Zaratsu. Spring drive. Snowflake. Inspired by nature. Annoying lug widths. Mutter any of these words or phrases around those in the know about watches and they will blurt out “Grand Seiko!” The luxurious big brother of Seiko conjures many things in the minds of watch enthusiasts, but there is one thing it does not: affordability. Grand Seiko has been creeping up-market for several years and it is not uncommon to find their newest models starting well above $7,000 USD. However, there are still good values in their collection, and today we will be looking at what is arguably the best one, the Grand Seiko SBGM221.
This watch is a bit of a conundrum for a few reasons that I will outline in this review, but it is my favorite Grand Seiko, new or old. The simplicity of its design while still being slightly complicated is something that only Grand Seiko can pull off. Let’s find out why.
On the Wrist
Have you ever been afraid to try on a watch you like because you thought you might not like the way it fit? I was…with this watch. The SBGM221 isn’t a small watch, even with its 39.5mm case width. It is almost entirely dial, which can make watches feel larger than they are. The SBGM221 also comes in at 13.7mm thick, which is relatively large for a watch that most consider a dress watch. When I first took the watch out of its box and strapped it on, I breathed one of the biggest sighs of relief I ever have when it comes to watches. It fit perfectly. It looked perfect. It is perfect.
The 13.7mm case height is a dimension I wish I could just toss out of this review. The shape of the case and how it sits on the wrist makes it almost irrelevant; more on that later. The wrist-to-crystal measurement is 10.5mm and considering that almost 1mm of that is taken up by the crystal, this is a watch that has contemporary dress watch proportions, which brings me to my next point about wearing this watch daily: is it even a dress watch?
The Grand Seiko SBGM221 is in the brand’s Elegance collection, which by sound alone leads one to think that this and all watches in that collection are dress watches. When thinking specifically of the SBGM221, let’s break down what it is and what those elements mean. It is under 40mm and entirely polished, so it’s a dress watch. But it has a GMT complication, so it’s a tool watch. But it has no lume, so maybe it’s a sport watch? Okay, I got it. It comes on a crocodile leather strap with a deployant clasp, and it has an ivory dial, so it’s definitely a dress watch. Confusing, isn’t it? It’s a quirky watch; nothing about it makes sense and yet it all comes together in a perfectly imperfect way.
There is something about the dial of this watch that makes you get all hot and bothered. The polishing on the hands and markers is captivating and although I’m not saying anything novel with that statement, especially to those familiar with Grand Seiko, it is worth pointing out. The dial is distractingly good. I found myself constantly looking at it, not even reading the time. I would rotate my wrist just to see how the light played off it but also to see how the ivory dial shifted colors depending on how the light hit it. The dial is so well-executed that I was almost unimpressed with the equally beautiful case.
One downside to wearing this watch daily and something that knocks it out of the GADA (Go Anywhere Do Anything) category is the water resistance rating, or lack thereof. It is something around 3 ATMs, but it is so low that Grand Seiko lists it solely as “splash resistant” on the watch’s product page. I have no issues dunking my Speedmaster underwater during my kid’s bath time, but I dare not attempt that aquatic feat with the SBGM221. I remain cautious about what I do with this watch around water but it does not detract from my enjoyment.
Grand Seiko SBGM221 Video Review
After wearing the SBGM221 for a few days I noticed something that I had not experienced with many other watches. The printing on the dial is extremely crisp. The Grand Seiko text below the logo at 12 o’clock popped out at me and was easily readable no matter how far away my wrist was from my eyes. Adding to that effect, the applied GS logo above it is equally sharp and pops in a different way because of the mirror polish. If you get a chance to hold one of these watches, hold it as far away from your face as you can. You’ll still be able to read the text easily.
Watches with inner GMT tracks can often have the complication go unnoticed. The markings blend with the applied indices and the GMT hand doesn’t stand out as much as it would if it were longer. The SBGM221 partially fits into that description.
The GMT track is subtle and it flanks the inside of the applied indices with the odd hour markings in between. They don’t pop out at you, but the GMT hand sure does. The GMT hand is heat-blued steel and creates just enough contrast with the dial to be easily legible when taking a quick glance at the watch. As with most blued hands, it appears black most of the time and the blue shines brightly when in direct light.
The hands and applied indices are classic Grand Seiko. Sharp dauphine hands with mirror polished bevels look like they could cut right through the sapphire crystal. The polished bevel creates an effect I have never seen on watch hands before: they glow. When light hits them straight on, no matter how faint, the bevels on the hands light up. The same effect is on the applied indices as well, but to a lesser extent. The SBGM221 has no lume, but it doesn’t need it. It is readable as long as there is a bit of light to reflect off the dial.
As with any GMT watch, a date complication is necessary. The date window is at 3 o’clock and although I would have liked it at 6 o’clock to maintain symmetry, it still works. It is prominently framed with equally as good polishing as the hands and indices. The date wheel is silver with black text. The silver has a slight texture to it that reminds me of a fingerprint. It doesn’t jump out at you, but it is noticeable in some light.
I was a bit wary of the creamy ivory dial and it was one of the things that held me back from putting this watch in my collection. I wasn’t sure if the color was for me. I’m extremely happy I decided to try it out because I love it and it grew on me almost instantly. The color is dynamic and can change from a light parchment color to a light tan that reminds me of unstained maple lumber. I don’t think this watch would look as beautiful as it does if the dial were white.
