In the world of undervalued watches two brands come immediately to mind: Grand Seiko and Jaeger-LeCoultre. Both deliver impeccable value, and yet both never seem to get the same level of attention as the Rolexes, Omegas, and IWCs of the world. Today, we dive into why that perspective really needs to change.
As the Japanese outsider in a world of Swiss watchmakers, Grand Seiko has always needed to distinguish itself by going above and beyond. Rather than playing the same game as the others, Grand Seiko has gone the opposite direction exploring methods and approaches never attempted before. As you will see in this article, the Skyflake has a variety of these attributes.
It’s telling that Jaeger-LeCoultre is referred to as “the watch maker’s watchmaker”. It seems that the brand’s entire reputation is hung upon the reputation of others. While the moniker is certainly a compliment for JLC, the brand has such an unbelievably incredible history and list of achievements that the company should stand on its own alongside the greatest. This has instilled in JLC a mission to communicate this rich history and prove its value as a high-end watchmaker.
Grand Seiko was born in 1960 as an outgrowth of the Seiko brand. This new segment of the manufacture was founded specifically to push the capabilities of accuracy and beauty within a much higher end market segment. Ultimately, Grand Seiko’s association with Seiko has been yet another hurdle the company has contended with.
With the years, the brand introduced new models each year, in a sequence of ever more accurate and well-finished timepieces. Grand Seiko also introduced a variety of movements that had never been presented before — more on this later. The “Skyflake”, reference SBGA407, was introduced after the wild success of one of the brand’s most popular models, the “Snowflake”.
If Grand Seiko is a newcomer to the industry, Jaeger-LeCoultre is the opposite. The company’s story truly begins with founder Antoine LeCoultre opening his first shop in 1833. Since then, JLC has played many roles, from watchmaker to supplier of parts to some of the biggest names in the industry.
The Reverso, the brand’s icon, was introduced in the 1930’s as a solution for polo players who needed to protect the crystal of their watches. The rotating chassis of the Reverso allowed the crystal to be protected while playing sports. Since then, the watch has become one of the most respected dress watches in the industry. This particular variant, the Grande Reverso “Tribute to 1931” London Flagship Limited Edition was introduced in 2015 to pay special attention to the ingredients of the original 1931 Reverso that helped make the piece so successful in the first place.
The design of the Grand Seiko SBGA407 “Skyflake” revolves around its showstopper dial. Where many brands stick to conventional flat solids, Grand Seiko has always been a step ahead on dial finishing. The brand uses dials as accents to express key facets of Japanese culture, nature and society. In the case of the Skkyflake, the dial was designed to honor the snowy landscape that surrounds the Shinsu Watch Studio where the timepieces are manufactured. Unlike the Snowflake (the progenitor to the Skyflake), the Skyflake has an ice blue hue to its dial. To contrast with the beautifully subtle texture of the dial, Grand Seiko has polished each index to a brilliant shine. When looking at Grand Seiko watches with textured dials, the indexes and case facets pop in a way that simply does not occur with other watches. The case, for its part, has the signature Zaratsu polishing that has made Grand Seiko so famous.
Looking at details like the dial, case texture, and finish help showcase some of the ways the brand has pushed to distinguish itself in a competitive market space. Both of these details are relatively unique to the brand, yet Grand Seiko watches remain relatively affordable. Finding a comp for this dial in this price category is all but impossible.
While the JLC Reverso doesn’t have a Skyflake dial, it has its own element of unique design, which is of course, the Reverso case architecture. We have covered the historical premise of the watch, but the actual flipping mechanism is a brilliant conversation starter. This piece was unveiled at the opening of the Old Bond Street boutique of Jaeger-LeCoultre in London. Thus, the caseback of this special edition Reverso is engraved with Big Ben and Westminster Palace. For English collectors, there’s no doubt this is quite cool.
It should also be noted that alongside the Big Ben and Westminster Palace engravings, Reverso watches are some of the best engravable timepieces. The casebacks are begging for wedding, graduation, or other occasions’ dates to get inscribed on them to add a personal element to the watch. The case of the Reverso is decorated with a series of grooves originating in the Art Deco roots of the timepiece in the 30s. This piece comes with a gorgeous deep-green lacquer dial, which is an interesting color to add to a watch collection, and one that is certainly less common than the cliche choices.
Once we enter movement land, we hit yet another one of the places Grand Seiko shines. The Spring Drive is simultaneously one of the most innovative, and least recognized developments in the watch world. Combining a traditional winding system with a quartz regulator, the Spring Drive brilliantly pairs a mechanical timepiece with the accuracy of quartz. Once more, we are confronted with another way Grand Seiko has pushed to distinguish itself from its Swiss competition, developing a movement that is more accurate than the competition without resorting to a battery. When we think of an underdog more than pulling its weight to prove its worth, this is what comes to mind.
Jaeger-LeCoultre has certainly taken a more conventional approach to movements on the Reverso. The slim caliber 822 housed within the Reverso case has one primary goal — maintain the svelte profile of the Reverso. Once you add the flipping mechanism and supplementary case back, it’s easy for the watch to get quite thick quite fast. Thus, an ultra-thin manual-winding caliber was needed. This is certainly what the caliber 822 provides. The movement is quite attractive, it’s almost a shame that this piece has a solid caseback.
There’s no doubt that the Spring Drive is a more exciting movement, but it should be noted that many enthusiasts consider the disruptive innovation to be rebellious. There are collectors that would never buy a Spring Drive watch. Do your research and decide for yourself. Nonetheless, the Spring Drive was a brilliant engineering solution. If it isn’t for you, the JLC caliber 822 is tried and true.
Now for the meat and potatoes. In terms of dial and movement, the Grand Seiko wins. The Skyflake has a dial with a story and a movement that has emerged from a quest for the most accurate timekeeping methodology possible. These innovations have helped Grand Seiko prove to the world that it is every bit a major industry player as any Swiss counterpart. We have seen the popularity of the brand growing exponentially as more and more collectors come to appreciate the fine finishing, engineering, and aesthetics of Grand Seiko timepieces.
That said, there’s always the flip side of the coin. The JLC is not trying to compete in those areas. The goal of the Reverso, and specifically this limited edition of just 26 pieces, is to honor history and tradition. A modernist movement and dial would not suit this piece well at all. The goal for JLC was to emphasize their heritage and the story of their icon, to reiterate to the world that JLC is more than just the watchmaker’s watchmaker, they are Jaeger-LeCoultre.
Ultimately, you have to decide who you are as a collector. Are you more concerned with innovative approaches to engineering and striking dials that are unparalleled in beauty, or are you collecting for nostalgia and a love of history? This is where the choice lies. It’s a choice between two different approaches to watchmaking and running a high horology house.
Both Grand Seiko and Jaeger-LeCoultre deserve more attention. These brands tragically fall under the radar often. With this incognito presence comes a great value and a less flashy alternative to the obvious choices. A collector that picks one of these watches makes a statement about the type of collector they are. By buying a Grand Seiko, for example, you are communicating that you are a patron of a forward-looking watch collecting quest. Conversely, as an owner of a “Tribute to 1931” Reverso, you project a love for the culture of watchmaking and its origins from centuries ago. The question remains, who are you?