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Feature: Rolex Submariner vs Grand Seiko SBGA229

So, you want a Rolex Submariner. You’ve got your £6,550, and you’re out the door on the way to the shop—but when you get there, you’re told there’s a waiting list. Yet out of the corner of your eye, you see something else, the Grand Seiko Sport SBGA229. Here’s the dilemma: do you stick, and wait for the Submariner, or twist and buy the Grand Seiko instead?

For two brands that should be so chalk and cheese together, the similarities between them are startling. Founded within a quarter-century of each other—a blink of the eye from the perspective of the oldies like Vacheron Constantin and Blancpain—these two young pups were faced with the same problem, but from different sides of the world: how to crack Swiss watchmaking.

Shrouded in tradition, the unbreakable mould of old brands doing things the old way seemed impenetrable to anyone on the outside looking in—but that’s where Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf and Seiko founder Kintaro Hattori shared the same vision: they both believed they could so something better, something new, something ground-breaking. And they did.

Wilsdorf pursued reliability, pioneering a new age of usable watches for professionals that could be relied upon in the harshest conditions; and Hattori’s goal was quality, making watches to a level of precision that was unmatched, demonstrating accuracy that was class-leading. Both founders set the wheels in motion from their respective corners of the globe, Wilsdorf in London, and Hattori in Tokyo.

And both companies went on to achieve their goals, demonstrating to an old industry that things were never going to be the same again. After centuries of calm, this advancement triggered an arms race of technology, culminating in the Beta 21 quartz movement, a warning shot from the Swiss that spelt the beginning of the end of the Swiss watch industry.

That was then; now, the stories are rather different. In a twist of fate, Rolex has itself become the Swiss watch industry, and Grand Seiko, once fighting alongside Rolex, is now pitched squarely against it. What’s as it has always been, however, is Grand Seiko’s mantra: to make the highest quality watches that don’t just take on the very best in the world, but beat them.

And with the SBGA229, Grand Seiko has gone straight for the kill, pitching it squarely against perhaps the most famous and popular watch, not just from Rolex, but in the world: the Submariner. There’s a point in history when Rolex evolved from just a watchmaker to a brand, and the release of the 1953 Submariner could well be it. An icon of Swiss watchmaking, often copied and never bettered, taking it on in a head-to-head battle is not for the faint-hearted.

Thankfully, Grand Seiko is made of sterner stuff. You don’t take on an entire nation without a rock-solid constitution, and the Japanese brand wasn’t afraid to do it again. The SBGA229 is an unapologetic swipe for the crown, built not just to sit side-by-side with the eminent Submariner, but to beat it completely. Has Grand Seiko achieved its goal?

Before we even begin, the Grand Seiko is off to a promising start. At £800 cheaper, the SBGA229 presents a sizeable saving over its Swiss prey—just as long as you don’t take resale into consideration. Where the Rolex Submariner will be sitting pretty as soon as you purchase it, holding value and even possibly gaining, the Grand Seiko enjoys no such luxury. If you’re keeping it, or buying pre-owned, however, it’s another story, but that hasn’t stopped the cracks from already starting to show.

And things get worse for the Grand Seiko as the details are ventured into. Rolex’s Submariner, despite a millimetre-and-a-half less thickness, guarantees an extra hundred metres of water resistance over the Grand Seiko’s two hundred. The SBGA229 is bigger in diameter, too, over 44mm to the Submariner’s forty.

Even the clasp, something that Rolex has worked very hard to improve for the current generation of watches, loses out on the Grand Seiko. It is well-made and features an easy-to-use extension system, but side-by-side with the Rolex’s and it feels, frankly, more Seiko than Grand Seiko.

Is there anything left to salvage the SBGA229’s reputation at this point? It seems not. But remember what I said earlier: where Rolex’s goal was once practicality, Grand Seiko’s was quality, and that’s still the case today. Take a closer look and let the details tell the story.

On the crown you’ll see a bead-blasted finish layered with a polished logo; not so on the Rolex. The teeth surrounding the bezel, the Grand Seiko is brushed on the edges and polished in the scallops between, where the Rolex still bears marks from machining. And it goes on: the Grand Seiko’s case is finely and accurately bevelled, the bracelet, too; its markers are set with luminous paint ringed with white borders; the second hand is even sharpened to a point for sheer accuracy.

And speaking of accuracy, that’s the SBGA229’s trump card. If you think the Rolex calibre 3135’s two seconds per day accuracy is impressive, the hybrid quartz-mechanical Spring Drive calibre 9R65 brings that down to just one. By utilising the natural frequency of a quartz crystal through a current generated mechanically, the calibre 9R65 can retain an accuracy of just fifteen seconds every month. The glide wheel, spinning eight times per second, is electromagnetically controlled to maintain this incredible accuracy—and there’s not a battery in sight.

At first glance, these two watches both follow the template set by Rolex back in 1953, but venture closer and you’ll see a different story, one of precision, excellence and mastery. The SBGA229 isn’t just a reiteration of that same template established by the Submariner; like Grand Seiko has done this century and the last, it moves the game on, resets expectations. But does it do enough?

Time to decide. Wait for the Submariner or buy the Grand Seiko? The SBGA229 simply can’t stack up on paper, but what it does offer are the intangible delights that come from an ownership experience counted in decades, not years. The Rolex is the default choice, and for good reason—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a different kind of pleasure waiting to be had.

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