Defining a brand identity can be one of the most complex tasks. As a watchmaker, creating complications and movements is certainly not an easy task, it takes investment and time, but defining a unique and instantly recognizable style can be even more important. Consistency is key on this path to signature design. Although it was revealed to the world in 1960, Grand Seiko spent several years defining styles that were inevitably associated with the brand. To be more precise, this happened in 1967, when an important model, the 44GS, was introduced. To celebrate this special timepiece after 55 years, Grand Seiko has released a limited edition watch directly inspired by this vintage model. And today, we’re going to experience the Grand Seiko Heritage Hi-Beat GMT SBGJ255 firsthand.
Defining Design for the Next Decades – 44GS and Design Grammar
When it comes to the design of Grand Seiko watches, if there is one word to keep in mind, it is consistency. But since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it is always difficult to judge whether a watch is a success. More objectively, how the brand managed to make this design its own and keep it going over the years. Grand Seiko was founded in 1960, when people were more concerned with mechanical issues than the definition of style. Remember, Grand Seiko is the result of an internal competition with King Seiko to create the most accurate watches.
The definition of design, later named “design grammar”, took place a few years later, in the mid-1960s, and involved one person in particular: Taro Tanaka. Seiko wasn’t really consistent and creative until his arrival. In fact, there was not even a design department before the mid-1950s, and even after its creation in 1956, this group of designers was mainly responsible for the creation of dials. Things changed in 1959 when Seiko hired newly graduated designer Tanaka to run the brand’s design department. His vision is global, encompassing the entire watchmaking process. Tanaka Taro’s mission is as simple as it is complex, to give Seiko and Grand Seiko a true Japanese identity while preserving the classic watchmaking codes. The problem he has to get past is that, according to the people he asks when he shows them the watches, Grand Seiko watches don’t have a clear and common identity. They are attractive as individual designs, but not immediately recognizable.
In 1962, Taro Tanaka defined the design of future watches with a set of rules, which were applied to all creation cases under the name of “design grammar”. Apart from the concepts of precision, legibility, beauty and ease of use, making form follow function, this design language is all about the subtle use of light, reflection and shadow. First, the surface and case lines are polished to a distortion-free mirror finish (the famous Zaratsu polishing technique). Second, all the lines of the case and dial must be flat and graphic in order to reflect the light in the best possible way. The hands are polished and so sharp they can catch even the tiniest of light, and the lugs combine polish and hairline finishes to allow the light to create a subtle and uniquely Japanese effect. Finally, the border must be flat and have a simple two-dimensional design.
Digging into the details, Taro Tanaka’s definition of style resulted in a series of nine distinct rules, as shown in the image below. The first watch to incorporate this “design syntax” was the 44GS, launched in 1967 and today regarded as one of the most important watches in the brand’s history and a turning point in the production of cheap Grand Seiko. In addition, the watch remains an important source of inspiration for the brand’s designers. Coinciding with the model’s 55th anniversary this year, Grand Seiko has decided to pay tribute to this iconic design with a new limited-edition model that is faithful to the original but modernized.
GRAND SEIKO HI-BEAT GMT SBGJ255
This new Hi-Beat GMT SBGJ255 was officially released a few weeks ago, although it shouldn’t be considered a true vintage reissue of the 44GS – this was done by Grand Seiko in 2013, including SBGW047, SBGW043, SBGW044 and SBGW046 – It should be seen as a true case study of design consistency. In fact, this isn’t even a re-creation of the design, as cases of this shape are often seen in the collection. It’s really about the coherence and durability of the brand identity. As you can see, the 44GS remains an important source of inspiration for the brand, with several watches following the “design syntax”.
