Feature: Rolex Vs Grand Seiko
Rolex's stiffest competition once came from other established Swiss brands like Omega and Breitling. These days it also has the mighty Grand Seiko to contend with. Now fully independent from Seiko, this legendary watchmaker has seen its profile rise considerably since it started distributing its watches outside of Japan. So, how scared should Rolex be?
Rolex’s fabled history began long before that of Grand Seiko’s, whose first watches were made in 1960. However Grand Seiko started life as an offshoot of its mother-brand, Seiko, which originated in the 1880s. Even so, the first watches actually branded with the word “Seiko” didn’t appear until 1924.
Rolex, then, has a stronger claim to being the veteran brand, and it was already making global headlines when most people in the west were oblivious to the fact that Japan had a watchmaking industry of its own.
Two decades after it was founded by Hans Wilsdorf (pictured above) and Alfred Davis, Rolex had made huge strides. In 1927 it launched its water-resistant Oyster watch, famously worn by endurance swimmer Mercedes Gleitz, the first woman to swim the English Channel. It followed this with its pioneering self-winding Perpetual movement, improving on one that was earlier devised by the English watchmaker John Harwood.
Throughout the 20th century Rolex was renowned for its relentless innovation, but the years between 1945 and 1956 were especially productive. To this day, almost all the models launched during this time—from the Datejust to the Submariner dive watch—form the core of Rolex’s collection.
In the 1970s, unlike Seiko, Rolex never fully embraced the quartz revolution.
It was part of a consortium of Swiss brands including Patek Philippe and IWC that came up with the quartz-powered Beta 21 movement to compete with the new technology from Japan. But its heart was never really in it, making battery-powered collections in relatively small numbers like the Oysterquartz Day-Date and Datejust until 2001 but retaining mechanical movements for the majority of its watches.
Rolex’s entire collection now runs on in-house, self-winding mechanical movements.
There’s no doubt that Grand Seiko is now a well-respected luxury watch brand—one with a burgeoning reputation—but it lags behind Rolex when it comes to cool factor.
Famous and influential Rolex wearers have included A-list actors like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman (who famously wore a Daytona), musicians like Eric Clapton, Rihanna and Ed Sheeran, as well as legends from across the sporting universe.
Image courtesy of Phillips
Michael Jordan, Seve Ballesteros, Neymar, Alex Rodriguez and David Beckham—now fronting Rolex’s sister company Tudor—have all worn a Rolex at some point. These unofficial endorsers, and many more, have enhanced the aura of cool that surrounds the brand.
Add to that its unattainability, with many brand-new Rolex models requiring lengthy waiting lists, and you’ve got one of the coolest, most sought-after luxury names that has ever existed.
Rolex’s back catalogue boasts an enviable array of iconic models that have been worn by global leaders, fictional characters, record-breaking mountaineers and Hollywood royalty. Any brand would struggle to compete with Rolex on this front.
From the Daytona to the Day-Date—worn by the Dalai Lama, no less—Rolex watches are frequently spotted on some of the world’s most high-profile people. But it’s not just about the people who wear them. It’s about the build quality and dependability that has seen Rolex accompany explorers, mountain climbers and deep-sea divers to some of the most inhospitable parts of the planet—something Rolex has broadcast to the world via costly but effective advertising campaigns.
Another thing propping up its icon status is the fact that the fictional spy James Bond wore a Rolex in Ian Fleming’s novels and many of the subsequent film adaptions. Omega may have muscled in on the Bond franchise in the 1990s but to many people, the quintessential Bond watch will always be a Submariner.
Interestingly, Roger Moore’s Bond did wear Seiko watches in two consecutive films—Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only—but they were plain-old quartz Seikos rather than Grand Seiko.
For Grand Seiko to claim any links to Bond would be spurious to say the least… but there’s little doubt the brand would benefit from some cinematic product endorsement to boost its profile.
Image courtesy of Bonhams
The fact that Rolex makes everything in-house is no small feat. Before a watch can be called “Swiss-made”, at least 60 per cent of it needs to be made in Switzerland. Every part of a Rolex, however, is not only Swiss-made but made in-house by Rolex itself, ensuring every single watch that leaves its factories meets the company’s extreme demands on quality.
