop the Godzilla and Nissan GTR shtick. That’s Seiko-level pandering to fans of lowbrow Japanese culture. Second, send a few watches to TTAW to review. Then promote the hell out of the reviews. JK. But not really.

Grand Seiko should exploit the brand’s “huge underground cult following” by positioning themselves WELL outside the watch industry mainstream (as we do). Market their watches as an attitude, not a “better product.” Wearing a luxury Swiss watch means something. Class. Taste. Sophistication. Wealth. What does wearing a Grand Seiko mean?

Netsuke

Which brings us full circle: what kind of man wears a Grand Seiko?

He/she/it/they/them aren’t your average luxury Swiss watch buyer. The man who wears Grand Seiko is an iconoclast. Someone who doesn’t give a damn whether or not people recognizes his watch. Someone who’s attracted to a Grand Seikos’ quintessence.

Rolex versus Grand Seiko threesome

If Grand Seiko issued a brand unique wake-up call to that guy – appealing to his (or her) desire to be different without calling attention to themself – they’d double their sales. Vanity sells. Meanwhile, do something about that vanilla website, willya?

18 COMMENTS

  1. The only GS I’ve seen in the wild was on the wrist of a well respected Neurosurgeon in my town, deep in flyover country. He drove an Avalon and lived in nice house that probably represented 4-6 months of pay.

  2. At the top level Seiko can’t decide whether it wants to be an innovative, extreme durability (for a mechanical watch) mechanical watch brand that mixes automation with skilled labor, like Rolex and Omega, or compete on “finishing” (non-functional polishing of parts with sticks and paste as a welfare/jobs program) like Patek and lesser Swiss “finishing” brands.

    I like Spring Drive, but if I ever get a Spring Drive watch it will be one of the cheaper Prospex ones that are more pure to the technology. The non-Spring Drive high-end Seikos do nothing for me, and simply seem to say “look how good we are at copying the Swiss.”

    To me the ultimate Japanese watch is the G-Shock square.

    The US is not the real market to own. If Seiko was smart it would invent a time machine so that it did not provide watches to the Japanese Imperial army that raped Nanjing, a city in the country that buys 25% of luxury watches and growing.

    • I was thinking that GS could goof on the Swiss watch makers as fusty anachronisms, while they are high-tech marvels. But that would be less than honest when the Swiss mass makers have priceless specialized machinery cranking out their products and Grand Seiko has little old men spending days at the buffing wheel.

      • A particular weakness for the Grand Seiko mythology is that even the zaratsu polishing Grand Seiko fans wax about is based on a how Seiko employees pronounced the name of the German Sallaz polishing equipment they used.

  3. It’s a delicate topic, but I agree that Eastern manufacturers, particularly of luxury items,miscalculate when trying the honest “our product better and less expensive too!” appeal. That’s not the ego-gratifying fantasy that the luxury customer typically wants.

    It worked well with Lexus vs. Mercedes in the early ’90’s because cars, even luxury cars, are more of a necessity. Bizarrely, people are thrifty with necessities and extravagant with luxury purchases.

    Was it Bob Lutz that would never even name the Japanese, much more one of their brands, merely lumping all import (probably “foreign”) competitors together? Every mention of the Swiss is free publicity for them! The US military finally wised up and stopped hyping college scholarships when trying to get 18 year olds to enlist for this very reason. Don’t talk up the alternatives!

    Were I in charge, I’d have a press person making sure that Yakuza villains in movies and TV are always shown wearing Grand Seiko’s. Who cares if they are dismembering kidnapped rivals? They come off as stylish, relentless, powerful, modern, luxurious, cool. I suspect that the native Japanese are too polite and civil to go for this, but have mafioso wearing Rolex’s done anything but reinforce their image as aspirational items?

  4. I think the marketing problem can be stated and solved thusly: in my twenties, I wore a Casioak, in my forties, I bought a Royal Oak.

  5. Ad copy: This is a Grand Seiko – one the finest watches made, at any price. Don’t buy a Grand Seiko to impress your family, friends or co-workers. Buy it because you can’t please everybody, so you’ve got to please yourself.

    Or something like that, with apologies to Ricky Martin.

  6. Great article. This is one of those conundrums that any luxury category faces: how much are you paying for the product, and how much for the name? And is paying for the name really that bad, if it confers to you the benefits you’re paying for?

    Costco declares the Costco brand vodka (Kirkland) rates higher than Belvedere and Grey Goose. But how many people will serve Costco vodka at their socialite party?

