Rolex vs. Grand Seiko. Watches from these industry kingpins are points of reference for the industry, objects of adoration for watch buyers, and products of absolute integrated watch manufactures. This is a heavyweight horological championship round, and the Grand Seiko Spring Drive SBGA211 Snowflake will go the distance against the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Air King 116900. Spoiler alert; there will be no knockout blow in today’s bout, but the judge (yours truly) will decide this one with conviction. There WILL be a winner, if not precisely a loser, when Rolex and Grand Seiko leave the ring.
First, let’s provide some context for this episode of VERSUS. Watch buyers are pushed towards hyper-focused vocational timepieces including pilots’ watches, dive watches, drivers’ watches, and technicians’ watches like the Rolex Milgauss and IWC Ingenieurs. In reality, most watch collectors just wear their watches to the office, restaurants, clubs, concerts, and the beach. Surely, everyone can’t need a hardcore tool watch full-time. That’s where the Grand Seiko Snowflake and the Rolex Air-King come into the discussion. Both are all-purpose watches. They can get wet, dress up, dress down, and find themselves welcome in any situation. Both are signature products for their brands, and both are full-bracelet automatics that measure close to 40mm. In the end, this luxury watch rivalry is a matchup of everyday heroes.
The Grand Seiko Spring Drive SBGA211 Snowflake is a 2017 update of the 2010 SBGA011 Snowflake. The difference? Only the addition of “Grand” alongside “Seiko” at 12 o’clock on the dial. The 41mm titanium luxury watch carries and appealing retail price of $5,800 U.S., and ferocious fan loyalty to the brand helps to keep the pre-owned price darned close to that number – or higher! The "Zaratsu" polish is executed by eye and feel, and it’s an element of the partially hand-crafted Grand Seiko’s construction for which Rolex has no real reply. Grand Seiko equips each SBGA211 Snowflake with a brand-defining dial that requires six steps to create; stamping, varnish, and hand-application of diamond-polished indices creates a rich and original vision; this dial’s roughed white ridges are designed to evoke the snow drifts outside of Grand Seiko’s Shinsu Watch Studio in Shiojiri, Nagano Prefecture.
The Grand Seiko Spring Drive caliber 9R65 is automatic, boasts a three-day power reserve, and offers quartz-like precision of +/- 15 seconds per month; it is hand-assembled by a watchmaker and serviceable indefinitely like a conventional mechanical movement. There is no battery or capacitor in a Spring Drive movement, and the motion of the hand – sweeping without detents – is driven entirely by spring energy. 100-meter water resistance and a screw-down crown protect the unique hybrid quartz-mechanical movement.
Rolex responds with one of its most adventurous designs of recent years; the Air King 116900. When the 34mm Rolex Air King was discontinued in 2014, it was only a matter of time before the name, which dates back to the 1940s, was seen again. Now dimensionally and mechanically identical to the 40mm Milgauss, the Air King added a simplified bracelet and dial imagery borrowed from the cockpit of the Bloodhound SSC supersonic car. Rolex had provided the Bloodhound’s custom gauges that inspired the reborn Air King. For good measure, Rolex imbued the Air King with tri-Arabic white gold 3/6/9 numerals of the non-lumed type seen on the pre-2016 Explorer. A green seconds hand, yellow Rolex crown, and full Arabic minutes complete this provocative composition.
As a body double for the Milgauss, very little about the stainless steel Air-King differs from its twin. The Milgauss features polished center links and clasp body; the Air King’s bracelet doesn’t. The Milgauss features a raised Rolex crown on the clasp; the Air King features a stamped indentation in the same shape. Rolex’s 5mm Easylink micro adjustment system remains, and unlike the pin-sleeve bracelet of the Grand Seiko Snowflake, the Air King’s bracelet is sized with screw-fixed links. At a retail price of $6,200 U.S., the Milgauss carries a premium over the Grand Seiko, but buyers also receive the Rolex 5-year warranty instead of Grand Seiko’s 2. Moreover, value-hunters can find this Air King for $3,800-$4,500 pre-owned.
Rolex fits its time-tested 48-hour 3131 automatic movement. The caliber features the Milgauss Parachrom Blue antimagnetic hairspring, amorphous nickel-phosphorous escapement, and soft iron cage to channel magnetic field lines around the movement. The movement is a COSC chronometer, but Rolex goes one better by timing the fully-assembled watch to +/-2 seconds per day. A Rolex Twinlock crown and Oyster caseback provide 100-meter water resistance.
Which of these accessible luxury watches will collect the belt as our best all-arounder?