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Hands-On The Grand Seiko Spring Drive 20th Anniversary Limited Edition Chronograph GMT In High Intensity Titanium

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Grand Seiko is celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Spring Drive in style, with a new Grand Seiko Sport design that features a faceted, highly polished case that's a radical departure from Grand Seiko's past design language. The new cases, whose angular case, sharp lugs, and dial pattern are all said to be inspired by the claws and mane of the Grand Seiko mascot, have a visual and tactile presence that's probably going to be pretty challenging for at least some of Grand Seiko's very engaged fans to accept. Whether or not the new design finds rapid acceptance, or instead will take a little getting used to, remains to be seen, but in terms of quality of execution, fit, and finish, they're very much what we've come to expect from Grand Seiko even if the case isn't.

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The Grand Seiko 20th Anniversary Spring Drive Chronograph GMT features a High Intensity Titanium case, with crisp, Zaratsu-polished facets.

The new cases are found in three variations – there's a time and date model in Grand Seiko's High Intensity Titanium (a hardened titanium alloy with all the corrosion resistance, lightness, and hypoallergenic properties of conventional titanium, but with much better scratch resistance) as well as gold and High Intensity Titanium chronograph GMT models. All are Spring Drive watches. Grand Seiko Spring Drive chronographs are an interesting breed – the movements are on the large side, and a typical size for Spring Drive chronos is 43.5mm x 16.1mm, or a bit smaller than an Omega Planet Ocean Chronograph. 

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Size notwithstanding, this is a Grand Seiko through and through. It feels a bit more intentionally a sports chronograph than existing Spring Drive chronograph models, which among other things have generally not featured lume on the dials and hands (the exception being SBGC221) and have felt more like general-purpose luxury-sport watches than sports watches per se. Lume doth not a sports watch make alone, but comparatively speaking the 20th Anniversary chrono stands out from earlier offerings on this feature. The sapphire bezel is, I believe, also new for Spring Drive chronographs (I could be wrong but I don't recall seeing these on SD chronos before this release, though there have been ceramic bezel models with the GMT complication).

It also stands out for the difference in case design. The 20th Anniversary cases are almost aggressively assertive – well, that's a lion for you. After the initial shock you do start to notice just how nicely done they are, in terms of the overall quality. It's an unexpected kind of beauty from Grand Seiko, but it grows on you and from a technical perspective, it's also rather more difficult to do with titanium than steel, as titanium tends to stick to the cutting edges of machine tools (the phenomenon's called galling) preventing accurate machining. 

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The existing Spring Drive Chronograph GMT collection are priced between $8,200 and $14,800 and use the caliber 9R86; this is a column wheel controlled, vertical clutch Spring Drive movement rated to an accuracy of ±1 second per day. 9R86 also has a two-state start-stop pusher; a light push puts you in ready mode, and a deeper push starts the chronograph running. The center chronograph seconds hand runs with the same continuous smoothness as the running seconds hand in the sub-dial at nine o'clock; since it moves continuously rather than moving in discrete jumps (like a conventional chronograph) you have, theoretically, much finer resolution. The pusher tips are concave, with concentric knurling, for a more sure grip. The 20th Anniversary model uses the caliber 9R96, which is identical in most respects, but with a better accuracy spec of ±0.5 seconds per day.

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The rotor of caliber 9R96 features a gold Grand Seiko Lion medallion.

Interestingly enough, from the back you can't readily tell the 20th Anniversary model from existing Grand Seiko Spring Drive chronographs. The caseback (as Stephen Pulvirent mentioned in his Introducing post with the time-and-date model, which is also adjusted to ±0.5 seconds per day) has a very organic curve that tapers downward to meet the wrist, making it feel like a significantly smaller watch on the wrist, without taking away from the visual impact. In steel, this strategy would still make for a more comfortable wrist-feel for a somewhat large watch but the use of a heavier metal would run the risk of making the watch seem a bit more top-heavy; in titanium, this is much less of an issue.

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Just as an aside, this is one area where I'd love to see a hand-wound Spring Drive chrono from Grand Seiko. This is the 20th Anniversary of Spring Drive but it's also another anniversary – in 1969, Seiko released its caliber 6139, which was along with the Zenith El Primero, and the Caliber 11, one of the first selfwinding chronographs ever made. A fitting tribute would be a flatter hand-wound Spring Drive chrono which I think Grand Seiko fans who find the current offering of Spring Drive chronos a bit large, would greet with considerable enthusiasm. But if you're looking for a more extroverted take on the Spring Drive Chronograph GMT with a very idiosyncratically Grand Seiko feel, this 20th Anniversary model is a sharp interpretation in every sense of the word. And, as a limited edition, it doesn't carry a pricing premium in comparison with existing Spring Drive GMT models, which is always welcome.

This reference, SBG231, is a limited edition of 500 pieces worldwide; price at launch, $12,900. 

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