Watches

Watch Review: Grand Seiko SBGN003 9F Quartz GMT

Since the Grand Seiko SBGN00X series was released back in 2018, I’ve been more than a little interested in getting my hands on one. Given the watch community’s enthusiastic response to Grand Seiko’s first 9F quartz GMT-powered watches, I’m clearly not alone. The big question mark in my mind was how I would get on with a quartz watch (albeit a Grand Seiko quartz, which is a different beast entirely, as we’ll get to shortly) as a daily wear. Since tumbling down the rabbit hole of horology nearly a decade ago, I’ve almost solely worn mechanical watches, aside from some lower-priced adventure watches. That said, I’ve been well aware that my bias toward mechanical has deprived me of many outstanding watches — especially those from the Japanese masters of quartz at Grand Seiko. Luckily for me, our friends over at J. Vair Anderson in Calgary were able to source a gorgeous black dial SBGN003 so I could finally learn what I’ve been missing.

Grand Seiko clearly loves its GMT watches — you can find them throughout the lineup (43 SKUs last I checked, not including limited editions). But, for one reason or other, most of them haven’t ticked enough boxes for me to take the plunge and pick one up. Many models, especially in the Sport line, are a bit too large for my 6.75” wrist, and most of the smaller-diameter pieces in the Heritage collection don’t have lume. For an everyday watch, I really prefer watches with diameters less than 41mm, and the SBGN003 comes in at an ideal size for me at 39mm diameter (12.1mm high, 46mm lug-to-lug). On wrist, it feels spot-on. It’s more comfortable and fits better than any watch in my current collection, which admittedly makes me a bit grumpy.



I’ve heard the SBGN003 called a Rolex Explorer II homage, and, while I understand where that comparison comes from (steel 24-hour bezel and orange seconds hand), it’s kind of like calling any watch with a dive bezel a Submariner homage. I suppose there are plenty of people who do — but regardless, my suggestion would be to ignore those comparisons. The SBGN003 is its own watch with its own personality and characteristics that make it special in its own right. Plus, you can always choose one of the other colorways if the black and orange is too close for comfort. Personally, I love deep black dial of the SBGN003 with just enough orange to give it some extra visual interest, and it’s the colorway I’d choose for myself (though I’d be tempted to snatch up the limited-edition SBGN0025 with its dark gray “bark” dial if I could get my hands on one of the 56 made).

Even if you don’t know much about Grand Seiko, one thing you’ve undoubtedly heard is that the fit and finish is outstanding. And yes, it absolutely is. Even though the SBGN003 is on the more accessible end of Grand Seiko’s price spectrum, it’s still 100% Grand Seiko finishing. You get fine, precise brushing coupled with case elegant lines (Grand Seiko’s casework is simply awesome) and its famous Zaratsu polishing. Yup, it’s as good as advertised.

One thing that Grand Seiko gets a bit of grief about is its bracelets. In the case of the SBGN003, that criticism is partially justified. The three-link style isn’t flashy, and it suits the sporty look of the piece. No polished bits on the center links, just s smooth, beautiful brushing and polished sides. The bracelet is light but well-constructed (though not as refined as something like a Rolex Oyster bracelet), and links are secured by screws, making adding and removing links relatively easy — which is a good thing, since the clasp has no adjustments. If you’ve gotten used to tool-free micro-adjustments, or even just micro-adjust holes on the clasp, well, tough luck. The only way to adjust the fit is through the use of the included half-links (actually slightly less than half a link). It took a bit of fiddling, but once I got the bracelet fit dialed in, it was quite comfortable, and the push-button clasp with the embossed GS logo is a nice aesthetic match. But still, I did find myself occasionally pining for some adjustability when my wrist swelled. On-the-fly micro-adjust is something watch enthusiasts have come to expect at this price point, and I’m hoping Grand Seiko gets this sorted soon. Finally, for better or worse, the SBGN003 has a 19mm lug width, which suits the case size but does make finding aftermarket straps a bit challenging.



To my eye, the best part about the SBGN003 — and all Grand Seikos, for that matter — is the dial. The dial on the SBGN003 is an inky black. I mean, really inky — the kind of liquid ink that you can see yourself sinking into. (The anti-reflective coating on the sapphire crystal helps, too.) Set off by those deadly sharp brushed hands and hour markers with razor-sharp transitions, the dial just pops. These traits are all consistent with what you’ll find in Grand Seiko’s dressier pieces, but what brings the SBGN003 firmly into the Sport collection is the color pop provided by the orange GMT hand, the addition of lume on the hands and markers, and, of course, the steel 24-hour bezel. Throw in crown guards and 100m of water resistance, and the SBGN is a sports watch, through and through, albeit with Grand Seiko’s distinctive design language that leans toward dressy and elegant. The SBGN003 is a watch that is eminently versatile and would be an outstanding choice for someone looking to buy their first and only “nice” watch. (To be clear, this would be a very nice first watch!) That said, the SBGN003 is equally well-suited to being a grab-and-go or travel watch for a seasoned collector.

The SBGN003 is a “true” GMT, meaning that that you can independently adjust the local hour hand, jumping it to quickly set the time. This is especially convenient if you’re often hopping between time zones, as you don’t have to stop the movement in order to change the hour hand — just pull the crown out one position, and you can jump the hour hand back and forth. Even if you’re not traveling, it’s convenient at daylight savings, especially since this is a watch you’ll rarely need to correct the time on.

