The Grand Seiko "First" that never was
Uncovering the existence of a prototype dial, six decades on
Almost exactly one year ago, Grand Seiko introduced the (deep breath) “Grand Seiko Masterpiece Collection Kintaro Hattori 160th Anniversary Limited Edition”, or, to call it by its reference number - as I will for the sake of brevity going forward here - SBGZ005.
With 2020 being the 60th anniversary of Grand Seiko, and 2021 both the 140th anniversary of the founding of Seiko and the 160th anniversary of the birth of the founder, there was no shortage of celebratory references released.
In my view though, there is no doubt that Grand Seiko saved the best for last, with this platinum cased “re-creation” of the very first Grand Seiko debuting the appearance of a Spring Drive movement in a “First”. And what a movement it is - the Credor Eichi II derived 9R02.
And that dial. Wow.
This not just any Grand Seiko “First” re-creation, this is Micro Artist Studio Grand Seiko “First” re-creation.
With the price coming in at an eye-watering 10.5 million Yen ($103,000 in the US) and the watch being issued in a limited edition of no fewer than 50 pieces arguably combining to make the value proposition of the watch challenging to say the least, perhaps it is not surprising to discover that there are still examples of SBGZ005 unsold, a year after its launch.
Due to it being released after the 2017 rebrand, SBGZ005 didn’t make it through my self-imposed limitation for my top 10 favourite modern era Grand Seikos, but were that restriction to be lifted, it would shoot to second place on the list with ease, and possibly - just possibly - challenge SBGW021 for top spot.
Naturally on the release of the watch, there was the usual buzz on the blogs and on social media, but one post on Instagram stood out above all others. Renowned co-founder of The Armoury and long-time Grand Seiko collector Mark Cho, shared on his Instagram feed one of the close-up photos of the dial from the press release, accompanied by a very intriguing comment…
“Funnily enough, when I did my article on the SBGZ001 earlier this year, I saw the inspiration for this dial. It was in the designer, Hoshino-san's archive, and we talked about it a little. It's the same idea with the rotated striped sections, hand engraved and it was meant for the final series of the 3180 Grand Seiko First but the production never happened. Pretty amazing to see the idea reborn 60 years later.”
Now, there are a few fascinating things to glean from that one short paragraph of text.
Firstly, not only is there the revelation that the watch’s designer, Kazunori Hoshino, used a decades-old dial as inspiration for the incredible finishing that is evident in the above photo, but Mark had actually seen it.
Secondly, there is a fascinating insight that is easily overlooked - “… it was meant for the final series of the 3180 Grand Seiko First”.
Those who are familiar with my writings on the TGSG website will be aware that I have studied the history of the first Grand Seiko in quite some depth, and three and a half years ago penned an article covering all the variants that I was aware of. Despite research stretching back over many years, this was the first time I had ever heard reference to a “final series” of the First.
Serendipitously, it was great to see this week a sponsored post on Hodinkee by Grand Seiko USA, “Making the case” for the First GS. In the article, Grand Seiko discuss the overall design of the reference, along with a mention of some of the variants that were created over the course of its production. There was however one very important (but very rare, so perhaps it’s not surprising it was overlooked) variant that was not mentioned in the article - the AD dialed watches that, from my research, seem to almost all date from August 1963 - the very last month of production of the first Grand Seiko.
Could it be that these AD dials were used for a “final series” of the first Grand Seiko, as mentioned by Mark, in lieu of the prototype dial that formed the inspiration for SBGZ005? Had the mystery of their existence, with that striking radial sunburst dial, finally been revealed?
I reached out to Mark to see if he could shed any more light on the subject, and was extremely excited when he shared with me - under strict “for your eyes only” conditions - a photograph he had taken of the near-60 year old prototype dial.
It was a remarkable sight, but sadly one that I could not share.
During my chat with Mark, I had a look around the various Grand Seiko websites to see if there was any mention of the inspirational dial. Surely a piece of history like this would be used to help create interest in the watch? But there was no mention of it - not on the USA site, not on the UK site, and not on the Global English site. Here’s the text you will find -
“The dial's intricate pattern is made possible by processing techniques that create a delicate dial surface with varying depths. As has been the tradition since the 1960's, a star mark located at six o'clock denotes that the indexes are of solid gold. The interplay of light and shadow on the dial that is an essential part of the signature of every Grand Seiko watch is accentuated by the application of seconds markers that enhance the legibility of the time. The indexes and the hour and minute hands are in 14K white gold and are specially cut to create a sharpness that amplifies the enduring beauty of the gold.”
And then I checked the Japanese site. And lo and behold, a DeepL (they are so much better than Google) translation later, resulted in this -
“The multi-layered dial, inspired by the radiating pattern that could not be achieved on the dial of the first generation Grand Seiko, was created by combining modern processing techniques and incorporating new techniques. The brand logo, SD mark (Special Dial mark: a mark on dials with solid gold indexes), and the seconds scale appear on the delicate radiating pattern, and the beauty and legibility of the dial is realized only by the three-dimensional shading.