Much to the envy of other brands, Rolex has its own foundry in order to produce its own 18k gold and platinum alloys from the raw materials. Even its proprietary steel—known as 904L—is tougher than the industry-standard 316L steel used by most other watch companies.
As for its movements, all current Rolex models bear the words “Superlative Chronometer” on the dial. This means they are certified for accuracy first by the external company COSC (Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètre) and then by Rolex itself, the end result being that the watches are accurate to -2/+2 seconds a day—that’s at least twice as accurate as a standard COSC-certified chronometer.
For anyone buying a luxury watch, Rolex ticks most of the necessary boxes, but whether they offer good value is questionable. After all, a mechanical watch can only ever achieve a certain level of accuracy, and for all Rolex’s boasts about using a superior steel, is it really necessary?
Is it justified in charging several thousand pounds more for a time-only watch than a similar model from Omega, Breitling or, indeed, Grand Seiko? As with so many luxury brands, you’re paying a premium for one of the hottest names in the industry—although let’s not forget that a Rolex is likely to hold its value better than most of its competitors.
Grand Seiko was conceived in 1960 as a more premium offshoot of Seiko, its mother-brand that was founded in Tokyo in 1881 by Kintaro Hattori.
Initially called Seikosha, (“precision” in Japanese), the name was eventually shortened to Seiko and first appeared on a watch dial in 1924.
Although known for its innovation, Seiko’s modus operandi for several decades was to copy Swiss watches and their movements and sell them for a more affordable price. This brought it huge success in the domestic market, but Seiko’s overseas sales left a lot to be desired.
To be globally successful Seiko knew it had to up its game and develop a home-grown design ethos that set it apart from its Swiss rivals.
This is where the designer Taro Tanaka, often hailed as one of the unsung heroes of the watch world, comes in. In 1959 Tanaka, a young design graduate, was hired by Seiko as its first trained designer and he set about devising a set of watchmaking principles called the “Grammar of Design”.
These comprised three basic tenets, including one that required all watch cases to be unique, with strictly no generic round cases, like the common Swiss style of the time. This is why Grand Seiko watches have a distinctive, clean-edged geometric look, said to resemble the armour of Samurai warriors, and first established in the 44GS model—a must-have for any vintage Grand Seiko collector.
These principles, finalised in 1967, were first applied to the Grand Seiko and King Seiko lines before filtering down to the more entry-level Seiko collections, which were exported around the world.
By the late 1960s, awareness of Seiko watches had grown considerably, and that wasn’t just down to Tanaka’s input. Seiko was the official timekeeper at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 which saw a monumental marketing push from the brand. American soldiers in the Vietnam War returned home with Seikos they had bought in the Far East, reporting on their accuracy and reliability in combat.
By the early 1970s, Seiko was a household name, known for ushering in the quartz era—its Astron model was the world’s first quartz watch—and even inventing one of the world’s first automatic chronographs.
Image courtesy of Bonhams
As for Grand Seiko, with mechanical watches in decline it entered a period of dormancy in 1976. This was despite its models having excelled in Swiss observatory time-trial contests—much to the chagrin of Swiss brands who not only baulked at the idea of being beaten by a Far Eastern competitor, they eventually abolished the contests.
Twelve years later, Grand Seiko was revived for the quartz era with its first battery-powered watch. No ordinary quartz watch, it was accurate to an incredible 10 seconds per year, many times higher than other quartz movements.
The brand followed this with an even more accurate quartz movement before the re-emergence of mechanical watches in the 1990s led to the development and manufacture of its 9S series of movements.
Image courtesy of Phillips
Released in 1998, it was Grand Seiko’s first mechanical calibre in 20 years and ignited the brand in ways it could never have foreseen. After all, at the dawn of the quartz era, Seiko’s adverts boldly declared that “Someday all watches will be made this way”.
Perhaps Grand Seiko’s biggest technical achievement, however, was yet to come.
In 2004 it unveiled its hybrid Spring Drive calibre, which combined a traditional mainspring with an electronic regulator. Over twenty years in the making, it went through 600 prototypes and is the brand’s most advanced movement family.
