From Japan’s dramatic landscape to the dial of a watch, there’s nothing quite like the finishing of a Grand Seiko dial. Try a little experiment. Next time you’re chatting about watches to mates – provided they’re on board and not bored to death by calibre talk by now – or go to some Red Bar-adjacent collectors’ event and bring up Grand Seiko. What do you think the first thing they’ll start excitedly buzzing about will be?
It could be their movements. The Spring Drive is one of the finest calibres in the world, and the Hi-Beat 36,000 is about as accurate as a non-haute horology automatic movement can get. Or it could be the Japanese brand’s signature Zaratsu polishing, precise to the point of obsession. But let’s be honest, it’s not going to be either of those. It’s going to be Grand Seiko’s dials.
Where Seiko proper and particularly Prospex take their fan-given names from their case shapes – be that the double case of the Tuna, the broad curves of the Turtle or the razor-sharp edges of the Samurai – Grand Seiko takes theirs from those dials.
The Snowflake might be the most famous of the lot – it was the first Seiko dial of its type back in 1971 – with its look like newly fallen snow, but everything from the Omiwatari (god’s footsteps in Japanese), their seasonally inspired capsule collection or the various flavours of Birch are all defined by the specific texture on their dials. The one thing each dial has in common however is where they’re drawn from: nature.
Japan’s landscape is breath-taking. I mean it. Dramatic mountains with remote snowscapes, lush valleys woven with rivers and lakes, it could give New Zealand a run for its money when it comes to natural beauty. It’s a landscape that also changes drastically from season to season, be that as short-lived a timeframe as the falling of Sakura blossom or the howling winds and ice of winter.
Yet while most counties have the occasional bucolic scene of note, there’s a reason we don’t, for example, have a watch dedicated to the slate scabble of the Peak District, and that’s how the land is treated in Japan.
I’m not going to delve into the particularities of Shintō or the historical nuance behind Japan’s relationship with nature – you can read about that from much more informed sources than a watch magazine. I’m also not going to wax philosophical about Grand Seiko’s own ‘Nature of Time’ concept. Suffice to say that the Japanese treat nature with reverence, to the point where pure water sources are protected, forests conserved and the varied landscapes of the country an integral part of the social consciousness. It’s therefore not too big a surprise that Grand Seiko invariably turn to nature for their dials.
Specifically, most of their inspiration comes from just outside their own front door in Shizukuishi. They reflect every aspect of their locale on the watches, whether that’s the gorgeous Lake Suwa, the local birch forests or the active volcano of Mt. Iwate. Yet it’s more than just because it’s there that Shizukuishi’s natural charms are so inspiring; it’s because sometimes they’re not.
As Junichi Kamata, Grand Seiko’s Design Director, puts it, “when in doubt I seek an answer in natural forms. Just the other day, looking at a campfire, I was fascinated by the organic forms that will never appear again. A famous passage from Hojoki written by Kamo no Chomei in 13th century Japan is always in the corner of my mind: the flowing river is ceaseless, and its water is never the same.”
“The dial base has a very deep expression from the combination of the four main elements,” explains Kamata, referencing the quartet of stamping, base plating, undercoating and wrap coating. To get just what he means, let’s take the Birch pattern as an example. Since launching last year‘s become Grand Seiko’s most popular watch, so where better to start?
The mould for the original design concept – that of the delicate bark of the birch tree – took six months to complete, using both CAD machines and by-hand watchmaking for the balance of razor-sharp accuracy and fine details. This is then used to stamp – via seven, low-impact pressings – a brass dial blank which gives you the pattern, but not the finish, of the Birch. Pattern pressed, the dial’s then cut down to size and holes punched for the indexes and date window, with any excess metal being shaved away. That’s all just the first step; then the finishing can begin.
First, the metal is brushed to create vertical strokes to add texture and catch the light. That’s not easy to do while keeping the integrity of the stamped pattern, as Grand Seiko dial engineer Hikaru Matsumoto explains: “we have to be careful not to overdo the brushing, as this could make the surface appear too bright. But at the same time, we need a certain level of shine to make the stamped pattern really stand out.” To achieve that balance, Grand Seiko managed to find a watch of brushing without the usual abrasive, using a much smaller brush than normal. Because brushing it before stamping would have been far too easy (or more accurately, not have had the same quality of finish).
Pattern and brushing firmly entrenched, the dial is then silver plated and given an undercoat, clear in the case of the White Birch, otherwise the same colour as the finished dial. Even that’s easier said than done, given the plating underneath can affect the undercoat, in turn affecting the finished colour. Finally, the dial is wrap coated, where additional layers of paint are added and polished down repeatedly to get the finished result. In the case of the Birch, which has a particularly deep texture, that means 14 – 15 layers.
At this point, the dial as we know it is finished. Sure, there’s plenty more to do – the printing of the logo, lettering and minute track, the addition of the polished indexes and date window – but the essence of what makes a Grand Seiko dial is there. That’s if it passes inspection anyway: says Kamata, “we use a magnifying glass to check the details from an insect’s point of view.”
While certain little touches may change slightly from dial to dial (you can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to something like this) the overall process is the same from one beautifully textured dial to the next – that next being the new Snowscape SLGH013.
Here the dial texture is inspired by Mt. Iwate, the active volcano that’s integral to the Shizukuishi landscape. Rather than the dusting of fresh snow that was the Snowflake, the Snowscape is the heart of a blizzard at the top of the mountain. It’s icier, harsher with the texture in different directions like it’s being whipped in a strong wind. It’s intense – and it’s gorgeous.
With Grand Seiko’s polished, faceted indexes and a 40mm case in Ever Bright Steel (there’s a whole other article in the watchmaker’s proprietary alloys), the only colour contrast is a blued steel second hand.
Behind that dial is the 9SA5 hi-beat movement, the same as in the White Birch – high in this case meaning a frequency of 36,000 beats per hour. If more beats per hour means a more accurate movement – and it does – then this is one hell of an accurate movement. It also has an 80-hour power reserve, just to top things off.
As ever though, while the ‘Snowscape’ Hi-Beat 44GS has a lot going for it in the proprietary case material and the superb movement, like any Grand Seiko outside of the Evolution 9 collection – an entirely different range of watches – it’s the dial that defines the new release. But it’s not alone; most appreciation of Grand Seiko is dial deep, your watch of choice largely depending on whether you prefer tree bark to blossom or mountain ice to ripples in a lake. For once though, with the effort lavished on every dial from blank to watch, it feels like that’s just the way it should be.
More details at Grand Seiko.