In addition, the indexes and hour and minute hands are specially made of 14K white gold and have a sharp shape with the texture of solid gold formed by cutting.”
To the best of my knowledge, the Japanese Grand Seiko site is the only place this was ever published -
“Inspired by the radiating pattern that could not be achieved on the dial of the first generation Grand Seiko”
Now I could rightly be accused of jumping to conclusions here, but it would seem that in the vintage era Grand Seiko set out to create a final run of their first watch with a radially carved dial; created a prototype that was not feasible to put into production; and then decided instead to go with a traditionally sunburst finished one instead. The resulting watch being the extremely rare (I’ve not seen more than a dozen examples) AD dialed Grand Seiko First. And the prototype dial? Kept in an archive for decades, before being discovered by Hoshino-san and used as the inspiration for arguably the greatest Grand Seiko of the modern era.
And that’s how things were left a little under a year ago -
Grand Seiko had just released one of their most spectacular watches since the brand’s inception;
Mark Cho shared the fact he had actually seen a prototype dial from the 1960’s on which the design of the dial of SBGZ005 was based;
there was the revelation that there was intended to be a “final series” of Grand Seiko’s first watch;
the Japanese Grand Seiko website (and only the Japanese site) made mention of a “radiating pattern” that couldn’t be achieved in the vintage era;
and the prototype dial was not used in any marketing for a $103,000 watch of which 50 examples were being made.
And I couldn’t share what I knew to pull it all together!
Until last week, when somebody spotted something online.
And as is so often the case when it comes to “all things Seiko”, step forward, Anthony Kable.
Anthony is, and rightly so, a bit of a legend in the Seiko community, and to call his website, Plus9Time, a treasure trove of information for anyone interested Japanese watches would be the understatement of the decade. I’ve probably said that before somewhere, but it bears repeating.
A week ago, Anthony shared with me a discovery he had made on one of the Grand Seiko webpages.
The page is from a series telling the story of Spring Drive in 9 chapters - if you’ve not seen it before, it’s well worth a read. But for now, rather than keep you in suspense, let’s jump to chapter 7, which details how the spirit of the vintage era continues to inspire designers at Grand Seiko today.
In this chapter, aforementioned designer of SBGZ005, Kazunori Hoshino, discusses his personal design process, a key input into which is a deep understanding of how his predecessors created their own designs, insight he gleans from prototypes from the era.
And on clicking through to the second page of the chapter, we are treated to a glimpse into Hoshino-san’s prototype collection -
Sharing the photo, Anthony commented “Was looking around at some old GS pages and saw this image. Note the dial on the lower right.”
Even at the low resolution image shared in the chat, the dial was immediately recognizable. It was the very same dial that Hoshino-san had shown Mark Cho when he visited Japan, and that Mark had privately shared a photograph of with me. Incidentally, a write-up of that visit can be found in a superb article dating from May last year over on SJX.
Let’s zoom in on that photo Anthony discovered on the Grand Seiko website.
Once again, we’re dealing with really low resolution here, but that exact same dial design that we see on SBGZ005 can be seen here - radial lines to each hour marker, and then just the hint of those additional lines parallel to the each radial one, filling in the space between.
Here’s another look at the dial of the SBGZ005 again for comparison -
Since it transpired a photo of this historically important dial had in fact been shared publicly, if overlooked for a considerable period of time before Anthony spotted it, I reached out to Mark once more to see if he would now agree to share his remarkable photographic souvenir of his trip to Japan in 2020.
And I’m delighted to say, he agreed -
And so, a year after its original release, the full story behind the Grand Seiko Masterpiece Collection Kintaro Hattori 160th Anniversary Limited Edition can be finally shared.
For someone who has been researching vintage Grand Seiko for many years, this is one of the most exciting finds I have ever come across. The mystery of the existence of the AD dialed “Firsts” may finally have been solved, whilst at the same time, we can appreciate fully the inspiration for that remarkable dial on the SBGZ005.
Quite why Grand Seiko chose not to share this background in more detail themselves when launching SBGZ005 back in November 2020 is to me the one mystery that remains.
One can only wonder at just how much more history there is still to be revealed in those trays so respectfully looked after by Hoshino-san, and hope that perhaps the recently published article on Hodinkee is a sign that, going forward, we will see more in-depth articles from Grand Seiko on the historical references.
And maybe, just maybe, this article revealing in some more detail the deep historical significance behind the creation of SBGZ005 might help convince one or two people out there who have been hesitating purchasing an example for themselves to take the plunge.
In closing, I am deeply grateful to Mark for sharing the story of his visit to Grand Seiko, and allowing me to use his photo of the prototype dial for this article; and also to Anthony, not only for his discovery of that very same dial being hidden away in a long-standing article on Grand Seiko’s website, but for allowing me to be the one to share this story with you all.
Photo credits -
Grand Seiko publicity material, used under license.
Prototype dial, copyright Mark Cho, used with permission.
Grand Seiko “First” AD dial, copyright Gerald Donovan.
A joy to read :-)