    It’s been shown that most people can’t discern a high end wine in a blind tasting, yet people will pay dearly to have that Bordeaux or Napa Cab on the dinner table.

    A fully loaded Toyota and an entry level Lexus are basically the same car at different price points.

    This is not to say that consumers are stupid, vapid (well, many are, but that’s beyond the point). It’s to say that they are not paying just for product quality…and they know it.

  7. Grand Seiko was formed with a very strict philosophy in mind, the “Grammar of Design”. It was intended to embody “less is more”, hence many of Seiko’s complications are instead found in their Credor line. I would argue that GS has strayed from those roots, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    Grand Seiko has always been in an awkward position, in that people love them because they offer more bang for your buck. I own 2 because I wanted beautiful pieces without garnering attention, good or bad. Seiko as a whole has been trying to move up market for several years now, and to create prestige you need to, of course, raising prices. In doing so, they 1) made GS less “under the radar” and 2) created pricing competition between Seiko and GS. Between this and their Omega-level of marketing (stop re-releasing the SLA017!), it has really soured my perception of Seiko.

    Yes, I was wearing GS before it was cool.

  8. The parallels with the Japanese car industry are particularly revealing – GS falls short both on product and on branding. (I say this as someone who owns a vintage GS and a contemporary model.)

    The Japanese luxury brands started floundering when their wares were insufficiently differentiated from their plainer-badged stablemates. (AKA the Cimarron effect)

    For instance: the cheapest Seiko offering with a Spring Drive GMT movement is the Prospex Landmaster SBDB015. The typical GS SD GMT costs twice what the SBDB015 costs, but has *fundamentally the same movement*. You aren’t even paying for the privilege of seeing the movement, most of the time.

    And then there’s the name. There’s a reason Lexus, Infiniti, and Acura exist. GS will always be on the back foot. Had Seiko pushed Credor internationally – especially with its high-complication pieces – things might have been different.

    • I’d buy a Presage with Spring Drive – if they’d lose the power reserve indicator. Which they won’t. So … no deal.

      And you’re absolutely right about calling GS a Seiko. A mistake they can’t rescind. It will
      Always be an uphill battle, especially with Seiko prices rising and so many damn models.

      • I don’t agree with this, Polo has been wildly successful selling in Marshall’s, TJ Maxx and selling Purple Label to department stores with wildly expensive suits and clothes. It can be done. People compare watches to cars, but it’s the wrong analogy and watches are more comparable to fashion brands than anything else. Reading the comments has been fun, but everyone here forgets that Rolex didn’t become “Rolex” until the last 30 years since they were relatively accessible up to maybe the 2000s. Rolex was expensive, but never out of realm until recently. Same for Patek and other “Prestige” brands, people are replacing these physical objects because currency has been so devalued and so the brand becomes even more important (https://wtfhappenedin1971.com/). This marketing for Rolex and Patek has taken decades to achieve, and Rolex will hurt itself because no one can buy one anymore other than crap models and through the gray market.

        The problem with Grand Seiko is not the Seiko name, is that they put the Spring Drive movement in basic Seikos which gives them a pricing problem that other brands seem to always forget, label pricing CANNOT overlap. The problem with GS is that they are too conservative with their watches with many being boring or basic in complication (as stated above). This is good for the new buyer, but there needs to be excitement pieces to sell the basic models to consistently drive market presence. No GS should be without a spring drive and no basic Seiko should ever have one.

  9. Easy: The kind of man who didn’t do his homework on Seiko service (which, for that kind of man, it sucks – inexcusably). Also judging by Youtube comments and forum posts, the kind of “man” who lives in mom’s basement and never talked to a girl before. And also possibly just the kind of man who talks about Seiko as some sort of weird watch virtue signaling token, but doesn’t actually have the money for Seiko or any actual higher end watch.

    • Nah, that’s the answer to “who claims they’d buy a Grand Seiko” (but don’t have the money).

      Sort of like the people who own umpteen kinds of Ferrari merch except, y’know, an actual Ferrari.

  10. I own a Patek Philippe 5227R.001 which is possibly the ultimate dress watch.
    However, I viewed a GS SBGW 231 at Watches of Switzerland a few days ago with use of magnifying loop.
    What I will say having been a collector of fine timepieces for over 40 years is that the craftsmanship, finishing and sheer beauty of the GS was mesmerising.
    I did not hesitate to place one on order.

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