It’s About Time: A Watch Story

Grandpa’s watch

My grandpa died in September 2019. After the memorial service in Fort Collins, my mom, uncle, aunt, sister, and I sorted through some of his effects, and I picked out one of his watches. It’s just a $40 quartz watch that I think he bought at Walmart, but it was his and I’m happy to have it as a memento. I don’t think the watch meant that much to him, but I like the way it looks. My aunt dubbed it a “sexy man watch.” According to the case back, it’s a GENWM1042 with a “JAPAN MOVT.”

Vincero Kairos

After wearing my grandpa’s watch for a while, I started looking around to step it up a notch with something of my own and found the Vincero Kairos Mesh in matte black. Vincero is ubiquitous once you start doing online searches for watches. I’m a dark dial kind of guy. Back when I went to an office (before the pandemic), I wore a black dress shirt, gray pants, a black belt, and black shoes to work every day for five years. I prefer to have just the date on a watch, since displaying the day tends to clutter the face, and I always know what day it is based on my morning workout. The Vincero Kairos has a Citizen Miyota Quartz movement, and the marble on the case back is an interesting touch. I almost bought one during their Cyber Monday sale, but decided I was looking for something more meaningful than a fashion watch.

King Seiko

I browsed the websites for other brands, including Movado, Swatch, Shinola, Junghans, Braun, and Citizen, trying to find my style. I knew I wasn’t interested in a smartwatch. I sit in front of a computer all day, so strapping another little computer to my wrist doesn’t hold much appeal for me, especially when its value and utility will go to zero in a few years.

After learning more, I started looking for a mechanical watch with some gravitas, something I could pass down to my son. I quickly focused on Seiko, especially their vintage lineup. I wanted to get one made in 1973 so it would be the same age as me.

Back when I was thinking of spending around $500, the King Seiko line seemed like the best value. I only ever saw one 1973 5625–7041 King Seiko Chronometer with a black dial.

1973 Grand Seiko 5645–7010 with a dark dial

After looking some more, I thought that if I wanted a one-and-done watch — a real heirloom worthy of being handed down — I should bump up to a Grand Seiko.

For me, a lot of Grand Seiko’s appeal derives from Taro Tanaka’s Grammar of Design, which first appeared with the 1967 Grand Seiko 44GS. Tanaka was Seiko’s first designer. He developed four guidelines for the company’s watches:

  1. All surfaces and angles on the case, dial, hands, and indices should be flat and geometrically perfect to best reflect light.
  2. Bezels should be simple two-dimensional faceted curves.
  3. No visual distortion should be tolerated from any angle, and all cases should be mirror finished.
  4. All cases should be unique, with no generic round case designs.

The Grand Seiko 5645–7010 is emblematic of those rules. It also has a gold medallion on the back, unlike King Seikos from 1973. It turned out to be nearly impossible to find one made in that year with a dark dial. In addition to setting up eBay alerts, I checked Buyee, Rakuten, Japan Pre-owned Vintage, Chrono24, and Japan Watch every day for months.

I thought there was a black-dialed version of the watch because I would see them occasionally for other years in the early 70s. After poring over old catalogs on the site of the Geneva-based Grand Seiko Guy, Gerald Donovan, I realized the 5645–7010 never had a black dial, and the dark blue dial was only available in the 1972 catalog. Although the blue fades to a darker shade over the decades, the black ones I’d come across were redials.

And then I saw it: Gerald Donovan had a Grand Seiko 5645–7010 manufactured in 1973 with a blue dial. It’d been listed for sale on his site since January, but I missed it because I’d been looking for a black one. The price ($4,000) also blinded me. It was twice as much as I was planning to spend, and my employer had just furloughed 1,800 people, which spooked me.

It took me a while to appreciate just how rare the watch was, especially in such pristine condition. I also spent a somewhat crazy amount of time looking for a strap to go with it, eventually zeroing in on a black Horween Chromexcel leather one with white side stitching. After Gerald answered a bunch of questions I had, I finally worked up the nerve on my birthday to ask him how to wire the money, but the watch was already sold.

It’s the one that got away, but it was for the best. I’d be nervous about wearing it. If it were ever lost or damaged, it would be very difficult to replace. Paying a premium price for a rare vintage watch makes sense if you’re a collector, but I’m not.

Grand Seiko SBGA375

So, I turned my attention to watches that are currently being manufactured. The Grand Seiko Heritage Collection offers a superlative combination of old and new, bringing together more than 50 years of history.