Now, let’s talk about the elephant in the room — the SBGN003 is powered by a quartz movement. I know that some enthusiasts are likely to write this watch off simply because it’s powered by a quartz movement rather than one of Grand Seiko’s automatic, hi-beat, or even Spring Drive movements. But really, you’re doing yourself a disservice to not at least learn a bit about this 9F86 quartz GMT movement and, if you have the chance, experience its precision in person. The lack of respect for quartz movements (in some circles) comes from a few places, but I’d argue that much of the problem stems from the ubiquity of quartz movements in low-priced watches. And sure, it’s cheap and easy to mass-produce quartz movements for throw-away watches, but even a brief glance at a 9F quartz movement (in this case, the 9F86 with date and GMT functionality) can tell you that it’s not your run-of-the-mill quartz. The decorative finishing and visible artisanship of the movement are dead giveaways that it’s time to revisit any pre-conceived notions you may have about quartz movements (at least, it was for me). Yes, the accuracy is outstanding: +/- 5 seconds a year is pretty mind-boggling — and most users report even better accuracy. But take a closer look at this hand-finished and hand-assembled movement, and it keeps getting better: instantaneous date change. (I mean seriously instantaneous, none of this “sometime around midnight” business.) But what really makes the difference when the watch is on your wrist is the precision of the seconds hand.

For most of us who love mechanical watches, the sweep of the seconds hand is mesmerizing, the nearly fluid movement a reminder of the anachronistic mechanism beneath. Strapping on an inexpensive quartz watch with its deadbeat seconds can be jarring, especially as the seconds hand tends seems to inevitably miss the minute marks and, with each tick, the seconds hand gives a slight jiggle. Sure, it’s perfectly functional, but it’s not something I find myself captivated by in the same way as a sweeping seconds hand. The 9F quartz is a whole different story. The seconds hand hits each minute mark, spot-on. Absolutely precise, right on the money. Better yet, the high torque of the 9F, similar to a mechanical movement, means there’s no play in the seconds hand. Each beat feels intentional and precise. In fact, the seconds hand makes a brief stop, faster than the eye can see, midway through its passage from one second to the next, eliminating the annoying seconds hand wobble associated with cheap quartz.

Yes, this is a quartz watch. Yes, you have to change the battery every few years. But it’s an incredible piece of engineering and craft, and spending time wearing any of Grand Seiko’s 9F quartz models is a good reminder of just why quartz forever changed the world of watchmaking. Quartz movements are extremely accurate and robust; there are no concerns about an errant knock on a doorframe or, God forbid, dropping the watch on a hard floor. Servicing costs are negligible (a few bucks for a battery every few years is hard to beat) and they’re always set to the correct time — it’s easy to forget just how nice that is, especially if you’re constantly switching between watches and resetting the time.

If you’re in the firmly anti-quartz camp, then you’re unlikely to be swayed by any of these arguments. However, even if you’re just a bit quartz-curious, the 9F quartz watches really are something special. Back when Seiko first introduced quartz in 1969, it changed the world of watchmaking forever. It’s no surprise that Grand Seiko has, arguably, taken the technology further than anyone else. As much as I love my mechanical watches, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the big Swiss houses had invested as heavily in quartz as Grand Seiko.

So, what have I learned after wearing the Grand Seiko SBGN003 as my daily watch for the past couple weeks? For one thing, it’s reaffirmed my appreciation of what Grand Seiko is doing over in the Iwate Prefecture. The brand has a distinct design sensibility and its finishing and attention to detail really are outstanding. More importantly, I love that the brand has kept pushing the envelope in making high-end quartz watches (not to mention developing Spring Drive) when the rest of the watch industry has largely abandoned that segment of the market. So, the big question is, will my first Grand Seiko purchase come in the form of a 9F quartz? We’ll have to see, but the SBGN003 is certainly high on my list at the moment. That said, I’d love to put the SBGN003 head-to-head with the newly released SBGM247, an automatic GMT with a color-shifting green dial and that same striking orange GMT hand. As lovely as that green dial is, it’s a tall order to top the goldilocks dimensions, gorgeous deep black dial, ridiculously high accuracy movement, and significantly lower price tag of the SBGN003 ($3,200 USD vs. $5,700 USD). Either way, the last two weeks have definitely given me a renewed appreciation of high-end quartz, and if you’ve been solely focused on mechanical watches, I’d strongly recommend taking the time to see what Grand Seiko’s 9F movement is all about. To learn more about Grand Seiko and the SBGN003, visit the brand’s website.

Necessary Information:
>Brand: Grand Seiko
>Model: SBGN003
>Price: $3,200 USD
>Size: 39mm-wide, 12.1mm-tall, 46mm lug-to-lug, 19mm lug width
>When reviewer would personally wear it: Excellent daily wear, especially when traveling.
>Friend we’d recommend it to first: A friend looking for a high-quality daily watch who doesn’t want the hassle of an automatic or manual wind. Especially well-suited to a frequent traveler and someone who appreciates fine things that fly a bit under the radar.
>Best characteristic of watch: Superb dimensions and Grand Seiko’s signature fit-and-finish. I love how the saturated orange pops against the inky black dial.
>Worst characteristic of watch: Lack of micro-adjust on the bracelet.

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