My evolution from regular watch agnosticism to an okay-calm-down-buddy level of enthusiasm was triggered by a few key events. One of those moments, I can clearly remember, was my initial encounter with Grand Seiko’s proprietary Spring Drive movement technology. I mean, how can you not be fascinated by Spring Drive?
I first handled a friend’s “Snowflake” SBGA211 in the mid-2010s and Spring Drive has boggled my mind and strained the relationship between my wrist and my wallet ever since. The smooth-as-butter sweep of the seconds hand around the dial captivated me immediately. Spring Drive exists in a bizarre liminal space between traditional mechanical watchmaking and forward-thinking technology governed by electromagnetism and something called a Tri-synchro regulator.
Spring Drive has charmed and perplexed traditional-minded watch enthusiasts for over two decades. Its idiosyncratic approach exists as its own entity – one that has gradually become more well-known over the past decade, once Grand Seiko bailed on its strictly domestic purview and officially launched internationally in 2010.
As interest and awareness in Spring Drive grew, naturally so did the potshots people would throw at it over the internet. Pedants would describe the dial’s signature power-reserve indicator as a “wart.” (It’s never bothered me very much.) Or, more understandably, lament that all readily available Spring Drive watches were too thick for their dress-leaning aesthetic.
I’ll admit that although my interest has long been piqued by Spring Drive – particularly by the Spring Drive Diver SBGA229 – I had yet to back up my curiosity with cold hard cash, always telling myself that my next big purchase would be a Spring Drive-powered Grand Seiko.
Well, over the past three years, it’s become even more difficult to maintain my fiscal fortitude due to a relatively straightforward-seeming evolution for the Spring Drive family: The 2019 introduction of the manual-wind Spring Drive caliber 9R02 and 9R31, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of the first Spring Drive-powered watch. These new movements, I’ve since realized, are the updates Spring Drive needed in order to eventually attract a whole different level of detail-oriented watch collector.
With the recent announcement and release of the stainless steel Spring Drive SBGY009, outfitted with the caliber 9R31, I figured it was the perfect time to revisit exactly what it is that makes the hand-cranking Spring Drive movements such a game changer.
The first time I handled a manual-wind Spring Drive movement was in 2019 at Baselworld (RIP). Grand Seiko debuted two new Spring Drive movements at the show – the more luxe, highly decorated caliber 9R02, and the more subtle and affordable caliber 9R31 – both were manually wound and utilized a similar architecture with a few small but key differences, which you can read more about right here.
These two movements found their way into a total of four watches at launch, in 2019. The caliber 9R02 appeared in the show-stopping SBGZ001, which featured a hand-hammered platinum case and an eye-popping price tag of over $70,000, and in the non-hammered platinum-cased SBGZ003 (which was listed for only $57k!). The caliber 9R31 was placed inside the less-elaborate-yet-still-precious SBGY002 in 18k yellow gold (for $25k). And then there was the master stroke of the lot: the stainless steel SBGY003, priced at $7,600, pocket change compared to the rest of the day’s releases.
I remember handling the SBGY003 that day in Switzerland and hearing the call of destiny. The dial’s power-reserve protuberance had been wiped away by some dermatologically inclined Japanese watchmaker and was now placed on the movement’s back side. The Spring Drive movement was visible through a sapphire exhibition caseback and, being manual, there was no pesky rotor to block my loupe from exploring the hybrid architecture. The SBGY003 also utilized a smaller case format than I was used to for a Spring Drive-equipped watch, measuring a slim 38.5mm × 10.2mm.
But what captivated me that day – and still sticks with me now – was the tangible experience of winding the caliber 9R31. The simple transitive effect of rotating the crown with my fingers and witnessing the central seconds hand immediately spring to life, in all its smoothness, was downright intoxicating, not unlike my first experience sampling a top-of-the-line Japanese whiskey (howdy, Hibiki) after years of undergraduate boozing. (But, seriously, thanks for the memories, Old Crow.)
The seamlessness of it all was just such an immediate contrast from the sometimes spastic staccato tick you see with so many conventional mechanical watches. It honestly made it difficult to put my personal watch back on that day.
The Playing Field
The original Spring Drive SBGY003 was a fairly limited release of 700 units worldwide, and its precious metal siblings were naturally even more exclusive. My understanding is that they were all gone in a flash; I never stood a chance. Although they occasionally pop up on the for-sale section of online forums and at various second-hand retailers, the market value is now more-or-less set in the low five figures, a few thousand dollars over the initial retail price. But Grand Seiko’s steady calendar of releases has resulted in a slow, consistent trickle of new watches – almost all of them limited releases of some quantity – powered by the caliber 9R31.