All of this is protected under a box sapphire crystal. The crystal adds some vintage aesthetic to the watch without being overwhelming like a double-domed crystal. It’s a good choice for a watch like this and strikes a nice balance between a flat and domed crystal.
Case, Strap & Movement
I could spend an hour talking about zaratsu polishing and how Grand Seiko uses it on their watches. There are plenty of resources on the polishing technique already written but I’ll give a quick primer and discuss what it means for the SBGM221.
The term zaratsu is an amalgamation of the name of the polishing machine and the process used by Grand Seiko polishers that use that machine. Zaratsu polishing essentially boils down to a surface that is free from all blemishes, distortion, and has a mirror polish. Not to make finishing techniques sound too trivial, but anyone can polish a watch. Zaratsu polishing requires months, if not years, to become adept at. If standard watch polishing is a fantastic restaurant, zaratsu polishing is a Michelin- starred restaurant. This is an extremely abbreviated version of all that zaratsu entails so I encourage you to do some searching after you’re done with this review; it is fascinating.
The case of the SBGM221 is entirely zaratsu polished. It is difficult to describe just how good the mirror polish looks on this watch but I realized how good it was the first time I saw my reflection in it. It blew me away how good it looked. When taking photos and videos for the review, I kept having to move my head or body out of the way because it was showing up so clearly in the reflections. With other watches, it is almost impossible to make out my face or body in the reflection. Not so here, not with zaratsu polishing.
What is even more astounding about the finishing on the case of the SBGM221 is the shape of the case and the fact that the polishing is so perfect throughout. There are almost no flat surfaces on the case of the SBGM221. The bezel slopes down away from the crystal and has a small chamfer before it dips back in towards the center of the case.
The center of the case is convex and adds a lovely elegance to the profile of the watch. It is part of the reason the SBGM221 doesn’t wear as tall as its stated dimension. The lugs extend up slightly above this barrel shape and then cut back down as the lines of the case follow under the bezel. The lugs themselves are thin and turn down gently. The entire case is full of surprises and small details that you don’t notice right away because of all the polishing. However, the more you look at it, the more you uncover.
I’ll be completely honest and say that I did not wear the strap that came with the SBGM221 except for the review photos and videos. It’s a fine strap and is supple out of the box; crocodile leather just isn’t my thing. However, Grand Seiko has an affinity for 19mm lugs that forced me to cram a 20mm strap on the watch until I was able to find a suitable 19mm replacement.
With that said, I love the deployant clasp that came with the strap. It is branded and looks to be finished to the same standards as the rest of the watch. I removed it from the stock strap and put it on the strap I ended up using the most (a B&R Bands horween leather strap). The deployant is comfortable, secure, and is one of the few I have tried that doesn’t dig into my wrist. However, it does add a little bulk to the strap, but not enough for me to not want to use it.
While Grand Seiko is known for spring drive movements, the automatic GMT movement used in the SBGM221 is nothing to turn your nose up at. The in-house caliber 9S66 is a true GMT movement. A true GMT differs from other GMT movements like a Sellita SW330 in one important way: how the hour and GMT hands are adjusted.
The first position of the crown, which would normally be used to change the date on some other GMT movements, adjusts the main hour hand (local time) independently of the GMT and minute hands. This allows wearers to adjust the time to their new local time when travelling without stopping or hacking the time. This is also used to adjust the date. The only downside to this is that changing the date requires the hour hand to be rotated around 24 hours. If your watch isn’t on a winder or constantly worn, this can make getting the correct date cumbersome. However, the movement has a 72-hour power reserve, so it won’t die out quickly.
The second position of the crown stops the movement and allows all hands of the watch to be adjusted. The idea here is that when you’re getting ready to travel or change time zones, you adjust the GMT hand to your home time. When you arrive at your destination, you adjust the main hour hand to your local time. This allows you read the local time as you normally would on a 3-hand watch, but reference your home time quickly using the GMT hand. This is perfect for judging if it’s the right time for those late-night calls back home when across the globe.
The Grand Seiko value proposition is becoming harder and harder to justify. Grand Seiko released new GMTs in the Elegance collection with spring drive movements and textured dials that start at over $6,000, almost 50% more than the SBGM221. While the movement might justify the price for some, the SBGM221 sits in the perfect spot for me. You’re still getting a reliable and beautiful automatic GMT movement, and all things considered, $4,600 (full MSRP) isn’t that bad.
The SBGM221 is a weird watch and it occupies a weird space. As I said above, it isn’t quite a dress, tool, or sport watch, or at least not specifically one of those. It is all 3 combined and it brings the best of all those worlds into one watch. I see the SBGM221 as a watch for someone who wants something elegant yet functional to travel with. However, I also see it as a watch for someone who loves GMTs and wants a beautiful example of one. The list can go on for who this watch is for and I don’t think there are many people for whom is this watch isn’t for.
Even though the Grand Seiko value proposition may be harder to justify with their new releases, it is undeniable that their current offerings still bring amazing value to the table. The SBGM221 is perhaps the best example of that. It has everything that makes Grand Seiko what they are and won’t absolutely destroy your wallet. The SBGM221 has been my favorite Grand Seiko for some time. Even with all the new releases Grand Seiko puts out on what seems like a daily basis, the SBGM221 will likely stay that way. It’s just too damn good.
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Grand Seiko SBGM221 Specs
*Height of the watch from the wrist to the top of the crystal