Rolex vs Grand Seiko
Part one: early comparison between two apparently similar brands, pretty different from each-other in terms of history, tradition, and target instead.
Since Grand Seiko has officially hit the Italian stores, a couple of years ago, people started to compare Rolex and Grand Seiko and discuss who's the best among the two. Such comparisons are ordinary elsewhere, in the United States, for example, where Seiko's top-end brand has been on sale for quite some time now, and the whole Seiko group's sales volumes are relevant.
As far as Italy concerns, there is yet a relevant factor to be added to the equation in comparison to anywhere else, and is the following: Italians hardly abandon a well-established luxury brand like Rolex, that is widely recognized as the luxury watch par excellence and, also, represents a great form of investment whereas, overseas, buyers are usually more inclined to evaluate more options, and consider a product's features alongside fair value for money, a powerful trigger. I no longer count how often did I hear this sentence, in Italy: "...what if I would someday sell my luxury watch? Also, which the resale value, in case?"
Rolex or Grand Seiko: who's the best?
The aim of this introductory article in a series of in-depth reviews, is not to promote this brand or the other, but to highlight how these two brands that appear to be somehow similar are so different from each other instead. Yours is the final choice; what we're trying to point out here are pros and cons of both. These brands are in many respects, and in my opinion, complementary and that's something you can quickly get once you compare a Datejust 41 to a Grand Seiko Hi-Beat or a Rolex Sea-Dweller to a Grand Seiko Diver Hi-Beat, even though their style is comparable.
Truth is they compete in the same luxury segment, yet this is not enough to make them perform in the same way: a Mercedes-Benz and a Lexus both belong to premium luxury, but they try and earn the leadership through somewhat different value propositions.
Brand awareness is where Rolex rules. Craftmanship is where Grand Seiko dominates instead.
The enjoyment that comes with wearing a Rolex is way beyond just wearing a luxury watch; it has to do with declaring your social status or celebrating a professional achievement. Who's buying a Rolex includes in his/her choice this plus that a few brands can guarantee, among which I'd undoubtedly mention a Patek Nautilus and an AP Royal Oak Jumbo.
Its awareness is so strong that purchasing a Rolex goes well beyond just buying a watch, and has to do more with "living an experience", where the timepiece is a piece of a puzzle that includes thoroughly-thought-through ad campaigns, partnerships to support challenging scientific endeavors and innovations that represent milestones in the history of watchmaking. As the brand claims: "Every Rolex tells a story."
Whoever buys a Rolex enters a club, especially if he or she has purchased a Pepsi, a Batman or a Daytona. From this point of view, Grand Seiko has a fundamentally opposite approach, at first glance. It seems all about confidentially appreciating the highest level of craftsmanship imaginable. As long as I remember, Grand Seiko never hired ambassadors of whatsoever, and also has no links to any project, expedition or event at all, unlike its parent company Seiko, for instance.
I feel the brand's primary effort is to make the perfect product, to such an extent that a specification sheet is a privileged strategy to market their watches. The long-standing co-branding between Seiko and Grand Seiko is over, with the latter finally transforming itself into a fully independent brand. Perhaps, there are plenty of James Cameron, Placido Domingo, Ana Ivanovic, to name a few, wearing and loving their Grand Seikos out there, but from this standpoint, Grand Seiko has a long way to go, and it's at the beginning of a journey, although its foundation dates back to the 60s. Given, again, it aims at adopting such a strategy.
So similar yet so different.
From a business model and awareness point of view, I often associate Rolex to Porsche: they both sell lots of products, each at an above the average price point. The case of a Submariner or a GMT Master 2 is as recognizable in the distance as is a 911's: they could easily do without their respective logos on dial and hood, respectively.
Conversely, Grand Seiko requires a detailed analysis, its style approaches that of a classic, or classic-looking luxury sports watch, but a luxury sports watch's DNA is associated with Rolex. However, if you take a loupe and look up-close, many and not negligible are the aesthetic and technical differences between a Hi-Beat and a Datejust, and a Hi-Beat offers a superior level of craftsmanship.
Rolex has painstakingly updated and upgraded its products over the years, and when it comes to communicating even the minor product changes, has no competition: the only brand to have closed the gap recently was Omega, that has revolutionized its communication strategy.
Again, Grand Seiko has instead kept exploring new styles and introduced new fantastic dials, thus exploiting the Shizukuishi Watch Studio's full potential and savoire-faire, far superior to a Rolex's in many respects. Both brands produce exquisite products: Rolex is a large scale high-quality manufacturer whose in-house calibers are technically and aesthetically less refined in terms of decorations and complications (if we exclude the Sky-Dweller and the Yacht-Master 2), yet very robust. Grand Seiko is closer to a boutique brand, whose production is in the area of tens of thousands, and whose case finish, mechanical performance and refinement are of the highest possible level.
The Zaratsu polishing or the Spring Drive technology are just two of the hallmarks that make the Japanese watchmaker stand out, and proof positive of the brand's commitment to offering something geared towards the finest connoisseurs.
Initial and resale value.
In this area, there is no competition, currently. A Daytona, a Submariner Hulk and a GMT Master 2 are even better than the most profitable investment product in the short term, and even more so when it comes to collecting vintage Rolex, whose prices have sky-rocketed. It is a topic so vast that cannot be summarized in a single post; what I'd like to highlight is that the latter has increased the brand's desirability even further.
Many of those who buy a modern Rolex (in Italy, especially) are not aware at all of which caliber powers their watch. Grand Seiko is unquestionably growing its awareness at a fast pace, its build quality exceeds most Swiss manufacturers', and is on par with some independents' high-end luxury watches'. Nonetheless, the brand is new to collecting, and it's way too early to affirm which model or collection is going to be highly sought-after. Much will depend, in this regard, on how much the brand is willing to invest in this area.
(Photo credit: Peter Tung for Horbiter®)
Gaetano C @Horbiter®