As far as I can tell, there have been a total of six Grand Seiko watches powered by Spring Driver caliber 9R31, including the SBGY002 and SBGY003 from 2019, and a total of four Grand Seiko watches powered by Spring Drive caliber 9R02 (SBGZ001, SBGZ003, SBGZ005, and SBGZ007). We’re going to focus on the caliber 9R31-equipped watches.
There’s the SBGY005, which was quietly released in November 2020. It was a highly limited run of 22 stainless-steel watches, made exclusively for clients of the domestic Japanese retailer Takashimaya Osaka. My colleagues at HODINKEE Japan covered the watch when it was first announced, but needless to say, it was so limited that it never made any waves stateside.
Arguably the most impactful release to use the caliber 9R31 to date came the following summer, in June 2021, when the stainless steel SBGY007, now known as the “Omiwatari” and easily identifiable by its lightly textured ice-blue dial, was announced. It was the first manual-wind Spring Drive watch of this generation to not be limited to a particular number; instead – it seems – only by production. I asked Myles Kusaba, a buyer in the HODINKEE Shop about the SBGY007, and he indicated we hasn’t been able to keep the watch in stock: It sells out as soon as a restock shipment arrives, every time. A little later that same year, in the fall of 2021, the 18k rose-gold SBGY008 was added to the Grand Seiko catalog in a limited run of 60 pieces.
Watches with the caliber 9R02 are out-of-this-world expensive, and even certain 9R31-powered releases such as the SBGY002, SBGY005, and SBGY008 have all been either too exclusive or too expensive at release for me to even consider a purchase. I also think it’s fair to say we all missed the boat on the original SBGY003 when it was first released three years ago. And the SBGY007 “Omiwatari”? It seems to sell out so quickly that it’s back-ordered pretty much every place you look.
So what’s there to do if you want a stainless steel Grand Seiko with a manual-wind Spring Drive movement? Well, surprise, surprise, Grand Seiko just so happens to be celebrating an anniversary this year.
The Full Moon Beckons
The new Spring Drive SBGY009 was announced late last month to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the 1967 release of the original Grand Seiko 44GS wristwatch. The 44GS case design was developed by a young Japanese designer named Taro Tanaka, who used its complex geometry full of uniform, flat surfaces, and sharp lines to inaugurate a new visual identity for his employer, an aesthetic that’s now known as the “Grand Seiko Style.”
The SBGY009 carries the 44GS legacy forward through the distinctive contour of its case with Zaratsu-polished flanks. The case reference is only adjusted through the use of a slightly slimmer profile than typical for a 44GS; the SBGY009 has dimensions of 40mm × 10.5mm. Those measurements are only possible, of course, because of the use of the thinner Spring Drive caliber 9R31 inside. The case also uses a proprietary stainless steel alloy by Seiko that they’ve termed Ever-Brilliant, a reference to its qualities that are said to ensure it’s both harder and brighter in color than conventional 316L.
Grand Seiko, ever the romantic, lists the once-a-month astronomical phenomenon of tsuki tenshin as the direct inspiration for the SBGY009’s midnight blue dial with a stamped sunray pattern. Tsuki tenshin, according to Grand Seiko, refers to the select few moments when a full moon is at its absolute peak in the night sky, a short degree of time that must be particularly inspiring for those looking out the window of Grand Seiko’s Shinshu Watch Studio, which overlooks the Shinshu mountains in the Nagano Prefecture.
It’s also worth mentioning that the SBGY009 is in fact a limited release, but it thankfully does have a much larger production run of 1,500 total pieces compared to the 700 examples of the SBGY003 that were produced three years ago. That said, the SBGY003 and SBGY009 are actually fairly similar in their overall style.
The 44GS-infused case design of the new SBGY009 is a departure from the SBGY003, but the two do share a nearly identical stacked sunray dial pattern, outside of the dial color, and are both outfitted with the exact same caliber 9R31 inside. The new-for-2022 SBGY009 does appear to have been hit with a hint of inflation, landing at a final price tag of $8,100, a $500 increase from the $7,600 MSRP of 2019’s SBGY003. However, the SBGY009’s sticker does compare favorably to the current $8,300 list price of the SBGY007 Omiwatari.
So, will I flash the cash to end up with my own SBGY009? I’m still undecided.
I find the dark blue dial to be really quite lovely, and my therapist would be excited to hear that I was finally able to make a commitment of some sort. But it’s hard to move on from your first love, and handling the SBGY003 at Baselworld 2019 was that level of an experience for me.
While I hem and haw, I’m sure the SBGY009 will end up giving 1,500 people around the world a level of thrill that’s similar to my experience with the SBGY003 three short years ago.
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