While it can’t be considered “revolutionary” as the watch is based on existing models like the SBGJ235 (also GMT) or the SBGH281, this watch shows the dedication of the Grand Seiko design team to reaffirm its identity and culture. Implemented in teams for many years. Looking at the illustration above and comparing it to the actual watch we tested today, the resemblance is uncanny. Proportions, shapes, and in general, there isn’t a single aspect of this watch that doesn’t follow the rules defined in the 1960s. Even more impressive is the modern feel of the SBGJ255, even though its design is based on a series of guides from 55 years ago. I think eternity is an appropriate word here…
What we see is a modern interpretation of the design defined by the 44GS, expressed in modern mechanics and materials. In fact, the new watch is made of high-strength titanium, the brand’s name for a specific alloy that is more resistant to corrosion and scratches (Vickers hardness is around 300-350, while stainless steel is 180-200). This alloy is essential for the brand to respect its design language, as high-strength titanium can be polished as opposed to the classic grade 2 titanium. So this means that there is a signature distortion-free surface. Being made of high-strength titanium has several advantages. The first is the weight savings inherent in all titanium alloys. Second is the ability to resist scratches better than stainless steel (not a bad thing for all Zaratsu polished areas). And finally the color,
The SBGJ255 is a well-proportioned watch with a diameter of 40mm and a case length of 46.2mm, making it relatively easy to wear on the wrist and on most wearers. It has a curved profile that’s light and comfortable, but keep in mind that the watch’s specific shape – and all 44GS-style models – is relatively present thanks to the wide, firm shoulders that give the case a larger surface On the wrist. All the classic elements of Grand Seiko’s “Grammar of Design” are present: curved edges; highly polished and simple bezel; flat and undistorted surfaces on the sides of the case and lugs; reverse sloping watch Bezel walls and case side; last is the semi-recessed crown. These features not only respect the brand code, but also give the watch a unique GS personality. Our only complaint, something we’ve said repeatedly when reviewing Grand Seiko models, concerns the height of these watches. At 14mm, the SBGJ255 is quite thick, and although the brand has already started to address this with the Evolution 9 series, the other models haven’t.
Moving on to the dial, there is no doubt about the maker of this watch. Like the case, the dials produced by Grand Seiko are defined by a certain number of rules, including the concept of symmetry, but mainly texture and finish. Guided by aesthetics and legibility, the hour and minute hands and hour markers are faceted so they reflect light in different directions and remain highly visible from all angles. In this watch, the bottom of the dial is a silvery-white surface with a discreet texture (vertical pattern). The most striking element, which received great acclaim from the community when the watch first debuted, is the addition of luminous material to the hands and scales to make the watch even more versatile. The rest of the dial is traditional, with multiple shades of dark blue on the logo, GMT hands,
Beneath the sapphire crystal caseback is the famous in-house movement 9S86. Automatic engine with high beat regulation, it beats at 5Hz or 36,000 vibrations/hour with an accuracy of +5 to –3 seconds per day (exceeding classic observatory standards). Despite the high frequency, the 55-hour power reserve is still comfortable, and the GMT function is a true traveler-only function, meaning the local time hour hand is adjusted in one-hour increments rather than the one found on most entry-level watches GMT hand. Looking at this movement, you will immediately notice the specific decoration, the rotor is finished in an uneven gold color, which is achieved through an anodizing process in which titanium is electrolyzed to create an oxide film.
This Grand Seiko Heritage Hi-Beat 36000 GMT 44GS Reference SBGJ255 is worn on a high-strength titanium 3-link bracelet, mostly with a brushed finish and some polished accents. It is closed by a tri-fold clasp with push-button release. While the overall performance and comfort of the band are beyond reproach, the GS could consider adding a fine-tuning system to improve the experience.
TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS – GRAND SEIKO HERITAGE HI-BEAT 36000 GMT 44GS 55TH ANNIVERSARY LIMITED EDITION SBGJ255
Case: 40mm diameter x 14mm height – 46.2mm lug-to-lug – high-strength titanium case – hyperboloid sapphire crystal with anti-reflective coating – transparent screw back – 100m water resistance
Dial: Silver-white textured dial with applied markers and faceted hands – Luminous material on markers and hands – Blue accents on GMT indexes, markers and hands
Movement: In-house Caliber 9S86 – Automatic winding – 37 jewels – 36,000 vibrations per hour – 55 hour power reserve – Special decorations and oscillating weight – +5 to –3 seconds per day – Hours, minutes, seconds, date and GMT function
Bracelet: High-strength titanium bracelet, tri-fold clasp with push-button release