Having gone global with its distribution in 2010 and achieved independence in 2017 from its mother-company Seiko, Grand Seiko is now well placed to take on the luxury giants of Switzerland.
This is reflected in the location of its stores, with Grand Seiko boutiques in uber-fashionable shopping districts like London’s Bond Street or LA’s Rodeo Drive, just a short walk from the likes of Patek Philippe, Chopard and Breguet.
This is the exalted company in which Grand Seiko now finds itself—and it’s thoroughly deserved.
Grand Seiko could take the obvious route and sign up a gaggle of the hottest celebrities to endorse its watches, as is the way with so many luxury brands. But in its own, quietly conservative Japanese way it seems content to let the world find out about its products with minimal fanfare.
So, whereas Rolex is considered cool primarily because of the high-profile people—past and present—who wear it, Grand Seiko is forging its own path to coolness.
Of course, for some people, the very fact that Grand Seiko eschews spending money on expensive brand ambassadors is the very height of cool.
It’s the very antithesis of a showboating brand. See someone wearing a Grand Seiko and you can be certain they’re a horolophile who’s less interested in the name printed on the dial than what’s underneath it.
Is Grand Seiko iconic? Not yet, perhaps. Is it legendary? Yes, and for many people that’s just as desirable.
If Grand Seiko lacks anything, it’s a “hero” watch, an instantly identifiable model in the vein of a Royal Oak, Reverso or a Daytona. But Grand Seiko watches adhere to the aforementioned Tara Tanaka’s design principles, which gives every collection a similar aesthetic. If any Grand Seiko could be described as iconic then it’s the “Snowflake” model, with its textured dial.
What Grand Seiko does have is a strong brand ethos and an exotic cult appeal as well as time-honoured traditions that differ from those of their Swiss counterparts.
And it’s hard not to love a brand that cares for its top watchmakers so much that it makes them leap out of their seats every hour to indulge in a spot of healthy tai-chi.
Word of the intense craftsmanship that goes into Grand Seiko watches is spreading, with concepts like “Zaratsu” polishing—which delivers a flat, smooth mirror-like surface—no longer a mystery to the watch-buying public.
Grand Seiko has also invested heavily in its in-house movements, which undergo the Grand Seiko Inspection Standard tests, a more rigorous process than COSC, the Swiss chronometer-testing agency. Whereas COSC allows a daily deviation rate of -4/+6 for a movement to make the grade as a chronometer, Grand Seiko allows for -3/+5. That’s not as accurate as Rolex (see above), but it’s close.
As well as its hybrid Spring Drive movement, mentioned above, it produces the purely mechanical Hi-Beat movement which rivals Zenith’s El Primero by running at an impressive 36,000 vibrations per hour (vph), the faster rate offering greater precision than the 28,800 vph found in a Rolex.
The very best of Grand Seiko’s output, however, are the Spring Drive-powered watches made at its prestigious Micro Artist’s studio, established in 2000 in the city of Shiojiri. Here, a carefully selected band of watchmakers craft exquisite timepieces that are influenced by the natural beauty of the Japanese Alps surrounding them.
Their dials, intricate bezel-engraving and movements are as visually appealing as those made in Geneva or Glashutte, although it finest mechanical watches are made in yet another studio located in Tokyo’s Ginza district. It is here that arguably Grand Seiko’s piece de resistance so far was manufactured, namely the incredible Kodo Constant-Force Tourbillon, released at Watches & Wonders 2022.
This $250k skeleton-dial watch in Zaratsu-polished platinum and titanium is of a quality and craftsmanship far beyond anything Rolex will ever produce.
With average prices much cheaper than Rolex, Grand Seiko offers exceptional value. Just a couple of years ago, for example, you could buy a titanium Spring Drive time-and-date model with a beautifully textured “Snowflake” dial for $5,800 brand-new.
If the same watch had “Rolex” on the dial you could expect to pay at least $2,000 more. These days, that same watch is priced $6,200, but it’s still a reasonable sum for a watch of that quality.
With pre-owned Grand Seikos usually selling for well under retail, they are worth serious consideration.
Now vastly superior to standard Seikos, Grand Seikos are watches for life, among the very best that Japanese watchmaking has to offer, and their reputation is growing by the year.