I decided on a Grand Seiko SBGA375. The first thing to know about it is that it has a Spring Drive 9R65 caliber movement. Spring Drive is an insane feat of engineering that requires expertise in both quartz and mechanical watches. Only Seiko could pull it off.

Powered only by a mainspring, the watch achieves the accuracy of quartz (±1 second per day) without a battery. The manual explains it like this: “The unwinding power of the mainspring rotates the glide wheel, generating electricity in the coil to drive the crystal oscillator and IC [integrated circuit]. The IC controls the spinning speed of the glide wheel by applying and releasing the electromagnetic brake, while comparing the accuracy of the electric signals generated by the crystal oscillator and the spinning speed of the glide wheel.” Because the speed of the glide wheel is regulated by a frictionless brake that’s applied 256 times per second, the second hand has a distinctive motion compared to a quartz or mechanical watch. Instead of the TICK TICK TICK of a quartz watch or the tictictic of a mechanical watch, a Spring Drive second hand silently sweeps around the the dial with a smooth, fluid motion, as if it’s saying, “Ommm….”

Seiko almost killed mechanical watches when it released the Astron, the first commercial quartz wristwatch, in December 1969. During the industry upheaval of the Quartz Crisis, Seiko continued to make both mechanical and quartz watches, with the dream of fusing them. In 1978, it filed the first patent for Spring Drive in its quest to develop “an electronically regulated mechanical watch that is powered by a spring.” Twenty years and 600 prototypes later, Seiko exhibited Spring Drive at BASELWORLD in 1998. The following year, the first hand-wound Spring Drive was released. In 2004, Seiko released the first automatic winding Spring Drive (caliber 9R65), a tribute to the company’s long-term dedication and persistence. In 2017, Grand Seiko became a separate brand within Seiko’s portfolio, and in 2018, the SBGA375 was released.

The SBGA375 has 30 jewels to reduce friction, a screw-down crown, 10 bar (100 meter) water resistance, a date function, and a 72-hour power reserve. I’ve found the power meter on the dial very useful for making sure it stays wound.

The 40mm stainless steel case of the SBGA375 is a contemporary take on the design of the 44GS. One of the updates is a see-through case back. It fits well on my 7” wrist. The case is hand-finished using the Zaratsu polishing technique that maintains sharp edges where planes meet, creating a striking interplay of light and shadow. The hands and markers are also designed to reflect light, making them readable even in dim conditions. Photos and videos don’t capture how sparkly the watch and bracelet are in person.

I love the midnight blue dial. Is it blue or black? Yes. Is it mechanical or quartz? Yes. The subtle complexity and category defying nuance speak to me, as does Grand Seiko’s Philosophy of Time tagline. You have to be fairly knowledgeable about watches for the brand to be on your radar. I knew I was hooked when I watched a 46-minute video about the SBGA375 in Japanese, which I don’t understand. Twice.

Grand Seiko vs Rolex

Trust is key when buying an expensive watch. There aren’t any authorized Grand Seiko dealers in St. Louis. Fortunately, I was able to turn to David Kodner, whom I’ve known since 1996, when I bought an engagement ring (and later, wedding rings) from him, partially in trade for web development work. (We also attended the same high school and college.) If you’re ever in the market for custom-designed jewelry, you should talk to David. He hooked me up, and the watch was officially in my possession on July 20, 2020.

Why?

No one really needs a watch. Buying one was a process of learning more about horology and coming to appreciate why some watches are more expensive than others, aside from marketing and branding. Along the way, I talked myself into spending more to get one of lasting significance.

A nice watch is a marvel of craftsmanship that harmoniously melds engineering and design. It is a beautiful object.

A reminder of the passing of time, a watch is hard to beat as a family heirloom. It’s small, valuable, and personal in the sense that it’s worn on the body and reflects a particular style. There are businesses and bonsai trees in Japan that are hundreds of years old. They’ve been tended to generation after generation in a constantly changing world. One day, the watch will be my son’s. Maybe he’ll pass it down, too.

For me, this watch is also a bet on myself, an affirmation that in some ways I’ve made it financially and will continue to prosper. Watching the second hand glide around the dial during a pandemic when everything is unstable and our collective experience of time is out of kilter is calmly reassuring.

It’s the nicest thing I own, but it’s not about having the thing: it’s about the quest and the ideas it represents.

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Brian H. Marston

Brian H. Marston

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